A life more ordinary

It's official, as of this week, that Dido is Britain's most popular star (she's the best-selling pop artist of 2003 by a huge margin). But it would be difficult to find a more unlikely celebrity - everything about her is average, from her hair to her music. So, wonders Fiona Sturges, what makes her so irresistible?
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The Independent Culture

On the surface, Dido is everything you'd expect a 21st-century pop celebrity to be. Like Britney, Madonna and Kylie, she's blonde, she's rich, she's successful. Look a little further, though, and you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. In an industry where glamour and high visibility is essential, Dido is a curious anomaly. This is a woman you're more likely to see performing on Parkinson than Top of the Pops, who calls Islington rather than Los Angeles home and who wilfully shuns the celebrity circuit. She is more comfortable in jeans and trainers than the latest Galliano frock. Her smiling face may appear on the front of her albums but even her fans would find it difficult to pick her out in a supermarket queue. On the rare occasions that she speaks out in public it's not to pick fights with her rivals (a la Christina) or slate her ex-lovers (a la Britney) but to back worthy causes. Last week, this graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama joined a chorus of classical musicians including Julian Lloyd Webber, James Galway and percussionist Evelyn Glennie in urging ministers to make music and songwriting a bigger part of the school curriculum. Rock'n'roll? Not exactly.

Four years ago, when the name Dido was still synonymous with Virgil's Queen of Carthage and her north London namesake was flogging her wares around America's toilet venues, an executive from Arista/BMG warned me that this unknown singer-songwriter would be "bigger than Madonna". At the time I sneered; much as it pains me to admit it, she was right.

Dido (full name: Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong) is now officially the biggest selling artist in Britain. Next to her, Robbie Williams is small fry, Madonna a mere minnow in the piranha-infested pond that is pop music. In the three months since its release, Dido's second album Life For Rent has sold 2.2 million albums and is nearing a jaw-dropping 8 million worldwide. Add that to the 12 million copies sold of her debut album No Angel and that makes Dido among the most successful, not to say richest women in pop history. This week she was officially recognised as 2003's best-selling pop artist in Britain. In terms of sales, her nearest rival is Justin Timberlake (an infinitely more cool proposition who at least has the decency to date an A-list Hollywood actress). But next to Dido, even he is simply a wannabe, an ex-boyband cutsie and former boyfriend of Britney who has shifted a paltry 1 million copies of his solo album.

Needless to say, this year Dido is expected to sweep the Brits, the music awards ceremony that rewards sales over innovation. All of which begs the question: why? Why should a studiously unfashionable, dishwater-blonde, and as far as one can make out, desperately dull 32-year-old become the biggest thing in pop since Madonna arrived festooned in rosary beads balancing precariously on a gondola. Why, when music journalists were exhorting their readers to buy the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The White Stripes and The Vines, did the public empty their wallets in exchange for Dido's Life For Rent, a record that, according to one critic, is "music to microwave lasagne to"?

The answer lies precisely with Dido's ordinariness. You only have to look at today's premier pop stars - Coldplay's Chris Martin, Gareth Gates, Will bloody Young - to see that the public aren't necessarily wooed by personality. These days, personality is overrated in pop - Robbie's sales have long been on a downward spiral and even Eminem's not-so-righteous rage is getting a little tiresome. Like Kylie's Eighties incarnation (before her music became cool and her buttocks became the centre of the universe), Dido comes with an unassuming, sweet-natured girl-next-door quality that middle-class suburban types just can't get enough of. In a pop landscape crammed with over-made-up hussies gadding about apparently in their underwear she was a breath of fresh air, a regular girl who had found success not by flashing her cleavage but by writing good tunes. Before she was a multi-platinum selling artist, Dido was a lowly secretary for a publishing firm...

Which brings us to the music. A singer-songwriter with a melancholy streak and a liking for lazy, trip-hoppy beats, Dido was never going to change the face of pop. Indeed, hers is the kind of music that could easily be ignored where it not for the ire it evinces among pop critics. Perhaps unfairly, they seem to loathe it as much for the people that bought it as for its musical shortcomings. Dido fans, if the critics are to be believed, are chick lit-reading, Chardonnay-swilling women who spend their Friday nights submerged in aromatherapy-oil scented baths weeping quietly to Life for Rent, all 2 million of them. Dido's music is what rock snobs would call coffee-table pop, the soundtrack to myriad middle-class dinner parties, unchallenging, unobtrusive music you can listen to without really listening.

Which, it appears, makes it a sure-fire hit. Contrary to what Pete Waterman and his cronies would have us believe, the most lucrative record-buying market lies not among the tweenies but with men and women in their late twenties and thirties. With their fickle tastes, pre-teens may be able to create overnight pop sensations but older record buyers, the people who are so entrenched in their musical tastes that they will buy only one or two albums a year, ensure an artist's staying power. If they've bought and liked the first album, you can be sure they'll do the same with the second, third and fourth. Ask almost anyone in their mid-thirties and they'll tell you they know what they like and they like what they know.

It's a reflection of our never-ending obsession with celebrity that even Dido, possibly the least exciting singer in the history of pop, has managed to become red-top fodder. Having shot to fame in Britain three years ago after Eminem sampled her mushy paean to love, "Thank You", from her first album No Angel, on "Stan", she became an instant celebrity (although, it should be noted, she had already sold 1 million albums before the rap artist 'discovered' her).

Their collaboration was perhaps the most ludicrous pop pairing since Bing Crosby and David Bowie. "Stan" told the tale of an unhinged rap fan who locks his girlfriend in the trunk of his car and drives off a bridge, shot to No 1 both sides of the Atlantic.

Upon returning from a two-year tour in America, she found the red-top press camped out on her doorstep. Alas, all they could dig up was a slightly bohemian childhood in which television wasn't allowed and she and her brother Rollo (of the dance band Faithless) were force-fed opera.

It wasn't long after her debut album had shifted its first million that the so-called revelations about her love life started surfacing. We discovered that her seven-year relationship with the lawyer Bob Page, the man who inspired her breakthrough single "Thank You", had come to an end. Then up popped a new boyfriend in the shape of her record company boss, Ferdie Unger-Hamilton. A Hollywood A-lister he may not be, but it was certainly an improvement. Since then there's been not so much as a whiff of scandal. In June it was reported that she and Ferdie had split up but by September they were back together again. This week, celebrity gossip bible Heat is reporting that she and Bob are making another go of it. That's love for you, but it's hardly a Showbiz Sensation.

Call it stealth marketing, or call it plain old good luck, but with Dido the record industry has stumbled upon a winning formula - a regular girl, singing regular songs about regular things. Now Dido doesn't even have to pretend to be cool. To her fans, Dido's success delineates the triumph of the underdog. Nice girls simply aren't supposed to make it in pop. Noting that the tide of public opinion was against them, turncoat reviewers have heaped praise on her second album, commending her strong melodies and warm-hearted lyrics. She may be another nail in the coffin of innovative pop but Dido, the middle-class girl made good, has had the last laugh.