Mum's net: Why pop stars' parents have been getting flak from overbearing fans

They are there to support their kids when they're number one, and to catch them should they fall. But pop stars' mothers have been catching something else of late – and that's flak from their offspring's fans.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Last month a woman named Anne Cox received the following message on Twitter: "I hope you die because you are a bitch." This particular troll also tweeted that Cox has "big boobs and a big bottom she looks like a bitch". The absence of a comma is the least troubling aspect of that message, but Cox chose to respond to, rather than ignore, both, though not in a manner one might anticipate. "I hope you find inner peace some day," she wrote.

It was an impressively sanguine retort – but such insults are something she has to deal with now, because the 42-year-old is the mother of Harry Styles, the one with all the hair from One Direction, currently the biggest boy band on the planet. And among their millions of fans, a minority harbour issues.

One Direction are perhaps the ultimate manufactured band in an era full of them: its five members, Styles alongside Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson, originally auditioned, separately, for the seventh series of The X Factor back in 2010. On looks alone, each was natural pop-star material; together, they were pop-star heaven. Or so Simon Cowell concluded, when he dashed their individual dreams for solo stardom and suggested that they should team up.

This newly minted act were confidently expected to win the show. Yet somehow they didn't. Matt Cardle did, with 1D, as their fans (no doubt already mindful of 140 character limitations) termed them, eventually coming in third, also behind Liverpudlian chanteuse Rebecca Ferguson.

But it was 1D who would go on to massive chart success, not just in the UK but also America, where their debut album, Up All Night, reached number one, and prompted scenes reminiscent of, if not quite Beatlemania, then certainly New Kids on the Block mania. And so success has transformed their lives the way success always does. But it has also had a knock-on effect on their parents.

"Our lives haven't changed dramatically," Malik's mother, Tricia Brannan, insisted recently. "I still go to work. But," she added, "I am known as Zayn's mum now, and I do get recognised when I'm out shopping." And sometimes that can get a little scary. "I was in Wolverhampton when me and my daughter had to be removed by security because it looked like we'd be mobbed."

On many an occasion, the One Direction mothers have become mouthpieces for, and defenders of, their sons. When the former X Factor winner Steve Brookstein branded 1D's Tomlinson a "shockingly terrible" singer, Tomlinson's mother, Johannah, publicly pronounced him "a prat".

But it is Styles' mother, Anne, who has had the most visible transformation. Looking at – or even, should you choose, gazing longingly at – a photograph of her, it is clear where her boy gets his looks from. She currently has a quarter of a million Twitter followers, the large majority, one has to conclude, teenage girls craving hourly updates on the object of their affections – or else requiring, as we have seen, a place to vent their confusing spleen.

But Cox has quickly learnt to shrug this off – and it hasn't stopped her embracing her vicarious celebrity status (her Twitter pics include lots of smiling hugs with Radio 1 DJs). She is currently raising money for a trip to scale Mount Kilimanjaro for charity – something you wonder whether she would have considered doing, at least on such a public level, before her son got famous.

While One Direction's mothers seem happy, for now, to let Cowell navigate their impressionable offspring through the shark-infested waters of the music industry, in America the average mother of your average youthful pop star is a whole lot more involved, very often whether the pop star in question likes it or not.

Ever since Joe Jackson's iron will ruled over Michael, Janet and LaToya, it has virtually been a cottage industry. Beyoncé was managed by her father, Lindsay Lohan by her mother, so too Usher and Miley Cyrus.

The union between these so-called "momagers" and "dadagers" and their charges is not always a happy one. According to the psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, the lines all too often get blurred. "This kind of situation can move from protection of your child to who has a bigger slice of the pie," she tells me. "It's also often about the parent getting back the investment they put in, and sometimes, in truth, living a celebrity life through their kids."

Back in the late 1980s, when emergent pop princess Tiffany was scrambling the hormones of teenage boys with her hit single "I Think We're Alone Now", she didn't have time to let that success go to her head because she was too busy trying to wrest that indulgence from her mother. The then 16-year-old spent much of her brief time in the spotlight fighting her for control over her career, a fight that would end up in court; Tiffany eventually filed for legal emancipation from her mother, though the petition was later dropped. When, in 2002 and by now 31, she posed nude for Playboy, it was difficult not to conclude that this was yet another middle finger raised in the direction of the woman who was no longer part of her life.

A generation on, and Jessica Simpson was briefly hailed as Tiffany's 21st-century equivalent, an all-American cupcake managed by her father Joe, a former Baptist minister, and a man categorically not backward in establishing his daughter as, frankly, masturbatory material for teenage boys. "She's got double D's!" he once boasted. "You can't cover those suckers up!"

Joe Simpson would later attempt to launch his younger (and paler) daughter Ashlee as Jessica's teen-goth counterpart, thereby neatly covering all bases. Though Ashlee dabbled in music, Joe saw her future in Hollywood. "She's going to be a huge movie star," he predicted somewhat hopefully in 2004. "She's like Meg Ryan or Cameron Diaz, with probably more depth." To date, her silver-screen depth remains uncharted.

Britney Spears' reign as America's favourite sweetheart was also mired in familial infraction. In 2008, her mother Lynne Spears wrote a book entitled Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World, in which she attempted to explain, at length, why she thought she could do better by her daughter than Britney's then-manager, Sam Lufti, whom she branded a "predator", "fake" and a thoroughly "shifty man". Lufti was so outraged, he sued for libel. Poor Britney hasn't been quite the same since.

Then there was Hilary Duff, arguably the most famous American tween on the planet in the mid-Noughties. A cutesy child actress, Duff was the lead character in a frothy Disney TV confection called Lizzie McGuire. By 15, she was itching to make the grown-up leap into film and music, at which point her Texan mother, Susan Colleen, stepped in. A former cosmetic saleswoman, Colleen had no experience in managing emergent superstars but, hey ho, no matter, she'd read books on the subject, and was good to go. Here was a woman who was small and stout, but as indomitable as a tank. "Sure, I have a reputation for being extremely tough," she told me once. "And you know what? I don't care. I'm very stubborn, I work very hard, and when it comes to my daughter, I will do anything I have to to protect her. OK?" Perhaps it should be noted that Duff has never quite climbed the heights of Lizzie McGuire since.

There appear to be precious few British examples of quite such parental heavy-handedness. Even at the height of the Beatles' fame, for example, the extent to which George Harrison's mother intruded upon his career was to respond to his fan mail. In more recent times, Mitch Winehouse was a pronounced presence on his daughter Amy's periphery, but then he needed to be. Since her death last year, Mitch has been busy setting up the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which aims to educate the young and vulnerable about the dangers of drugs, in the hope that her death will not be entirely in vain.

But elsewhere, today's modern British popstar parent takes a more hands-off approach. The mother of the 2008 X Factor winner Alexandra Burke, the former Soul II Soul vocalist Melissa Bell, has so far opted for background pride rather than an attempt at scene-stealing (indeed, she sings backing vocals on her daughter's forthcoming album), and the Labour MP Tessa Jowell, while theoretically in a position to dent her hotly tipped daughter Jess Mills' credibility, has done nothing of the sort. And when Elly Jackson, aka the lead singer of electropop duo La Roux, became an overnight success in 2009, aged 21, her mother Trudie Goodwin also elected to watch on from the sidelines.

With the benefit of hindsight, says Goodwin now, perhaps she watched on a little too quietly. "To be honest, her success took us all by surprise, and quite wrong-footed us." This is perhaps most surprising because Goodwin herself has been famous for the past 25 years. A TV actress, she has had long-running roles in The Bill and, more recently, Emmerdale. She had often lectured her daughter on the perils of public life, but found that TV fame and pop fame were different beasts entirely.

"When Eleanor first started doing interviews, she was inclined to let her thoughts run away with her," Goodwin says. "That isn't always a bad thing, but I had to explain that a quote taken out of context could give her a very hard time. I don't think she really believed it until it happened to her. It was a horrible lesson to have to learn."

Elly Jackson was in many ways a glorious anomaly in an X Factor world: a stylistic one-off, deliberately androgynous, and possessed of a somewhat affectless but hypnotic vocal style (see hit single "In for the Kill"). She also made for a disarmingly frank interviewee, freely criticising her peers and making repeated jokes about "gak" (cocaine).

In retrospect, says her mother, "I do think we took our eye off the ball somewhat. She did get very stressed [over the media attention], so we are much more careful now; we constantly maintain contact to make sure she's OK. All parents need to let their children go, of course, but you still need to keep the end of the leash in your hand."

Claudia Pritchard, a journalist at The Independent on Sunday, concurs. Her son Jeremy is in the band Everything Everything. Though Everything Everything make music that is far too wilfully avant-garde ever to expose them to a boy-band level of fame, excess and oblivion is just as available. As Pritchard is all too aware. "You mean sex and drugs and rock'n'roll?" she asks. "It would have been more of a concern were they younger. But the boys are all in their late twenties now, and they have very stable family relationships and long-term girlfriends, a real support network."

What she and many other mothers do in lieu of becoming momagers is get to know the band's crew. Here, they can find someone they trust to act in loco parentis. And so, just as 1D's Harry Styles' so-called "minders" prevented him from, according to The Sun, "whisking TWO babes back to his luxury hotel suite" in Auckland last month – behaviour that was unambiguously parental – some mothers find it useful to keep the number of their progeny's tour manager programmed into their mobile phone.

Psychologically speaking, according to Dr Papadopoulos, this is a far more sensible approach than giving up one's own job and anointing oneself the band manager. "Whether your child takes dance classes, or ballet, or goes on to become a celebrity, you have to put your trust in another adult," she says. "But you do your homework first: who is around them? Who is looking out for them? And you make sure you are there for them as well, whenever they need you."

And that is the pertinent bit. Forget about claiming your 15 per cent of their earnings, she says. Of far greater importance is to remain a doting parent. Because even pop superstars need their mothers. "There is this misguided idea that if you're famous and successful, that's it, you're happy," she adds. "But as we all know, and as we have all seen too many times, that's often very far from the truth."