From the dance floor to the ballroom, Sophie Ellis-Bextor has kept her cool, but she wears her heart on her sleeve when it comes to her ‘invincible’ family, finds Aidan Smith
In THE Star Bar, the rugby beefcake is contemplating the small mountain of Haribo at the sugar-rush snack-table. The hippie-haired, comedy-vote chump is speed-signing a pile of glossy annuals for the giant corporate machine. The Dragon’s Den battleaxe is chatting to the Hollyoaks hunk who’s slouched across a sofa. Indeed there’s a lot of slouching in the Star Bar, the green room of Strictly Come Dancing, and pernickity tyrant judge Craig Revel Horwood would have cause to issue a contest-wide reprimand: “Sort out your top lines, dahlings, please.” Sophie Ellis-Bextor, though, would be exempt from such criticism.
Perching on a stool, all poise and neck and bluebell-slender back, it seems obvious the 34-year-old pop singer went to a good school, one deeming posture important, even if this was an establishment where jealousy over having a famous mum – one-time Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis – was rife. But in her way, Ellis-Bextor has almost been too cool for this school, the Strictly one. Other contestants have eagerly slapped on the fake tan; Sophie has stayed pale and interesting. Other contestants have willingly stroked the cheeks of their professional partners, almost inviting us to wonder if there was Something Going On Between Them; Sophie would sometimes frustrate the judges over a perceived lack of passion, although her footwork was widely admired.
So I ask her if she’s been trying out her new steps on her husband, rock musician Richard Jones, and she says not especially, given that they already dance together a lot, and have done since first getting together. At this, her Strictly tutor, Brendan Cole, who’s been hanging around, trying to earwig, quips: “Ha! Not any more!” In her beautiful aloofness, Ellis-Bextor didn’t seem quite so desperate to win as some of her rivals. This only made us, the Strictly viewers of taste and discernment, want her to triumph all the more.
It’s the day before the final at London’s Elstree Studios and frankly I’m amazed she’s agreed to this interview. Even if that air of sangfroid is for real, we’re still just 24 hours away from the climax of a show which has taken over her life for almost three months. Oh, and that sangfroid? This time it’s just an act.
“I’m sad that Strictly is ending because it’s been brilliant,” she says. “Everyone tells me there’s a bit of a comedown when suddenly you’re not doing it anymore, so I feel like I’m about to go over a waterfall in a barrel. But saying that, I don’t think I could have carried on much longer because it’s been so nerve-wracking, really intense. I can’t quite believe I’ve been doing this for 15 weeks. And I never did find another way of approaching it apart from being absolutely petrified. That never ceased.”
There’s a giant screen in the Star Bar showing the Strictly dance floor, but today the space – setting for many a mid-career rejuvenation – is quiet. Among the slouchers, the uniform is tracky bums and puffas but Ellis-Bextor has standards to upkeep. If you’ve got legs that go on forever or even longer, like Bruce Forsyth’s jokes, and they’re the kind for which skinny jeans were invented, then that is what you should wear, in black, with vertiginous heels. Her fantastically cubist face, all planes and angles, is free of make-up, those lynx-like eyes not requiring highlighting in any case. As we know now, she didn’t win Strictly. If she’d earned the right to a show dance this would have involved her being “lowered from the ceiling on a giant disco ball – my dream come true, woo-hoo!” but in the end she came fourth. Still, there’s always the mid-career rejuvenation, which should certainly happen for her new album Wanderlust.
“It was always going to come out around now,” she says of her fifth release. “My manager talks about great serendipity, but no one knew I was going to stay in the competition so long, least of all me. There were risks in doing Strictly. I might have been rubbish. I might have been out first week. I might have looked daft and people might have laughed.” Good old Sophie, always turning out well-rounded vowels and adding letters. Her “daft” comes with an “h” in the middle, just like her “dance”, as in Murder On The Dah-ncefloor.
As luck would have it, then, a couple of tracks on Wanderlust are in waltz-time. “Yes, that was clever of me, wasn’t it?” she smiles. You’ll struggle to find any of the dance-pop with which she made her name. Instead there are string-laden ballads occasionally interrupted by moments of daftness, or indeed dah-ftness, as if a music box on a dressing-table has suddenly, wonkily, become possessed. Ellis-Bextor hasn’t quite turned into Bat For Lashes, but it turns out she was contemplating 1970s Eastern European movie soundtracks during the writing of the album with collaborator Ed Harcourt. The song Love Is A Camera – “About a woman who takes your photo and traps your soul in the picture” – comes from being brought up on Russian fairy tales and Emily Dickinson. Ellis-Bextor is quite a noise in Russia having performed in the Kremlin in full Aeroflot uniform to help celebrate the airline’s 90th birthday.
For what she wanted to say this time, a different style was required. “I love dance music but it can’t do everything. It’s great for immediacy, for hedonism. You can convey frustration, anger and lust with dance but you can’t be too reflective or wistful; it’s not so good at telling a story. Also, dance is shiny and big with great washes of production and I wanted to expose my voice on this album. I’m 34 and keen to see what else I can do and, I guess, earn my right to be relevant.”
Ellis-Bextor, then 21, burst onto the scene at the dawn of the century with Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love), an Ibiza floor-filler, a ladettes’ anthem, the single which kept the newly-solo Victoria Beckham off the No 1 spot and, following a phoney war, saw our girl crowned “the real Posh”. Ellis-Bextor attended London’s Godolphin & Latymer School, also the alma mater of Nigella Lawson, and mildly suffered at the hands of girls calling themselves The Anti-Sophie Gang. Now she’s a mother herself – to Sonny, nine, Kit, four, and Ray, 19 months – so I wonder if she worries her sons might be taunted over their mum larking about on TV, as Janet Ellis once did. “I hope they’ll be okay because I deliberately didn’t involve them in the programme. As it was, they were completely disinterested! But I’m probably glad I have boys because I don’t think boys linger on things the way girls do. At my school, there was a lot of obsessing over the perceived trappings of my life and I was seen as spoiled. But, you know, maybe I was quite annoying. Maybe I deserved coins thrown at me!” Let the records show, however, that those Godolphin horrors did not call her “Rhombus-Face”. “That still turns up in interviews, to make a joke about private schools producing a better class of bully. Total journalistic fabrication.”
I met Ellis-Bextor in 2001 and was impressed by how effortlessly she fielded questions about love and sex, marriage and divorce. No, her songs back then weren’t hymns to promiscuity. No, she hadn’t been traumatised by her parents’ split when she was four, both of them ensuring it was as painless as possible. Maybe more disturbing was her early musical education courtesy of her dad, TV producer/director Robin Bextor. “My first concert, aged eight, was Pink Floyd. Second concert – Pink Floyd. The chord changes took for ever. I remember looking at the crowd thinking ‘Oh my goodness, why is no one moving?’ It was lots of men just tapping their legs. I get the music now but, you know, my dad’s tone deaf.”
In 2001 Ellis-Bextor told me she thought her mum was cool for parachuting from 25,000ft on Blue Peter and for sporting a tattoo. She didn’t have one, no way, saying: “I don’t even like having a fringe because it’s too permanent.” She laughs when I bring this up because, as everyone who witnessed her brilliant Charleston on Strictly knows, “Family” is inked on her right arm.
Her births were dramatic – she suffered pre-eclampsia and almost died, the first two boys were born prematurely and one contracted meningitis. She’s described the five members of her family – Richard Jones is the bassist in The Feeling – as “a unit that feels invincible”. But family means everyone, including a quintet of half-siblings. “We’re all very close,” she says. “While my parents’ marriage wasn’t a success, their second marriages have both been very successful. When my mum met my stepdad she knew he was the one because she felt he was a little bit of a better person than her. When I started going out with Richard I felt the same about him.”
Here’s another old quote, I say. Oh no, she says. It’s about how she takes a long time to make friends, that she only learned to trust her assistant after the woman had worked with her for a year – “I’m just not good at quick friendships,” she affirmed. Yet within six weeks of being with Jones, both of them dating other people when they met, she fell pregnant. “Yes,” she laughs, “that added a certain comedic aspect to the relationship.” They seem to be spectacularly happy, and rarely argue. “I don’t like confrontation anyway, but I also think that kindness is such an important and yet overlooked aspect of a relationship, even if it’s just asking the other person what their day was like.” They DJ together as Mr & Mrs Jones. “Actually, we do disagree about music. He likes everything I like; I don’t like anything he does! But I reckon I’m more consistent. Hey Mickey by Toni Basil – top ten then; still there now.”
As a female pop star, also a mum, it’s incumbent on her to have a view on Miley Cyrus. “Well, I don’t have a problem with people being provocative but you’ve got to own it. There’s a look in her eye which is confusing and I’m not sure of the intention. Is she really in control? As a parent I’d say again that I’m glad my kids are all boys because girls are encouraged to put their sexuality out there. That said, I probably grew up surrounded by the same weirdness. There was The Girlie Show, Wonderbras and More magazine’s Position of the Fortnight. We also had Madonna, whom I loved. Now she really was in control.”
Ellis-Bextor has always seemed in control, of the pop at least. “When I started out I probably seemed quite snooty, but that was a calculated move. I thought I should hold something back so that in ten years, if I remained successful, people would still be finding out about me.”
Since then she’s been classified as “too knowing for pop, too pop for a grown-up audience”. It’s a category that’s not disputed but she says it doesn’t take account of the fun she’s had, having loved every minute. “Singing has been the day job since I left school. I’m so lucky because there are so many talented people who can’t say that.”
On Strictly Come Dancing, though, the icy composure deserted her and she was thrilled. “I hesitate to call it a ‘journey’ because that’s what everyone says about reality shows, but it was definitely up there with those life-changing moments and I didn’t anticipate that. The big thing I learned about myself is that I’m not as confident as I thought. Hopefully when I’m back singing on stage I’ll have more fearlessness. And hopefully I’ll have some new moves to add to my faithful routine of hands-in-the-air, wobbly spins and not being very cool.”
Sophie uncool? Impossible…