Amy Winehouse: Beehive with attitude

She's the Best British Female and a diva to boot. But has she cleaned up her act? Oh no, no, no!
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The Independent Online

Her behaviour was nothing less than shocking at the Brit Awards. Everyone agreed, she let the side down pretty badly. Tchuh. You think you know people, think you can trust them to turn in a reliable performance - and they go and ruin it. Amy Winehouse just flatly refused to get drunk, swear, vomit, smoke a joint or storm out. Not once did she tell the writhing popinjay Russell Brand to eff off with his smart remarks about her incipient alcoholism. She sang "Rehab" with a sweet uncertainty, hitching up her red frock to mid-thigh level, but delicately, carefully, as though primly fastidious about revealing her knickers. Her acceptance speech, far from being a rant about the awfulness of Dido or the rapacity of A&R men, was a little-girl stutter of "ers" and "ums" before she declared "I'm just glad my mum and dad are here" and exited, probably for a lovely family night out. It was hopeless. "They tried to make me go to rehab?" More like, "They tried to persuade me to have a small sherry and enjoy myself, but I said no, no, no...". At this rate, we'll soon have to stop waiting for her to self-destruct, and start listening to her singing.

On Wednesday night she was crowned Britain's top diva, walking off with the Best British Female Solo Artist against the stiff competition of Lily Allen and Corinne Bailey Rae. It confirmed what we knew but had half-forgotten: that her voice is a miracle - an extraordinary, bluesy growl, deep and sorrowful but tough as nails, as she informs a girl chum, "Tell your boyfriend/ Next time he around/. To smoke his own weed and don't wear my shit down," or wretchedly reflects on her hectic infidelity, and the moment her boyfriend spotted the giveaway carpet-burn on her back while she was in the bath...

Her voice is the point, of course, the way she marries a classic blues sensibility to a modern hip-hop attitude -- but Ms Winehouse's grip on the national psyche is multi-tentacular. For one thing, there's her extraordinary looks. She's only five-feet-two, but there's an awful lot of things to look at on her slender frame: the long, jolie-laide face, the split-fig mouth carmined with lipstick and studded with a pearl, her beautiful brown eyes accentuated, Cleopatra-style, with thick upward dabs of kohl, her mad brown beehive barnet. Her arms are as tattooed as David Beckham's or Robbie Williams'; they feature hearts, horseshoes and 1950s pin-up girls called Cynthia and Gabrielle, like the arms of a merchant seaman. She is very dark, smoulderingly sexy and indefinably dirty - perhaps because so much of her skin looks as though it's been scribbled on. One celebrity magazine ran a spread of Amy photographs taken over a week, above the injunction: "For heaven's sake, girl - have a wash!"

She is also gratifyingly (from a media-land, star-spotting point of view) keen on artificial stimulants and abuse. Since she first appeared in 2003, lurid stories have spread about her consumption of alcohol and marijuana, sometimes on-stage. As a guest on Charlotte Church's TV chat show, Winehouse was so drunk she forgot the words to Michael Jackson's "Beat It", leaving Church to sing unaided while (in the words of one commentator) "being observed by a rather dizzy-looking horse in lipstick". She claimed to breakfast on Jack Daniel's and Coke. Invited to comment on the competition at the 2004 Brit awards, she snapped: "Dido's gonna win, even though she's rubbish." With similar generosity, she called Chris Martin of Coldplay "a wanker" and Britney Spears "a joke". Several people must have itched to call her a little madam; but then they probably took one look at the truculent set of her jaw and thought better of it.

Winehouse was born in the East End of London in 1983, to a Jewish taxi driver called Mitch and a pharmacist mother called Janis; they separated when she was nine. The family had musical connections - one of her grandmothers was courted in the 1940s by jazz god Ronnie Scott, and two uncles were jazz musicians. Amy won a scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, where the careers of hundreds of future tin celebrities (Emma Bunton, the All Saints girls) got under way; but it wasn't an auspicious start for the north London mini-termagant. She was expelled for being "distracted" and went to The Brit School in Croydon, a girls-only academy which she disliked because, as she once told a reporter, "I'm like a little boy and I like to be around boys."

She embarked on a career as a music journalist and began singing on Saturdays with the National Jazz Youth Orchestra. Enter an impresario called Nick Shymansky from the Brilliant record company, who listened to the grainy, sluttish Winehouse delivery with amazement. He offered to pay for some hours in a recording studio for her. "Why?" Amy asked in all innocence.

Her debut album, Frank, knocked the critics flat with its rasping confrontational style, whether crushing husband-hunting girls (on "Fuck Me Pumps") or criticising a boyfriend for being insufficiently manly. "All I need is for my man to live up to his role," she sang, before asking her cringing beau, "Are you gay?". Frank sold 250,000 copies. Amy was nominated for Best Female Solo Artist and British Urban Act at the 2004 Brits, but didn't win either. Afterwards, her life hit a turbulent patch when a relationship collapsed and she split from a boyfriend called Blake (whose name and underpants are tattooed above her left breast.) It was her fault, and she hit a downward slide of self-recrimination; she stayed in her Camden flat, drinking, smoking dope, weeping, eating junk food and listening to the Shangri-Las' "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" over and over. By her own computation, she got through £200 worth of skunk per week. Her manager told her father that she should go into rehab. She agreed to a consultation there, but decided that she was suffering from depression and left - hence the song. Giving up dope meant also giving up junk food, and she became addicted to the gym. She still drinks, but now at least she knows the calorific value of every Amaretto Sour.

Her guilt at parting from Blake fuelled many songs on Back to Black, her follow-up album which has sold 700,000 copies and hit No 1 in the UK album chart. Nine months ago, she acquired a new boyfriend, Alex, a musician and chef, whom she met playing pool at the Good Mixer bar in Camden. Under his benign influence she has become downright wholesome. "Of course I like a drink," she told the red-top papers this week, "but I only tend to get on it when I'm bored. Then once I start I don't know when to stop. But there's another side of me that people don't see. I also like to get up early, cook my fella breakfast, then go the gym."

It's all going just too darned well. She's officially the nation's favourite female singer. Her recent US debut concert was a smash hit, attended by Dr John, Jay-Z, Mos Def and Jimi Hendrix's sister. At no point did she pass out from drink, forget the words or punch her guitarist.

Really, it's just not good enough.

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