Interview: Lulu, singer

YOU can't believe everything you read in the papers. Not about Lulu, anyway.

A few years ago the singer talked so much manure about how she only wanted tough interviews because she hadn't been herself with the press and now she wanted to be challenged. I guess she has changed her mind. That's the first thing you learn about Lulu: she moves on completely from everything she has ever said before. Though, of course, I don't know that yet when she makes her entrance into Claridge's tearoom, with its tinkling teaspoons and genteel clients eating bite-sized cakes. Her arrival is a performance in its own right, dressed as she is in head to toe cream, with a trilby hat and a gilet that looks like one of those shag-pile, dead-polar-bear-type rugs. "Oh my God," someone across the room murmurs.

She is a very confident woman: high-energy and high-maintenance. Or is she? There is something about her that makes you think there would be someone much calmer and more vulnerable underneath if you stripped away the top layers. But Lulu always seems like she's performing; even when she's being down to earth, it manages to sound like an affectation. Partly it's the accent. It slides up and down the scales between broad Glaswegian and mid-Atlantic drawl, like an out-of-tune violin, rarely hitting a note on the button. As soon as she meets a Scot, she says, she wants to be Scottish again. Certainly, she can be talking normally and then suddenly launch into an accent that sounds like it's from a Chewin' the Fat sketch. Some people think that sounds false. "I am sure they do. Maybe it is. It's me… What can I tell you?"

She makes some throwaway remark about her huge ego, and I stop her. Is her ego really huge? She hesitates. "Sometimes," she admits finally, with admirable honesty. "When I'm in a really good place I'm all loving and chilled out and kind of philosophical. But when I'm tired I'm like a baby. I will not, I will not! Banging my foot. Of course, you have to have a bit of ego to get up on stage, but it's a great desire to be loved, I think."

Marie Lawrie left Glasgow when she was just 15 to become Lulu, heading to London under the supervision of her manager, Marian Massey. She got her first hit, Shout, then worked alongside all the musical icons of the 1960s: the Beatles, the Stones, Clapton, the Monkees. But Massey didn't want her protg to concentrate only on music, and Lulu diversified into acting, appearing in the 1967 film To Sir With Love with Sidney Poitier, and also in television specials and light entertainment programmes. Then there was Eurovision, when she came joint first in 1969 with Boom Bang-a-Bang. She's 60 now and still working; few artists have reinvented themselves quite so often, or so successfully, as Lulu. She's about to embark on another new project, a short tour with singers Chaka Khan and Anastacia, called Here Come the Girls.

A lifetime of performance. "If I had a 15-year-old daughter I would never let her go to London," Lulu squeals, wide-eyed. "I'm not criticising my parents for it. It was weird, but it's not a sob story. It's sort of fantastic." Yet there are aspects of her childhood that others might consider unhappy. It's not the fact that she famously grew up in the Glasgow tenements, because it certainly doesn't sound like there was much poverty in her background. Her father, Eddie, worked in the Meat Market for Glasgow Corporation but was on the fiddle, supplying his own customers on the side. Lulu recalls a security guard trying to catch him out, but Eddie always outwitted him, shouting, "Ah yi big dopey bastard, yer'll no catch me."

The family weren't going to go hungry – Eddie made sure of that. He also ensured a plentiful supply of new dresses and shoes for his wife Betty. But after her parents died, Lulu wrote an autobiography that spoke graphically of the physical and verbal abuse that she grew up with: her father's alcoholism, her mother's black eyes and bruises. "Oh, journalists like to give a s-o-o-o-b story," she says about her childhood, drawing the word out dramatically. "Oh, you were so hard done by." She sits up and indicates herself with her hands. "Does this look hard done by?"

You can't be too hard on celebrities for being hostile to journalists. Many have every reason to be, and you have to look beyond it. But Lulu's response really is extreme brass neck. After all, it wasn't a journalist who wrote, "They hit each other, but my father was able to do it harder. He was drunk… there were nights when the fights would wake me up. I slept with my muscles taut and my teeth clenched." It was Lulu. It wasn't a journalist who wrote of her mother, "She'd examine her face in the mirror, gently touching the bruises and the black eye." It was Lulu.

When someone writes so openly, you don't expect questions about the subject to be contentious. But things are clearly going wrong here. If you come from Glasgow, that background's natural, Lulu insists. Her eyebrows arch, her eyes widen, her smile becomes ever more brittle. But before it all explodes, there's an unexpected twist. Lulu was extremely close to her mother, but they fought a lot. So I say that, despite her father being a heavy drinker, Lulu seemed much more indulgent of his faults than her mother's. "Was I?" she says and smiles, softening. Her grey-blue eyes fill suddenly with tears. Indulgent. That's such a sweet thing to say. She always felt she was like this with her father, she says, frowning and wagging her finger in remonstration. The tears spill over and she dabs daintily at them with her Claridge's napkin. "Ah think ah wis ma daddy's girl," she says, in her broadest Glaswegian.

Her mother sounded an almost tragic figure. She was, according to her daughter, depressed. Lulu wrote that her mother had "a lot of venom in her that ate away from the inside", but when I ask now if her mother's life was unfulfilled, she bridles again. But her mother was unhappy with her husband, wasn't she? "She never left him," she retorts. It's a surreal moment. I suddenly realise that Lulu is intent on repackaging her entire story here. For example, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, she said of Eddie, "If anyone deserved to go, it should be him. He sits there like a lump for years. Why can't he die?" To be married to someone for a lifetime, have four children with them, and then wish your terminal cancer on them… Is that meant to be fulfilment? "I don't know if she was totally fulfilled or not. I never had that conversation with her. My mother just wanted to be a mother. To the day she died, she lived for her kids."

Suddenly, there's meltdown. "I don't want to continue this conversation," Lulu snaps. The most disconcerting thing is that she is smiling at me, a bright smile stretching from ear to ear. It sparkles like sunshine on winter snow. "I don't want to talk about my parents in this way." So why did she write a book talking about them in that way? "That's been, gone, done," she says. She only wrote it seven years ago. Does she regret writing it? "I don't want to go any further. I think you can move on."

Okay, let's talk politics. Not many people grow up in the Glasgow tenements and end up Conservatives, but Lulu was such an avid supporter of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s that she received a letter thanking her for her support. What appealed to her about the former prime minister? "I liked her strength. I thought she was a very strong leader, like a strong headmistress in a school." Yet now she's a huge Obama supporter. "I am fascinated by him. We need hope and he's the one person right now who gives us hope."

You could hardly say that Thatcher and Obama are on the same political spectrum. Is she drawn more to individual personalities than political ideals? "I would say so. I would not spend my whole life supporting just one party or one anything." Those words, I think, highlight a key aspect of her personality.

She has, she says, a tremendously strong work ethic, which comes from her background. Her father used to get angry at people with lots of children living off the state. "My father used to say, 'The harder you work, the luckier you get.'" He was an entrepreneur, a supporter of free enterprise. That's one way of putting it. I think back to her written description of her father chucking meat carcasses over walls to waiting accomplices, and the description of him being slashed by a hired thug, then seeking his own violent revenge. It would be tempting to joke that Barlinnie is full of entrepreneurs like him. But the atmosphere is still a little too precarious.

To think I was actually impressed by the honesty of Lulu's book before meeting her. She breaks off a corner of one of those bite-sized cakes. Would she prefer I turned up knowing nothing about her? You say things at a moment in your life, she says, and later don't recognise them. You change. There's a famous story she tells about being at a party in the 1960s with all the big music stars of the day. Lulu was terrified as a spliff made its way round the group. How was she going to refuse it? When it came to the moment, she passed it on. Most people were too stoned to notice, though it didn't escape the attention of the late Kenny Everett. In those days she thinks she was quite shy and by Swinging Sixties standards, very puritanical.

In fact, she should probably never have married her first husband, Maurice Gibb. She should have just had a relationship with him, but that wasn't her upbringing. Maurice's brother Barry warned them before the wedding that it was doomed. Maurice was shy but a heavy drinker. That was normal to Lulu. Tragically, Maurice died in 2003 aged just 53. Even all those years after they divorced, that must have had a big impact. "It was shocking. Very shocking. Did I take stock? I think you do for a while. You do it then and there, and then you move on. With everything, you can't stay… I don't like to be stuck. I like moving forward."

Their marriage lasted only four years and they divorced in 1973. Shortly after, she had an affair with David Bowie, going on to have a hit record with him. "Not quite an affair, dear," she says. What would she call it then? She laughs. "A moment in time, a fleeting moment." Not so fleeting that she didn't notice he had the best thighs she'd ever seen. He and Gibb seem like very different men. "The thing about them is that I was really attracted to their music, then the other stuff that comes with it. I fell in love with the Bee Gees music, then I met Maurice. I fell in love with Bowie's music, and then I met him." Was her music similarly part of the attraction for them? "I think there was a mutual respect, definitely."

She went on to marry hairdresser John Frieda and have a son, Jordan. Frieda always wanted more children but Lulu got scared of another birth. She eventually became pregnant again at 40, but miscarried. "I think it's nice to have children," she says. "I didn't have many, and while I don't sit around regretting it I maybe would have liked a couple more. But it wasn't meant to be, and I didn't want it badly enough." Two years later, her marriage to Frieda was over. Did the children issue cost her the relationship? "I don't know. I wouldn't say there was one reason. I think mainly people leave each other because they are growing apart."

She has remained single since. Her first reaction was, oh no, she'd have to have another marriage so she could get it right next time. Then she realised she couldn't be bothered. "Though I don't mind having a wee look. I always look if a handsome guy walks in. I'm certainly not looking to partner up, but if it happens, it happens."

She's had quite a lot of therapy, I say, but Lulu interrupts. "I've never said I've had therapy." Yes, she has. She said it in her book. "I would say counselling." Right. So what did she learn about herself in counselling? "Self-indulgence is something to watch, but anything that helps you understand situations that are difficult to understand is good. If you're having some sort of emotional trauma you need to find a person to talk to about it, who says, 'This is quite normal, it's fine.'" Otherwise she tends to think she "should" react in a certain way, but should is not a very useful word.

Counselling helped with the grieving process for her parents. "They died way too soon, and I would never have known how much a person can cry. My parents loved me. They thought the sun shone out of my bahooky. Oh, my God, they loved me." After they died, she was bereft. "You would phone and they would listen and be so supportive, and you think, 'Is there anyone who is going to be that supportive, in that way, ever again?'" She stops. "I say that but I have a really supportive son. I mean incredibly supportive. And now a daughter-in-law. I really lucked out with her." She's going to be a grandmother soon; the baby is due on Christmas Eve.

All her life Lulu has done a lot of searching, and counselling was part of that. She certainly sounds like a spiritual seeker: she has a spiritual teacher and studies yoga and meditation. "I am. My whole family is. My mother was." (Her mother became a Mormon.) So what do her beliefs boil down to? "I believe there is a power. I believe in God. I pray." A conventional God or a power? "A power. I feel I have been protected all my life. I am still here, for God's sake, and a lot of my contemporaries have gone. I'm very fortunate. No matter the difficulties – and we all have difficulties – I am definitely one of the fortunate ones. If I have any really good characteristics, one is that I am resilient. I have become aware of that as I've got older. I still have a lot of enthusiasm, and that's a blessing. And I know my voice is a blessing. It's something you're given."

She feels comfortable on stage. Maybe more truly herself than off it. Does retirement frighten her? "Oh, I wouldn't want no' tae wurrk," she says, suddenly intensifying the accent. "It doesn't frighten me because it will never happen." The stage is her happy place. "When I'm singing it's like I'm at home." she says. "And music is a great healer. I think I'd have been a basket case if I hadn't been a singer."

TALKING TO LULU makes you wonder how often she sheds her skin, how completely she wriggles free of inconvenient old thoughts and emotions. There's a positive side to that, an adaptability and, as she says, a resilience. Physically as well as emotionally. She has looked fantastic in almost every decade of her life. She might not have been regarded as the most beautiful, most glamorous celebrity, yet she is one who stands out for having the ability to change and update her look, for being chameleon-like enough to somehow absorb a new era. She recorded with boy band Take That in the 1990s and produced a hit single and album in her 50s. She's undoubtedly a pro when it comes to working a project. "I'm a control freak," she says, "who likes to know every detail. That's probably why I'm still around and can have another business." Seamless transition to Timebomb, her cosmetics range.

Lulu says she knows everything there is to know about potions and creams because she had bad skin as a teenager and travelled the world picking up tips about how best to deal with it. A bit of this and a bit of that. Honey on her acne. Wheatgerm and yoghurt. I get sent Timebomb before the interview and there's no doubt it's really nice to use (at 30 for night cream, it ought to be). But I want to talk about cosmetic surgery. I keep my fingers crossed that she doesn't quote Madonna, as she usually does. It's okay to do it, but not to talk about it. "I'm going to quote Madonna…" she says.

But Madonna doesn't have a skincare range. Don't people buying Timebomb have a right to know if Lulu's youthfulness is a result of the surgeon's knife or her cosmetic products? Looking at her, I suspect her lips have been injected, but she says she doesn't do anything – not even Botox– any more. She hasn't had surgery? The products are the secret of her success, she says. But has she had surgery? "No." Does it put her under pressure to be constantly expected to look younger than she is? "Actually, yes," she says with some feeling. "Actually, yes."

It's just another layer of performance demanded of her. After the Here Come the Girls tour she has other projects lined up and will be going to America to do some recording. Yet you can't help wondering, as you watch her high-energy performance, what she's like when the stage lights are switched off. There's a lyric in a song she once wrote about finding out who she really is. Did she ever discover? "No, I don't know who the hell I am." She laughs. She's joking, of course. But I'm not sure who the hell she is either. r

Lulu appears with Chaka Khan and Anastacia as part of the Here Come the Girls tour at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 21 November, and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 10 December (