Look, boys, cut it out

Sonya is one of Britpop's superwomen. Not that she'd thank you for saying it. By Emma Forrest
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The Independent Culture
Sonya Aurora-Madan sits perfectly. On stage with Echobelly, the singer is whirling, jerking, bug-eyed. But here she is, perched on her cream settee, back straight as a ballet dancer's, feet neatly placed apart, swan neck turned so she can maintain eye contact. Her huge eyes are precisely defined with liner. Not a sleek, dark hair on her head is out of place. I wonder if all those girls in bands sit so well.

You know THOSE girls: besides Sonya there's Louise from Sleeper, Marijne from Salad and, of course, Elastica's Queen Justine. Those pin-thin, arrogant, shouty, man-eating girls fronting snappy guitar bands, with stop-start riffs. You saw them all on "Britpop Now". They're the new generation of indie bands who, at times, seem interchangeable as opposed to independent. Sleeper's Louise performed at Reading last year wearing a T-shirt that read "Another Female Fronted Band".

Thirteen months ago, around the time Elastica went supernova, Echobelly released their top ten debut album, Ego, closely followed by Sleeper's Smart and Salad's Drink Me. The helpful boys at the music papers designated roles for the girls to play. Louise Wener, who said that "feminists should shut up and shave" is the "Margaret Thatcher of indie". Marijne is the ex-MTV host. Justine is the posh one who left Suede's Brett Anderson for Blur's Damon Albarn. And Sonya is the tiny, uppity kick-boxer, from a strict Indian family.

"I haven't kick-boxed in years, I have to be the least fit person I know. And my upbringing wasn't that strict at all." And she's taller than me. I have her stand back to back in front of the mirror. I wait for her to be uppity and flippant, because this is the Sonya I know from interviews. I wait a long time.

Minutes into our conversation, the telephone rings. "Oh, Iris, I'm so pleased to hear from you!" Hanging up, Sonya tells me: "Iris is an elderly Sri Lankan woman I met at a holistic centre. She's been here for 40 years and she has no relatives and doesn't know anyone. So I'm kind of watching over her. I send her a postcard from every city we tour."

Niceness has no place in the make up of the female pop star. It's too complex. You have to play to type: you can be a crazy whore like Courtney Love, a murderous banshee like P J Harvey or a shrieking child-woman like Bjork. Historically, women have to be cartoons to be pop stars. Think of the biggest female singers of our time: Cher, Tina Turner, Madonna, Barbra Streisand. They are so cartoony, they almost seem like men in drag. On the pages of Melody Maker, Sonya Madan is basically an exotic bitch. "They put me across as someone very feisty, very bolshy. Like I would rip throats out. And at the same time I'm supposed to be a kitten and a babe."

Sonya's bookshelves are lined with books that she has actually read: she can tell you in detail about everything from the Russian revolution to Richard Avedon's photography. The depth of knowledge has lent her lyrics a flair that the "other female fronted bands" often lack. "Insomniac", Echobelly's first proper single, boasted the couplet: "I swim in circles/ in puddles/ in trouble/ and then I float", while "Worms and Angels", a track from their new album On investigates life after death. Echobelly are less immediate, less joyously trash culture than Elastica and consequently, the music press doesn't know quite what to do with them.

"Justine is very clever, but she stays within her given role: a sexy pop star."

But what about the cover of i-D magazine a few months back? Sonya appeared winking lasciviously, shirt unbuttoned to reveal a lacy black bra. Did the photographer push her into it?

"No, no. That was my fault. I shouldn't have done it. But he was a fashion photographer, used to seeing models with nothing on and I was shy, but I felt silly. So he encouraged me and I did it. I regret it in that... if you base your image primarily on sexuality then you have to understand that we live in a sexist society and it can backfire on you. Madonna doesn't seem to understand that."

Indeed, Madonna and Courtney Love, through exploiting their sexuality have become the two most despised women in rock. "People turned against Madonna because of the Sex book. If she hadn't been in control of it, if she had just been a dumb blonde posing it would have been all right. But because she was obviously in control, people felt very threatened. Courtney Love gets away with it more because people think she's nutty - she can't help it, poor dear. It's that schizophrenic, but very sexual, stereotyped woman."

Bizarrely, Echobelly's real misfortune has arisen from the support of one Stephen Patrick Morrissey. He loves the band so much that he paid Sonya an unexpected visit to her flat. At first she wouldn't answer the door because she thought he was a skinhead, but once they sat down they got along so well that Mozza gave Sonya his phone number.

"He said for God's sake, not to give it to the NME. I didn't really understand what the big deal was. But basically, the NME has this real love-hate thing with him and, because they couldn't get to him, they wound up using us as a kicking bag instead."

Within a few months Echobelly went from cover stars to scathing reviews. On, a far more accessible album than the last, was awarded four marks out of 10.

"I wish the readers knew how much politics there is behind a good or bad review. NME even started making fun of me for being so thin. That really hurt because I have a hyperactive thyroid gland. Last year I went down to six stone. I almost died and all the while the music papers were laughing at my body."

Best of all, they accused her of playing up to her image as a "tiny, kick-boxing Indian". It sounds like a new kind of Barbie doll: "Tiny, Kick-boxing, Indian Barbie". The funny thing is, when Barbie was first launched the woman who designed her specifically wanted to create a doll with a realistic anatomy, rather than the soft baby dolls around at the time. But people never realise that.