OK, I admit it. I'm scared. An interview with the Sugababes isn't something to be approached casually, given the trio's reputation as pop's most notorious mean girls. If the gossip magazines are to be believed, these über-bitches are liable to scratch your eyes out if you look at them the wrong way.
You want evidence? Just ask Siobhan Donaghy, the Sugababe-turned-solo artist who fled the band five years ago in the middle of an Australian tour and got the first plane home. She claimed that her time in the band was "terrible", and did nothing to dispel rumours that the bullying had pushed her over the edge. The stories persisted after the arrival of her replacement, the former Atomic Kitten Heidi Range. A ruck between Range and Mutya Buena snowballed into all-out war before a gig in Dublin, which was cancelled at the last minute.
And now another Sugababe bites the dust. At the end of last year, Buena, a founder member best known for her pathological inability to crack a smile, suddenly quit in the middle of promotional duties for their latest album, Taller in More Ways. She had recently had a baby, but the suddenness of her departure was still a shock. Everyone asked: did she jump or was she pushed? Had she fallen out with her childhood friend Keisha Buchanan, or had Range got her revenge?
Whatever, the new line-up - Range (23), Buchanan (21) and new girl Amelle Berrabah (22) - is putting up a relentlessly cheerful front. They grin, shake my hand and ask if I found the studio all right. Buchanan compliments me on my jacket and tells me she's been looking for one just like it. I'm now more nervous than ever.
Only two weeks passed between Buena's departure and Berrabah, a gorgeous brunette of English and Moroccan descent, becoming a Sugababe. Before joining, she was living above a kebab shop in Aldershot, desperately trying for a record deal. "I got a call from Mark Hargreaves [the Sugababes' manager]," she says. "He'd seen me in an audition four years ago and remembered me when Mutya left. So he asked me to put three tracks down and gave them to the girls for a listen. They liked it, and we met up."
Berrabah admits to some unease. "I'd read a few things and I thought they were going to be absolute bitches. I had a lot of fear at the start. It's just proves that you don't know anyone until you meet them because they're lovely girls and I feel settled now. I was scared about the fans as well, but everyone's been really accepting and welcoming."
Hargreaves decided they should re-record the album with Berrabah singing Buena's parts and re-shoot the packaging. In the end, Berrabah was only able to record four tracks, one being the forthcoming single "Follow Me Home". Listening to the two versions, it's hard to hear the difference; good news for Berrabah, but perhaps uncomfortable for Buena.
After sealing the deal, Berrabah quickly packed her bags and moved to London. She was put up in a hotel for six weeks, after which the band went on tour and then joined Take That for their comeback shows. Now she's got her own place. The lifestyle suits her, she says; she likes the attention and enjoys the free clothes.
Berrabah is, by all accounts, a bit of a motormouth, which is probably a good thing if she wants to hold her own. Range and Buchanan insist there was no doubt in their minds that they wanted to carry on after Buena left. Both say they had "a good feeling" about Berrabah when they listened to her vocals, an instinct that was confirmed when they met her.
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And Buena's reasons for leaving? "People thought it was because she'd had a baby, but it was nothing to do with that," Range says. "I think it was because she's been in the business since she was so young and had got to the point where she wanted to do something else. It was clear she wasn't enjoying herself anymore. It can be a tough life. I wouldn't be doing anything else, but it hasn't been the easiest of rides."
Buchanan says: "We've been through a lot, but that just makes us more determined to keep going and be successful. Amid the speculation of falling out and bullying, and all that rubbish, we've had to keep coming back and proving ourselves."
Few could have predicted the Sugababes would last so long. They've had three triple platinum albums and bagged a truckload of awards, among them Qs, Brits and Mobos. Crucial to their longevity is the quality of their music. The tone was set with their first single "Overload", as informed by R&B and hip-hop as it was fluffy pop. Similarly, their four No 1s - "Freak Like Me", "Round Round", "Hole in the Head" and "Push the Button" - appealed as much to adults as their offspring.
It's worth noting that the Sugababes were far from manufactured; the original members didn't go to stage school or meet via the back pages of a teen mag. Buena and Buchanan were friends from primary school who decided to form a band after they met Donaghy at a party. Buchanan was 14 when she signed her first record deal and 16 when the band released its first single.
Buchanan is now the only founding member left. Doesn't she long for a change herself? "Sometimes I get a little frustrated," she shrugs. "But on the whole, I view this as a team effort, and that goes from us down to our stylists, make-up artists and everyone. I'm just so proud that I've been here since the beginning and seen it all develop. That's very special, and I'm not ready to give it up."
It's possible that age has mellowed the Sugababes; that, or a hefty dose of media training. They've certainly mastered the art of saying a lot in interviews while revealing very little. When I ask how the rumours started about their fighting, Buchanan puts it down to their reluctance to smile. "I can see why people might think we're moody. In videos and photo shoots we always look miserable. I look at the early stuff and think 'Come on, Keisha, you can do it. Just smile a little!' But we got this reputation and we're stuck with it."
What of Siobhan? She said she'd had a "terrible" time. "You know what? We've never ever said anything bad about Siobhan - and we were in a position to do it," Buchanan says testily. "I say it's karma. What goes around comes around. I see us continuing to be successful after she left. As far as I'm concerned, that's good karma coming back to us because we didn't say anything bad about her. I don't worry about her. I don't think about her at all, in fact."
Word is that Buena is to launch a solo career, which rather blows holes in Range's claims that she'd grown tired of the lifestyle. Buchanan says she and Buena are still in close contact - "She's like my sister. I saw her last week" - though Range is silent about their relationship.
Range and Buchanan tell me that, despite the rumours, being in a band has taught them a lot about tolerance and working as a team. "I think I've become a better person," Buchanan says. "It's made me more accepting of people in general. I've also learnt that some things are better left unsaid."
"Plus, we know exactly what goes on between us and we know that 99 per cent of what's said about us isn't true," Range says. Glancing at her sweetly smiling face, I'm almost convinced. Almost, but not quite.
The single 'Follow Me Home' is released on Monday
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