Fortune has truly smiled upon 19-year-old Alex Parks, winner last October of the BBC's Fame Academy contest and holder of the manifold appendages attached to that. It's a wet Monday in Shepherd's Bush and she's sitting in a swanky hotel, having just returned from a snowboarding holiday. After this interview, she's off to the studio to record the b-side for her new single. Then it's home to her ice-rink-sized Notting Hill penthouse. Soon, it'll be Dublin and then LA and New York to turn out her second (but in most senses, her first real) LP, which she's currently writing - hey, she's got a million-pound recording contract.
All this, and still it transpires that Parks was never really musically motivated until she was 15, and even then it was a fluke. How different her life is this dull weekday to the lives of the other Fame Academy contestants, who'd have chewed off their own toes to be professional musicians, and who saw that glittering contract go to someone who can tell me, with a grin and a shrug, "If I hadn't won, it wouldn't have been the end of the world." She's unmotivated, is young Alex, and she's happy to admit it. Forget grinding years of vocal training, paying dues, practising guitar until her fingers bled. She just turned up and won.
Thing is, she was the rightful winner, and she can do the job. She has the voice, a beautiful scuffed thing, bruised and sincere, full of the depth of emotion she undoubtedly feels - "Annie Lennox with roll-ups," critics have said, and can there be finer praise? She has writing ability, delivering songs of edgy, sometimes angsty openness that aren't the usual reality-pop-show fodder. If it's down to talent and not how much you want it - and it is - Alex couldn't fail.
The final unexpected coup, however, is that she's a maverick, not someone who naturally fits in, so the Fame Academy obstacle course was even more painful for her than for her companions. Among the beautiful people drawn to that camera-ridden circus, she scuffled about like an uncertain duckling amid swans. Ruffle-haired, short, the product of a wild Cornish upbringing and, to top it all, gay, she was initially bashful and awkward, hiding from the lenses like a rare breed blinking in klieg lights. She also, to the producers' outrage, resented the show's peeping-tom dictates and rebelled against them, at times belligerently. Far from getting viewers' backs up, it endeared her to them. Alex won by a landslide, and her first single instantly topped the charts. Her appeal is phenomenal. If you want originality, vulnerability and courage, here it is; what a jaw-dropping thing for tacky old prime-time to deliver.
And so. I was supposed to have met Alex for lunch, but apparently if she goes out these days she's torn to bits by fans. Sitting opposite me, boyish in skater gear and wristbands, she raises a brow. She's ridiculously pretty. "I don't think of myself as famous, but people treat me like I am. I mean, we're [gestures around] here, and I am, and it's stupid for me to think I'm not. I just [laughs] can't seem to get it into my head." Daughter of liberal parents (Dad's a psychotherapist), Alex's childhood in the Cornish village of Mount Hawke sounds like a Swallows and Amazons idyll. "I loved it. I'd spend all my time running around fields, barefoot in the long grass." (Her legions of gay fans will like that.)
Youngest of four by some way, she had an imaginary friend: "A man, but very playful, like a boy. When I was in the car with my parents he wasn't allowed to come with us, but I'd see him outside, swinging round lampposts ... " Alex hated school. "I just don't think I liked conforming, and school's not equipped for dealing with individuals, is it?" She looks down, then sullenly up, and suddenly it's Kevin the teenager. "I had all these feelings and views, like I wanted to get my nose pierced and have my shirt out, and I couldn't understand, 'cos like it's not affecting my work - but it was [rolls eyes] such a big deal. And I was only interested in what I was good at, like sport, art, drama." Not English? "Hmm. I found it hard, just... reading." Shamefaced laugh.
After school, theatre studies, including clowning. Would she make a good clown? "Maybe." Did you learn to fall? "No, you just found your inner clown. 'Cos everyone's got a clown." She twists her fingers together earnestly. "It was the funniest thing. You put on something you don't usually wear - I had a sou'wester and wellies - and a red nose, and it's hilarious. You don't even need to do anything." Annoyingly, the image is heartbreaking. "I still use a tiny bit of that when I perform, because I get so nervous, and being in your clown is like putting a mask on." And in your clown, you find the funny part of yourself? "Oh, it doesn't have to be funny." She nods. "A serious clown works." What was yours like? Off-hand: "Quite shy and ... a bit stupid. Unfortunately."
Acting was the plan, as far as one existed. The music bit came during school. I'd read f that someone called Dave had got Alex started in music, in her early teens. She'd done a bit of singing before, though? Furrows brow. "Well ... kind of. Mmm ... not really."
Here's what happened. At 15, Alex and a mate were on their way to a friend's birthday do, but they hadn't any cash to buy a present. So they dropped into a singing competition that had a £50 first prize. Alex walked it. Afterward, she was approached by a chap called Giles, who was starting a band. Alex became the singer, and guitarist Dave was left to train her up - honing her voice, teaching her to write, and chatting to her, by all accounts, about life, liberty and the general pursuit of happiness. A true mentor. The man deserves a few bob in royalties. The band, One Trick Pony, went on tour (Alex threw up before every gig), then momentum waned and they folded. Alex dropped music. After theatre school, she had a year of unemployment. During which "I kind of forgot who I was".
A big relationship with an older woman broke up at this time, too. "I got very, very low." She didn't do anything creative, or even look for work. Brightly: "It was lack of motivation." At least you can admit it. "It's true, I have no motivation, I haven't. This, now - I've never worked like this, never got myself up in the mornings." Slacker, I say. She laughs. "But I love it. And I love the fact that I've got a point to my life."
Fame Academy was the seventh cavalry, in heavy disguise. It was her dad who sent in her tape. Self-esteem at rock bottom, she didn't feel she deserved even to try. "And I got to the auditions and everyone could play, everyone could sing, everyone was so confident and good-looking, y'know? And I ... I just looked a state. I never thought I had it. I never thought I had anything."
Still, she got past 12,000 other hopefuls. Off she went, with 12 others, for nine weeks of captivity at London's Witanhurst House. Within two weeks, she'd announced her sexuality. ("But I didn't realise I'd done it, I didn't think, 'This is the first time I'm saying I've been with a woman.' And suddenly it was this big deal - Alex has come out! And I was like, I've been out for bloody ages ... ")
On winning, she maintained a shrugging cynicism. Were you really not bothered? "I wasn't worried. I mean, of course I was nervous. Huge thing. But whole life depending on it? Not at all." With live coverage around the clock, existence was presumably just a bit unnatural. Alex spent a great deal of time trying to duck out of sight, as any sane person would do. Watching Fame Academy again to research this piece, what struck me was the invasion of privacy, which surely comes close to being a human rights issue. What about the lights, I ask now, snapping on at 7am? Alex grips her head: "Don't." Cameras running all night. Did you get any privacy anywhere? In the toilet? "Nope. There was a camera in the loo." What if you were constipated? She laughs. "Then everyone would know."
Famously, she developed a secret coded language with contestant Carolynne Good, involving "pigeons" and "chicken". Respect. You must've been enraged by that point, desperate for revenge? Alex nods: "Anything." And this language gave you something to hang on to, to stay sane. "Yep. And after that, it became a game." Because it was irritating the producers? Fiendish grin. "Yeah. It was like, 'You don't know what it means.' And people still don't." In the end, though, it was one-all, because the producers, incensed by a private conversation, removed the girls' treasured fan mail. 1984, indeed. Of course, entrants do move into the Fame Academy house knowing what's involved. But "then it really starts to bug you. It's very painful."
Alex has subsequently been hammered in the press for biting the hand that fed her; but exactly which sadist decided on those grim ground rules? Other house inmates suffered in different ways. We talk about Alistair and likeable Welshman James, and how they got slaughtered by the judging panel, week in, week out, after the gladiatorial Saturday night live show. Could you comfort them later? "When they came back into the house? Well, people will talk about it, but they'll choose who with. It was hard for me. Because - well, I was lucky in the comments I got, and anyhow I always took them constructively. But James and Ali got it so harsh, and I felt for them. I didn't think I could approach them because I didn't know what it was like. I had no idea." Instead, Minnie Driver sent her flowers. "Yes!" She's someone it would be worth getting flowers from. Dreamily: "God, yeah." And thus by degrees Alex blossomed and became tougher and more confident. And the meek shall inherit the earth. Be honest; now that you're out, you're enjoying the fame and the power a bit, aren't you?
Alex sits back. "I feel ... I can make a difference. Like - do you ever get that feeling, when you drop change into a collecting tin for a charity and you think, 'That's not enough, I wish I could give enough to make a difference?' Though, of course, you really are. But now I'm in a position where I can write a song about something, a political song, to get my view across - about violence or whatever. I've got a voice. And people will hear it." We talk about the new single, "Cry", a great wrenching emotional thing which, as it turns out, is about her mum. It's taken from debut LP, Introduction, an assortment of her own work and Fame Academy covers that has done well even though it was chucked out as a holding device while Alex came up with something more substantial.
We talk about the courtly, chivalrous ballad "Over-Conscious", written for a one-time lover. Alex has said that two women together can mean a relationship of almost mind-reading intensity. I'd like someone to be able to read my mind, I muse. Though they'd probably have to be mental. "I thought that, too - but they do. When you finally find them." Alex says love is the most important thing in the world, so she throws herself in hard. "Very hard. All of me." So you have no defences. "Nope."
Writing for the new LP is going well. Although "Dianne Warren wants to work with me." Who? "She's hugely successful, she co-wrote - or I think she did - that Celine Dion song, 'My Heart Will Go On'." Oh dear, I say. "Yeah." Alex chuckles to humour me, then patiently explains, "But you need a clever songwriter plus an artist, working together." Good grief, that's very on the money. "Well, you see, I've got no choice." Run that by me again. "I haven't." Self-mockingly: "I've got my name to keep up." She pulls at her thumb. "Or that's what it feels like. I've made this happen, and now it's all on my shoulders, and I have to make it work." (Just to be clear, despite her protestations, she's actually been working incredibly hard. Later she mentions that, just before Christmas, "I was on my last legs, I just couldn't have gone on. But it had to be done, and I'm glad I threw myself into it.")
To lighten the mood before I leave I ask her if she's got any jokes. "Erm ... It's the first joke I ever heard. And it's terrible. Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?" Well? "'Cos it was dead." And as the room dissolves in girlish laughter, we say farewell to Alex Parks. And good luck. Not that it really seems necessary."
'Cry', is released on 16 February on Polydor.Reuse content