Charlotte Church: Congratulations! A starlet reaches the age of excess

She's 18 today, she's beautiful, and she has £16m burning a hole in her designer pocket. Is Charlotte Church ready for all that responsibility? Cahal Milmo reports on a coming of age that's driven the gossip columnists wild

At first glance the Church Hotel on Cathedral Road in Cardiff might not appear a natural choice as a venue for the 18th birthday of a superstar who counts the Pope and the Darkness among her admirers.

With a double room costing about £45 a night and haute cuisine consisting of bacon, egg, sausage, fried mushrooms and baked beans, the guest house lends itself more to use as a pit stop for visiting rugby teams and insurance salesmen than an invitation list said to include Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake.

But this ordinary Victorian B&B will cease to be anything of the sort when the daughter of its owners steps across the threshold today as a sassy, smoking 18-year-old and £16m-richer Charlotte Church.

For the soprano, who was singing for presidents and prelates at 11 and had sold 750,000 CDs within four months of the release of her first album a year later, it is a coming of age that brings with it more entitlements and responsibilities than the usual milestones of being able to buy cocktails in a bar and tick a box on a ballot paper.

After months of negotiation through her lawyers, she today gains control of the trust fund set up five years ago to manage the millions made from her pre-pubescent career as the embodiment of musical innocence.

The money, which she had originally not been due to receive before she was 21, is thought to amount to at least £16m, but estimates of her wealth have reached £20m, making Ms Church the country's richest teenager in terms of wealth earned from her own labours.

Stories abound about how Charlotte is set to embark on a lottery winner-style spending spree, with a shopping list said to include a mansion in fashionable Primrose Hill, London, a holiday home on St Lucia and the entire stock of designer stores such as Prada and Gucci on Bond Street. However, in an interview yesterday she put a single item at the top of that list: "A £1m ruby-studded bra."

This extravagant gesture is in line with what the Welsh pocket diva said last week: "I want to live life to the full. There's no point leaving millions. I want to spend a lot of it while I'm still alive."

Gone, it seems, is the giggly teen-ager with an iron grip on her finances, who once said: "Every time I have a tax bill, my mum says this is how much this one is, this is the estimate for the next one. I go to all the trust meetings."

Sadly for the gossip pages waiting avidly for a bout of financial self- destruction, the reality - ruby-studded bra aside - is likely to be more restrained. Speaking in an interview for GMTV she laughed off suggestions that she would move to a Caribbean hideaway, insisting she preferred to stay in her home city of Cardiff.

Insiders insisted that although she now has control of the trust, it still exists and the money directly at Church's disposal this weekend will consist not of millions but a modest increase in her weekly allowance. Reinforcing her prudent side, Church insisted that the money she has earned since she started releasing records at 11 would remain in her trust fund, but that she could gain access to those millions "whenever I want. But I just don't want it. I don't need a lot of money now".

It is just one contrast among the multitude that sum up the life of the singer as she completes the transition from taffeta-clad child prodigy to a young adult more likely to be seen puffing on a cigarette in a West End nightclub than wowing stadia of middle-aged fans with a mellifluous and doe-eyed 'Pie Jesu'.

The one-time child star, who has sold 10.5 million records and sung for the presidents Clinton and Bush, the Queen, Tony Blair and at Rupert Murdoch's wedding, continues to straddle two worlds: that of her native Cardiff where her parents, Maria and James, run the Church Hotel after being jettisoned from the day-to-day management of Charlotte's career; and the five-star glitzy existence of a singing commodity who comes complete with a Los Angeles manager and an autobiography.

A former friend from Church's school days told The Independent: "She's led this weird existence for so long - she hasn't had the chance to be a teenager because she was playing the Hollywood Bowl and appearing on chat shows.

"Now she's in charge of her destiny. It's up to her if she wants to be the local girl who was once famous and make a living opening supermarkets for the rest of her days or become a different sort of adult star. But I think the one thing everyone has to forget about is Charlotte the choir girl."

Publicists for Church would only say that she was planning to celebrate her birthday at a private party with close family and friends.

It is understood there will be a gathering at the Church Hotel before proceedings adjourn to swisher venues - among them Charlotte's £450,000 flat on Cardiff Bay that, until late last year, she shared with her jobless boyfriend, Steven Johnson.

The couple split in December after a stormy relationship punctuated by Johnson's alleged attempt to sell the story of their sex life to a newspaper and a falling-out between Johnson and Maria, who has dismissed him as bearing a grudge.

When the dust settles on the birthday celebrations, attended among others by Robbie Williams, who has become a kind of mentor to Church, she will have to turn her attentions to where her career - currently in abeyance as she records a new album due out in the autumn - is going next.

Jonathan Shalit, her former manager who steered her early career before being sacked in 1991 in a dispute ultimately settled in the High Court, said that he believed it is time for the singer to branch out after 18 months in the spotlight, where her love life has been exhaustively chronicled.

Mr Shalit said: "This is a girl with the world at her feet. She has a tremendous talent and she is also level-headed and sensible. She still has her roots in Cardiff but this is a time when she can take risks.

"She could get into television or films. I've heard some of the tracks from new album and they're great - much more contemporary than anything she's done before."

Representatives of the singer confirmed that she was working with songwriters far removed from the composers, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose work initially propelled her to fame.

Barbara Charone, her spokes-woman, declined to comment on suggestions that Church might instead consider going to university: "Charlotte is a talented, intelligent young woman who is following a successful career in music, something she loves.

"Her future plans revolve around finishing a new album. She's working with top songwriters, including Guy Chambers [who has worked with Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue and Diana Ross] and Gary Barlow [the former Take That singer]."

The contrast with Charlotte's early career could not be greater. Her conversion from a precocious soloist at Cardiff's Cathedral School and scion of family of performers to the most successful British classical music export for decades began in July 1997 when, aged 11, she stood up on Jonathan Ross's Big, Big Talent Show and sang 'Pie Jesu' from Lloyd Webber's Requiem.

The original intention had been that the schoolgirl would be a warm-up act for her aunt, Caroline, a regular on the Welsh cabaret circuit.

But it was Charlotte who stole the show. Within days, Mr Shalit, who saw the performance, had agreed a contract with Maria and James to act as their daughter's agent and a five-album deal with Sony Records swiftly followed. Charlotte received a £100,000 down payment with the deal.

Her debut album, Voice of an Angel, sold two million copies. Much of her success has come from America, where around two thirds of her 10.5 million CDs have been sold. She was ranked by Billboard in 2000 among the top 10 best-selling female artists, placing above Whitney Houston.

Those who witnessed the transformation point to one guiding influence behind it all - Maria.

Elisha Church, Charlotte's step- sister, who regularly saw her after Elisha's father, James, 40, left to set up home with Maria, 38, told a Channel 4 documentary on her famous relative that the household had been dedicated to the search for fame.

Elisha, 21, who is now estranged from her father and step family, said: "I think Maria did push Charlotte into a lot of things.

"I don't think Charlotte had much of a childhood. It was always dancing, singing or extra lessons. Whenever we went around she would be upstairs practising or on the piano."

The portrayal of Maria, a former council worker, as the svengali behind the angel was completed in 2000 when Mr Shalit told the High Court in London that Maria was a "fiery and emotional" woman whose main aim was the "pursuit and retention of money".

Charlotte herself appeared to have had enough of her mother's influence two years ago when she dispensed with her parents as her managers and refused to accept Maria's disapproval of her relationship with Johnson.

Asked once whether she wanted to be free from her parents' influence, she said: "All the time. We have completely opposing opinions. Teenagers and parents don't get on anyway, and being with them 24/7 you just feel, 'Get out of my face, I can't stand you'."

More recently, however, Maria's detractors have sought to be more generous since she devoted herself to running a guest house rather than her daughter's career.

Mr Shalit, who won a reported £2m out of court settlement in 2000, said without a hint of irony yesterday: "She was determined to get the best for her daughter at all costs. I think Charlotte's mother deserves admiration for that - her daughter hasn't gone off the rails. She has done a great job."

The prurient fascination with Ms Church's transition between the star who fully recognised the usefulness of childhood as a refuge from fame - her comments criticising New York firefighters after 11 September were put down to her youth - and young woman with a succession of boyfriends continues unabated.

Here, after all, is the girl whose 16th birthday was marked by an unofficial website counting down the number of days until she became "legal". On the day she turned 16, she was named Rear of the Year, a move dubbed "unsavoury" by MPs.

Record company executives admit to concern that the factors which compelled millions to buy the records of a schoolgirl whose voice was not even ranked among the best of her age group will not be transferred to the woman who likes it to be known that she still goes to her grandmother's house for Sunday lunch every week.

One senior executive said: "There will be considerable nerves that the new Charlotte is not going to sell anything like the numbers she once did."

Or as the girl herself once put it: "My appeal was that I had an innocence lacking in this industry. I'm growing up - I can't help whether my audience follows."

Hey! Little big spenders

Recent history is littered with tales of starlets who earned more as children than most of us earn in our lifetimes. Few have managed the transition to adulthood without pain. Macaulay Culkin is probably the best-known example. He was only 10 when he starred in the $300m-grossing Home Alone. Subsequent traumas included his parents' separation and their fight over custody of their children and his fortune. He married at 18, separated at 20, and is now trying to rebuild his acting career.

Jennifer Capriati won her first big tennis tournament and her first multi-million dollar endorsement contract before she was 14. In her later teens she was arrested twice, for shoplifting and for possession of marijuana. But she staged a comeback, winning the Australian Open in 2001 when she was 25.

Other child prodigies who have struggled with success include Mark Lester, star of the Oscar-winning Oliver! (1968), who turned to drugs before he was 18; Linda Blair, who starred in the 1973 hit The Exorcist when she was 14, then succumbed to drugs and posed for pornographic magazines; and Drew Barrymore, who appeared as the cherubic Gertie in E.T. when she was seven, sank into a drink-and-drugs hell, went through rehab, published a redemptive autobiography and was starting anew by the time she was 13.

Today, there are several gifted youngsters who face similar pressures. Admirers of Wayne Rooney, who made his Premiership debut at 16 and played for England at 17, are watching anxiously to see if he can cope with the independence and increased salary - £13,000 a week - that followed his 18th birthday last November. (He marked his coming of age with a celebrity party at Aintree racecourse.) Daniel Radcliffe, star of the Harry Potter movies, still has more than three years to go before he turns 18, but has already amassed a fortune of about £1.75m.

But that's probably a more manageable amount than the $2.7bn inherited by Athina Roussel (Christina Onassis's daughter) on her 18th birthday last year - with another $2bn to come when she turns 21. Fears that such riches can only bring envy, family feuding and chronic litigation have, so far, proved well-founded.

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