Our fair lady: Why America is falling in love with Eliza Doolittle

Her mum was a West End sensation, her dad an RSC bigwig. Her gran runs the most famous talent school in Britain. But the platinum-selling Eliza Doolittle is determined to do things her own way as she attempts to conquer America

Into a place called Milk in New York's old Meatpacking District, the social animals are entering two by two. Gazelle-like models totter, low-slung-denim studs swagger. Leathery old hags swing leathery new handbags. Baldy coots sport too-snazzy suits. Stick-insect twenty-somethings stalk past, buzzing with excitement and phones on vibrate. Hair – geometrical, wonky, sleek, pink – is preened. Personal organisers – BlackBerrys, iPhones, iPads – are flaunted. Icy February squalls cause style-dowagers to hug their fake furs that bit tighter. A man in a cape skitters by in search of a bullfight. Or a catwalk.

It's Fashion Week in Manhattan, and at Milk photographic studios, Saturday night is all right for fighting to get into the hippest shows. Local darling Charlotte Ronson – sister of pop star Mark, twin sister of DJ Samantha – has been presenting her latest collection uptown. Now the fashionista hordes have scurried down to Tribeca to catch a presentation by Suno, a colourful New York label influenced by the owner's love of traditional Kenyan clothes.

Things are, of course, running late. Fashion-watchers may follow seasons with bug-eyed intensity but they can't tell the time. Into this chaotic, slippery, clip-cloppy and over-excitable throng walks the only young woman wearing sensible shoes in New York tonight. It's Eliza Doolittle, the 22-year-old English singer-songwriter who was 2010's brightest new female star. She's the one wearing the Nike high-tops with almost 400,000 sales of her self-titled debut album to her name.

Her shorts may be equally insensible for a biting winter's night but, well, that's her "look". And no one – not her record label, not her West End-famous mum, not her theatre-director dad, not the bloggers at Vogue.com, and not the team at Select Models who recently signed her up – are going to tell her how to dress. Doolittle's uniqueness is her appeal: visually, she has the clobber of a funky British street-girl; musically, she makes chirpy colourful retro-pop ("Skinny Genes", "Pack Up", "Rollerblades") that was inescapable on Radio 1 last year.

"Radio has definitely been my breakthrough," says the youngster who missed out on appearances in any "Tips for 2010" lists. She likes that: hers has been a genuine, hype-free, word-of-mouth – or word-of-ear – success. "That's cool, because it means the songs are connecting more than me or more than anything else that might give you a boost. It's the songs that are doing it. That's all I really want.

"I said I would never let anyone dress me or tell me what to wear," Doolittle will say as she reflects on how she has found her feet, her place and her look in the 10 months since the release of her debut single "Skinny Genes". "And I have an amazing stylist who finds me amazing stuff." Cue the heels, aqua-green bumbag and fuchsia mini-dress she gamely clambers into for the New Review's photoshoot.

It was her stylist, Avigail Levine, who picked up the Suno shorts – "kinda swimming-costume, high-waisted shorts things" – that Doolittle wore in the video for "Skinny Genes". It's Levine who wanted to cram in a detour to Brooklyn earlier today to source an event dress for the singer to wear to the Elle Style Awards she'll be attending back in London two days from now.

"Avigail knows all the fashion people, which is something I've never been clued into. I have a love for it, but music has always been my first love. It's not like she's telling me: 'You must wear this, this is fashionable.' I just like what I like and make it my own and wear it my own way."

If, style-wise, Florence Welch (of "Machine" fame) is all about bat-winged bohemia, and Ellie Goulding (2010's other new female artist) is none-more-beige, Doolittle is all candy-hued quirkiness. It's this idiosyncratic approach to fashion that led Select to add the Londoner to their books last month. Having legs up to her armpits, hair down to her navel and dimpled, doll-like prettiness probably helped too.

She's recently taken part in a photoshoot for cosmetics company Max Mara (she came away with valuable tips on how to make up the cheeks she considers too chubby; it's all about contours, apparently). She's posed in, and for, Moschino. She's been getting free Nike high-tops "for years". Nonetheless, she was a little hesitant when the agency first approached her management a few months ago. "I want to concentrate on music, but the deal I have with Select is amazing. It's not like I'm an actual model," she insists.

Will they be sending her down the runway in Milan? "Well, they do say that there are some fashion shows that like personality over really tall and skinny [girls]," says the 5ft 6in singer. But whatever comes up, I'm really just gonna use it to raise my profile and hopefully get more and more people knowing me and then my music."

Two nights previously, Doolittle had done her best to raise her profile among New York's music and media taste-makers by playing a concert at Joe's Pub. It's more supper-club than the spit'n'sawdust joint its name would suggest, and it's a favoured showcase venue for young British artists trying to kick-start success on the other side of the pond.

As her four-piece, all-male band – in matching striped shirts and bow-ties – began the first song, Doolittle emerged, singing, from the curtain at the back of the stage. Her voice was visible before she was. She was wearing a cropped white vest, a hot-pink sports bra, knee-high pink socks and white high-tops. Tonight's variation on a shorts theme was a black rah-rah-skirt-meets-tutu. It was, you might say, fashion-forward. "Yeah," she says, "but those shorts were from Topshop. They were fun."

It's not about parading flesh; it is, she states, all about putting on a show. "When I was little I loved the Spice Girls. And obviously I'm not that kind of artist. But I like to play around and just have a bit of a show aspect, for entertainment value. It's a tiny thing. But I think it might make all the difference. I would feel cringy if it was too 'jazz hands'."

When it comes to the terror of jazz hands, she knows of what she speaks. Eliza Doolittle was born Eliza Caird in London. She says her nomme de pop was derived from a childhood nickname. Meaning: she was a bit of a drama queen, rather than a cor-blimey urchin.

Her mother is Frances Ruffelle, star of many a West End production and Britain's Eurovision Song Contest entrant 1994. Her father is the writer and theatre director John Caird, an honorary associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and well known in high-art circles from Stockholm to Tokyo. Her maternal grandmother is Sylvia Young, of titular stage-school fame. And according to Young, family lore has it that they are distant relations of Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. (Doolittle prefers not to discuss this unproven aspect of her heritage; it's "irrelevant" to her music.)

By early adolescence, Eliza knew she wanted to be a singer. Aged 12, her mother advised her that she should learn to write songs too. Better to generate your own material than be at the mercy of the whims of writers, producers and impresarios. "It was the best advice I ever got."

Was she, though, conflicted? On the one hand: both parents are in the arts, so I want that too. On the other: I'll run as far as I can from mum and dad's world... "It was exactly that," she nods. We are talking at lunchtime in the restaurant of her New York hotel. She picks at a salad – she had a late, and typically gargantuan American hotel breakfast – and wears a baggy sweatshirt over today's shorts. "I loved the whole aspect of being on stage, performing, expressing yourself. But I've also always wanted to be independent, really badly. Since I was 16, I've had my own money."

At that age she signed a publishing deal for her songs "and I did a little bit of modelling. I used to take myself on holiday. I never wanted to take anything from them. I just wanted to have my own things, and I've always been like that."

Her parents felt the same. They wouldn't let her attend her grandmother's stage school. "I only went on Saturdays. I really wanted to go all the time, to be honest. I loved performing and basically just being loud!" Ruffelle and Caird, though, wanted her to have a straight, academic education – albeit one at Bedales, the Hampshire boarding school routinely described as "progressive". Ask Doolittle what that meant in practice at the establishment that is also Lily Allen's alma mater, and she says, "We could call the teachers by their first names."

"I'm not from a poor family," she continues, "but my dad never wanted his kids to be spoilt. All my brothers and sisters worked so hard. And we're all doing things we really love; my dad has always been amazing at letting us do what makes us feel happy. And luckily we've all done OK."

Still, she did briefly consider a stage career. But early on that fleeting ambition evaporated. "When I was 12 I did a production and I hated it." This was a musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, staged by the RSC in 2001. She's mortified when I read to her a review that lurks in the bowels of the internet: "Eliza Caird sounds exactly like a crappy 30-year-old woman trying to sing really loud."

"That's what it said?" Her default chirpiness gives way to astonishment. Then she shrugs. "That just tells it all. I hated it. I hated it," she repeats. "I didn't even bother after a while. It was really bad." k

She took the part to get time off school. And she "loved" being part of the production. "But it was eight shows a week, the same thing over and over again. I got so bored. I could never do it. I'm not very good at trying to recreate that energy every night. I want to constantly move on. And I probably was rubbish. If you don't like doing something, you're not gonna do it well, are you?"

I first interviewed Doolittle 18 months ago, one year after she'd signed a record deal but a good while before the release of her first single. At the time she was coy about her parentage, and only revealed her real name after some prodding. She says now that she wasn't trying to keep it secret. "It was more that I just wanted to get known for me, and my music, and just actually do something without anyone..." She stops. "I just didn't want to use it to my advantage, even if it was just talking about it. I didn't want to use anything. I just wanted to do it by myself.

"I hope people don't think that because my mum and dad are in the theatre, there are some kind of connections or anything. Cos I have done this by myself. I haven't used anything that they could have had. I don't even know if they do have any connections on my side of the music industry. I think my mum knows a few people, but I've never wanted to use her connections."

Both mother and daughter's reservations were hardened by a story in the Daily Mail last year. Interviewed ahead of her one-woman show Beneath the Dress at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Ruffelle was portrayed as a once-glittering star of stage and screen whose career hit the skids after she fell pregnant, aged 22, to the married, 17-years-her-senior co-director of a production of Les Misérables in which she played Eponine. He was John Caird, and the child was Eliza.

Doolittle frowns at the mention of this reporting of her family history. "It was written really weird," she says carefully. "That was a thing where me and my mum were, like, yeah, let's not talk about each other any more... Let's do our things on our own."

Her parents split up after the birth of her younger brother. Both went on to have other partners (Caird has been married four times) and other children. Does it feel odd when her family is described as bohemian? "Yeah, it is kinda crazy. I try to explain it and no one can ever remember who comes where... But it's pretty amazing that we all get on so well."

Yes, she adds, she does still live next door to her mum in the posho-artsy London 'hood of Primrose Hill. And yes, she admits, she does still take her laundry round. "Actually, yeah, sometimes," she says, with some embarrassment. "And I go round for cooked meals." Doolittle, it seems, can't cook for toffee.

At the early evening show at Joe's Pub, Eliza Doolittle works the seated diners with fluffy, cheerful flirtatiousness. Her album is released in the US next month and she's laying the groundwork. "The next song is called 'Go Home' – but please don't. You know I want to play with you a bit longer. Especially you," she says, pointing at someone down the front. "You know I'm thinking about you, right?"

Her hour-long performance is cheerful and sun-drenched, bristling with calypso, doo-wop, light-reggae skanking and whistle-along melodies. Even the rumble of passing subway trains can't make the evening feel earthbound.

Doolittle's voice is the real revelation. It's expressive and limber, sliding from hard croon to coquettish lilt, from soulful to doleful. She is often compared to Lily Allen – another privileged London girl singing "streety" lyrics – but, vocally at least, she is miles ahead. Her 13-song set is enthusiastically applauded at the end, and not just because she rounds things off with a perky version of Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You" (complete with Churchillian flicking-of-the-v's).

With her tunes, patter and relaxed Brit style – quirky rather than parochial – it all bodes well for her chances in America. She plans to make headway the hard way: by touring in the US as much as possible. As it was in the UK, she'll be happy if her songs do the talking, rather than an overcooked media campaign.

"I kinda sneaked up from behind everybody else and just tapped people on the shoulder," she reflects on her success at home. "That works for me. I like having somewhere to move rather than being thrust on to a pedestal, then having to stay there."

Eliza Doolittle is touring the UK from 28 March. See elizadoolittle.com for details

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