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Billie The Kid Grows Up

Billie the kid grows up.

By Caroline Sullivan. 10 July 1998 The Guardian(c) 1998

She's just like any other 15-year-old studying for her GCSEs - except she's got a number one record out. Caroline Sullivan talks to new star Billie Piper and examines the dangers of too much, too young

The number one single spot is occupied this week by an artist who worships Madonna, reckons her ideal man is Scott from teeny band Five and was grounded for six weeks last year for smoking. Oh, and she has to fit her promotional schedule around studying for three GCSEs. Meet Billie Piper, whose main asset, other than an elfin face and reasonable voice, is her age, which is 15.

In case you weren't aware of that, her song, Because We Want To, hits you over the head with the fact. `Why you gotta play that song so loud? / Because we want to! / Why you always run around in crowds? / Because we want to! / Why do you always have to dance all night? / Because we want to,' she shrills, accompanied by a backing singers who are probably still looking forward to their first bras. It's the definitive retort to parents and other wrinklies, adroitly managing to make anyone of voting age feel wizened.

Neither young Miss Piper nor the song, which was written by an adult male/female team, are anything special (though Swindon native Billie, who trained at Sylvia Young's famous Theatre School, may well become special given a few years). Together, however, they score a direct hit on the increasingly important nine-to-14 market, which has been growing exponentially since the Spice Girls came along and captivated it.

`We did a lot of market research before we released Because We Want To,' says a source at Billie's (and the Spices') label, Virgin. `We found that the people who buy pop singles now are aged from nine to 14, but even kids of six or seven know songs. There's almost a competition now to get younger and younger artists.' This is confirmed by a campaign backed by EMI Records to put together a new boy band. And `boy' is meant literally - applicants to join this `exciting new pop act' must be under 14. Ads last week in the Evening Standard and on Capital Radio were answered by more than 100 kids, who have been invited to audition during the school holidays. EMI's special projects manager Julie Aulisi says, `It's more the Aaron Carter market than the 911 market.' Florida brat - er, moppet - Aaron Carter is the most extreme recent example of the trend, having been just nine when he had his first hit last year. As a solo artist his only rival in the record books is Jimmy Osmond, also just short of his 10th birthday when his classically bad Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool hit number one in 1972.

But Carter isn't really comparable to Billie and the growing number of mid-teen acts like Hanson, Five and LeAnn Rimes. On his records and at gigs - which tend to be over by 7.30 so he can get to bed on time - little Aaron doesn't pretend to be anything but a kid. Whereas, despite Because We Want To's kiddie theme, Billie is being marketed as a sexy young woman, with the emphasis on the `woman'. On the single sleeve she's made up to look 10 years older, and in Wednesday's Express she displayed an impressive cleavage in a low-cut frock that recalled that other daughter of Swindon, Melinda Messenger.

For their part, Five - average age 18 - make free with the adolescent testosterone on suggestive numbers like When The Lights Go Out; Hanson (12, 15, 17) regard themselves as serious musicians and LeAnn Rimes is 15 but sounds like a 30-year-old divorcee.

And let's not forget the Cleopatra siblings (13, 15, 17), who seem to have broken into their mother's make-up box.

Pop stars like these have always had something discomfiting about them. It's downright indecent watching them comport themselves like adults before they've had much chance to be kids. Such misgivings are well founded, as the track record of former child stars proves. Donny Osmond is reportedly estranged from his family, seventies starlet Lena Zavaroni is said to be anorexic, and the most famous of all, Michael Jackson, is a walking cautionary tale.

But young is the way the music biz likes 'em, because it reaps both short and long-term gains. There's the initial flurry of paedophiliac attention, which is followed - hopefully - by a profitable adult career. That's the way it's worked with Jackson, country singer Tanya Tucker and the former `Little Stevie' Winwood. That's the way it'll work with Billie, if she has anything to do with it.

She's still two months away from her 16th birthday, but she yearns for adulthood. `I can't wait to leave home. I want to do adult things, because I hang around with a lot of older people. Lots of 15-year-olds seem immature to me, because I see life differently now.' This isn't what I was expecting. When granted 20 minutes of her suddenly valuable time, I'm expecting girlish protests to the effect that she still has all her old friends, with whom she spends Saturdays flirting with boys at the shopping precinct. But no. She has the tiny speaking voice of a 10-year-old, but the aspirations of someone much older.

Take the Express picture, which even her publicist admits is steamy. Why isn't Billie giggling and claiming that either: a) she was duped into posing like that, or b) it's actually quite tastefully done? No - in fact, she's thrilled. `Any girl wants to look glamorous,' she says pleasedly.

`I'm not growing up too quickly. I think this job actually prepares you for life. It can be hard, this business, because people promise you things that don't happen, and it's made me grow up a lot. But I think I needed to.' She admits, however, that she's had to rewrite some of the lyrics on her forthcoming album. `Some of the songs were lovely, but the words were all about your marriage and your kids, which would've sounded silly. So I changed some, and I also wrote a song on my own, called The Love Groove.' She's understandably very proud of this.

The woman in her emerges again when Aaron Carter is mentioned. `It's not cool when they're so young,' she maintains maternally. `He's cute, but in his interviews all he wants to talk about is his toys. He's not really ready for this, he just wants to play.' Hanson, however, are `wicked', and she loves young American R&B stars Jodeci and Boyz II Men.

The main thing Billie wants to convey, though, is that she's no kid. This she does by comparing herself to other people of her star sign, Virgo. `Virgos are typically pure, innocent and cute, but I'm not a sweet girl. I'm friendly and cuddly, but I'm not a child.' She's not a child. Got that?