Meeting Lisa Stansfield, the cream of Rochdale, is a similarly disconcerting experience. Close to her Mayfair hotel, she looks out of a billboard promoting her new single, "The Line", with the sultry gaze of a sophisticated R&B singer, all angles and cheekbones. Inside, she is affecting the same pose in front of the camera, peering out thinly from behind her trademark fringe.
Then, suddenly, she breaks off from pouting to laugh a low, filthy laugh that ejects a plume of dirty cigarette smoke through her wide nostrils. She picks absently at a bit of dead skin on her big toe and, when she speaks, her broad Lancashire accent is hard and clear and riddled with expletives.
This, after all, is the woman who famously punched the ex-Pogues hard man Shane McGowan for calling her a silly cow. ("Look, if you've put as many drugs up your nose as Shane McGowan, you only have to flick it and it starts bleeding," she says, by way of an explanation.)
There are a few ground rules for interviewing Stansfield. She doesn't want to be called "Our Lisa" or "Rochdale's Finest". She doesn't want to read that she says "Eh-oop", or that she eats chip butties. And she's no longer a lass. She's '31 bloody years old'.
Yet this is why the British public loves Lisa Stansfield. Because she eats chips. Because she's got a pot belly. Because she likes lager and daytime TV, is gutted about Diana, and is engaged to a bloke she's known since she was 13. Because she's not from London or even Manchester, but from Rochdale, and in selling millions of albums all around the world she's become a symbol of how smalltown girls can escape their beginnings. Because she washes her knickers in hotel-room basins.
Of course, Stansfield is not really ordinary at all. She was a TV star by the age of 16. She has a prodigious talent. She has sold 10 million albums and won three Brit awards. She lives in a luxury mansion in "Paddywood", the Dublin suburb which is also home to Bono, Damon Hill and Jim Kerr, and when in London she hangs out in Soho's Colony Room in the company of bright young things like Damien Hirst. What is unusual about her is not that she is a megastar who is somehow everywoman, but that she has emerged from an extraordinary life relatively unchanged, recognisably a Rochdale lass, defiantly Lisa Stansfield.
LISA STANSFIELD'S origins were ordinary enough. She was born in Heywood, Lancs, on 11 April 1966, the middle of three sisters. Her father was an electrical engineer and her mother a housewife, although at one point they had their own chip shop.
Her childhood was happy. The Stansfields were working-class but never went without at Christmas or birthdays. She was the same then, she says, as she is now: "I don't take a lot of shit and I don't give a lot of shit." She wanted to be a gymnast or singer, "but, unfortunately, I hated PE ... I'm still a lazy cow - I'd watch daytime TV all day if someone didn't give me a kick up the backside."
By the time she was eight, her parents and neighbours had already recognised her singing talent. "I suppose I knew I was quite good," she says. "But more importantly, I knew I loved it."
When she was 10, her family moved to nearby Rochdale. She made new friends easily although she took to being a "bit of a class clown, really cheeky" as a way of winning the respect of her peers. She worried about her body. "It just wasn't keeping up with the other girls in my class. I was all skinny and flat-chested. When my first period came I felt fucking brilliant. I went for a walk in the park and I thought, 'Now I'm a woman'. Then I got breasts and everything."
She left school with two O-levels, in English and Drama. But her life was already taking shape away from books and playgrounds in the adult world of working men's clubs, where from the age of 14, she had been singing songs of betrayal and unrequited love with a voice and a peculiar insight beyond her years.
"People used to say to my mum: 'How can Lisa sing about all those things so emotionally, when she can't know about them yet?' " she says. "I didn't really know what I was singing about, I just felt the words. I've always been very emotional when I sing." Nor was she embarrassed to be singing about sex, a subject she had yet to discover for herself. "My mum and dad never minded what I sang - they still don't mind if I sing sexy lyrics. Mums and dads have sex too, you know."
Stansfield is protective about her parents' role in her early career. "It wasn't like they were hawking me around clubs, pushing me, making me sing," she says, grinding out a Silk Cut Ultra Low. "I wanted to do it. I was desperate to sing. They couldn't really have stopped me."
The gruelling club circuit was worth it. At 16, Stansfield was discovered by a Granada TV producer who booked her to present the children's show Razmatazz. But after a few months she abandoned a promising TV career to try and break into the charts. She was in a band, Blue Zone, with Ian Devaney, a boy she met when they co-starred in a school play at the age of 13, and his friend, Andy Morris. She gave up relative television celebrity for musical obscurity.
At 19, Lisa and her best friend Gail went on their first holiday without their parents, to Tunisia. There, Stansfield met Augustus Grassi, a handsome Italian costume designer nine years her senior. "It was a holiday romance," she says. "He was all Italian and everything and he worked in films - we thought he was so glamorous."
Two years later, she looked him up again, "because I fancied going to Rome". She married him a year after that, in a Rochdale wedding with a hint of The Godfather. Her mum, who was against the marriage, cried. "The vicar said he was marrying a film star and a pop star ... I think he just wanted a good turn-out at the church. But I wasn't a pop star then and he certainly wasn't a film star. He worked in the wardrobe department."
The marriage lasted just six months and she hates talking about it: "I feel like I'm having bloody psycho-analysis or something." She exhales another blast of nicotine. "The trouble was, I hadn't fallen in love with him. I had fallen in love with Italy." As Stansfield settled into the routine of being an Italian housewife the allure of Rome faded. "I just wanted to go home and there was no way he was moving to Rochdale."
Back home, Stansfield put her heart and soul into her music, as Blue Zone began to win critical acclaim and a loyal following. Working closely with Devaney, she began to sense sexual tension between them, but worried she might be imagining it. "I suppose I had a sort of secret crush on Ian for years, but we were best friends," she says. "I think we both thought we could ruin the music and ruin our friendship." They would look at each other over the mixing desk and then hurriedly look away. "Then, one night, we got really drunk," Stansfield laughs, filthily, "and we had a massive snog."
In 1989, Devaney and Stansfield moved in together in Rochdale and built a studio. It was a wonderful year for them both, the year of their first hit, "People Hold On" , a collaboration with the dance outfit Coldcut. Blue Zone became Lisa Stansfield, but Devaney's role became even more central; he was co-writing with Stansfield, playing keyboards, producing her records.
"I knew I'd made it," she says, "when I was sitting on the bus into Rochdale and there was an old man listening to one of my songs. It was fantastic."
Her first album, Affection, followed, selling five million copies and winning Brit and Ivor Novello awards. Fans were confused to find out that Stansfield's throaty soul voice, deepened by 40 cigarettes a day, belonged to a white woman. Then came the hit single "All Around the World", with the idiotically catchy refrain "Been around the world and ay-ay-ay-ay- ay-I can't find my baby." Stansfield laughs. The lyric was an accident, she says. "I couldn't make the words fit Ian's tune, so I kept going ay- ay-ay-ay-ay in the middle bit and then Ian said 'Hey, that actually works'."
STANSFIELD still feels bad about leaving Rochdale. She stayed there even after she was a millionaire, kept her friends, felt protected by the smallness of the place and the way people closed ranks around her private life. But, in 1993, she and Devaney moved briefly to Dublin to record their third album, So Natural , in peace and quiet, and accidentally fell in love with the place.
"I felt like I was betraying everybody, including myself, moving to Ireland permanently," she says. "I felt terrible, terrible guilt. But, in the end, I just thought I deserved to do what I wanted. It was the best thing for Ian and me, and for the music." The couple, who are now engaged, still keep a house in Rochdale where they spend time with friends.
For the rest of this year, though, Stansfield will be away from home, on a world tour that starts next month. Afterwards, she really wants to have a baby - but then she's said that before every tour. She's trying to stop planning it. "I'll just have one by accident," she announces. "That'd be the best way."
As if jinxed by the change of location, So Natural ostensibly flopped, although Stansfield refuses to admit it. "It didn't bloody flop," she says, waggling her cigarette accusingly. "It just didn't sell as many millions of albums as the others. It gets me really annoyed when people say that ..." Then she grins and looks up slyly from under her fringe. "OK, so it was a bit self-indulgent. We've learnt our lesson."
Her current album, Lisa Stansfield, is selling well and Lancashire has forgiven her for her desertion. After turning down a role in Four Weddings and a Funeral, she's looking at film scripts more carefully. The slip of a girl from Rochdale has reached maturity. "I'm really like grown- up now. I feel all sexy and womanly," she says, jiggling herself happily on the sofa.
Musically, Stansfield's coming from the same old-fashioned R&B/soul direction she always has ("That's bloody rude, that is - I'm not into sodding techno if that's what you mean"), but her new single, "The Line", is a departure from her usual subject matter of broken hearts and bastards. "It's about environmental issues, but it's not soppy," says the confirmed socialist, firmly. "It's about making a difference in the world."
Stansfield yawns, suddenly. She is exhausted from an early flight from Milan where she was watching the Grand Prix driver Eddie Irvine whizzing round the track. A typical showbiz weekend, but she is, refreshingly, as excited as a kid in a sweet shop. "It was brilliant!" she declares. "The noise of those cars! They can go 215 miles an hour! Round and bloody round like whoooosh! There were loads of celebrities there ... " And this is, ultimately, her most endearing characteristic. She may be a star, our Lisa, but she's still starry-eyed.
Lisa Stansfield tours Britain from 29 Oct. 'The Line' (Arista) is out now.Reuse content