Sophie Ellis-Bextor: Shoot from the lip

Sophie Ellis-Bextor, just another manufactured pop diva out for a fast buck. Right? Wrong. On the launch of her new album, Stuart Husband meets the singer who writes her own lyrics, eschews stylists and says exactly what she thinks. And, no, she's not posh. OK then, not that posh
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Sophie Ellis-Bextor is reflecting on first impressions. "People see my name and the way I dress," she says, casting her eyes over her smartly tailored navy two-piece and formidable heels, "and their immediate thought is probably 'posh bint'. And, to an extent, I can see what they mean." Her wry smile complements her quizzical eyebrows. "If I wasn't me, I'm not sure what I'd think of me. Maybe I'd be a little suspicious."

Ambivalence has stalked Ellis-Bextor since she burst on to the pop scene, aged 21, with Spiller's retro-dance floor-filler "Groovejet (If This Ain't Love)" three years ago; her subsequent debut album, Read My Lips, sold in excess of a million copies and showcased a set of songs as polished and poised as their interpreter. She might have been pert and prurient on "Take Me Home", or acted the disco diva on "Murder on the Dancefloor", but her finishing-school posture, immaculate suitings and exquisitely enunciated tones (her pronunciation of "goddamn" on "Murder on the Dancefloor" would have done Joyce Grenfell proud) put one in mind of a 1950s BOAC stewardess on a pop furlough - a cool, collected counterpoint to the sex-kitten writhings of Britney and Christina or the bouncy fervour of the Pop Idol/Pop Stars production line.

"It's not that I was trying to be all ironic and remote," she grins. "It's just that I couldn't be Britney if I tried. I have a lot of respect for someone like her; she's almost the ultimate professional. But I think you should play to your strengths. I'm good at that dry, Pet Shop Boys-type delivery. It's a sort of arch approach, taking a step back and saying, 'Look, this is all a kind of game, but it's actually something I take incredibly seriously.'" She grins some more. "God, it sounds so wanky when you try and articulate it. But I think there's a gap between the way I've been perceived and the way I really am."

If Ellis-Bextor wrong-foots people, it's because, like all the best pop stars, she's a mass of contradictions. She's drolly ingenuous, self-deprecating but steely. Her air of Oriental inscrutability, accentuated by her notorious "rhombus face" (her nickname at school - actually, it's a lot less rhomboid than it appears in pictures) and slanted eyes, is undermined by a surprisingly estuarine accent and a gratifyingly dirty laugh. Her bearing, when she greets me in the conservatory of London's Portobello Hotel, is as imperturbable as ever, despite the fact that she's mid-way through wolfing down a full English breakfast, and beseeching the kitchen for extra sauce: "If ketchup were a person," she announces, inundating her plate, "I think I'd marry it." In fact, she confides, she used to carry "emergency" condiments sachets in her handbag, until an unfortunate incident involving mayonnaise and a mobile phone.

But perhaps the most telling evidence that there's more to Ellis-Bextor than meets the eye is provided with the arrival of her second album. Shoot From the Hip not only continues her bodily journey southwards ("I'll have got to the ankles by the fifth album"); it also ushers in a franker, less elliptical Ellis-Bextor. Songs such as the single "Mixed Up World", a paean to honesty over cynicism, and slower, heartfelt numbers such as "Nowhere Without You" are, she concedes, the products of "a fairly turbulent year" in which she split with Andy Boyd, her boyfriend of over six years (though he remains her manager). So, is this her "And this is me" moment?

There's a pause as she devours the last of her poached egg. "It's not quite that simple," she says, wiping her mouth daintily. "I mean, I'm 24 now and I do feel like I've lost a lot of attitude, that I was more willing to let my guard down a bit. With your first album, you're incredibly eager and in a hurry to seduce people. But when I was touring, I was getting audiences of all ages and orientations, and that really freed me when I came to write this album; I thought well, I have to please everyone and no one, so why not just please myself? I guess what I'm trying to say," she laughs, "is that this time round, it was like having a second child - freer, looser, more relaxed."

What she's attempted to do, she elaborates, is reflect a year that's been "a sort of watershed for me and a lot of my friends, where a lot of skins have been shed. Not that it's my portrait of a generation," she laughs. "I just wanted to present something that sums up what I'm feeling. I think of myself as making pop music, and spent a long time trying to work out what I think that is."

And her conclusions?

"That it's accessible and immediate," she avers. "That it delivers to you in three and a half minutes max what it feels like to be alive, whether it's having the time of your life or feeling awful, cross, frustrated, devastated or tingly." She regards her coffee intently. "An encapsulation of the moment."

But isn't pop stardom a bit of a devalued currency these days, a Mecca for marketing men whose karaoke creations come and go in the nanoseconds it takes to ram-raid a tweenie piggy bank? "People ask me if I'm annoyed by Pop Idol," she says, "and I say 'Yeah, but on the other hand it makes it a lot easier for people like me to look credible.' Simon Cowell and his ilk are promoting this false idea of what it means to be a pop star; you're loaded up with stylists and choreographers, conditioned to show all your tricks immediately, then junked for the next clone. Everyone has the same hair and clothes. It's all about the instant hit. Artistic development seems to be a dirty concept. I don't have a stylist, believe it or not," she says, sweeping her hand over her suit. "I got this in a charity shop. It's like, when I dyed my hair," she continues, running her hand through her newly blonde locks, "everyone assumed the record company insisted I do it. People have become obsessed by all this behind-the-scenes business," she concludes sadly. "Whatever happened to the mystery?"

Ellis-Bextor's lamentations are more than lip-service; she's a fervent pop fan, citing Prince, Bowie, Goldfrapp, Björk, PJ Harvey and, ahem, Ricky Martin, as enduring passions, and Shoot From the Hip features collaborations with Mud's Rob Davis, ex- Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, and Blur's Alex * James (who describes her as "a proper girl, a thinker and a looker", perhaps the ultimate approbation). This was widely, if erroneously interpreted as a return to Ellis-Bextor's indie roots; she began performing at 15, fronting so-cool-they-were-glacial alt.rock band theaudience while completing three A- levels at west London's prestigious Godolphin School, Alma Mater of Nigella Lawson and Kate Beckinsale. "I enjoyed school," she confesses, a little shamefacedly. "But I knew from a really early age that I wasn't wired for the nine-to-five thing. I guess my upbringing made me aware of other possibilities."

Sophie Ellis-Bextor grew up in the lower to upper-middle-class west London enclave of St Margaret's, between Richmond and Twickenham, where the Georgian terraces resound to the parping of a million clarinet lessons. Her father is a television producer and director; her mother, of course, is ex-Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis. Her parents divorced when she was three, but they all remain close. Her father, she says, was over-protective, insisting she stay away from boys till she was 21 - a dismal failure, as she met 34-year-old Boyd when she was 17. "In my father's head, I'm still about 12," she smiles. "He's always astounded when he sees I have my own set of house keys." Her mother, meanwhile, is terribly proud of Sophie, "but is rather sick of people coming up and saying she must be terribly proud of her daughter".

Both her parents have since married again, and Ellis-Bextor has a mass of half-brothers and sisters, including five-year-old twins and a six-year-old adopted sister. "My 16-year-old half-brother thinks I'm cool because I got him a discount drum-kit for his band Headrush. They're a bit Linkin Park; they have a great song called "Smoking Marijuana in the Garden". He thinks what I do is, you know, OK if a bit wussy, but my 12-year-old half-sister Martha loves it. I can see her looking at me sometimes, memorising the moves, just waiting to usurp me..."

Despite this extended family, however, Ellis- Bextor is technically an only child, and prone to solitary introspection. She confesses that she finds it difficult to make friends - she's known most of her girlfriends since her schooldays - because, "I'm slow at opening up to people. I'm a little suspicious when I meet someone, which is why I assume people are suspicious of me." She went through "a low period" after the break-up of theaudience, trying her hand at modelling ("which I hated"), and novel-writing ("which I was crap at"). "I felt music was the only thing for me," she says, "but if I was going to come back, I wanted to do it on my own terms."

Ellis-Bextor would be the first to admit that she's a total product of her background - hence her "posh bint" reference - but she's a little narked at the antipathy that's come her way as a result. "People are like, 'Oh, you've had it really easy,'" she says, "but my family isn't that posh. I distinctly remember us buying a lot of our own furniture. And I thought we were a bit beyond the class struggle by now." Has she had to grow a thicker skin since she's been in the public eye? "If Robbie Williams calling me 'satellite-dish face' is the worst thing I'm going to encounter," she laughs, "I think I'll make it through without needing the Priory. But I think I've been really lucky. The tabloids have pretty much left me alone."

Until now, that is. Ellis-Bextor's split with Boyd - "There's no big story," she insists, "we just grew apart, like couples do" - has led to paparazzi staking out her house, and photos of her with a "mystery man" appearing in one red-top. "That was a friend," she says, already wearied by the necessity of denial. "My girlfriend was there too, but they cropped her out. I find it all quite frightening," she says of the interest, "because I don't know how to handle them. I suppose I have to expect it now I'm a free agent, but I've never courted that kind of attention."

Maybe she should just go out with Justin Timberlake and be done with it?

"Do you think so?" she says, screwing up her face. "Haven't I got to date someone from Hollyoaks or EastEnders or a footballer first, you know, work my way up the ladder? No, I couldn't deal with that Jennifer Lopez-Ben Affleck level of attention. But they created that, so they have to reap the whirlwind. It's no good leaking details of where you're going to be to the press and then whining at them to leave you alone. I'm lucky, I can walk around and enjoy my life. Speaking of which," she says, "shall we go and walk this breakfast down a bit?"

Granted, we don't spark Bennifer-style hysteria as we stroll the streets of Notting Hill, but Ellis-Bextor does provoke lingering looks from men and women, the former zeroing in on the blonde locks, the latter on her long, elegant legs and the yellow heels which elevate her to well over 6ft. "I'd hoped I wasn't that much of a sucker for cliché," she says of her hair, "but I did get it dyed after I split with Andy. I was going for a Tippi Hedren/Hitchcock thing, but the general standard of men who honk their horns or catcall in the street has plummeted, which is rather depressing. I think I'm going back to brunette very soon."

Portobello, it turns out, is her new manor; she's moved in with a girlfriend following the split from Boyd. "I bought a flat in Hampstead when I was 19," she says, "and now I'm renting again. It's like I'm living my life in reverse." We pass a row of designer shops and cafés full of local yummy-mummies replete with statement strollers. "It's like toy town round here, isn't it?" Ellis-Bextor laughs. "I love it, though. The market's great and Portobello Road has the best shoe shops. I bought eight pairs last week." She's the Imelda of W11? "Totally," she says blithely. "I think I have 160 pairs now, all in their boxes with Polaroids of them on the front. I don't think that's sad, do you?" she asks as she veers helplessly toward the nearest branch of Office.

A couple of days later, Ellis-Bextor is zipping herself into a pair of thigh-high black boots - "My latest purchase," she says apologetically, "but they were in the sale." We're at the Hammersmith studio where she's due to appear on the kids' Saturday-morning TV show CD:UK. A Sugababes bass track is power-housing through the wall of the dressing-room, Ellis-Bextor's half-sister Martha is sitting on the sofa, ostensibly drawing handbags but covertly eyeballing everything, and Ellis-Bextor is throwing a diva hissy fit. Or, at least, it's her impeccably mannered, cut-glass version of a hissy fit; she's feeling nauseous and doesn't want to do the "Hotshot Review", in which the show's guests sit on a sofa and "crit" (ie slag off) the latest videos. "That's so not what I'm about anyway," she says in a stage whisper. "I really hate bitchiness."

She changes into her stage dress, a flounced flamenco-style spotty number - "bought off eBay! No stylist would put me in this!" - and eyeballs her dancers who, limbering up in their all-black outfits, resemble a squad of cat burglars with St Vitus. "In order to do this job," she confides as she prepares to take the stage, "you need a healthy sense of camp." She seems as collected as ever, but claims to be nervous: "I always am before a TV thing, which is crazy, considering my background. But I'm getting better. I'd rather dance around and fall over," says the woman once renowned for her semi-detachment, "than remain all aloof."

Of course, she doesn't fall over; she sings about junking unbelief and embracing your contradictory nature while throwing in enough nods and winks to keep the messages healthily mixed. On the way out, she's engulfed by a battalion of feral tweenie fans wielding autograph books, but even they become restrained in the face of Ellis-Bextor's self-possession. As she is whisked off to her next appointment, I ask one of the girls for her thoughts on her latest signee.

"She's so... posh," she eventually utters, still somewhat awestruck.

Those first impressions are pretty intransigent. But, as Sophie Ellis-Bextor would surely concede, there are worst things to be perceived as than being top of your class.

The album 'Shoot From the Hip' is out on 27 October on Polydor. The single 'Mixed Up World' is out now