Charlotte Church: Angelic upstart

The stories of under-age drinking and swearing all help to rebrand the angel as a rock'n'roll rebel
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Many of the qualities they admire they have recognised in this 19-year-old singer: feisty, ballsy, sexy but not neurotic about her appearance, fun-loving, fond of a drink and a fag, loyal to her mates and her man, her family and birthplace, talented - but not disturbingly so - bright, but not too worryingly intelligent. Last week she was voted Woman of the Year by GQ magazine, whose editor described her as "larger than life" and a "role model" for women.

Earlier this year Liam Gallagher in an interview in the NME rubbished all contemporary pop artists, reserving his praise for Charlotte Church alone: "She could be the next Liam. She's got a great voice and she fucking has it." Church has become the nation's sweetheart for that part of the nation which places supreme importance on going out and having a good time.

Her supposed excesses chronicled in the press in recent years - drinking, smoking, unsuitable boyfriends - amount to little more than normal behaviour among her age group, and are far removed from the self-destructive rock star paradigm of Pete Doherty. In fact, the most striking aspect of Church's character and behaviour is its straightforward normality, given that her life for the past eight years has been neither straightforward nor normal.

Since the discovery of her precocious soprano voice at the age of 11, she has lived much of her teenage years in public. Her six albums have sold more than 10 million copies and her personal fortune is believed to be at least £6m. Her concerts have filled the Albert Hall and Cardiff Arms Park. She has performed for the late Pope, the Prince of Wales at his 50th birthday party, Nelson Mandela and Presidents Clinton and George W Bush. When Rupert Murdoch married his third wife Wendy Deng on a yacht moored off Manhattan, Church flew across the Atlantic in his private jet to sing at the ceremony.

With her first album, Voice of an Angel, she became a great success in the US and made dozens of confident appearances on the talk shows, from Letterman and Oprah downwards. "I only worked for 90 days a year, but I had to work so hard in that time. I didn't enjoy having to get up at 5am to be all smiling on Good Morning America."

The pressures of that sort of life combined with the ordinary stresses of adolescence can lead to serious problems. The Scottish singer Lena Zavaroni, who was discovered aged 10 on Hughie Green's Opportunity Knocks in 1973, led a similar existence to Church's - rocketing to instant fame, appearing at the White House, performing with Frank Sinatra - but at 19 she succumbed to anorexia from which she eventually died in 1999. Drew Barrymore, whose movie career began when she appeared in ET aged seven, has written a memoir of her own teenage alcohol and drug abuse. Mary-Kate Olsen, Macaulay Culkin and many others have suffered in a variety of ways through their precocious stardom.

Through a combination of her own level-headedness and the support of family and friends, Charlotte Church seems to have escaped most of the potential perils, though her life has not been without significant dramas.

She was born in 1986 in Llandaff, Cardiff, to working-class Catholic parents. Her mother Maria was a housing officer. Soon after Church's birth, her father, Stephen Reed, left home and all contact between him and his daughter ceased. Maria married James Church in 1989 and in 1999 he formally adopted Charlotte.

All of her family were musical and extrovert: her parents' taste tended towards classical music, while her grandfather regaled her with show tunes. The desire to perform emerged early. "When I was three and a half, I sang 'Ghostbusters' with my cousin at a seaside holiday camp in Caernarfon," she remembers. "When we'd finished, she left the stage but I refused to go. They had to drag me off!"

The quality of her voice was recognised when she sang in the choir at the Cathedral School in Cardiff to which she had won a scholarship, and from the age of nine she was taking private singing lessons.

The fairy-tale moment of her public recognition came on Jonathan Ross's Big Big Talent Show in 1998. She was there to introduce her aunt Caroline's performance, but when asked to sing herself, she stood up, asked for a C from the orchestra and sang a few lines from Pie Jesu from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem. The audience in the studio and at home was electrified. The voice they heard was powerful, pure and controlled, and a strikingly mature one to emerge from the slight frame of the cheerful 11-year-old. Her aunt recalls that "everyone forgot to watch my act".

The show's producer, Nigel Lythgoe, was so impressed that he put her in touch with the Cardiff-based agent Jonathan Shalit. He in turn arranged a meeting with Paul Burger, the chairman of Sony Music UK, who said that Church's voice "completely blew my socks off".

Voice of an Angel, her debut album, took her into Guinness World Records as the youngest female solo artist to reach the top 40 and sold more than two million copies worldwide. Naturally it topped the classical charts.

The success of the Three Tenors concerts and albums seemed to show that there was a serious market for crossover classical music and the classical recording labels were eager to exploit any talent that could break the confines of the genre.

To Jonathan Ross Church had said her great love was opera, and her early albums did consist of opera arias (quietly rearranged for her range), sacred songs, Christmas carols and traditional pieces. To the irritation of many opera lovers and critics, she was presented to the world as an opera singer: she declared her ambition was "to sing Madame Butterfly at La Scala and get a standing ovation".

Operatic prodigies do occasionally appear, but they do not follow Church's path. The great Victorian star Adelina Patti, for instance, sang in concerts in the US from the age of seven to 12 but was then removed from the public gaze for four years. More recently, the American Beverly Sills made her professional singing debut at the age of three on a radio commercial and four years later had memorised, in phonetic Italian, 22 arias. But even Sills - the most ebullient and irrepressible of prima donnas - was shut up through her early teens.

In recent years it became increasingly clear that opera was not her intended future. Her later albums added pop, swing and Broadway songs to her classical repertoire and she sang the title song on the film A Beautiful Mind when Celine Dion proved unavailable. In 2000 she sacked her manager Jonathan Shalit and replaced him with her mother.

Shalit sued, and in court revealed details of Maria Church's taste for the high life and the existence of the CCC - the Charlotte Church Compromise - a sweetener of money, gifts or travel which the singer insisted on for her co-operation. He eventually received a £2m out-of-court settlement. Two years later she sacked her parents from her management team after disagreements over her then boyfriend, DJ Steven Johnson, although she did say that "My mother did an amazing job in matters of my career, and, of course, has always been a terrific mother".

The problem for her career at this point was: if she was going to move into pop music would she be able to replace her middle-aged crossover audience with a teenage one? More particularly, could she replace her image as a pre-pubescent angel with something that would appeal to her own generation?

To that end, the publicity over the past three years has been invaluable. The stories of underage drinking, unsuitable boy-friends (who would later sell kiss-and-tell stories to the sleazy Sundays), swearing like a trooper and being banned from Cardiff nightclubs all helped to rebrand the angel as a rock'n'roll rebel.

The recent enthusiastic endorsement from Liam Gallagher would suggest that this campaign has been successful. While there was some suggestion that her hell-raising days were behind her, now that she was settled with her boyfriend Gavin Henson, the Welsh international rugby star, the latest gossip has the couple at odds and Charlotte back to her drinking and partying ways.

The fruit of her rebranding, Tissues and Issues, was released in July. Church assembled an A-list team of co-writers and producers to create and buff her first pure pop album. It charted at number five in the UK charts and her single, "Crazy Chick", reached number two, but the critical response was disappointing. The general view was that there were too many bland ballads and that it was a hotchpotch of styles.

Andy Gill in The Independent observed that its "lack of compelling character seems to reflect a corresponding lack of musical curiosity. She might make a big noise about being a 'crazy chick' on the lead-off single, but she's nothing of the sort. Feisty Chick, maybe, but as far as crazy goes there's no trace of even the mildest eccentricity".

So Church's first venture into pop seems to have gone off at half-cock. But as Church likes to observe when the press refer to her and Henson as the Welsh Posh and Becks, "I can sing!" In a world of pop micro-talents assembled in the studio, she certainly can. And she also has the confidence and strength of personality to keep going till she gets it right. And the popular press will be with her every step of the way.

A Life in Brief

BORN 21 February 1986.

FAMILY Maria and James Church (stepfather). She lives close to her parents in Cardiff. Her boyfriend is Gavin Henson, the Welsh international rugby player.

EDUCATION Cathedral School, Llandaff; Howell's School, Llandaff.

CAREER Discovered on Jonathan Ross's Big Big Talent Show in 1998. Her debut album Voice of an Angel brought her worldwide fame and sold more than two million copies. A further four albums have sold eight million copies, and she recently produced her first pure pop album, Tissues and Issues.

SHE SAYS "If my album doesn't sell it's not the end of the world. If Sony dropped me I could always fund my own records. I'm always going to sing in some way. Because that's what I do and that's what I love."

THEY SAY "It's Charlotte Church for me, man. She could be the next Liam. She's got a great voice, she knows how to get fucking hammered and she freaks people out." Liam Gallagher