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Wanted - Billie The Kid

Wanted - Billie the kid.

By Tim Hulse. 11 July 1998 The Independent - London

While her friends are breaking up for the summer holidays, Billie Piper is gearing up for chart domination. The 15-year-old Swindon schoolgirlis a quick learner: in a little over a week of prefab-pop stardom, she's already coming on like an old pro. But then she does have a number one single and a publicity schedule that would make a Spice Girl feel her age...

I sort of freaked out. I didn't move for a little while, I just tried to sit there and take it in. But I couldn't, so I got up and started screaming!" This is Billie Piper recalling the moment last Sunday when she received a telephone call at her parents' Swindon home telling her that her debut single, "Because We Want To", had gone straight into the charts at number one. Billie is 15 years old, which means she is the youngest female star to top the charts since Helen Shapiro managed it way back in 1961 with "Walkin' Back To Happiness".

"It was a big surprise. I didn't really know what to expect and I couldn't really visualise how many people were going to go out and buy it," says Billie (who uses the word "really" a lot).

No doubt the fact that Billie's record company had managed to get her around 30 appearances on television during the week of the single's release might have had something to do with its runaway success - it sold 100,000 in the first week and they expect to top 200,000 in the second week.

But it would be churlish to suggest that was the only reason. "Because We Want To" is a good pop song, and its lyrics raise it to the level of a veritable anthem of teen power.

"It's about being youthful and rebellious in a positive way," says Billie of the song, which stands up for a young girl's right to play loud music, run around in a gang and dance all night. All strictly innocent pleasures, it goes without saying - the posters promoting the single may have featured a tousled-haired temptress in a skimpy top, but Billie is really just a cheeky cheerleader for the playground generation. When she sings the line "We can do anything", it is clearly more to do with realising potential than dropping Es or sniffing glue.

"A lot of people have sent me e-mails saying, `You've inspired us to form a band'," she says. "And I feel quite proud that I've given some people the will power to just do stuff."

The video which accompanies the song features Billie dancing her way around the back streets of Greenwich and begins with her being beamed down from a giant spaceship, a bare-midriffed envoy from Planet Youth. In fact Billie comes from somewhere slightly less exotic, namely Swindon, the town which spawned not only Melinda Messenger but, more pertinently, Diana Dors, who knew all about blazing a trail at an early age. By the time she was 13, Dors was already modelling as a pin-up for her local newspaper and at 14 she was doing nude modelling to help fund her career at drama school.

At 15 she joined the Rank Charm School and by the time she reached 16 she was making her first film appearances, living in her own rented flat in Chelsea and stepping out on the arm of Anthony Newley. All of which makes Billie look like a bit of a slow starter. The one thing she shares with Dors is a fierce ambition which was kindled early.

By the time she was four, she says, she had already decided she wanted to be famous. Years of holiday talent contests followed until she won a scholarship at the age of 12 to the renowned Sylvia Young Theatre School in north London, which serves as a positive conveyor belt of young stars - its more recent protegees including Emma Bunton from the Spice Girls and Big Breakfast presenter Denise van Outen. For two years Billie stayed with her aunt in Barnes but ended up commuting from Swindon. "I missed home a bit," she says.

Nowadays she has a private tutor and will be sitting her GCSEs next summer.

Like most stage-school kids, she took professional work wherever she could find it. She appeared as an extra in several films, most notably Evita, in which she had two whole lines. She was also modelling and last summer she went to an audition for what she thought was a one-off advertisement for the pop magazine Smash Hits. She got the job and then discovered she would be fronting the magazine's whole summer campaign. In the TV adverts, she was shown blowing a pink bubble of gum and shouting, "pop!"

Hugh Goldsmith, head of Virgin Records' Innocent label, saw the advert and liked what he saw. He was looking for someone "with an edge and character" and Billie fitted the bill. Virgin is treating her as a "priority act", although it is cagey about the amount of money it is spending on promoting her. However, Goldsmith commented recently that, "In today's climate, you are looking at a #1m investment to launch a pop act." A Virgin spokesman told me that "whatever we collectively deem necessary will be spent. The actual sums of money aren't something that we'll be advertising."

"She's got a long career ahead of her, she seems pretty special," says Alex Needham, associate editor of Smash Hits. "She's really charismatic and an excellent pop star and our readers are really interested in her."

The readers of Smash Hits are aged between eight and 16, predominantly female, and they form a constituency that record companies are finding increasingly profitable.

The official word from Virgin is that it wants Billie to attract "as large a cross-section as possible", but it is significant that as part of her promotional campaign for the single Billie has been making a tour of Britain's primary schools. The strategy for the future is to keep releasing "radio-friendly, commercial pop songs", although a maturing in Billie's sound may take place "as Billie matures herself", as the Virgin spokesman put it.

"There aren't that many solo female pop stars with that sort of attitude who our readers can really identify with," Needham continues. "She's kind of rebellious and on their side. She's really filling a gap in the market, I think. The only other solo female star is Louise, but she's quite a bit older and also she's seen as a bit sophisticated." "Streetwise" is the word Billie chooses to describe her image, although it has to be said that the kind of street she's wise to is undoubtedly tree-lined and thoroughly respectable.

Nevertheless, this didn't stop the Daily Mail from seeing young Billie as the personification of everything that is wrong with our young people today. On Wednesday the paper ran a full-page article headlined "Top of the poppets" which compared Billie's life and career with that of Helen Shapiro. But there was a point to be made.

"A glance at the differing backgrounds and behaviour of these two teenage starlets tells you a lot about how Britain has changed - little of it, many people will think, for the better," huffed the writer of the piece, who was clearly unaware of the early career of Diana Dors. And what was the evidence for this terrible decline in British moral standards? "Billie has already been photographed out on the town in a revealing slip dress and clutching a glass of champagne."

"I was a bit upset about that," Billie says of the article. "I was actually wearing a dress. There's a bit of a difference between a slip and a dress. And it wasn't revealing at all, it was just a normal dress and in fact it came down below my knees. I had about two glasses of champagne because I was celebrating my number-one record."

But there was more from the Mail, in the form of a sly innuendo. "It would never have occurred to Helen, or her classmates, to make love under age," it said. "Girls had boyfriends but teenage relationships were flirtatious - not physical." The article then went on to note that Billie "has had a steady boyfriend for eight months".

"That was really weird," says Billie. "I don't really think it's relevant whether I've been going out with him for a long time or not, because I think so many girls do go out with boys for a long time now. And personally I think it's better than sleeping with loads of different boys. Not that I'm saying I sleep with him or anything," she adds quickly. In fact, she's now split up with her boyfriend and is unattached.

Girls of Billie's age, although typically self-referential, seem to regard her being solo as a virtue: "She's different because she's on her own. I love the way she dances. I would like to get the chance to be a pop star," said Angela, a 15-year-old fan. "I like her because she's not like the Spice Girls. She's her own person with her own views."

If Billie has learnt one thing during her very brief career, it is that she cannot afford to give the press any excuses to jump on her.

"It's a bit scary," she says. "I just have to be careful what I'm doing. I don't really think I'm an immature 15-year-old. I sort of know what I want out of life and I know what's stupid and what's sensible. I know the pitfalls."

She also knows that newspaper journalists are often not to be trusted. "Sometimes I find they can be a bit patronising and manipulative, basically because I'm 15 and they think it's all right to do that," she explains.

"It can be quite hard sometimes. Some journalists just pressure me. They seem to want really personal things and I do get a bit scared sometimes. They want to know things about my private life that have nothing to do with my pop career - about boys and stuff.

"I just think it's so irrelevant to what I want to talk about, so it can get a bit scary."

At the moment, everyone wants a bit of Billie. After the success of US teenage band Hanson, pop stars seem to be getting younger by the day.

Earlier this year, 14-year-old Rosemary Behan's first single went into the charts and teenage sister trio Cleopatra from Manchester hit number three this year with "Cleopatra's Theme".

Cautionary tales from other teen stars never seem to deter budding young musicians. Michael Jackson, Donny Osmond and Brian Wilson, all stars before they were into their teens, have suffered from the effects of early fame.

But Billie is learning quickly how to cope with her sudden stardom.

She has mastered the art of signing autographs ("I just write `love and kisses, Billie', but sometimes it's nice to write their names so you get this sort of personal thing going on.") and she can tell an inquiring journalist her favourite colour without hesitating even for a split second (violet, if you're interested).

On the whole, she is having a ball. And as for the future, who knows? Billie's ambition is simply "to carry on being really ambitious". Which means she can't really fail, really. Smart girl.