Natasha Bedingfield: Sister act

Not long ago, she was just Daniel Bedingfield's little sister. Now she's a rising star around the world, and being touted as the new Dido. So, Natasha Bedingfield, is Daniel jealous yet?
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The Independent Culture

At the MTV Europe Music Awards, no one can hear you scream. Because everyone else is screaming MUCH LOUDER. It's 7.30pm, Rome time, and Natasha Bedingfield is about to be violated. She's standing in a corridor, waiting to "do" the red carpet (even though she arrived half an hour ago). It sounds like a zoo out there, and not a little scary. And this is before R&B megastar Usher strolls in on the arm of supermodel Naomi Campbell, accompanied by a ridiculously large posse. And before Eminem takes the stage with a tank.

We are in the Valhalla, a 73-metre-wide tent that is, says MTV, "the world's largest movable event venue". The Valhalla has been plopped down in the Ippodromo Tor di Valle grandstand on the outskirts of the Italian capital. Bedingfield is nominated for the Best UK and Ireland Act (up against Muse, Franz Ferdinand, Jamelia and The Streets; she won't win). Even better, she's been finagled a slot as a guest presenter, handing over the wobbly metal globe for Best Rock - to the delight of her 15-year-old brother Joshua - to American nu-metal mob Linkin Park.

But first, the really important stuff: the photocall that will be heard around the world. Flanked by several headset-sporting, clipboard-wielding MTV staffers, Bedingfield waits for Lazio footballer Paolo di Canio to finish flashing his teeth for the cameras. She consults with one of her entourage as to how best to hold her tiny handbag. There is adjustment of boob cups. She's wearing a shoulderless, greeny, puffed-out, pinch-waisted vintage frock that her stylist found for her. In her waffley-but-non-specific, daytime-chatshow conversational style, Bedingfield says the dress has been "adjusted and personalised. Customised." Then, like a downhill skier poised at the mountain-top gates, Bedingfield launches herself through the tent flaps and on to the red carpet. Well, the yellow and black chevrons. I follow close behind.

The flashlights are blinding, the shouts deafening. On the right, penned-in behind a waist-high fence, is the baying mob of photographers. They bellow at lung-bursting volume to attract her direct gaze. She moves slowly up the walkway. Behind her, on the left, are a gang of panting, salivating Italian youths, shoving pens and bits of paper her way. In front of her, the photographers yell filthy abuse when one of her entourage gets in the way of the shot. "Natasha, this way!" "NA-TAAA-SHA!" "This way Natasha!" "No no no! Come back!" The bright lights are scorching. It's awful. I start to sweat and am burning with embarrassment. Lord knows how she feels.

Still smiling, Bedingfield runs the gauntlet. After the photographers and their lenses come the thrusting microphones of the world's radio and TV stations. BBC's Newsround hogs her for a bit, but GMTV, Reuters and T4 are all gagging for a piece. She diligently gives them all something.

Then, oh no! Celebrity traffic jam! Kylie Minogue has entered the red carpet and is proceeding apace. The hysteria explodes. Hot on her heels is US comedy rocker Kid Rock and a giant-breasted dwarf companion, some of Eminem's D12 group, Franz Ferdinand, Sarah Michelle Gellar (the evening's hostess) and a lanky bloke who, it turns out, is ace skateboarder Tony Hawk. Then the Usher'n'Naomi Show, having zipped regally past without saying hello to anyone, goes back up the wrong way. They run into Linkin Park, who get tangled up with Alicia Keys. It's a full-on posse pile-up.

Bedingfield has now made it as far as a radio crew from Norway at the other end of the red carpet. There's just time for a quick photo op with Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne and she's done. It's taken around 40 minutes to walk 100 feet. Natasha Bedingfield has left the red carpet. Now she can enter the building. Again.

Bedingfield isn't quite massive in Italy yet, but everyone around her is working on this. As her record label BMG is keen to telegraph, she's a huge international priority artist, its biggest since Dido. Lots of money is being spent; millions of woman-hours are being put in; good pop songs have been assembled by Bedingfield, and a phalanx of top songwriters. Britain has capitulated already, sending her second single "These Words" straight to number one in August and her album Unwritten to the top of the album charts three weeks later. It has sold 500,000 copies. Judging by the amount of radio play currently being garnered by her new single (also called "Unwritten"), she's a good bet to be top-five tomorrow. And, by dint of being a member of the Band Aid 20 charity choir, she might achieve the feat of being at numbers one and two simultaneously.

The afternoon before the Awards, Bedingfield perches herself on a chair in a room in a nice hotel in the centre of Rome. She radiates shiny, well-scrubbed wholesomeness. Unlike many young pop women, bikinis and skimpy frocks are not for her. Twirly skirts, nice shirts and (today) big Topshop boots and matching gloves are more her thing. She's not posh, but is a bit gymkhana. She likes action sports and working out. She's the second of four children of Molly and John, New Zealander counsellors who moved to the UK before Natasha was born. The whole family is musical and Christian. She was brought up well, to think of others, be creative (she loves painting), and follow her dreams. She oozes positivity.

"It has been crazy," she says chirpily of the globe-trotting PR whirl she has ridden in the six months since she was launched, "but you adjust to the craziness really quickly. There are moments when I step outside myself and go, 'Man ... ', particularly when I meet old friends. I see their surprise at my life: I'm in a car everywhere, I'm going on private jets, I have all these amazing clothes, and things like that."

She called up her brother, three-years-in-pop veteran Daniel, and left him a message: "Why didn't you tell me it would be this hard? And that I would have no time to myself?" Then she said: "Oh yeah, you did, ha ha." That was a joke, see: she was prepared. She knew what she was getting into. "That's the advantage I have."

Like any new, finely tuned product, she was prepared in other ways - by stylists, by media training, by six months spent recording her album in Los Angeles and London last year with people who, variously, had written songs for divas such as Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Robbie Williams. But Bedingfield chips in her fair share. She works on songs on an iBook that Daniel gave her. She writes lyric ideas in her journal. She can get by on guitar and piano. In her teens, she was performing in song competitions with big brother Dan (two years her elder), singing with her little sister Nikola (two years her junior), performing as a sibling trio at Christian festivals in Europe. Trying out songs in her spare time in studios in Greenwich and Lewisham, near the family home. She dropped out of her university degree after a year because it was getting in the way of her music-making. She had chosen to study psychology specifically so she could write better lyrics (she loved people, but how do they work? Hence psychology). "I felt, as an 18-year-old, my lyrics weren't experienced enough to really be deep - they'd just be 'I love you, I love you, I love you'." She catches herself. These are her lyrics, to "These Words".

The hard work has paid off. Japan has rolled over. She's currently number one in New Zealand; her Kiwi granddad has just texted to say everyone on the other side of the world knows who Natasha is. "These Words" has also reached number two in Germany and Austria. She was top-10 across Scandinavia. But not all of Europe is playing ball. The Belgians (number 15), the Swiss (number 24) and the refusenik Czechs (number 42) are going to need a little help. Meanwhile the French aren't doing themselves any favours: number 59 just isn't good enough. The Italians (number 57) are almost as bad. Hence Rome and the MTV Europe Music Awards 2004. In one fell swoop 120 million households in 48 countries can, potentially, be reached.

"Who are your fans?" I ask her.

"I have been happily surprised when I've gone around and seen who is in my audiences," she replied brightly. When the record company asked about this after signing her in summer 2003, she said she wanted everyone to like her - young people, but that she also wanted to be an artist older people could relate to, men as well as teenage girls. She was told that was wishful thinking. "But as I've gone around there has been quite a range. Which is good. I want my music to have that musical element and be really creative but also to be something that normal people, non-musicians, can relate to as well," she continues. "I absolutely love things like Björk's album [Medulla, made using only human voices], where it's so musical. But the average person in the street might not always get into it as much because it's too musical and you can't sing along to it. I'm trying to combine the two to make it a bit more accessible."

Natasha Bedingfield is really lovely but she don't half talk a lot of blethers. She also sounds like she's rehearsed a lot of answers. Ask her how she felt about her and Daniel becoming the first siblings to have a British number one each and she says with ready jollity, "I thought I was ... [pause] releasing records, not breaking them! That was incredible. I'm, like, 'I'm only 22, I'm already in the Guinness Book of Records!' I used to have the Guinness Book of Records at home and read it and love that. Mmmm."

She has more to say on this. "The most asked question is, 'Oh, so, isn't it easier because you've got a brother? Aren't you riding on his success?' But the fact that there aren't [other] brothers and sisters who've had a number one shows that it is really hard. So it means that it's not easier for me, it's actually harder."

She had a point there, but then lost it. In this regard, you might say, she's just normal. Who in real life talks in soundbites? And who in mass-market pop music has anything incisive to stay? When everyone else is dropping calculatedly outrageous comments, or dropping their drawers, Bedingfield's ordinariness makes her extraordinary. Musically, this is part of her appeal - she's forsworn gimmicks in favour of an album that has a bunch of cracking pop songs on it. She's always been like this, it seems. Her first song, written when she was 12, was called "As I Am" - "about me, being who I was, I didn't have to do anything to be special". You won't catch her falling out of a club at 2am (she doesn't like drinking anyway). And, unlike some of her more hyped, more naked (hello Rachel Stevens) peers, she's selling records.

Her record label had brought a gaggle of tabloid showbiz writers to Rome. The hacks had complained that they weren't getting anything meaty out of her. Didn't she have a boyfriend yet that they could get stuck into? "No, she hasn't had time to meet anyone," Bedingfield's people shot back. "If she was in Girls Aloud [ie. not properly, internationally popular], she'd have all the time in the world to get down China White and cop off with Calum Best." Well, meow.

The MTV EMAs go with a bang, a pyrotechnic boom and many, many screams. As the clock strikes midnight we head for the Sony-BMG aftershow party. Before we leave, the Black Eyed Peas frontman known as Will-I-Am approaches. He's a big fan of Daniel, he tells Natasha. He's heard him human beatbox, "and he makes a pretty big noise for such thin lips". Everyone finds this hilarious. "He's so nice," says the rapper. "Just nice." Will-I-Am phoned Daniel's answering machine on Natasha's mobile and leaves a cheery message. "He looks like a virgin," he winks to Natasha as he leaves. "You don't." Cue shocked tittering all round.

To the Supper Club in the middle of Rome in a people carrier. A huge crowd of fans and paparazzi are waiting in the narrow lane. Lenses are pressed against the car windows. Bedingfield, by now wearing something by Alberta Ferretti, grins and bear it. Inside the Sony-BMG party, near-naked waiters hand out fancy finger-food. The champagne flows merrily. Just an orange juice for Natasha, though. She's still working. Over here for a photograph with Alicia Keys, over there for Anastacia. The showbiz hacks all get the obligatory I'm-with-the-star picture taken with her.

The next morning, her diligence is rewarded with hefty coverage in the tabloids. Natasha is up sharp for a flight to Scotland for a Children In Need performance. On the Saturday she flies back from Scotland for an interview. On the Sunday she will play at the Smash Hits Pollwinners' Party at Wembley. Immediately after that she flies to New York for a meeting to plot the American campaign launching in the New Year.

On the Tuesday she flew back and got sick. Even if you're squeaky clean and spiritually tidy, the pop hamster wheel can lay you low. The last few months have been bananas for Natasha Bedingfield. How will she fare, starting all over again in the US, where so many unsinkable UK pop Titanics (Robbie Williams et al) have hit their iceberg?

"America," she had smiled toothily, back in the hotel, her saintly ring of Colgate confidence at full blast, "is like being at the fair. There's a coconut shy and everyone's gonna have a go. It's almost impossible to get the coconuts down but one or two people will. So that's what I'm gonna do. I've had a lot of interest from America. And everyone says it's really hard. But I love challenges."

And God loves a trier.

The single 'Unwritten' is out now

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