DCSIMG

Put the record straight

I don’t know what Beyoncé was doing half an hour before walking down MTV’s red carpet last Thursday night, but it’s a safe bet she wasn’t drinking coffee in a bar down the road, still in an old, ripped T-shirt, jeans and no make-up, apparently having forgotten she was even going.

"Oh!" exclaims Alex Parks - who was doing exactly this - when I ask when she’s thinking of getting ready. And suddenly she has that endearing rabbit in the headlights look she always got in front of the judges on TV’s Fame Academy. Her MTV Awards outfit, it turns out, is basically a clean jumper and trousers. At the risk of sounding unkind, the words "school disco" spring to mind.

It feels oddly fitting to meet Parks on this particular night. Part of her appeal has always been that she looks more like one of us than one of them: a far cry from most of the calculating, narcissistic wannabes on TV talent shows. She was awkward, shy, deeply unsure about whether she wanted to be a famous singer or not (and, famously, only on Fame Academy at all because her dad applied on her behalf without telling her). Later, at the awards, I spot her sitting a couple of rows in front of Shirley Manson, who is dancing in the aisle. Justin and Beyonc are a stone’s throw to her left. Parks looks like a child at the circus, goggling at the acrobats.

Yet she is now, officially, a star, and is being treated like one. Thanks to the 19-year-old’s victory on Fame Academy a month ago, she has a 1 million London flat (for the next year, at least) and a sports car (which she doesn’t dare drive, she laughs, because she’s too worried about crashing it).

The bar in which we meet is the Lighthouse in Leith, where she is singing at one of MTV’s numerous aftershow parties, her first proper gig with her band ("I’m scared," she tells me, and looks it). Despite the fact that I have been watching her sing to the entire nation for months, I am curtly told there is no way a journalist will be allowed to watch her soundchecking (later her manager relents, possibly having realised how silly this is). Everywhere there are busy people with mobiles and schedules - the same busy people who, a couple of weeks before, wanted The Scotsman to e-mail interview questions in advance (we didn’t). This interview comes to you courtesy of American Express, aftershow party sponsor, which has bagged some press time with Parks on the condition that we photograph her signing a rather naff "wall of dreams" with its logo on it. This has something to do with an ad campaign about living out your dreams which, the PR enthusiastically informs me, Parks embodies perfectly. Actually, Parks looks pretty embarrassed by this. "This is so cheesy," she frowns, but does it anyway.

The day we meet Parks gets her first proper - if minor - taste of post-victory tabloid gossip. The Mirror would have us believe that at a party in London thrown by Pink, the American pop star "had to fend off advances from Fame Academy winner Alex Park (sic)". Rejected, Alex eventually "sulked off".

"It was nothing like that," she exclaims. "I got there and was chatting to people at the bar. This woman knew who I was and asked me who I was with. I went on my own because I had two friends up from home and I could only get one more ticket so I couldn’t take one and not the other. So she said, come into the VIP area and we’ll see if you can meet Pink. I think I said about three words to Pink; I sat and talked to this guy called Andy all night. It was hilarious when I saw the paper next morning. People just don’t get ..." She pauses, searching for the right words. "It’s like, anyone who’s gay must be after someone …"

She is already weary of constant media descriptions of her as "spiky-haired lesbian Alex Parks". "You don’t put ‘Mariah Carey, American straight singer,’ do you?" She sighs. "I don’t care. I can’t really do anything about it."

She seems more bemused than irritated by the extent to which people focus on her sexuality. She agrees that, even now, there are few openly gay female pop stars, and is happy to be a role model - "It gives people a bit more strength to come out," she says, without much vigour - but would rather not make a big deal of it.

"People have this idea that gay people go around shouting about it and try and change people. I don’t want to come across like that because that’s not how it is." But she must be aware of the dilemma, I say, that if she evades the subject she’ll look … "Ashamed," she nods, finishing the sentence. "Whatever, you know. People know it and they’re going to say what they like about it."

Up until now, she claims, her sexuality has never been an issue. She never "came out" to her friends. "It’s just something people kind of gathered." She told her parents when she was 14. Asked if she always knew it herself, she shrugs and says: "I just wasn’t interested really." It’s a fair point; unlikely as it might sound, not all teenagers think of nothing but sex.

The other thing people tend to focus on is Parks’s supposed vulnerability. This is, it’s true, a big part of her appeal - teenagers like her because they feel like that too; their parents like her because they want to look after her.

It has something to do with her size (she is tiny) and something to do with her enormous, sad eyes. Singing on television, she looks like she might start crying any minute.

Oddly, though, this is neither nerves nor affectation - she does exactly the same at a soundcheck, singing distractedly to an empty room. And yes, she was bullied at school and is (like any teenager) plagued by self-doubt, but she’s stronger than she looks.

"I am quite a sensitive person, but I’m also quite laid-back about the whole thing," she says. "I think you have to be, otherwise you’re going to get really hurt, you’re going to stress yourself out."

Is she prepared for the kind of backlash subjected to Hear’Say, the first of the current wave of talent show pop stars?

"I’m prepared for it," she says quietly. "I’m hoping it won’t happen. I think it’s different because they got thrown into the pop world and they were in kind of a race. I don’t think I’m in a race. I’m in a … sponsored walk. I think people know that about me. I think they know I’m not eager to sell out quickly, that I’ve got, maybe, a bit more credibility than that."

It could all have turned out very differently. Parks grew up in Mount Hawke, a small village in Cornwall, with no burning desire to be a pop star. It sounds like an idyllic place to be a child - there was a lot of climbing trees and riding bikes - and a dreary place to be a teenager. This isn’t quite the whole picture.

"I love where I grew up. You can go to the pub and get really pissed underage and then walk home in the middle of the night. And as soon as I started driving I could go anywhere. I had my freedom." Her parents were strict - "I wasn’t allowed up to the top of my lane until I was 11" - but liberal. She now smokes, but asks if I mind before lighting up.

Was she rebellious? "I wasn’t really naughty, but I was very strong-minded and wouldn’t give in to rules. I would always ask why. I had my nose pierced when I was 14 and that wasn’t allowed at school. They asked me to take it out because it’s not school uniform. And I said that’s ridiculous. So I was put in isolation in the deputy’s office and had to work in there because I wasn’t allowed to be seen. I was just like, if you give me a good enough reason I’ll take it out, but they didn’t." Her parents, she says, took her side.

For a while she wanted to be an art teacher, but ended up dropping out of A-levels to study theatre at a nearby college and singing in a local folk band, One Trick Pony. This was the band’s idea, not hers.

"I am ambitious, but I’m really unmotivated," she says. "I’m not good at making things happen, but I’m quite happy if they happen. I really needed a kick up the arse. I was going to go away and chill and then go to movement school, which is very physically and mentally challenging. So that was going to be my kick up the arse, but then this [Fame Academy] happened."

Again it was someone else’s idea - her dad’s. "I think he probably saw that I wasn’t very happy. He was just trying to help, give me an opportunity that I could take if I wanted to." If she hadn’t, right now she would probably be in Spain, "hanging out with my mates".

As it is, she’s about to release what is likely to be a number one single - a quietly impressive rock ballad called Maybe That’s What It Takes, which Parks co-wrote - followed by her debut album, An Introduction to Me, a week later. At this, alarm bells sound. Her record company makes a big thing of how "brilliantly against the grain" Parks is, comparing her to Tracy Chapman and Annie Lennox, but they still seem to be rushing the album out with indecent haste. Cynics might assume that, as with Hear’Say and One True Voice, her career is not expected to last long beyond Hogmanay. What does she think?

"My response would be that I think it’s good that it’s coming out quickly," she says carefully. "It’s ready [most of it was recorded during Fame Academy’s run] and also, if I were to leave it too long, the support that I have from Fame Academy would go.

"I really want to give something back to that audience to say thank you. That’s why there are covers on the album [Coldplay’s Yellow, Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful, plus six songs written by Parks herself]. People have their favourites and that’s why I’m here. They liked that and they voted for that, whether it’s down to the songs or me singing them or whatever. And it marks the end of something. After that I’m going to take time off and write the next album."

"It’s a curious thing. If most other talent show contestants said these same words, they would probably sound trite and disingenuous. Coming from Parks, it sounds sweet and sincere. It’s the same unaffected quality that she has when she sings and which, I hope, fame will not dilute. This is endlessly put down to where she grew up. It’s almost certainly more complicated than that, but further details will no doubt emerge. In the meantime she has a personal stylist who, essentially, just buys her the kind of clothes she’d normally wear but "with a slightly nicer fabric".

On stage later, she dedicates a song to her mum. And downstairs there’s a wall of dreams with Alex Parks’s signature on it. The message above is not about fame or winning. Instead it says: "A dream of loyalty, respect and always to have a smile."

Maybe That’s What It Takes is released on 17 November on Polydor. An Introduction to Me follows on 24 November.

 
 
 

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