After numerous band shake-ups, a string of hit singles and a lot of hard work, the Sugababes are finally discovering that life can be sweet
• The current line-up of the Sugababes: Heidi Range, Amelle Berabbah, and Jade Ewen
There are some topics that will always plague certain celebrities. These are the awkward, personal questions that interviewers are often instructed not to ask by said celebrities' "people". Rebellion is met with a grimace at best and at worst, an abrupt end to the interview.
For Jennifer Aniston that recurring topic is Brangelina. For Cheryl Cole, it's her husband's alleged infidelities. And for the Sugababes – the most successful British girl band of the 1990s – the one question that threatens to follow them for the rest of their careers concerns their apparently ever-changing line-up, which for good or ill has come, in part, to define the band.
The three young women who are sitting in front of me today on a sofa piled high with velvet cushions in a private members' club in London are not the same three young women who would have been here were I meeting the Sugababes ten years ago.
In terms of sales, the trio – known for their stable of solid, high-calibre and ultra-catchy pop hits – are the biggest British girl band since the Spice Girls. They have a string of floor-filling singles (including Overload, Push the Button and About You Now) behind them, and their latest album Sweet 7 is sure to be another success, packed as it is with radio-friendly tracks including the current release, Wear My Kiss.
However, these achievements have been overshadowed by a line-up that's changed beyond recognition over the years. Indeed, the Sugababes have become the unwilling poster child for the ultimate in manufactured pop: a brand, not a band.
There have never been more than three members of the band at any one time, but there have been six members in total. Confused? You will be.
The original line-up, formed in 1998, consisted of Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena and Siobhan Donaghy, who soon left and whose spot was taken by Heidi Range. Buena parted company with the other girls five years ago and Amelle Berabbah joined. Then last September Buchanan, the last original member of the group, was replaced by 22-year-old aspiring pop star and ex-Eurovision contestant, Jade Ewen.
The details on that last departure have been a little hazy but Range, 26 and Berabbah, 25, are keen to set the record straight.
"People think that Keisha was kicked out but it was me and Amelle who left," says Range patiently. "Yeah, we just couldn't take it any more," adds Berabbah.
Before we enter dangerous territory, Range interjects with a firm: "It was just not a good environment to be in. Obviously I was with Keisha for over eight years so there were some brilliant times but the last year of us being together it was just really bad and it just got too much. You have to say 'this isn't worth it'. Life's too short to feel like this on a daily basis."
Berabbah emphatically agrees (she is the most outspoken of the three).
"We could not have gone on any further," she says. "It was just so hard and we didn't even find out until after that people we worked with were about to leave themselves because they couldn't take it any more. No-one should have taken how much we took to be honest … It just got to the point where we were unhappy for so long."
It is clear – despite never being expressed explicitly – that Buchanan was extremely difficult to work with. This confirms suspicions that fans have had for the past decade since Donaghy departed. Certainly there's a strong sense of harmony between the three women who sit in front of me today.
They sit spaced out evenly on the long, plush sofa, Heidi Range in the middle, flanked by the two newer members, with barely-touched bowls of edamame beans sitting on a low table in front of them. They are glossy, smiley and, as has come to be the standard for any girl band, extremely beautiful.
Amelle Berabbah, the edgiest-looking, with a funky short haircut, is wearing a leather bomber jacket and Ugg boots. Jade Ewen – coltish with an endearing scar at the top of her nose – hides behind tumbling black hair and is dressed down, but for a pair of six-inch heels. Heidi, who seems to play something of a maternal role in relation to the other two, is tanned and blonde, in a stretchy black satin shirt, skinny jeans and killer heels.
They interact comfortably, and there is a clear hierarchy of experience. More challenging questions might be answered by Range, and when Ewen seems a little unsure of a response, she is encouraged by the other two. For want of a less worthy-sounding way to describe their relationship, there seems to be a sense of sisterhood between the girls, and Range and Berabbah in particular seem to revel in it, perhaps having been deprived of it for so long.
They are, as is so often the case, three very nice girls from working-class backgrounds who haven't let fame go to their heads. But then, when it comes to showbiz, they know exactly what it's like to step from obscurity into the spotlight, joining an established, successful and very famous band. In each case, the more experienced two members have been able to coach the newest recruit on the hazards of being a Sugababe.
One such pitfall has to be the fickle nature of life in the public eye. And the mere fact that each girl has replaced an existing member of the band is a reminder of their own longevity within the Sugababes. While Queen are much diminished without Freddie Mercury, and the Beatles could not have continued without the talents of Lennon and McCartney, the fact remains that the Sugababes' brand has not been damaged by the revolving door of members. Surely this stark fact makes current band members feel uneasy?
Range fields this one: "When I joined I was always the new girl, until Amelle came to join us. And she was still getting called the new girl until Jade arrived. And we're not going to get another new girl. Jade's always going to be our new girl!"
Funnily enough I believe them. While Buchanan has yet to tell her side of the story, it seems to be the case that the Sugababes have been plagued by the behaviour of one member who is no longer with them, and the girls left carrying the torch are still having to answer questions about the situation. Indeed, had it not been for Buchanan, the original line-up might never have changed.
Certainly I get the impression that they've had their last reshuffle, not least because another change would tip the entire situation into farce. It's almost as if these three young women were always meant to be the Sugababes; it just took them a while to get here.
Ewen has by all accounts fitted in well (which is impressive – within 48 hours of being asked to join the band she was filming a music video with them in LA).
"I felt really restricted, actually," she says honestly. "You've got the part already designated to you, a part that was never written with me in mind so it's not necessarily suited to my voice and what I can do. So I felt like I couldn't really demonstrate what I was capable of. And on top of that you have criticism of course, which you get all the time – people saying it's not as good as the original. But of course it's never going to be as good as the original because it wasn't written for me. All I can do is put my spin on it."
She is understandably tentative. She is the youngest and least experienced, and the older two quickly step in to offer some support.
"I don't feel like that when I listen to it," says Range, placing a reassuring hand on Ewen's knee. Berabbah shakes her head vigorously: "Not at all. It's because you are being constantly compared to someone else. I got it as well. And it's like you're your own person, you're a singer and you sing how you sing, simple as that. And I think you've done an amazing job, you really have."
Ewen smiles and nods bashfully. She's been reassured. It's rather sweet. Indeed it's difficult to describe these three women without resorting to saccharine adjectives. They're very much girls next door.
They're ultra-polite. And they laugh. A lot. They are three people who have, to an extent, been set free, and they can't wipe the grins off their faces.
They have their complaints of course. The issue of nasty remarks from Twitter users comes up more than once. As does the tendency for celebrity magazines to circle their physical imperfections in photographs. But they seem pretty happy with their lot.
"It does take over your whole life, of course," says Berabbah. "Like any problem, sometimes you just need time." She is referring to a break she insisted upon taking at the end of last year when the pressure got to her and she retreated to a spa for a few weeks to take stock of her life.
"People think you're a machine but you've got to keep going," adds Ewen sympathetically. "When Amelle went away I don't think that people understood that they had been together for five years with Amelle and Keisha and eight for Heidi and it was like going through a break-up for them. And instead of having time to sort of grieve and get over that they've just had to start again straight away, with me as the new member, and keep going and just carry on smiling."
Berabbah continues: "They don't think you're human sometimes. When I was a kid, if I watched interviews with celebrities and they're going 'yeah there's loads of pressure...' I was like, 'stop your bloody moaning! You've got everything you could possibly want.' But then as soon as you are in it you do realise that you are human. Things do hurt you still and if you have got a problem you do have to go out and pretend that everything's OK. So it can be hard sometimes."
So, the band having dominated British pop music for the past ten years, what do these girls hope to achieve in the new decade? Here, both Berabbah and Ewen look to Range, who replies with a simple "We want to be doing it, but enjoying it."
It sounds straightforward enough, but it seems Range has been unable to enjoy much of her success until this point. She continues: "There have been many amazing times in the past with the band, but I do find it really sad to think that I've been in the group for nine years and it's taken that long for us all to want the same thing and to feel comfortable."
The three women smile before Amelle says: "And in the last few months we've become really good friends. We've been out a few times out of work, we've been on holiday together. We're so happy, so excited and we all want the same thing. "It feels easy to be yourself and to perform and enjoy it together and to come into work happy for a change and it's just really nice. We've never been so content and happy and satisfied ... ever."
Sweet 7 is released on 15 March.
This article was first published in the Scotsman Magazine on Saturday, 6 March, 2010