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Because She Can

Because she can - The Big Interview - Billie Piper.

By Angus Batey. 5 December 1998 Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 1998

With her perma-smile, peachy-keen attitude and cheerleader talent, Billie is an A&R man's dream. But is she the Nineties Bonnie Langford or a new Madonna? Angus Batey wonders if this is Girl Power gone mad. Portrait: Neil Cooper.

Inside a cavernous warehouse on a west London industrial estate, pop video magic is taking place. While the technical team busy themselves for the day's shoot, Billie Piper waits patiently for her cue. She appears totally unfazed by being a 16-year-old pop star. "I hope that people are intrigued by me, by my age, by how ambitious I am and how much I want to succeed," Billie had told metro some days earlier. "There's a lot of people who're my age who are really depressed and alone, and who feel like they have no direction in life. I just want to prove that there's more to life than just giving up. Hopefully people will look at me and say: 'She's just a little girl who comes from Swindon. If she can do it, so can I.' "

The video is being made in two parts. Today's session follows Billie and friends on a night out at the pictures, while the earlier portion, filmed last week, is a straightforward dance affair. That video is now being shown on a huge screen, just behind Billie's head. There is a jarring noise as the tapes begin to roll and suddenly she's dancing, spinning, singing and gesticu lating, bellowing out the lyrics to her new single, She Wants You. Moving smoothly with an ultra-crisp, digital sheen, the big screen playback shows Billie dancing with a collection of exceptionally youthful and energetic male cohorts.

Both musically and visually, She Wants You owes much to Janet Jackson. The strange knock-kneed movements that made Michael's little sister look like a space invader on the If video are reprised by Piper and friends, while the track, a belting disco-pop tune with a chorus that will almost fasten on to your brain like Velcro, could have been concocted for Jackson herself.

Billie sings along, occasionally looking up at the enormous image of herself. While this might be a disconcerting scenario for many of us, it is just another day in the life of a star who seems to have fallen, fully formed, into the national consciousness.

Her debut single, the insanely catchy Because We Want To, reached the top of the charts this summer. Its follow-up, the cutesie, swingbeat ballad Girlfriend, made it two in a row in September, providing Billie with a belated 16th birthday present. "You have to start with a really powerful song to get into it, because that's your official stamp," she says. "A lot of people have compared it to Girl Power and the Spice Girls and all of that. That's fair enough, and I want to represent being young. There's a lot of arguments between the younger generation and the older generation because we're not given a chance to speak, or they just patronise us."

There is little doubt that Billie's rise has been spectacular. But who is she, where did she come from, and what realistic chance has she got of going on to challenge the Janets and Madonnas of this world? And what does her rapid ascent and future prognosis tell us about the state of pop music?

Just as there is an artificial distinction that divides so-called 'high' art from popular culture, so there exists a similiar division between the serious craft of rock and the essentially trivial business of manufactured pop.

Billie, fairly obviously, falls squarely into the manufactured pop category, and her press clippings reflect this. Proponents of the "manufactured equals bad" school of thought, who automatically hate records like Billie's, will be delighted to learn she effectively existed as a concept dreamed up in a record company marketing meeting, even before a name and a face were found to front the project.

Hugh Goldsmith is the Managing Director of the Virgin Records-affiliated Innocent label, Billie's musical home, and he understands that there is much more to a great pop star than just a singer and a song. Timing is vital, and there is no substitute for understanding your potential audience. "My feeling is that the best pop music over the last 40 years has come about through teams of people working together to create an end product," Goldsmith argues. "If you go back to the days of Motown, Berry Gordy would marry young artists with fantastic voices and great performing ability with great songs and great producers. The same thing happened in the Seventies with the Chinn and Chapman era of glam rockers. Bands like Sweet and Mud were the performers of great songs, written by great writers and produced by great producers. Then we had Stock, Aitken and Waterman in the Eighties. They sold thousands of records to delighted fans of pop music."

Goldsmith believes that the changes wrought to the pop landscape by the momentous success of the Spice Girls changed the nature of the business. "I honestly think the Spice Girls really opened the floodgates for a whole generation of pop fans," he says. "The combination of the Spice Girls and then Barbie Girl by Aqua meant that suddenly you've got a whole wave of six, seven and eight-year-old kids who love pop music."

With the new company ready to get off the ground, Goldsmith and his Head of A&R, Cheryl Robson, realised there was a gap in this newly buoyant market for a young female solo artist. "We were chatting away about Madonna, and we decided to keep our eyes open," Goldsmith recalls. "And literally within three or four days of having that conversation, Billie popped up in front of me on the cover of Music Week in an ad for Smash Hits..thought, 'Blimey, she looks fantastic! God knows if she can sing, but I've got to meet her.' " A star, as they say, was born.

Billie, a scholarship student at the renowned Sylvia Young theatre school, had been chosen by Smash Hits to appear in a television and print advertising campaign. After seeing the Music Week ad Goldsmith and Robson immediately arranged to meet Billie and her father. After they had ascertained that not only could she sing and dance, but that she was a pop addict with a yearning for fame, whose heroine was Madonna, the next step was to collate some material. Cheryl called in songwriters and producers Wendy Page and Jim Marr. Initially, they were asked to work with Piper simply to see what came out of it. In the end the sessions went so well that much of the material produced formed Billie's debut LP, Honey to the B, which has already sold well over 100,000 copies.

Innocent Records, staffed by dyed-in-the-wool record industry professionals, are really anything but. While no expense will be spared to make great pop records, the label isn't in the habit of throwing money around. The taking of unnecessary risks is not on the agenda. But they don't order anyone about. "I think we ' ve been cast as exploitative or manipulative, which is rather unfair," Goldsmith says, assessing Billie ' s media coverage. "We ' re not big, bad record executives. People forget that there have always been 16-year-old stars. In the supermarket I go to, there ' s a girl that works there who I keep telling my wife, 'She looks like a star. ' But you don ' t just walk up to a girl in a supermarket and offer to make her a star. That would be exploiting someone."

Such charges are commonplace, with jealousy being the most likely motive. Over recent weeks a series of malicious and totally unfounded rumours suggesting the imminent demise of Billie's career have been propagated within pop industry circles; that she's had an abortion and that she has a drug problem are two of the nastiest. Billie's reaction is unequivocal; "The downside to all the success has been that there have been tons of untrue things said about me. It seems to happen when there isn't much other news about, that stuff gets made up and rumours start. It does get upsetting but I suppose I have to learn to take the good with the bad." The latest claim, denied by her record company, is that she is to marry a male model.

Goldsmith, with his years in the game, has learned that those sort of stories are a reprehensible by-product of a backbiting business, particularly in Britain, where success spawns suspicion. But the very fact that Piper has always craved stardom and has been readied for the negative, as well as the positive aspects of it, must surely work in her favour.

"Billie ' s been prepared for fame," Goldsmith concurs. "It's what she's wanted since she was...nothing. She ' s been in Evita and EastEnders. She ' s not new to the media and the entertainment industry, which a girl picked out of a bus queue would be. What we have to do is make sure that we plan her education and we plan her diary so that she has time to be normal. I'd take no pleasure selling lots of Billie records if she ends up burning out or missing out. That would be too sad." So she is keeping up her education with the help of a private tutor, and still lives at home.

For her part, Billie isn ' t worried about missing out on "normal" teenage activities. On the contrary, she ' s actually quite relieved. "It ' s hard being a teenager," she says. "I know a lot of people would say: 'You don't have to pay bills, you don't have to do this or that,' but no one listens to you and everything you try and do is wrong."

She remembers her recent sixteenth birthday party with a degree of wonder. "There was about three or four hundred people there, it began at eight and went on til about one in the morning. I got there at eight and I never sat down once! I was socialising all night with everyone I've worked with, and although it was nice to see everyone again I never got the chance to sit down and go, 'Oh my God, this is all for me because I'm 16'. And a year ago I would have had a party in Pizza Hut or something."

Billie pretty much redefines the word "ambitious". But, just as Innocent don't want to manipulate her, she is in no hurry to be led down career paths she would be unhappy with. "I certainly would not want to become famous for being the best woman at getting my clothes off." Would she have let her desire for fame overcome her principles if Goldsmith has insisted her debut single contain a message she wasn't happy with, but was guaranteed to get her to No. 1? "No," she answers unhesitatingly. "I wouldn't want to be successful singing things I didn't agree with."

While the here today, gone tomorrow likes of Rick Astley or Chesney Hawkes are numerous, there are a very small number of pop artists in general, and teenage stars in particular, who go on to have any sort of career longevity. What hope is there for Billie?

"If I didn't know Billie I'd probably say she's too young for the music business," Wendy Page says. "But I do know her, and I think she has the talent, the ambition and the ability to be around for a very long time indeed. She also works hard and is very level-headed about it all. She's very intelligent."

A young woman less likely to self-destruct or lose the plot would be hard to find. Billie Piper is a pop star because that is what she's always wanted to be. Like the heroes of rock, she has achieved her goals on her own terms. The fact that she has done it all by the time of life most of us are still struggling with maths exams, just underlines how much faster society moves at the end of this century. Janet and Madonna had better look over their shoulders: the next generation has arrived.

The new single, She Wants You, is released by Innocent on Monday December 7.