the interview

Rachel Williams TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON photograph by david sandison
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the glow coming from the small bulb mounted on the ceiling is too harsh and direct. The photographer - himself by no means a person of restricted growth - reaches up in an unsuccessful attempt to adjust it. The model, her voice a bored but accommodating New York drawl, says, "Let me get that." With the exquisite languor born of spending a lot of her time as the centre of attention, 28-year-old Rachel Williams uncurls her leather-suited limbs from the couch and stretches up six-foot one-inch plus the heel of her Gucci loafer to set the light right.

Her eye make-up is gruesome battered-wife purple. Her lip-stud is a lone cat's eye in a poppy field. Her appearance is no longer the only thing on which she is judged. As anyone who has seen her hilarious gurning dominatrix act on The Girlie Show will tell you, Williams is funny, a TV natural even. From supermodel/superficial to supermodel/superguest, Williams' all-too-brief appearances on Channel 4's much-reviled but hugely successful Friday night scandal feast (ratings 3.3 million and counting) have demonstrated to a shocked world that a modelling career and a personality are not in fact mutually exclusive.

Originally signed to appear on a full-time loose cannon basis, Williams has been condemned to roving reporter/queen-in-exile status by unforeseen problems with her work permit. Being half-English, you'd think there should have been no problem with her working here. Unfortunately her English half was the wrong sex. "If it's your father, it's fine," Williams explains drily. "If it's your mother, it's not." This stipulation has a Victorian feel to it, but is actually of more recent vintage, having been instituted by that great vanguardist of the sisterhood, Margaret Thatcher.

People who don't like The Girlie Show are wont to observe that Germaine Greer was not burnt at the stake as a child to win women rugby teams the right to behave as badly as their male counterparts. But it would hardly be realistic to expect a worthy feminist statement from the makers of Eurotrash and Badaaass TV. What is interesting is that The Girlie Show is actually a much stranger and more complex phenomenon than toe-curling advance publicity about "babes with brains" led one to anticipate. There is something in the studio atmosphere that smells like the future.

"All this 'Laddette' stuff is just crap." Williams shakes her head in disgust at anti Girlie Show conventional wisdom. "We're being slagged off on the basis of an agenda that has been entirely imposed upon us from the outside." But there's no denying the programme does have a distinct "women just want to get pissed and fart" element. "I don't think it's true that women just want to get pissed and fart. Women are outspoken. I don't mean all woman are, because that would be a stupid thing to say. But so much of popular culture and the media are still seen through men's eyes and the women I know are generally a lot wittier and have a lot more to say than the women I have seen on TV up to now."

Williams does not think The Girlie Show is perfect. She would prefer it to be "a little less tits and ass". She'd rather be talking to Cindy Sherman and Mona Hatoum than profiling strippers. "They said, 'She's not just a stripper, she's trying to bring the art back into stripping'," she says scathingly of the subject of a fruitless recent trip to Amsterdam. "We went and watched her and she comes out in a cop uniform, dances on a pool table and takes her clothes off down to a g-string. The reason this is artful apparently is that in Amsterdam you can put bananas in your twat and shoot them across the room if you want, and because she's not doing that, therefore" - a roll of the eyes - "she's an artist."

Scepticism is not necessarily an asset in the fickle world of fashion. What does Williams think about when she's "naked, covered in body paint from head to toe and wrapped in Clingfilm in a room with 20 clients" - her own description of a typical working day. "I don't come out of it feeling proud of myself or like I've done something well. I just look at the clock all day and wait for it to be over. Even if you do a great picture it's not that rewarding [She pulls a fizzy blonde strand down across her face and grimaces]. Ooh! my hair looks great."

Williams is "eternally grateful" to her mother for not letting her model in her early teens; so that when the Kate Moss look took over a few years back and work slowed up for Amazons, she had the option of returning to Columbia University to finish her architecture degree. "To be 14 years old and not going to school and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars turns you into a monster," she observes feelingly. "That's what happened to Naomi." (Campbell, Williams' bete noire, was mercilessly pilloried recently in The Girlie Show's popular if somewhat brutish "Wanker of the Week" slot.) But aren't all models obliged to behave badly to prove that they're bigger news than the competition? "I would have to agree," Williams nods. "Did I partake? I admit I have spoken too sharply to people. When you're very young and all of a sudden you're incredibly fabulous and everybody wants to photograph you, you do get a bit cocky, but you've got to come down to earth."

One of the most likeable things about Williams' showing on The Girlie Show is her willingness to make herself look silly. Her fondness for falling over has an unexpected basis in biographical pathos. "I was born crippled," she says matter-of-factly. "I was very long and my legs were completely twisted. The doctor said I'd never be able to walk unless he broke my legs here and here [she demonstrates]: calf thigh, calf thigh. I was in casts up to my waist for the first six months of my life, but because they did it within the first 24 hours, when the bones were very soft, they grew back straight. Otherwise I would never have walked without a frame."

Raised by architects in bohemian Greenwich Village, Williams was "a very angry child: always ripping up books and spitting at teachers". Looking back now, she says, the probable cause was feelings of abandonment (her parents split up and her dad left home when she was five) but whatever the reason, she didn't learn to read until she was 10. Her step-dad wore women's clothes around the house, but she doesn't seem to hold that against him. The family move to Woodstock was a different matter though. At 15, after years of riding the subways on her own, William was forced to start asking her mum for lifts into town. She's been making up for this sudden loss of freedom ever since.

Watchers of the current Simply Red video will have no doubt noticed some rather stylish footage of Williams shaving her armpits. Not sensible of the honour of being chosen as one of Mick Hucknall's favourite women, she announced her intention to proclaim him "Wanker of the Week". This uncomfortable prospect allegedly elicited dark threats of retaliatory revelations from the Hucknall camp.

"Is he going to tell the press I'm a dyke?" Williams demands imperiously. "Oh Mick, don't tell." That's the problem with people who have nothing to hide - Williams came out about her year-long relationship with British pop singer Alice Temple in the pages of Vanity Fair, and was even good enough to inform Sky magazine of her total tally of sexual partners (12 boys and 8 girls) - they can't be warned off.

This is not a woman you want to be on the wrong side of. Williams comes closest to animation recounting her sweet revenge on notorious US tabloid the New York Post, which she paid back for years of harassment with a completely bogus front-page lesbian motherhood love triangle exclusive.

"I called up [gossip columnist] Nadine Johnson and said [gushes]: 'I'm so excited. Eric [old boyfriend and celebrity New York bar owner] asked me to marry him and I said yes. I'm pregnant. I've spoken to Alice and she's OK. We want to have kids, we can have kids you know, two women'. And she's saying, 'Why are you telling me this?' And I said, 'Look, the press are going to find out anyway and you're a friend, so I want you to have it first'."

Happily, such guerrilla tactics are not yet called for on this side of the Atlantic. "It's more fun being famous in England," Williams says blithely. If, as expected, the deal currently being hammered out with the immigration department can be finalised, she might even get to sit on The Girlie Show sofa next week. "The best thing in rehearsals was the chemistry between the three of us," Williams says warmly of her much maligned co-presenters. "I just want to get on there with them and see if we can exploit this chemistry, because I know if we can get that on TV, it would be a very unique thing."