Sister doing it for herself

I THINK I’m the first woman to do FHM not in a skimpy bikini," beams Natasha Bedingfield, obviously proud that she has managed to pull off an appearance in the UK’s biggest-selling men’s magazine without going down to her underwear, which is usually the deal for sexy women with product to shift.

But of course they wanted her in there, even if it had to be in a polo-neck. Not only is she 23 and beautiful (rap star Eamon was apparently so smitten at a recent awards ceremony that he blushed every time she walked past) but she’s the hottest property in British pop this year: her debut album, Unwritten, has already gone double-platinum, she has had a number-one single, ‘These Words’, that made it on to the Record of the Year show, and top-ten hits all over Europe, Australia and her parents’ homeland of New Zealand (her grandfather couldn’t wait to text her to say that everyone there knew who she was). She even beat boy band McFly to the Hot New Talent prize at the recent Smash Hits poll-winners’ party - a playing field usually loaded in favour of male stars, since the vote is mainly cast by teenage girls.

But more important than any of this, she has also just signed a million-pound contract in the US, and industry insiders have voted her the Brit most likely to succeed where even Robbie has failed. And, as is the way with Bedingfield, she seems quite confident of success Stateside: she compares the breaking of America by British artists to a coconut shy: although most are going to miss, someone is going to score sooner or later - and it might just as well be her.

"I know it looks like it’s all glamour all of a sudden," she says of the way her life has been transformed in the space of just a year. "But there’s a lot that has been going on behind the scenes. I don’t think you win the lottery and become a long-term artist. Those who do win the lottery lose it not long after." By the lottery, she is no doubt referring to TV talent-show winners who seem to get careers handed to them on a plate - although Will Young and Girls Aloud don’t seem to be making too bad a job of managing their winnings. Her point is that her "instant success" has been a long time in the making.

"I’ve been working on this for quite a few years," she continues, with a little laugh to make it clear that "quite a few years" actually means a hell of a lot of years, slaving over her journals, where she writes ideas for lyrics, or the iBook that her brother Daniel bought her to work on. "Writing, writing, writing. It was only when I signed that it all started to go very quickly."

The fact that Bedingfield has been working with writers who usually collaborate with the likes of Williams, Madonna and Britney Spears shows just how much faith her record company, BMG, has had in her, making her its highest priority since Dido - who, let’s not forget, went on to become the biggest-selling female singer in the world. The record company also stumped up the advance - not only for stylists, photographers and the small army of professionals required for the launching of a major recording career - but for Natasha to spend six months recording her debut album between Los Angeles and London, with producers Andy Frampton, Steve Kipner and Mike Stent, who between them have the likes of Christina Aguilera, Janet Jackson, U2 and Bjrk on their CVs.

However cynical you might want to be about this major investment in a pretty blonde female singer who won’t even get her belly button out for the lads, it can’t be wholly because of her brother, Daniel, the biggest-selling British singer last year, that she’s getting this sort of attention. "Some interviewers have been saying that," she admits of the Daniel effect.

Indeed the focus on their relationship was never so intense as when, almost a year ago, Daniel broke his neck when he crashed his Jeep Cheroke while they were on a family holiday in New Zealand. With ten fractures in his vertebrae, no one was sure he would walk again let alone survive; he was later told that 90% of similar injuries are fatal. To aid his recovery, Daniel was forced to wear a metal cage with a halo screwed into his skull. Not surprisingly, due to his fame, the whole scenario was played out in the papers. "We are all so thankful that Daniel is still here with us," recalls his sister. "His car accident was one of the scariest things we’ve had to deal with. We didn’t know if he’d pull through. Seeing him lying there in the hospital bed, slipping in and out of consciousness, was terrible. It was devastating."

The pair - Daniel refers to them as almost "telepathically linked" - have now become the only siblings in British recording history to have had number-one hits, and are being begged by the Brit Awards organisers to perform a duet at next year’s show. "But I don’t see why it would be a problem being his sister. I don’t think it’s going to be a hindrance.

"He has helped me in that he has given me lots of advice. And, as a sister, I’ve seen the pitfalls and the negative sides, so I know what I’m getting into. But he has purposely backed away and let me do my own thing, so hopefully no one thinks I’m riding on his coat tails. Obviously, I’ve got similar influences but I have been writing songs my whole life."

Her musical influences are diverse - anything from Lauryn Hill through the Black Eyed Peas to Keane, though there’s a very strong soul connection. But the influences she actually refers to are what have picked the siblings out from the rest of the pop pack, and not always in a good way. Daniel is loved and loathed in equal measure, even inside the industry, which may have something to do with the attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder he has to cope with, a condition that can make him come across as over-intense or even eccentric. He recently dedicated a song called ‘Sorry’ from his new album to Natasha, to apologise for the tantrums and hyperactivity she has had to put up with: the lyrics contain the admission that it’s hard to say sorry when you know the problem has not gone away.

The children of a couple of trained counsellors, the Bedingfields (there are four children: two younger siblings, Joshua and Nikola, are still in their teens) were brought up in Lewisham, a down-at-heel area of south-east London. They grew up in a house that was always filled with music, both home-made and from various stereo systems - so much so, in fact, that bedroom recording artist Daniel would have to shout down the stairs to get everyone to shut up so he could lay down his vocals.

It was a strict Christian family with very definite views on personal morality, something that has left Natasha and Daniel with beliefs that sit uncomfortably with their pop contemporaries and the pervasive atmosphere of sex that has always run through the music industry.

Natasha walks the line: in the video for her first hit, ‘Single’, she may have done a lot of hair tossing, but she avoided giving the highly sexualised looks to camera most sexy young singers would be expected to manufacture. It was the same line she refused to cross for FHM, and it has made her something of a role model for young girls who have no desire to walk around in clothes more suited to a strip lounge than a school playground.

"I’ve had a great upbringing," says Natasha of her Lewisham days. "Whatever my parents have said, they’ve said it with love. Sometimes, when parents are trying to teach their kids something, just sensible things about how to live life, they forget to explain how it makes sense. But my parents did."

The result is a young woman with sexual mores out of step with the current moral climate. When you ask if she would ever kiss a boy on a crazy night out, she actually says, "I’d rather fall in love first and then kiss after." Which means she must have kissed about one, maybe two boys in her entire life, something that doesn’t sound feasible even for a strictly upstanding girl like Natasha.

"Oh, hang on," she says, reconsidering. "Falling in love... Yeah, obviously it takes a while to fall in love, so that’s not true. But I don’t want to give guys the wrong impression, so I’m very careful in a relationship that I don’t lead them on. I’m quite up-front about what my feelings are, and I wouldn’t want to give them any messages if I wasn’t in love with them, you know."

She has been quoted as saying that she’s open to dating when the right man comes along, and has hinted that the right man might have something of Orlando Bloom or maybe Heath Ledger about him. But when you ask about what kind of man that right man would be, she doesn’t mention anything about black curly hair, Aussie charm or Hollywood good looks. "I like people who shine inside," she says, like a true spiritual Bedingfield. "That’s what makes the outside look good. Someone who is interested in life and learning, and who doesn’t take himself too seriously."

But would he have to be a Christian, or would she consider going out with a heathen? She thinks for a moment. "Not necessarily, but I basically think that you want to go out with someone who sees life as you do and who has similar values and who can understand your spirituality. Those are the values I look for. As a Christian, I obviously think getting married is quite important. I really believe in family, and I think that a lot of people don’t know what marriage means any more and get divorced straight away. I would never get married if I didn’t intend to spend the rest of my life with that person."

But that doesn’t mean Natasha is no fun. Like any 23-year-old, she apparently enjoys a night out on the tiles with the girls. It’s just that you’re not likely to catch her taking part in any booze-type activities: being piggy-backed down the street high on alcopops with her skirt hitched up round her waist while looking for a snog.

"I go out with my mates a lot," she says when I suggest she might just be a little bit of a square bear. "I’ve got one song that’s called ‘I’m a Bomb’, and it’s about being good all week and deserving to go out and have some fun at the weekend. But I don’t drink, because I can have a fun time without it. And I can’t handle it. I try to stay quite safe. I normally know what I’m doing. I completely party myself out, but I’ve never woken up and not known where I was. If you couldn’t remember what your 21st birthday was like... it’s not worth it, really."

The mates she goes out with are mates she has always had, not upgraded showbiz pals, and to an extent she relies on them to keep her grounded as her professional life skyrockets.

As an 18-year-old, Natasha, like the rest of her friends, enrolled at Greenwich University in south-east London. She wanted to study psychology, no doubt influenced by her parents, but found that her attention was not on the round of lectures, Student Union events, boys and part-time jobs. "I was doing the music at the time," she says, explaining that she stuck at that psychology course for a year before quitting.

"Music was what I wanted to do, and it was taking over. It’s cool how it turned out, because I ended up getting my deal at the same time that everyone graduated. So it was kind of worth it."

Unsurprisingly, given her brother’s famous resourcefulness when it comes to DIY recording, Natasha "started doing [the music] in garages with mates who had studios". Those mates eventually helped her record demos, which she took to record companies. They obviously saw her potential - not only as a Bedingfield but as a quirky and talented writer and performer - and snapped her up.

Just months later, phase one is already complete: she’s at the top of her game in the UK, with gigs in Hyde Park and the Royal Albert Hall behind her and a major world tour coming up after a quiet Christmas with her family (she’s hoping for a sheepskin coat, but admits that she’ll probably end up buying it for herself). But with all this going on it seems a shame - bizarre, even - that she’s still single. She certainly doesn’t seem overly concerned about it, mind you, even if most of her friends are hooked up. "Because you’re available, you have more fun," she says, a little out of character. "I’m single and it’s a wonderful time. I’m loving it."

Loving it so much, in fact, that her first release was called ‘Single’, and has become an anthem for girls living their freedom to the max. "I suppose there is a positive and a negative side to being single," she says. "The song is about the positive side of it: that you can wake up in your own bed and you’re not fighting over the blanket with the guy in the bed."

But it’s not just duvet-domination that’s making Natasha’s single status something to be cherished. "For me it’s a good time to find out who you are and to feel whole as a single person," she says. It’s a refreshing message in a world where young women are pumping out songs focusing on getting a man, keeping a man, dumping a man, getting another man, with no hint that it might be desirable to have a room of one’s own.

"One of the key lines is, ‘I don’t need another half to make me whole’," says Natasha, the new poster girl for singletons nationwide. How long such a nice, talented and beautiful young woman can fend off male attention, resist doing bikini shots and maintain her single life is another question entirely. n

Natasha Bedingfield’s album, Unwritten, is out now. The single of the same name is also on release

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