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We've Talked About Marriage

The Interview - Billie Piper - we've talked about marriage - but.

By Ian Hyland. 17 October 1999 The Sunday Mirror

(c) 1999 Mirror Group Ltd

Gorgeous Pop Sensation Billie Piper Reveals All To A Shaken Ian

Billie Piper's in love. And don't you dare patronise it as some silly teenage crush. This is the big one, she'll have you know. "I'm so in love I don't know what to do with myself," the one-girl pop sensation giggles through a mouthful of Diet Coke. "I'm all keyed up. I can't explain it."

The object of her devotion is an older man, not difficult as Billie has only just turned 17, and she's already talking about engagement. The guy making her swoon uncontrollably is Richie Neville, 20-year-old singer with chart-topping boy band Five. Casual pop watchers will know him better as the blonde one with the interesting eye make-up, but to Billie he's just Rich, the guy who put the spark back into her life after her meteoric rise to stardom left her exhausted and bedridden.

"It's so cool being with Rich even though I hardly ever see him," she says. "It's difficult fitting time in between his schedule and my own diary but we talk all the time and when we do meet we make the most of it.

"He comes to my mum's house in Swindon and takes my 10-year-old brother, Charlie, out for a spin in his car, which makes Charlie love me even more. Then we'll go to the pictures or out for dinner. Just normal stuff really."

Normal stuff for young lovers maybe, but the couple's celebrity status has meant their 10-month romance has already sparked rumours of impending marriage.

"People say we're already engaged but that's ridiculous," she says. "We've talked about it just like every couple does, but I think marriage is a long way off yet."

Billie accepts all the attention like a seasoned pro - she has been in the spotlight for almost two years after all. Virgin Records pumped #1 million into this unknown schoolgirl from Melinda Messenger country not long after her 15th birthday. They'd spotted her in an advert for teenage pop magazine Smash Hits and before she had a chance to blow out the candles on her 16th birthday cake Billie had two No. 1 singles under her belt and her world was turned upside down. Then came the health problems.

"I'd always planned to be a pop star," she says, making it sound like a calculated career decision rather than a one-in-a-million dream.

"But I worked it too hard. I was doing too much. Too much singing, too much travelling, too much not relaxing. I got sick and it knocked me out."

The subsequent storm in the media might have knocked her out more if she'd been fully aware of it. Was it another case of greedy music industry bosses exploiting a defenceless child, was she on drugs, had she had an abortion?

Billie gives a look of someone who's just been told to tidy her room when she's on her way out.

"I got sick. I can't even remember what was wrong, it seems that unimportant now. I think someone told me it was water retention, but I'm not a doctor, what do I know? "Basically I was knackered then; now I'm not. Simple."

That told me. If you've never been put in your place by a 17-year-old it can be a humbling experience.

I went to meet Billie expecting a prima donna, a brat spoilt by her success. But she was cool. Not too cool like she was playing the media game. Just cool, like "hiya let's have a chat."

And did she need an avalanche of record company people or her mum and dad sitting in for protection like so many other stars? Not a bit of it. We sat in a room on our own and admired the brand new Ford her record company Virgin bought her for her birthday. She can't drive yet, of course. She may be young, but she's no pushover. Billie reserves her real vitriol for magazine editors who want her to dress in sexy underwear for photo shoots. And it's here she shows she's no record company puppet, she's a 17-year-old with a streak of steel.

"It's hilarious," she says. "The things they say to try and persuade you. You'll agree before you turn up that you're definitely not doing knickers and bras. Then once you're in make-up you see the rails of clothes and it's like, bikini, see-through top, panties, bras. Then the `Billie, how about doing it this way?' starts and I'm like `no, no, no'."

Billie laughs at the thought of men's awkwardness when they meet her these days. But she's comfortable with her growing sexuality and has discussed it with her mum.

"If people are thinking of me as a sex symbol then that's life, isn't it?" she says, trying to fix my eyes. (Nice carpets they've got at Virgin HQ by the way). "It's funny when I meet guys now because I can see them thinking, `Ooof! how do I act here'. But I just be myself. That does the trick."

A recent ally is former EastEnders star Martine McCutcheon, who shares the same record company office.

"Martine is great," she says. "I was nervous when I first met her but now she's like my big sister and she gives me loads of advice. I love her attitude, she doesn't take any crap - call her Tiff and you're dead." Billie's team also includes her mum, Mandy, and dad, Paul, and even though Billie's spending more time in hotels all over the world, Mandy's shoulder is always available by phone.

It was Mandy who she phoned in tears after this year's Brit Awards. She'd seen herself on the TV dressed in a red spandex, Seventies-style, all-in-one outfit, dancing alongside pop waifs B*Witched, and thought she looked fat. "Normally I'm OK with my body image but I just thought I looked huge alongside them and I had to talk to my mum about it," she says. "But

I'm never going to be some supermodel rake and I can't say I want to be. I'm big-boned, I'm average size and weight. And I love burgers and chips."

Although Billie is comfortable with her body she knows a lot of children her age aren't.

"I get loads of letters from fans and they talk to me about their problems. I try to give them advice from my own experience," she says. But she laughs at any thought of her being some kind of teenage agony aunt.

"I wouldn't go that far," she says. "I'm still growing up myself, so I'm hardly qualified, am I?"

Similarly, and despite her debut hit Because We Want To sounding like an anthem for schoolground anarchy, Billie says she has avoided becoming a spokeswoman for the teenage movement. "I don't want to get involved in that kind of thing because things you say have a habit of catching up with you," she says. "Imagine if I say, `Don't smoke, kids' and someone takes a picture of me holding a cigarette for someone at a party."

It would be easy to get depressed at such a cynical attitude but Billie quickly follows it up with an anecdote about laughing at her dad passing wind.

Nothing to worry about there, then.

(c) Mirror Group Ltd, 1999.