‘Being a pop star meant nothing’ Shirlie and Harley Kemp on the bond that saw them through the toughest of times

Shirlie Kemp was one of the biggest names of the 80s – but all she really wanted was to be a mum. In our revealing new series exploring the unique and complex relationships between mothers and daughters, she and Harley describe the bond that saw them through the toughest of times. 

Shirlie and Harley Kemp
Shirlie and Harley in St Lucia, 2013; Shirlie was renewing her wedding vows with husband Martin.

Shirlie’s story

Shirlie Kemp, 57, found fame in the 80s pop group Wham! as half of the singing duo Pepsi & Shirlie.

I didn’t know what anxiety was until I had Harley. I was 27, she was my first baby. When I took her home, I was suddenly struck with this terrible feeling, the worst worry you could imagine. I realised it was the huge responsibility you feel when you love something.

I’ve been with Martin [Kemp, Spandau Ballet bassist and EastEnders actor] for 37 years, married for 32. As soon as I met him, I told him, ‘I want to have children!’ I had endometriosis so I’d been told I might find it difficult to get pregnant. It took us three years to conceive. I felt sorry for Martin as I was sad all the time and he didn’t know what to do. When one of my schoolfriends had a baby she brought her round and I couldn’t stop holding her little girl. A baby was everything I wanted.

When I finally had Harley in 1989 it changed my identity. Being a pop star meant nothing – becoming a mother was the real crown. At the time, Pepsi and I were still recording. We were making an album and I took Harley to Los Angeles when she was eight months old. We were in the studio where it was so loud; Harley was crying and I felt so stressed. I thought, ‘What am I doing this for?’ I knew I had to stop. I wouldn’t be as rich as I wanted, but Harley meant so much more. I told Pepsi I couldn’t do it any longer and I’ve never, ever regretted it.

When you go on tour, it makes you crave being at home. I think all those years I spent away made me long for that domestic life. I love to nurture people and I was determined to give Harley the stability that I lacked growing up. My childhood was quite chaotic – there was lots of arguing, fighting and screaming. My parents didn’t have a good marriage – my dad constantly shouted at my mum so she was often upset. I adored my mum but, to me, she was a victim. A child shouldn’t worry whether their mum is OK.

I was loved but I wasn’t given any confidence. I wasn’t taught that ambition comes from finding something that you really want to do. I loved dancing and acting, but it was just shut down. I thought, ‘When I have children I’m going to show them every possibility that there is in life. Whatever they want to do, I want to encourage them.’

When Harley was five and her brother Roman [Kemp, now a popular radio and TV presenter] was two, Martin was diagnosed with multiple brain tumours. He had to have surgery to remove them and a metal plate was put in his head. The whole ordeal knocked me for six. Martin never said, ‘Why has this happened to us?’ But I did. Had we done something wrong? Were we being punished somehow?

Shirlie and Harley Kemp
Shirlie and Harley Kemp

The emotional toll was horrendous. There’s a picture of me from that time where I look so thin and grey. I bought every self-help book on the planet and I did reiki (alternative energy healing) courses. I thought, ‘I will make Martin better!’ I could write an encyclopedia on alternative therapies.

The children were too young to understand what was happening. Harley thought her dad had a bump on his head. But it was having my children that made me cope. Knowing that they had to have a steady routine kept me going.

Annie Lennox lived around the corner from us at the time and sent me the most beautiful letter. Now, when anyone is going through something awful, I always write to them.

Thankfully, Martin recovered but the experience made me realise how fragile life is and I’ve always been a bit overprotective with Harley – especially when she was a teenager. I would drive her to a disco, pretend I’d gone home but sit outside in the car, just to try to catch her out. I was – I am – so terrified of anything happening to her.

When Harley moved out to live with her friends I was bereft. I couldn’t stop crying for days. It felt as though there was a huge hole in the house as well as my heart. It took a couple of years to adjust to it – but then Roman moved out, too! I got back into photography and started collecting vintage clothes. You’ve got to fill your time with something you love.

I know Harley thinks I worry too much, so I always say to her, ‘Think how protective you are of your dog, Oscar. Now, times that feeling by a thousand. That’s how it feels to be a mother.’

Shirlie and Harley Kemp
Harley, aged three, kisses Shirlie’s tum while she is pregnant with Roman

Harley’s story

Harley Kemp, 30, is a photographer and musician.

Mum is a full-blown ‘momager’ in our family – like Kris Jenner, the matriarch of the Kardashians. She’s the backbone and makes sure the rest of us are OK. If she’s not dropping someone off to an audition, she’s reading lines or rehearsing songs with us. I ring her every day at 8am and we talk for an hour.

Our family is really close. For my parents’ first album together [Shirlie and Martin recorded In The Swing Of It last year], I wrote two of the songs, shot the album cover and my creative agency made the TV ad.

Mum was enthusiastic about everything I did so when I got into photography, my parents became obsessed with it, too. I’d be given an assignment and I’d come home to find Mum and Dad had set up a mini photo studio. Sometimes they’d even take the pictures and I’d be like, ‘Stop, this is my project!’

When I started writing music alongside my photography, I had that feeling of not wanting to be the ‘daughter of’. My parents were hugely successful. I was worried that if I went to a record label they were just going to say, ‘Well, this isn’t Wham!’ Now I’ve got over that and it’s great that I can go to Mum for career advice – although when I asked her for business tips, she said, ‘Close your eyes and imagine money falling over you. Then chant: “money, money, money.”’ She had learnt it at a workshop but I was furious – what kind of advice is that?!

Shirlie, Martin, Harley and Roman Kemp
The Kemps together in London last year. Image: Getty Images

I’m roughly the same age Mum was when Dad got ill. To think she dealt with that, and raised two small children, shows how strong she is. She’s sensitive and soft but can really hold it together. When my dad wrote his life story [True was released in 2000] he told me he did it because he thought he was going to die and said, ‘I didn’t want you to not know who I was.’ But I still haven’t read it; it’s too emotional.

Mum and Dad have been together nearly four decades, so the bar for relationships is high – it’s no wonder I’m single. They’ve got such a good balance: Mum gives him so much support with his career, then he cooks and cleans at home.

A few years ago I joined Mum and Pepsi on a month-long UK 80s nostalgia tour as her backing singer. On the first night she whispered to me at the side of the stage, ‘I can’t do this. I feel sick.’ Then the stage manager shoved me on and I was there alone, panicking about what would happen when the lights came up. But Mum came on shimmying and doing high kicks. Afterwards Pepsi told me, ‘Oh, don’t worry, she always does that!’ It was so much fun. I know that experience is really unique for most mothers and daughters, so I appreciate even those crazy moments.

Shirlie and Harley in four

Describe each other in three words.
Shirlie: Fun, kind, truthful.
Harley: Caring, playful, supportive.

Their worst habit?
Shirlie: She’s a workaholic.
Harley: She worries unnecessarily.

When you’re together…
Shirlie: It’s like a comedy sketch. We’re always laughing.
Harley: We’re more like sisters. She comes to my place for sleepovers.

Your favourite memory of each other.
Shirlie: The lists she wrote as a teenager, planning out her outfit for the next day.
Harley: Being in the Spice Girls’ ‘Mama’ video together. You can see the top of my head for a few seconds.

Shirlie and Martin Kemp’s album In The Swing Of It is out now.

As told to Hanna Woodside