Paloma Faith - 'I realised when I was young that on stage I could be whoever I wanted to be'

Singer and actress Paloma Faith's second album shows a darker streak, but in person she is as colourful and eccentric as ever, discovers James McNair

Not every pop starlet would cite Barbara Windsor as a fashion icon, but then Paloma Faith is not your typical chart-botherer. Last seen exhorting folks to shake their bingo wings to her new song "Cellulite" on stage at Somerset House, the petite Anglo-Spanish singer is that most welcome of entities: a pop star unafraid to ruffle feathers.

Feisty enough to play the devil's girlfriend alongside Tom Waits in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, Faith also rocked somewhat unorthodox track wear – red stilettos and a crop-top – when she carried the Olympic torch through her native East London last Saturday. "Yeah, I did it my way, like the song," she laughs. Still, Peggy Mitchell as style icon, Paloma? That was a joke, right? "Well, yes and no," she says. "I love Barbara Windsor's big hair and her on-going commitment to the dye-job. Babs and Vivienne Westwood – they're my role models for when I'm older."

Today, Faith proves fun if batty company ("I'm in the psychotherapist's chair – analyse me!"). She has palm frond-like false eyelashes and a cartoonish, Pepe Le Pew meets Cruella De Vil hairdo. She's wearing a white Dolce & Gabbana dress she describes as "prim" but is anything but, and her knees are tucked up under her chin. Three make-up artists hover for "re-touches" .

We've met in Kensington, West London, to talk about Fall To Grace, her current, Nelly-Hooper produced album of big, open-hearted pop tunes. The singer's 2009 debut Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful? has sold half a million copies in the UK, and Fall To Grace, which debuted at Number 2, looks set to do better still.

Influences such as Etta James and Billie Holiday are baldly worn on the new record, but Faith's lung-power and characterful delivery pass muster. New single "30 Minute Love Affair", about a busker she met and fell for in Leicester Square when she was 14, is upbeat enough, but much of the record finds Faith alone and heart-sore. "It does feel exposing. 'Streets Of Glory' was about quite a dark situation, and it would be opening a can of worms. It's coming out as a single and I'm dreading it."

Born in Hackney, Faith was brought up by her mother in Stoke Newington, her parents having split-up when she was two years old. She says she was "shy as a child, almost mute". The first school play she took part in was an epiphany, however. "I think they were shocked that I had this dinosaur's roar," she says. "I realised that, on-stage, I could be whoever I wanted to be, and I've been roaring ever since."

She studied at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds in her late teens, and later gained a Masters in time-based arts from Central St Martin's, but she's quick to point out that she's had no formal training as a singer. Even her early career was marked by an admirably un-malleable streak: she passed-up a chance to be in Amy Winehouse's band, and when an Epic Records bigwig refused to silence his mobile at one of her auditions, she walked out.

Though it's her music that's blossoming right now, Faith continues to enjoy a parallel career as an actress. She played Andrea in 2007 anarchic schoolgirl film St Trinian's, and she'll be herself, pretty much, playing a cabaret performer in the BBC's upcoming adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings. Her most enjoyable audition to date, she says, is still that she gave for Gilliam.

"Usually my agent tells me to dress down in jeans and no make-up," she explains, "but for The Imaginarium she said, 'Just go as yourself.' I put tropical flowers in my hair and wore as many colours of the rainbow as possible. When Terry opened the door, he said, 'Finally someone with a personality!'"

Playing alongside Waits, a musician that she idolises, was more nerve-wracking. "You can't get cooler than Tom and it took me a while to get over that. In the end he came to my trailer one night to rehearse some lines in private. That broke down the barriers and we had a proper heart to heart."

Last summer, Prince invited her to play at his New Power Generation Festival in Copenhagen. Much to Faith's surprise, the pair ended up spending most of the weekend together. "I found him quite natural, but he is enigmatic," she says. "Even if you're just having a bit of cake, you're still doing it with Prince – do you know what I mean? No matter how relaxed he is, you can't get away from that starry perception. I feel a bit sorry for him in that sense. It must be quite isolating for him."

Faith's Olympic torch duties last week coincided with her 27th birthday. As our time together winds down, I ask what else she did to celebrate? "I went for a meal with friends and one of them gave me a live dove as a present." Because Paloma means dove in Spanish? "Right. My friend said I was the freest person she's ever met, and she wanted to set the dove free with me. But then there was this moral dilemma and it was like being in a stage play because it turned out the dove was born in captivity and some people thought it would die. In the end this friend of mine who plays my love interest in my videos took it home and he's looking after it."

Though Faith's pop-star bubble currently seems a rather fluffy place to be, she is not without hard-won experience. Pre-fame stints working as a life model and magician's assistant exposed her to unique and curious slices of life, but these were as nothing compared to her time working in lingerie sales.

"I have very fond memories of Agent Provocateur," she says. "It was a strange unveiling of the outsiders of society; local prostitutes and people hiding their fetishes, feeling ashamed. You'd get calls to the shop from people who just wanted to have a chat, and it wasn't always about sex. I got to know them and I tried not to be prudish."

Did the experience feed into her writing? "Yeah, it was really useful as a songwriter. It helped me understand big subjects like shame and ignorance and prejudice. It's given me understanding and hopefully some compassion."

The new single, "30 Minute Love Affair", is out on 12 August on RCA

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