The Deborah Ross Interview: Sophie Ellis-Bextor

School friends called her 'rhombus-face', while Robbie Williams says she looks like a satellite dish, but Sophie Ellis-Bextor has ignored all the brickbats to become pop's latest pin-up. So it's lucky she decided not to become an actress after all...
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The Independent Online

Oh, dear. I'm not, I admit, best equipped to meet Sophie Ellis-Bextor, the newest "pop diva" and "chart sensation". In our house, we're either too old for pop (I've lately taken to favouring trousers with elasticised waists and listening to Radio 2), or too young. ("Who is Eileen Minogue?" my nine-year-old son asked recently.) So I put on Sophie's debut album, Read My Lips, which includes her latest single, "Murder On The Dance Floor", expecting little more than having to suffer it for whatever cruel length of time it takes me away from Abba and Jimmy Young, but – and here's a thing – I like it! I listen to it twice straight off, and then again later. It has proper tunes and proper lyrics, and her voice! She has a dazzlingly distinctive singing voice. Now, I'm not saying that I'm going to ditch the elasticised trousers. They're jolly comfy. They're good for eating in. But it's a start, no?

We meet at a London hotel. She is 22, and divinely and unusually beautiful. Sort of Audrey Hepburn-ish via the oriental angularity of, say, Vanessa Mae, and maybe a clean, shiny, newly minted 50p piece. She has a lot of edges going on, and was even called "rhombus-face" at school. (Private school, where the pupils presumably knew what a rhombus was.) Quite a lot has been made of the fact she's very middle-class, plus the daughter of the former Blue Peter presenter, Janet Ellis. Sophie, though, only went on the show twice. "Once to model a snood, and another time to model a dress made out of dustbin liners, with little yellow bows on it." Obviously, she's a lot more sartorially cool now.

Still, that said – and even though she beat Posh to the number one spot last year – she has yet to acquire any particularly Posh habits. She doesn't, she says, have the courage for Prada or Gucci yet. Or the inclination, even. She's not, she continues, terribly good at looking after clothes. "Even if a skirt is £200 rather than £20, it's still going to end up dumped on the floor." She likes Top Shop. "Top Shop's the best." And Hennes. "Hennes is very good."

Today, she is wearing a little black Top Shop dress with a short-sleeved Hennes jumper over it. Still, she has that thing that means she can make Top Shop and Hennes look like Gucci and Prada. (Tragically, I tend to have the reverse effect.) She went to Top Shop yesterday, as it happens, but now has to take quite a few of the things back. "I had an hour and did a power shop." Power shop? "Bought things without trying them on, and some of them don't fit."

She lives in Swiss Cottage, north London, with her DJ boyfriend Andy Bond. Do you ever hide your purchases from him? "No. He understands I like clothes. I do knock a tenner off the price sometimes, though." Sophie, look me in the eye. Just a tenner? "Ehem... and sometimes a bit more than a tenner."

I must say I fear that once we've done with Top Shop, that'll be it. What will we talk about? Abba? Jimmy Young? Daytime telly and my own particular favourite, Watercolour Challenge? But, blissfully, she's terribly bright. And literate. She read a lot as a child and still reads a lot now. She's just finished Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Steve Martin's latest novel, "which I really enjoyed". She's fond of reading cookery books, too, and has something of a pash on Nigel Slater. "He's my favourite. He appreciates that you're going to get stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan." She's quite a foodie, actually. She orders oysters for her breakfast here. There they sit, oozing and glistening and bulging in their shells. "Want one?" she asks. Not bloody likely, I say. They're much too biological for me. "I love them," she says. She's not a great cook herself, no. "I once baked a cake without flour. It was horrible."

She started writing a novel herself not so long ago, and writes most of her own music and lyrics. She started writing lyrics at 13, 14. They were "dire", she says. An example? "The kamikaze part of me is dying to be with you," she quotes. Oh, I say. "I was trying to understand my mortality at the time," she explains. Whatever, she's got where she is entirely under her own steam, without the cynical engine of, say, a TV audition show backed up by a major marketing machine going at full throttle. You have to admire her for that, surely. Plus... and here's the best bit... she loves daytime telly, too! And Watercolour Challenge, although not as much as Bargain Hunt. "I sometimes delay leaving the house for Bargain Hunt," she says. I try to put a word in for Watercolour Challenge. I say one of the things I most love about it is the host, Hannah Gordon, who you just know is wearing sensible shoes, even though they're never in shot. "And sensible slacks," adds Sophie. "Probably elasticised," I add, trying to look disgusted. Sadly, though, Sophie isn't with me when it comes to Pet Rescue because "I'm not really into animal things".

Now, back to Sophie's story. Was, I ask, Blue Peter a major thing when she was growing up? Not especially, she says. Although once she came home for lunch and found her mum and Nerys Hughes filming a cookery item in their kitchen. She wasn't intimidated, though. Or star-struck. "I just pushed her out the way saying: 'Excuse me, Nerys. I'm trying to get to the tuna'." Her father, Robin Bextor, is a TV producer who now works for Prince Edward's television company. Robin and Janet split up when Sophie was just three, but quickly remarried other people, so now Sophie has lots of half-brothers and -sisters whom she adores. She attended a fee-paying girls school in west London. Originally, she wanted to be an actress, but discovered she was crap at it. "I kept corpsing." She thought about singing instead. She'd always been mad for pop, in quite a snobbish way. "I was never into Stock Aitken Waterman stuff or Take That." She was more Soft Cell and the Verve.

At 17, while doing her A-levels, she became lead vocalist with an indie band, theaudience, who were critically successful but never commercially so. Still, Sophie had a good time trying to blag freebies from top designers. "I pretended to be my own manager, called myself Anna, and would phone them up saying: 'Would you like to send some things for Sophie?'" Estée Lauder was the best. Estée Lauder sent her a load of creams. "So I phoned them back, as Sophie, to thank them, and do you know what they said?" You sound like Anna? "No, they said that it's the first time a singer has ever phoned personally to say thank you."

Sophie still uses Estée Lauder, "particularly the cleanser". Sophie has beautiful skin. It's like porcelain. I wish I had skin like Sophie's. I wish I, Deborah Ross, who has flatteringly mentioned Estée Lauder quite a lot in this article, could be sent a load of free Estée Lauder stuff. Perhaps I'll get my manager to ring them tomorrow. Spookily, she sounds quite a lot like me.

Anyway, when theaudience folded, as it did, Sophie was left at something of a loose end. But then the cult Italian DJ Spiller put together a disco-ish, instrumental track that he sent to Sophie, asking if she'd do the vocals. She played it and disliked it. Then she played it again and again and it grew on her. Finally, she and Spiller produced "Groovejet (If This Ain't Love)", which became the dancefloor anthem of Summer 2000, and a number one. Yes, it was Posh vs Bex, and Bex won. What was your mum's reaction when she heard you were number one? "She cried." And yours? "I felt a bit sick."

I wonder if Sophie feels like a pop star now? "I didn't last year. But I do a bit more this year, although it's all rather tongue-in-cheek." Have you, Sophie, started acting like a pop star yet? Have you started demanding white muslin in your dressing-room and an obscure make of mineral water? "I haven't, but I am getting more confident. I do have the confidence to say 'no' to things now." She said 'no' when she was asked to tour with Robbie Williams. She just didn't fancy it. He, though, didn't take the rejection too well, and later described her face as looking like "a satellite dish". This, it must be said, is not only unkind, but also untrue. Obviously, Robbie didn't go to a private school and doesn't know what a rhombus is. Still, let's not get into all that. Or, as Sophie sensibly says: "I'm not going to say anything about it."

Whatever, it's time for her to go. Another interview, then a dash to Top Shop at Oxford Circus to take all those things back. I wish her all the best. I'm quite pleased it's all over, though. Have I embarrassed myself? Not too much, I hope. I give a sigh of relief. A big one. This, by the way, is also something you can do comfortably in elasticised trousers. In fact, now I think about it, there may be no end to their advantages...

'Murder On The Dance Floor' is released on Polydor today

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