Louise flings herself down on a chair and starts by apologising. For the (non-existent) bags under her eyes, for the lack of make-up, for the state of her hair. "I had to do my own hair this morning," she explains in a south-London accent, "never a good look". Her legs, now dangling over the arm of her chair, are lost somewhere within her ballooning Maharishi trousers. The cuffs on her denim jacket are turned right up, reaching to her elbow. She's so tiny that even her clothes seem to swamp her.
Yet this is the woman who was voted "Britain's Sexiest Woman Alive" by the readers of FHM magazine in 1997, and who has graced the cover of more lads' glossies than you ever knew existed. She is also the wife of the injury-prone captain of Liverpool FC, Jamie Redknapp – making the couple, in effect, a less publicity-hungry version of Posh and Becks. But today she could pass for any unremarkable-looking 14-year old. You wouldn't look twice if you saw her on the street.
This year, Louise is releasing a greatest hits album to celebrate 10 years in the music business, which in the vastly accelerated world of pop, makes her virtually geriatric. It's something of an achievement, given the rate at which the industry churns them out. But Louise, at the age of 26, is beginning to feel a little elderly.
"It does make me feel a bit old when I see so many new, young groups coming through who are aged 16 or 17," she admits. "But things have changed in the music industry in the last 10 years. It's a lot harder; people seem more critical and the industry is more flooded. I certainly wouldn't like to be starting out now."
In many ways, Louise is a text-book example of the modern pop star. Her waif-like frame, huge blue eyes and unfeasibly white teeth work like a blank canvas that can be made to look either saccharine, to appeal to the teenage market, or highly sexual, for the older one. She's also a consummate professional: she doesn't throw tantrums, touch drugs or even drink. And she never says a bad word about anyone. On footballers' wives, for example: "They're really great ladies, what people say about them isn't true. It's not all about Versace and getting their nails done every day."
Tonight she's flying to Belfast to appear on Patrick Kielty Live. "I hope I don't come across as boring," she says. "I don't like to speak bad of people, but people only like it when they get you to say bad stuff." The first single off her greatest hits is an accomplished cover of Gerry Rafferty's "Stuck in the Middle with You" and the promotional schedule for it is gruelling. But Louise is the definition of a hard-grafter – the kind today's record companies adore.
It's a role for which Louise has been reared over a decade. She was just 15 when she was "spotted" in the West End's now-defunct Milk Bar night club. She signed her first deal at 16, as part of R&B quartet Eternal – an all girl group which drew up the blueprint for the Spice Girls. "We were one of the first girl bands to go out there wearing combat trousers and trainers. Plus we were a multi-racial group; 10 years ago there weren't many of those around." They had six Top Ten hits, and a platinum-selling debut album. Then at the very peak of their success, Louise walked out.
"I kick myself for not being a stronger person in the group," she says wistfully. "Eternal was a great band to be in. I think I totally misunderstood how lucky I was for success to come that easily. What I would do for that sort of success now."
Recently there has been speculation that Louise's career is in nosedive. Reports that her third solo album, Elbow Beach, has failed to reach expected sales figures were followed up by stories that she had been dumped by her record company, EMI. "I signed a five album deal and the new release means that I have completed the contract," she says. But Louise still gets genuinely hurt by her critics. "The other day I switched on the TV to hear someone say, 'Will this be the song to get Louise out of the gutter?' That's such a hard word to use. When someone slates you, that's the stuff that stays with you. The good stuff lasts for about five minutes."
In fact, to say that Louise and her husband have had a run of bad luck recently might be something of an understatement. First, there was Jamie's persistent knee injury, every young footballer's worst nightmare. "It was devastating," says Louise. "I know exactly how I would feel if someone had phoned me up and said your voice has gone, you won't be able to sing for a year." Although Jamie made his comeback last Saturday, the injury has kept him out of the game for what could have been his best year in football. Then there were the hiccups in Louise's own career. The final straw, perhaps, was when the couple was burgled. Someone broke into their converted barn on the Wirral while they were on a rare night out. "It was awful," she says. "It's taken me a long time to be able to sleep properly at night. The weird thing was they didn't really take much, they just messed everything up. I found it the biggest intrusion into mine and Jamie's life ever."
Louise was born in Lewisham, to a mother who works part time at Gatwick Airport and a father, "a big burly skinhead" who works as a builder. She went to the local comprehensive and three times a week Louise attended dancing and singing lessons. It was her headmistress who suggested that she should try out for stage school.
"The only stage school I knew was Fame from the TV – my parents could never have afforded to send me to a real one." She tried out for a scholarship. "I'd never been to an audition in my life. There were loads of kids all there all hanging around with their sheet music doing 'Annie's Song'. I just went in there and sang along to a CD of 'I will Survive' by Gloria Gaynor." The letter, telling her she had won a scholarship to the Italia Conti school came through on her eleventh birthday. "It was a huge shock," she says. "At the time I was totally oblivious to everything people say about stage schools. I was never great academically. I just saw it as a great opportunity. This was my chance."
It was Robbie Williams who introduced her to her future husband when they both attended his concert in Milan. Jamie and Louise were friends for years before they married. Now they share their home with a five-stone bulldog called Winston. "I'm a very independent lady. I go to work, I earn my own money but there's nothing I enjoy more than making the beds, sorting the washing out and running my house. The first thing Jamie says when I come in is, 'All right babe, what we got for dinner?' I enjoy both aspects equally. I don't think there's anything wrong in that."
It comes as something of a surprise to hear that after all this time, Louise has still not made it to number one. Her highest charting single, was "2-Faced", taken from Elbow Beach, which reached number three despite the album's failure to sell. "I don't get depressed about my future because my future is already there," she says. "That's Jamie, and hopefully one day a family. But sometimes I panic about my career. This is all I've ever known, I just think: is everything going to be all right? The day is going to come when people don't buy my records any more and you're going to feel like a failure aren't you? You could have sold millions of albums but the day it stops you're going to feel like a failure. That part scares me."
But such a seasoned professional isn't going to let herself get caught unawares and already she's preparing for a life beyond pop. She's been branching out into TV work, popping up alongside Ant and Dec on Saturday morning's SM:TV. She's also learning photography and hopes one day to own a production company and maybe direct videos.
She offers me a lift to the station in Jamie's monster BMW X5. A pair of his football socks is knocking around on a dashboard that has more controls than a fighter plane. Apparently it took her five attempts to pass her driving test. Perhaps she was using the wrong car; swallowed up in the leather upholstery she looks like a child playing in a tank.
"I'm going to keep my career going for as long as I can," she concludes. "I don't think I've had that ultimate album yet. I'm 26 – surely I don't have to finish at 26? I'm not old, I'm just warming up. I can't give up, not until I've had that number one."
'Stuck in the Middle with You' is out on 27 August on EMI. 'Changing Faces (The Best of Louise)' is out on 10 SeptemberReuse content