Kym Marsh: 'I'm not embarrassed about being ambitious'

Kym Marsh, a single mother-of-two transformed into a pop star by a reality-TV show, was expected to fade obligingly once the hits stopped. But, she tells Johann Hari, a tough personal life is good preparation for show-business survival

From the wreckage of Hear'Say - the band created by the reality-TV show Popstars - one person has floated tenaciously to the surface and refused to drown. Kym Marsh was always the toughest of the band members, a single mum from Wigan with two kids and a come-on-then-if-you-think-you're-hard-enough attitude. She has rarely had a day's break from the tabloids since she bagged herself a celebrity husband (Jack Ryder, late of EastEnders), split up with him, was reunited with him, and came out fighting with a top 10 single called "Still Standing Tall".

As we meet, Marsh, 27, is emerging from a very rough summer. The Daily Mail - in its jihad to prevent women everywhere from smiling - launched a series of hateful attacks on Marsh at the very moment that her marriage appeared to be breaking down. The terms it uses sound like something out of the 1950s, and they reveal the many prejudices she is up against. Marsh speaks, it declares haughtily, in "less than ladylike language", and she "did nothing to help repair [her husband's] damaged male pride" after he lost his job. She works, swears and thinks for herself. She even - can you believe it? - asked Jack to look after the kids while she was the family breadwinner.

The class biases dripping from the attacks on her are just as blatant. She has an "unnerving desire to secure maximum publicity", the Mail sneered, and "she plots her career like a military operation". The Wigan girl is clearly getting ideas above her station. Compare the way the press treats Marsh with, say, Will Young's cuttings. A posh boy from the Home Counties is rewarded for his self-discipline, hard work and ambition. A working-class lass from Wigan is savaged for exactly the same qualities. When Suzanne Shaw, one of Marsh's Hear'Say colleagues, dubbed Marsh and Ryder "the council-estate version of Posh and Becks", the press could hardly contain its glee.

As we sit on a big red sofa above recording studios in London Bridge, she admits, "It is nasty. I always look at who's writing these articles, and most of the time it's women journalists writing this stuff. That's what gets me. Women fought for years to be equal, and then other women turn around and become sexist themselves. I'm always tempted to say to them, OK, who's looking after your kids, then? Mine are with my family. Where are yours?" This sounds bitter, but her tone is much more belligerent Northerner than moaning little girl.

There isn't an ounce of self-pity here. She just doesn't get why these bitches act this way. "They write as though the minute you have children you should be chained to the sink and changing nappies and just accept that your life's over. But they don't do it themselves, and nobody should have to," she continues. "Actually, when you have kids, life just begins, because you're achieving not just for yourself, but so your kids can have a better life, too. I was even more determined then, the day after I gave birth, that I was going to make something of our lives."

There is a strange dissonance between Marsh's fragile, pale features and her inner toughness. "I'm not embarrassed about being ambitious," she says. "I want to better myself and have a good life, and I'm proud of that. And you know what - if I was still on the dole, they'd beat me up for that as well." She is the first celebrity I have met who says that she doesn't care what the press says about her whom I actually believe. "Whatever I go through in my life, I know I'm going to come out the other end. It's like childbirth." She erupts with a huge, uproarious laugh that echoes around the room.

Remembering her genuinely tough life before fame seems to spur Marsh through the namby-pamby woes of celebrity life. "We didn't always have much money when I was a kid," she explains. "My dad lost his business when I was very young, we lived on estates. I've seen my parents with literally a fiver a week to put food on the table. My dad was very ill for a time. He has a terrible heart condition and we thought we'd lost him for a little while.

"And then I was pregnant at 18, so I've lived on £80 a week. It's hard when you're in that situation. When you've got two kids and you're living in rented accommodation, it's hard to get out of the rut. I remember me and my sister sharing bags of nappies because we couldn't afford to buy a whole one for ourselves. I've lived without it and I know I can survive without it. So when people are bad-mouthing me, I know I've taken more than that. I love my life now. I have a great job, great kids and I'm doing what I've always wanted to do. The rest is just a distraction."

Her new album, Standing Tall, has been carefully written (partly by Marsh herself) to reflect this defiant optimism. It's not great - it's a strange mixture of melancholy tunes and up-beat aspirational messages - but it has some good tracks, especially the title number. I would have liked it to capture more of Marsh's sense of humour, though. She views most of the press hysteria surrounding her, for example, as hilarious. The day we meet, the Daily Star has pictures of Marsh leaving a nightclub with a big, butch bloke it describes as "her stylist", dropping hints that this is another man on her radar. The vast laugh erupts again. "The last time I looked, my stylist had breasts. That's my brother in the picture. He's got that face on because there were about 12 paparazzi when we came out the club, and he's got a look that says, 'Come near and I'll 'ave you.' He's had phone calls all day from his mates laughing saying [she adopts a strong Lancashire accent], 'Stylist now, are yer?' I feel like, well, I've been accused of everything else, why not incest?"

There is a serious downside, though. "The thing that I hate is when people discuss my relationship with my kids," she says, her tone changing. "The press know nothing about it. Nothing. I have such a close relationship with my children. I'm safe in the knowledge of that. But my son's eight now, and he's getting to that age when he's starting to want to look at the newspapers. I don't want him to see this stuff."

She laughs off the harshest of the press allegations, though: that she married Jack because he was an EastEnders celeb and is now in the process of dumping him because his star has been extinguished since he quit the show. "For God's sake. I can understand that you might be pictured around town with somebody to get yer name in the papers, but who's going to get married for the fame? Do they think I sit here thinking," she adopts evil cartoon-character voice, "'Mwahah-hah, I will ensnare him in my devious web so we can be in Hello!'? Do they think I'm mental?"

Yet it seems that Marsh is that rarest of things: somebody who has emerged genuinely better off from participating in a reality-TV show. Some of the other members of Hear'Say (whom Elton John dubbed "the ugliest band ever") don't seem to have fared so well. Noel, the chirpy Welsh one, said recently, "Hear'Say was a machine and we were surrounded by an entourage that didn't allow you to think for yourself." He is reported as having suffered from clinical depression after the trauma of sudden fame and sudden mass public hatred.

"Some really awful things happened to the band not long after I quit," Marsh explains now. "They had bottles thrown at them on stage. Myleene got it really hard. People were always talking about her breasts and God knows what else. Someone stubbed a cigarette out on her in a club. She was getting people calling her a bitch in shops. That was horrible to see, because what did we do? We entered a competition, we won and we had a few hits."

The band members went into psychological meltdown after the tide of fame turned and drowned them. "We've all been ill from it," Marsh admits now. Myleene has described suffering a near nervous breakdown, only made worse by the tabloid glee when she began to put on weight. "When your local Chinese takeaway sends you a Christmas card, you know you've got an eating problem," she said recently. Part of the problem, Marsh believes, lies in the nature of reality-TV itself. "When you've been on a reality-TV show, people really think they know you. Even more than with a soap, people think they've seen you totally 'real' or raw. But they haven't at all. It's carefully edited. They assign you personalities and cut the footage according to the character they've picked for you - I was the gobby bitch, so they cut everything I did to seem that way."

At least Granada and Polydor - the companies behind Popstars - seem to have learnt something from the horrors of Hear'Say. "Because we were the first ones, nobody knew what was going to happen. It was all very much trial and error," Marsh says. "Now, with Girls Aloud [winners of the more recent Popstars - the Rivals], they're not putting them on everything and in everything. They're doing it a sensible way, whereas with us, it was overkill, overkill, overkill. Where could we go from there? We peaked with our first single."

The band got into a horrible trap. "In the beginning, we were doing everything because people wanted us, but towards the end, we were doing everything because people didn't want us and we wanted to get them back." Suzanne has explained, "By the end, we were all deeply unhappy, trapped in our own little individual bubbles of misery. I still haven't come to terms with what went wrong - the fact that one minute everybody loved us, and the next everyone hated us."

Marsh does have some fond memories, though. At the Royal Variety Performance, the Queen stared down Marsh's top at her cleavage. Several times. What, I ask her now, was her expression? "It was almost disgust. Maybe she was jealous - comparing mine to hers!" That huge laugh again. I get the feeling that whatever happens now, Marsh is a girl who will always come out laughing.

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