SHE starved herself to make it as a teen pop star, then comfort ate her way into a depression when the music dream turned sour. now claire richards is happy with her weight and her second shot at fame
I’m queuing at the till in my local mini-market the day before I speak to Claire Richards. As a shopping experience this can usually be described as unpredictable, which is why there’s a bouncer at the door, but suddenly a voice of such effortless purity and range comes on the sound system that the chat and banter ceases and we all fall silent, even the pre-teens whispering over whether to nick a Chupa Chup or Snickers bar. Karen Carpenter sings her timeless song about saying goodbye to love and the queue and checkout staff fall into a dwam as we let the smooth velvet of her vocals drip over us like melted Galaxy.
Next day the first question I ask Richards is when her talent was first recognised and she responds with Goodbye to Love. It’s the song she sang for her school music exam aged 11, the one that started her on the path to fame. Like Carpenter, the first celebrity anorexic, Richards has had her own well-documented battles with food and self-image but unlike Carpenter, who never recovered and died at the age of 34 (the age Richards is now), she reckons she has beaten her demons. With the Steps Reunion tour in full swing, the Steps Reunion TV show on Sky Living watched by an audience of a million and returning for two more series, a six-week stint on Lorraine, a greatest hits album that went straight to number one and a memoir published this weekend, Richards is happier than she’s ever been. However, it’s a happiness that has come at a price and this time round, she’s approaching fame differently.
“A lot’s happening for me at the moment and it’s good,” she says. “I’m trying to embrace it because I know it’s not going to last for ever. I had it all once and lost it and you can never know in this business if it will stay. It’s coming back to me now and I don’t want to waste it. Second time round I’m in control and able to take decisions about the things that I do and don’t want to do.”
Richards first realised she could really sing at 11 when she had to do a practical for a school music exam, and being unable to play an instrument decided to sing.
“I sang Karen Carpenter’s Goodbye to Love. She was an idol. My mum had a Carpenters album and I played it over and over again in my bedroom. That’s how I learnt to sing. As much as I loved Kylie, Jason, Take That, to listen to an emotive voice like hers, it breaks your heart. It’s so effortless, haunting, almost perfect. She was amazing, and it’s such a sad story.”
“After I sang the song at school, a teacher took me aside in the corridor and told me I was really talented and then I started to think that maybe I could make a living as a singer and later on started auditioning for bands. I joined one at 17, then Steps came along two years later,” she says.
As well as always singing, the teenage Richards had ambitions to be a pastry chef and spent her weekends rustling up cakes and biscuits.
“My mum was pleased because all of my friends were up to no good, but I was in the house baking.”
At that time the singer had a healthy relationship with food, but that was to go pear-shaped when the pressures of fame kicked in. Chief among her revelations in her biography All of Me, is the charting of her struggle with her weight, a topic that fascinates her fanbase and has made her prime magazine cover fodder, with 500,000 watching her Sky Slave to Food TV series.
Now happy with her size 16 curves, when she auditioned for Steps in 1997, she was 19 and a size 10. At 5ft 6in, no-one this side of Susie Orbach would ever accuse her of being overweight, yet she was told to diet if she wanted to be in the band. This she duly did, triggering a cycle of starvation, bingeing and vomiting that only stopped when she feared for the enamel on her teeth. That’s when she settled for stints of starvation, sometimes living on 500 calories a day, until the Steps bandwagon famously hit the buffers and they split up in 2001. Her marriage to Steps dancer Mark Webb also foundered and she comfort ate her way up to a size 18.
“When you want to break into the business, you’ll do anything to get in a band and I did it,” she says.
Later she dieted and exercised her way down again into a size 10 dress for her wedding to second husband, Reece Hill in 2008, her first love and former Steps publicity manager, with whom she has two children, Charlie, four, and Daisy, two. Her affair with Hill is also dealt with in the memoir, including their sexual shenanigans “anywhere and everywhere” in dressing rooms, on trains, on tour and at the Top of the Pops studios, no less. There is also the revelation that she had a liaison with Dane Bowers from boy band Another Level.
Any conversation with Richards cannot avoid the well-documented subject of her weight. Does she get sick of the media obsession with her figure?
“I do and I don’t. I get annoyed when it’s not relevant, like when we were rehearsing for the tour and the papers said I couldn’t keep up because I was the biggest. Being bigger doesn’t mean you can’t be fit. I kept up, worked the same hours as everybody else ... Also it can get tiresome when I’m doing something else and there’s a comment like, “Claire, who is bigger than she used to be ...” and it’s completely irrelevant. That’s tedious.”
“But I like it when people are positive and say thanks for the Slave to Food series because it made them realise other people were like them. I’m proud of that.”
She might be happy with her weight now, but if Richards could wake up tomorrow a size 10, would she?
“I would be lying if I said I don’t want to be smaller. Everybody aspires to be slimmer at some point in their lives. But I have stopped beating myself up about it. I’m bigger and I look better now I know how to dress.”
“It’s hard work for me to be a size 10 and there’s so much going on that to have the pressure of that and find the hours in the day to do the exercise to maintain it, I would rather spend time with my kids than go to the gym. I know people look at me and say ‘that’s unhealthy to be that size’, and I could probably do with losing a few pounds, but I’m not putting pressure on myself. If I’m size 16 at the moment, that’s fine because I look ok and look after myself, and next year if I’m a 12/14, then that’s fine too.”
Richards knows that whatever her size, her place in the reformed Steps is assured thanks to her vocal abilities. Often referred to as the one with the best voice, she bigs up the other members of the band.
“I want people to recognise that I can sing but there was never a lead singer in Steps. Although, secretly, when people say that, I enjoy it,” she is honest enough to admit.
Since reforming last year, the Steps family have buried the hatchet on the arguments and petty rivalries that saw them split up and Richards feels sanguine when she looks back on those days.
“It all happened a long time ago and I was very young. It’s easy, at nearly 35, when I have a husband and two children and responsibilities to say if that happened now I wouldn’t be bothered because those things aren’t important at all, but when you’re 19-20, they are. You’re in the centre of a bubble that nothing else penetrates and any small thing can upset you. Now when we talk about those days, we all realise that none of us knew how the others were feeling at the time.”
Today Richards is able to see the funny side of things, such as the set malfunction at the Steps Reunion Glasgow gig that saw her trapped in a clear tube as her band members emerged and burst into song without her.
“As I opened the door my tube started to go down again so I had to get out and run back up and onto the side of the stage. Luckily I came in for my cue and got a big cheer. Then there were lots of stories about me being too heavy for the trap, but that was nonsense,” she laughs. “It would be me.”
When Steps split up in 2001 Richards felt she had lost her way and sank into a depression, barely leaving the house and comfort eating, despite being married to a man who perhaps disapproved of her bulk.
“He didn’t come out and say it, but implicitly, he was a dancer and enjoyed the gym and I’d stopped working and took no exercise. I had nothing to strive for and I’m a person who needs that kind of goal,” she says.
Richards happily admits that the life of a pop star, on tour and being managed every hour of the day, had left her unprepared for life afterwards.
“Until I left the band, I had no experience of real life. From the age of 17 to 25 I was in the music industry and had someone to organise my life. Then it stopped. I ended up sitting around wasting time and getting fat. I wanted to do a solo album and was talking about doing that, but I fell out with my management and it didn’t happen,” she says.
“A lot of things happened in that period of time and I’m a much stronger person now, with a stronger personality. I thought, life’s too short to waste not doing the things you want to do and not making the most of it, so I pulled myself out of it.”
Life on the road was every teenager’s dream yet Richards says she retained a down-to-earth mentality that kept her feet on the ground.
“I hate to waste money. We were always quite sensible. I was extravagant with clothes, though. H [Ian “H” Watkins] always tells this story – that we used to go into Dolce and Gabbana and I once bought trousers, a top and a pair of shoes and paid with a card. Later, we were at a TV studio and he asked how much I’d spent. I said, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t look at the receipt.’ So I looked at it and I’d spent £2,000. I just shrugged. I was 22. Later, I thought, that was awful. You think the money will be there for ever and don’t think about the future,” she says.
Richards is refreshingly honest about her memoir and the fact it was ghost written, after initially refusing to believe anyone would want to read about her.
“Someone helped me write it. I just told her the story and she made it readable. When they first came to me to do it I thought, ‘who on earth is going to want to read about me, my life can’t be that interesting that it could make a book. I was in a band, then wasn’t, got fat, got thin, so what?’ But I realised going back through the experiences, some people won’t do half of that in their lives,” she says.
With the Steps Reunion Tour in full swing, Richards is clear-eyed about the future and whether the band will stay together or once again go their separate ways. After all, her husband Reece has now retrained as an electrician and as she says, “you’ll always work if you’ve got a trade.”
“With Steps, we are taking each day as it comes. None of us expected what happened to happen with the tour and everything. We are not saying that’s it, but we’re not saying that’s us together permanently. We have got lots of gigs over the summer and I think we have the DVD of the tour coming out in October and we’re talking about whether there’s a Christmas album ... but after that, who knows. Right now I have everything I ever really wanted out of life. A great husband who supports me in everything and just loves me as I am, beautiful children ... I’d love to do a solo album, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. That’s why I auditioned for Steps. It was always about the singing. I don’t want to do the dancing, but I have to and it’s become a bit of a joke, but really I just want to stand there and sing. Oh, and I’d really like to do a cookbook full of my recipes. One day, maybe.”
That day could be closer than she thinks.
All of Me: My Story by Claire Richards is out now, £16.99, hardback, published by Sidgwick & Jackson; Steps play Hamilton Park Racecourse tonight, tickets from.ticketmaster.co.uk
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