Paloma Faith: From burlesque performer to music's Next Big Thing
Saturday 30 January 2010
There's been an incident. Thanks to the internet, I've heard all about it before we even meet. Shortly before she sets out from her rented flat in Islington to the private members' club in central London where we are destined to share afternoon tea, Paloma Faith broadcasts the breaking news on Twitter: "ho hum! i didnt get nominated for a brit award but nor did amy [Winehouse] on her first album so i will try not to get upset". But she is upset, and by the time she arrives at our chosen destination, she is very upset indeed.
In similar circumstances – effectively having had your debut album shunned by a major awards ceremony – any other up-and-coming starlet might, in an effort to save face, feign nonchalance. At least just a bit. But this isn't any other up-and-coming starlet. Paloma Faith doesn't do nonchalance. And – dejected or otherwise – we soon find out that she doesn't do understatement either.
Paloma's life motto is simple: "comfort is for twats". To prove it, on this bitterly cold, wind-battered afternoon, she wades through layers of brown snow-sludge to our meeting wearing eight-inch rhinestone heels. To these, the 24-year-old adds bright red tights, a beige polo neck, and a floral skirt borrowed from her recently deceased step-grandmother. On top, an eggshell-blue Forties coat with fur-trimmed cuffs, and a scarlet beret. Against the odds, she glides through the door un-bedraggled: not a strand of expertly pinned, auburn quiff blown out of place; not an ankle fractured in those mind-boggling heels.
Despite her dampened spirits, Paloma is in good voice. Before she has time to sit down, let alone order a pot of peppermint tea, she is in full flight, regaling me with the matter of the missing invite: "I'm so upset!" Her ruby lips collapse in a frown briefly, and start up again: "It's not that I'd be, like, really upset if I didn't win an award." But she would, at least, appreciate a nomination, as recognition of her hard work and artistic achievements over the past year? Well, yeah, but more to the point: "Think of all those people who would watch it on TV and see me in the crowd and Google me afterwards!"
Paloma makes no bones about the fact that she wants to make it big – "as big as Amy Winehouse" – a possibility becoming more likely by the day as she blossoms into one of 2010's hottest new stars. In order to make it a certainty, however, she knows that for the time being at least, she has to play the game – and this involves getting her face seen at events like the Brits, and in the audience of high-rating shows such as The X Factor, which she did recently. To those who accuse her of selling out, she has the following message: "Anybody who says they don't want to be seen on a show which has millions of people watching it at one time when they're in the business of selling records is a bit silly."
But she hasn't always been so willing to play by the rules. Before she signed with Epic records, which released her acclaimed debut album Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful? last September, Paloma spent several years juggling work as a burlesque dancer, a magician's helper and a shop assistant for Agent Provocateur. She says she especially liked the last of these jobs – which she did for three years and which involved prancing around the risqué lingerie brand's Soho shop modelling its skimpy wares – because it put her in daily contact with society's "outsiders".
She compares it to the work of the photographer Nan Goldin, who embeds herself in the underground sub-cultures she studies. Somewhat ambiguously, Paloma adds: "When I was taking an MA in directing and theatre design, one of my tutors told me: 'The method you use to express yourself is not really that important, it's what you're trying to say that is important.' That's quite a liberating feeling."
Throughout college, Paloma also worked in a pub. Without ever hearing her sing, the bar manager asked her to front his band, which they later called Paloma and the Penetrators. "He said it didn't matter what I sounded like 'cause I look old-fashioned." It was in this guise, "wearing a little costume and twizzling a parasol" at a cabaret show, that Paloma was scouted by an A&R man from Epic. She thinks it was about three years ago, though Paloma is hazy about dates, claiming she doesn't think in linear timelines: "Why do you journalists always want things to be in the right order?"
Impressed by her show, the A&R guy invited Paloma – minus her Penetrators – to sing for the head honcho of the label, and she agreed. A few days later, she skipped off to the audition and it all went really well, until approximately 20 minutes in, when she told her future boss to "fuck off" and walked out.
"He was texting through my showcase so I told him to turn off his phone," Paloma explains, taking a bite of a chocolate biscuit. But he didn't comply. Instead: "He gave me the big 'I am' about how he's the money man and then he said I sounded like Amy Winehouse and what was I going to do about it?" And what did she say? "I said: 'If you're going to be anything to do with my career, I'd rather sing in pubs for the rest of my life.' Then I told him to fuck off." And then she stormed out.
She meant every word. "I didn't care about the money at that point. I was broke but I was working lots, doing cabaret and performance art and feeling really creative. I felt like my life was exciting and it was all down to me." But when, nine months later, out of the blue, the same guy called her back saying he'd seen many acts since and none had been so memorable, and offered her a contract, she signed.
"Now I care about the money because it's closer to me than it was," she says. Though she's "not particularly materialistic" she understands that she needs to bring in enough income to support her lifestyle. "I like comfort. I've spent a lot of time being bohemian and sleeping on floors but eventually I want to have kids and I want to bring them up in a secure environment."
If the record execs had felt any reservations about taking on this seeming live-wire, they must now feel great relief. Fast-forward a year or so to the present day and Paloma is on the track to superstardom. Since releasing her debut ......... album last autumn, she's had a couple of hit singles with "New York" and "Stone Cold Sober", and has fulfilled at least two dreams, headlining Later... with Jools Holland and being shot by David Bailey for Vogue. Now, she's preparing to head off on tour.
Not content with selling out elaborate stage-shows in which, in any number of flamboyant dresses, she belts out soulful pop songs in front of shiny, rainbow-coloured backdrops, Paloma is simultaneously carving a career for herself as a modern-day movie siren.
In 2007, she bagged herself a role as a saucy schoolgirl in the British blockbuster St Trinian's, alongside Rupert Everett and Russell Brand. Then Terry Gilliam cast her as the girlfriend of the devil (played by Tom Waits) in his big-budget movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, starring the late Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp and various other Hollywood hotshots. It's a welcome side-step. For while she may have a "good voice", she doesn't believe she is an amazing singer, and sees herself more as a performer, so the cross-over on to the big screen suits her well.
paloma was born in Hackney, north-east London, in 1985. Her Spanish father and English mother split up when she was two years old, and she was raised an only child by her mum, a primary school teacher, who specialises in special needs. As a kid, she was encouraged to dance.
"My mum wanted me to be everything she wasn't," she says. "She put great value on things that people take for granted, like being able to swim and dance and drive, the things she couldn't do and felt inadequate [about] because she couldn't do them." Paloma agreed to be taken to weekly ballet classes in Dalston, mainly because afterwards she'd be treated to a McDonald's.
After A-Levels, she went on to study for a contemporary dance degree, which was "the worst experience of [my] life". "It didn't do my mental stability any good; the psychology of being a dancer and spending all day in a mirrored room isn't good for anybody. You become narcissistic in either a vain way or in a critical way."
Which was it for her? "I became overly sensitive about my body. I'm naturally curvy and that's not encouraged in dance; if you bulk up easily or whatever they're not very nice." She shrugs: "Like with everything, if you don't fit in perfectly, if you're not thin and blonde, then they're not nice to you." That "they" seems to apply to a wider group than just her dance peers.
Paloma went to her local secondary, Islington Green, where she "tried to blend in with everyone else", but her "take on sub-cultures was always a bit wrong". On reflection, she jokes that entering the celebrity world is a bit like being the new kid at school. "I'm like the one in the playground who's making all these great suggestions and everybody else is like: 'No, we're already playing this.' " She lifts her head and lets out a deafening cackle.
While Paloma is regularly snapped at celebrity parties, dolled up to the nines, she says she doesn't really enjoy them: "Everybody's got to behave themselves and nobody really knows each other; it's not like they're your mates you've chosen."
Luckily, a few of her old friends now move in the same circles for work, so she often has company on those nights out: she used to flat-share with the singer and bassist from the Noisettes, the amazing Shingai Shoniwa, and is close pals with the photographer Alice Hawkins (who shot this week's fashion story, see page 28). She has made new friends in the fame industry, too, including comedians such as Alan Carr and Leigh Francis.
But there's one comedian she's not so fond of.
There was clearly little loved lost between Paloma and Gavin and Stacey co-writer James Corden when the pair appeared together on Never Mind the Buzzcocks back in October, he as the guest host and she as a panelist. "I think [Corden] is quite a rude person," Paloma shrugs. "He's been really rude to me in other situations, too. But you know, his mum is so lovely. I met her and I was like, 'You poor woman, your son is so rude'."
On the up-side, going on Never Mind the Buzzcocks afforded her the chance to meet her favourite comedian of all, Noel Fielding, from the Mighty Boosh. "I love Noel," she nods. "But he doesn't reply to my text messages." Really? Why not? "I think he thinks I'm a stalker." Apparently this is not an isolated incident. "If I meet someone and I feel like we have a connection then I'll text them," Paloma says. "But generally, quite successful people are busy and they don't text back and then you start feeling like, 'Oh my God, they're going to get a restraining order!' "
And it's not just her rampant texting that's the problem. "I saw Paolo Nutini rehearsing for Later... with Jools Holland and I went in and went: 'Paolo, you're amazing, you're so bloody gorgeous, I love you!' " And what did he reply? "Er, thanks." Thankfully, she hasn't texted Nutini yet (she doesn't have his number, which may be for the best).
Right now, however, Paloma needn't worry too much. Not only does she not need famous friends – she has lots of proper ones already – she also doesn't need a boyfriend: she already has one of those, too. Though she won't tell me his name, she does say that she thinks things with him are serious: "If I get in a relationship, it's always for the long-term; if not, I don't see the point."
Despite her readiness to court the media, there are certain things, and people, Paloma won't talk publicly about. She is selective when reminiscing about her childhood and won't be drawn on the names of her parents or close friends, unless they put themselves out there first.
"I don't mind discussing positive things but I don't want to over-indulge on sad situations or whatever," she says. "Everything involves other people; I don't think it's fair."
She may be in the throes of a self-propelled PR drive, yet Paloma also claims that she craves a quiet life and even anonymity. But she is ambitious – "really ambitious" – and savvy enough to know "that this whole thing revolves around my face and what I look like: in this game, fame and success go hand-in-hand".
Our interview comes to a close and Paloma Faith prepares to move on to her next press appointment. She smoothes down her hair, adjusts her beret and struts off down the hall. For now, the quiet life will have to wait.
The UK leg of Paloma Faith's tour begins on 17 March in Glasgow. For more details, visit palomafaith.com
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