To one side of the stool on which Charlotte Church is perched while she has her make-up done is a shelf piled with very expensive jewelery. Semiprecious gems the size of babies' fists hang from chunky gold chains; a tiny diamante tiara dangles from a silver necklace. To her other side lies a cardboard box from which peep out a sheepskin waistcoat and a couple of handbags. Just a few of the gifts sent to her by adoring designers since she last came to London.
Char -- everyone calls her Char -- is in her element, with a favorite accessory in each hand: carton of strawberry Ribena in one, cigarette in the other.
There is no doubt that Charlotte Church was born to be a performer. She has been in the studio less than five minutes and already she is regaling me, the make-up artist, the hairdresser and the stylist's assistant with an impression of her beloved Nana (grandmother). Charlotte is trying to give up smoking, but finding it hard, partly because, as she puts it with her usual delicacy, "I fucking love smoking," and partly because at home in Cardiff she is surrounded by her mum, dad, Nana and grandad, all of whom smoke 20 a day.
The previous evening, she had been scratching irritably at a nicotine patch, trying to hold out without a cigarette, while her Nana (in Charlotte's pantomime impression) leaned back in her favorite chair, taking exaggerated, drags on her cigarette and sighing contentedly. "I was miserable as fuck and she was just going, `You'll be fine, love.' And then, after five minutes she got sick of me looking so fed up, so she said, `Stop moaning and have a fag (cigarette), you silly cow.' So I did and it was lush! I felt so much better."
It is a classic Church story: down-to-earth, bawdy, and not remotely what her record company wants to hear. Since leaving her Voice Of An Angel days behind, and turning into the party girl and pop star of her late teens, Charlotte has endeared herself to the British public in a different way. Liam Gallagher, famously, is a fan, "because she can sing and she knows how to get fucking hammered (take her drink)."
Church became an international celebrity at 12. Child stardom is, in pop-ular wisdom, a tried-and-tested road to neuroses, self-destruction and general loopiness. Yet she believes that it is precisely having become famous so early that has kept her normal.
"I'm exactly the same person I would be if I wasn't famous," Church says, "because I was so young when I started out that the people in charge of me couldn't try to change me. When you're 12, you're very well protected, legally, so no one was allowed to tell me what to do or what to say. And then I sold so many records that by the time the gloves were off and they wanted to tell me what to do, I didn't have to take any shit."
So far, so Charlotte. What I wasn't expecting was for her to be beautiful. And she is: huge, almond-shaped, grey-green eyes, a feline, heart-shaped face that flips from aloof to cheeky when she smiles, peachy curves and creamy skin. Today, she is here to model her favorite pieces from the latest collection by her favorite designer, Roberto Cavalli.
It is a good match. She is the ultimate party girl; his Milanese label has become the go-to name for the best party dresses in town. Charlotte found and fell in love with his clothes when she 16, and about to go on stage in Las Vegas. "I suddenly realized, this is Vegas and I don't have anything to wear that's full-on enough. So I went shopping and I found this amazing dress: sort of lemony-cream, painted silk. I'm not really into designer stuff, so I'd never heard of Cavalli, but I just fucking loved this dress. It was US$7,000 -- my trustees went nuts."
Charlotte has curves. The jeans she arrives in, which have "Apple Bottom" emblazoned across the backside, could not be more appropriate. "I look like a heifer on TV," she says cheerfully, "because TV puts a stone on you. But I'm happy with how I look. I like looking like this. Why change just to be like everyone else? What's the point of that?"
Lunch arrives, and she piles her plate with salmon and salad. "What's that?" she asks, pointing suspiciously at a quiche. Someone explains. She wrinkles her nose. "Oooh, I don't like the sound of that. I think I'll stick to good old carbs," and she adds a couple of hunks of bread to her plate, washing the whole lot down with another carton of strawberry Ribena. She has a sweet tooth: two sugars in her tea, and on a night out, her trademark tipple is the Cheeky Vimto, a mix of port and a blue, vodka-based alcopop called WKD.
"I will probably have to start watching what I eat at some point," she muses as she tucks in, "because I just hate the gym. It's hell. I've been to yoga with my mum a couple of times, and I didn't mind that -- not too vigorous. I liked the bit where you relax on the floor. Basically, I'm a lazy cow."
This is not strictly true. Charlotte is promoting Call My Name, the second single from her first pop album,Tissues And Issues, the day before our shoot, a Sunday, she performed live in Bradford (northern England) and Aberdeen (Scotland) before flying back to Cardiff for dinner with her parents.
Recently the media have begun calling Charlotte and her boyfriend "the Welsh Posh and Becks" (after David Beckham and his wife Victoria, aka Posh Spice). Charlotte doesn't have much time for this comparison, either. "Well, what can I say? She doesn't sing any more, she's a mother of three, they're married, he plays football, they're much older than us and they live in Spain. I don't see the comparison, really."
She is full of praise for Gavin -- "I love him to bits, he's just so lush. Especially after both my ex-boyfriends, who were total wankers to me all the way through" -- but is already too wise to make declarations she might regret. (On her album note to him she says, "I'm intrigued about what will happen in our future -- I hope to write many soppy songs about you.") There is a real-world honesty about Charlotte.
Charlotte may be mouthy, but she is not stroppy. Her only demand on the day of the shoot is for strawberry Ribena, which is hardly Mariah Carey behavior. And she has morals, as well as manners. She turned down Gavin on his first approach because she wasn't single, even though her boyfriend at the time was totally ghastly. "I'm just a very faithful girl."
When our shoot ends after 6pm, Charlotte gets back into her car to be driven home to Cardiff. The next morning at 5.30am, she will be in the car once more, in order to make a breakfast TV interview in London. Despite her manager's attempts at persuasion, she flatly refuses to stay overnight in the hotel room that has been booked for her. "Nothing is more important to me than getting back to Cardiff.
What I care about is that I keep my Nana happy, that my family are happy and healthy, and that my girls are OK. My career comes after that."
She lights another cigarette. "I guess that's what's kept me out of the Priory."
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