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I've Sorted My Head Out, I've Come Back And I'm Better

I've sorted my head out now. I've come back and I'm better

30 March 2000 The Express

Billie Piper has had two number one singles. She has been sold-out to the tabloids by her friends. She has broken down and burned out from over-work. She has plumbed the shallow depths of celebrity and resurfaced realising the value of kebab shops and doing your own washing. Billie Piper is 17. For the youngest female singer to reach number one in 38 years, fame has been a steep-learning curve.

Hidden behind heavy photo-shoot make-up which belies her years, Billie talks matter of factly about the downward spiral towards a breakdown that followed her first number one. "Just over a year ago, I got really stressed out," she says, drinking a refreshingly non-diet Coke through a straw. "I was just burned out." Then came the first killer blow: "It got to the point where my friends were selling stories to newspapers and I realised that people I really loved could just shit on me." Perhaps her friends, just teenagers themselves, were naive? "No." Billie shakes her head. "They did it for money. My friends were wise enough not to be tricked and they knew what tabloids were like. I knew they'd got money for it and I was gutted."

She began to miss her parents desperately. "I was living in a hotel and it was just full-on," she says. Things began to fall apart. She developed a bladder infection which kept her awake at night, the lack of sleep making her more over-tired and even less able to cope. But it was the split with her first real love, David Price, amid rumours that she was pregnant, which tipped her over the edge and into hospital. "We split up and then it just all got on top of me and I got ill," she says. "I was in so much pain that in the end I was rushed to hospital. I was so tired and over-worked and the bladder infection had got worse."

Even in hospital there was little relief. Tabloid speculation suggested now that the "pregnant" Billie Piper was, in fact, recovering after an abortion. The rumours ran that she was having an affair with her manager, that she was marrying her teen sweetheart from her home town of Swindon, that she was close to the edge.

"It was cruel," she says. "No one was interested in the truth. But the people at the record company [Virgin] were fantastic. They just said: 'She needs time off,' and gave me as much time as I wanted." Sucking on her straw between rapid-fire sentences, Billie makes it sound very simple. "I had a while off, sorted my head out, came back and I was a lot better," she says. "It gave me the chance to think about all the good things which were happening."

A year on, out the other side with a new album, a cheerily upbeat new pop song, Day And Night, and a stylish new video, Billie is better, brighter and back.

Slurping on her Coke, wearing an ironic "Daddy Buy Me A Pony" t-shirt, she says she has found her sanity in the simpler things in life. Nowadays, she'd rather spend time eating chips at a Harvester pub than at the Met Bar, she says. The garish attractions of celebrity life have faded.

"I'd rather go down the greasy spoon," she says, pulling a face as her accent unconsciously heads for the West Country. "Or go and watch a film and get a takeaway. Those are my favourite times. You're not trying to be anyone you're not; you're not out being a star."

She is a different person now, though. The most important thing she has learned from her pop star boyfriend, Ritchie from the boyband Five - at 20 a veteran of the pop scene - is not to be so open with people.

"I can see through people, or I like to think I can," she says thoughtfully, "and it seems like a terrible loss of innocence, but then I've got so much love to give people that I really let people in, and Ritch has taught me not to do that so much because it only ends in tears and gets me into trouble."

Her parents have been hugely supportive without being pushy or overly cautious, but again the reason for their closeness is essentially sad.

"It's funny, because I never used to tell them anything about my life," Billie says, "but now I tell them everything. I have to because I've no one else I can totally trust." She says all this in the same matter-of-fact voice. She is not asking for sympathy because she knows she is living every little girl's dream. And yet, you can't quite envy her. It's as if she's grown up in fast-forward and everyone's let her down at once instead of over the span of a lifetime.

It's frequently hard to imagine that Billie is so young that the first record she bought was Madonna's Immaculate Collection. Two years ago, as a drama student, she would have given a lot to be invited to showbiz bashes. Now, having hit number one with both Girlfriend and Because We Want To, she knows different.

"You see these pictures of famous people coming out of the Met Bar and everything looks great and they're all dressed up and they're hanging out with all the celebrities..." she sighs, "but you go in the Met Bar and it's really dark and no one talks to each other because it's not cool to talk to somebody."

Suddenly she almost shouts. "It's so LAME and crap and boring. Everyone's so mad and off it. It's so much better to go down your local pub and have a right good chuckle."

Ritchie, a national heart-throb, similarly eschews celebrity life, she says. "He's just straight down the line, Ritch. He's very wise and really close to his roots. He appreciates normality, he's so not starry," she says. "He's not paranoid and he hasn't got any hang-ups or anxieties. He hates going to showbiz parties."

The couple spend very little time together due to hectic touring and recording schedules, leaving pundits hinting at a cynical Geri-and-Chris publicity stunt.

Billie takes such accusations in her stride. "At the beginning it was terrible being apart so much - it was like forever pining and just feeling sick all the time. You can't get enough, moderation goes out the window, you're just being so greedy, you want more and more," she says. "I went away to America for a couple of months and that was just hell - but, actually, that helped us to deal with how the relationship is now." She shrugs her shoulders. "In the end, we just have to handle it because that's our jobs."

Becoming one half of a celebrity couple, a sort of junior Posh 'n' Becks, brought its own realisations about fame. "We're so accessible to people's lives, it's almost as if we're not real people - we're not allowed to have real lives or real emotions," Billie says, with the wisdom of someone who has been forced to take a long hard look at her life.

But how can she expect people to think she's a real person when she looks like Barbie, all make-up and pastels, hanging out with her plastic boyfriend, Ken? "But these are my work clothes," she protests, reasonably. "I never wear make-up at home. I never wear nice clothes. I wear the crappiest things I can find and a cap and trainers. But in this job you have to look good. That's part of being a pop star."

Five fans have reacted jealously to the couple's closeness, to the point where Billie was booed at an awards ceremony. "I know it sounds like it should be easy to shrug off," she says, "but when it's your job to get up on the stage and I'm suddenly too scared to do it - it messed my head up for a while." In the end she tried to put herself in their shoes. "I thought: 'Well, I've never done anything wrong to them,'" she says. "Then I started to understand that if I had a heart-throb and some pop star girl came on the scene, well, I'd be a bit like: 'What a bitch...'" She is philosophical about her future with Ritchie. "I'm only 17, he's only 20. I hope we will be together for a while," she says slowly, and you realise she's a teenager who no longer believes in fairy tales. "The good thing is that, if we ever do split up, I'm sure we will always be good friends because we're neither of us the kind of people to hold a grudge."

His only love-rival is a chocolate labrador called Milo. "He's the best thing at the moment. He's only five months old but he's the most handsome thing I've ever seen." Billie has recently bought her own flat which Milo shares. "He makes me less selfish," she says, smiling her huge smile, a great big mouth filled with impossibly white teeth. "You've got a responsibility."

Visits from her little brother and sisters, to whom she is clearly devoted, also keep her grounded. Her 10-year-old brother is one of her best friends, old before his years like his sister. "He's really deep and laid back, almost like he's a teenager before his time," says Billie. "He's a really good friend. He doesn't want to be a pop star - he wants to be a vet."

Billie Piper, it turns out, doesn't want to be a pop star either. "When I get to about 25 I can say: 'Well, I've done the pop star thing,'" she says, her whole future planned out. "Then I'll become an actress for a while and then I'll have my own business. I'd like my own record company - my own little empire. Then I can spend the rest of my life chilling out, knowing I've achieved big things and hopefully made a bit of money." She shrugs disarmingly. "I don't doubt my ability to do any of this." Billie's new single, Day And Night, is out on Virgin Records on May 8.