With six albums, five children, a podcast and her fabulous lockdown kitchen discos, SOPHIE ELLIS-BEXTOR appears to lead a perfect charmed life. But as she tells Hattie Crisell, writing her new memoir took her back to much darker days.
This is the second time I have interviewed singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and she is exactly as I remember her. I’m not referring to her appearance, although of course she’s memorably striking – tall, green-eyed and beautiful, and today wearing a typically colourful floral jumpsuit that she picked up for £20 at a festival.
But there’s also something distinctive about her manner, which I admired last time, and even find myself envying. Sophie puts it best in her new memoir, Spinning Plates: Music, Men, Motherhood and Me. ‘It’s been my goal to be unapologetic. Kind, considerate, but clear with my boundaries.’ And that’s exactly how she comes across.
It’s not always easy for women to maintain those boundaries, and I include myself among them – traditionally, we’ve been encouraged to ease social encounters by being obliging. But while Sophie is polite, friendly, and prone to bursts of raucous laughter, she also projects a steady, low-key faith in who she is and what she thinks. Interviewing her is straightforward precisely because her boundaries are clear: I know that if she objects to a topic, she will say so. Yet when I warn her that I have questions about the more difficult parts of her book, she assures me that she feels fine talking about any of it.
Because the thing is, the 42-year-old woman I’m having lunch with today – an artist who has released six studio albums, produced five children and entertained the nation through lockdown with her famous kitchen discos – is in a much happier place than the girl I’ve been reading about in her memoir, who perhaps didn’t have that confidence. While Sophie always felt she was destined to be famous (‘Cringy to write but also true,’ as it says in the book), she went through a number of deeply unpleasant experiences in her late teens and early 20s that have shaped who she is today.
It started, she explains, with the ladette culture at the end of the 1990s, just as she was emerging from adolescence. The ladette ‘drank pints and had one-night stands, she could talk the talk and walk the walk, she wore a Wonderbra and could banter with the boys. She was ‘who I was supposed to be,’ writes Sophie. It was all about showing bravado when it came to sex and booze; but there wasn’t space to let on if you were uncomfortable or felt vulnerable. ‘It was intimidating and I felt way out of my league.’
Sophie joined her first band, Theaudience, aged 17, and soon started to be interviewed by male journalists, all of whom were older. They asked questions about her favourite sexual positions and commented on her breasts. During an early appearance on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, she was mocked humiliatingly for being the daughter of a Blue Peter presenter (Janet Ellis), and told ‘You’re not cool.’
And then there was her image, which was treated just as brutally. One photographer took an upskirt photo of her without her knowledge and sold it to the papers. Later, when Theaudience’s second album had faltered, she took work as a model. During a photo shoot to promote a hair salon, she was pressured into posing semi-topless, despite this being against the terms she’d agreed with her agency. Those photos – ‘me with sequins barely covering my modesty and the saddest eyes ever’, she writes – were eventually sold to Heat magazine.
None of this seedy treatment should be surprising to anyone who remembers the late 90s, yet two particularly damaging experiences stand out. At 17, Sophie met a man in a club and went back to his flat. They started kissing, but when she told him to stop, he didn’t. This rape – a term she took a while to recognise, because consent wasn’t such a hot topic at the time – is how she lost her virginity.
The second experience began shortly afterwards, when Sophie was studying for her A-levels: it was a relationship with an older man that lasted for several years and was increasingly abusive. ‘Teeny tiny, almost imperceptible shifts that make you think it’s normal to be routinely humiliated in public, or to be told you’re an idiot when you make a mistake, or that you’re past it and wrinkly. Before you know it you’re being threatened if you try to show independence,’ she writes. At its worst, her boyfriend wouldn’t allow her to walk down the street alone or look out of the car window. During one argument, he twisted her wrist so hard that the next day it was too swollen for her to put on a watch. She’s opened up about this now simply because a publisher approached her about writing a book, and lockdown seemed as good a time as any. Still, there was plenty to fill her autobiography, including tales of teenage rebellion, a rise to major pop success, an unexpected baby in her mid-20s, and life with a large family – so why did she choose to include these very personal traumas?
‘I think firstly, those things are really quite common,’ she says, as we dig in to lunch at a restaurant near her home in West London – a tiny eaterie where Sophie is such a regular the waitress already knows her order. ‘I think a lot of people have those experiences, and I’m hoping they resonate and reassure them a bit. I remember, in the midst of writing, I read Candice Brathwaite’s book I Am Not Your Baby Mother, and she talks about a similar experience for her. I thought, “Wow – actually seeing it written down by someone else, I find that reassuring.”’
Part of the reason the abuse was so insidious was that her ex’s constant criticisms and put-downs were so casually delivered. ‘You just think, “Oh, this must be what a grown-up relationship is like, this must be how people talk, this must be normal,”’ she says. ‘So much so that with my husband Richard [Jones, bass player in The Feeling], I almost thought, if I did something silly, “Why are you not calling me an idiot? Oh, OK, is that still passionate, then?” And actually yeah, you don’t have to go around punching people to be an amazingly strong person.’
What she went through, she thinks, has helped her to call out abusive behaviour in other situations. ‘Certainly, I’ve been straight-talking with girlfriends about things I think aren’t very healthy. Hopefully, I’ve done it in a way that’s tactful, but sometimes you just have to say to people, “You don’t seem very happy, and I’m just going to repeat back to you the things that you’re telling me,” and hold a mirror up to it, really. Then people make their own decisions.’
Though most of the book is more lighthearted, these two painful events were the chapters she wrote first. ‘I thought, I really want to tell those stories now. It was going back to give myself a voice, the times when I didn’t say something. And also I thought, if you’re going to write a book, what’s the point? To me being brave and bold and honest is all part of it.’ She’s keen to show her fans that an abusive relationship doesn’t have to dictate your future. ‘You can still end up somewhere happy and not be defined by things that weren’t great. Plus, I suppose it was a way of coming to terms with it myself, because you contextualise it in a different way than you did at the time – particularly the dynamic of how women were being written about back then, and what was seen as the goal of how to be a successful young woman.
I think that was quite damaging for my generation.’ The ladette stuff? ‘Yeah. I think among my peers, we’re probably all able to say, “What was that about? Thank goodness we don’t have to think about that any more.”’
Though she’s been married for 16 years to Richard and seems to live a largely happy life, what she went through left its mark. She writes in the book that she recently went to a boxing class with her husband, and when the instructor suggested they spar and Richard raised his fists in preparation, she burst into tears: ‘It took me completely
by surprise. The sparring had reminded me of something
I’d put in a hidden corner of my memory.’
Her ex sounds vile, I say, and she nods. ‘You do crazy things, don’t you? You give so much of yourself. I tried so hard to turn it into something it was never ever going to be. But I did get out. I did change it.’
She talked the book over with her husband before she started it. ‘Richard was incredibly encouraging,’ she says. ‘And we’ve been together a long time now, so there were no surprises. I think he understood the reason why I was motivated to write it; to maybe reach other people in similar situations. He thought it was important for me to do that.’ Her parents, Janet Ellis and the film-maker Robin Bextor, have both read it. ‘Most people that know me, of course, they know bits anyway,’ she says, then laughs, ‘and they also focus on all the stuff that involves them.’
Her kids – Sonny, 17, Kit, 12, Ray, nine, Jesse, five, and Mickey, two – were another reason for writing it. ‘They can start thinking about how they feel about those sorts of things as they get older,’ she says. The book explains that she taught them about consent early on: ‘When they play we use the words, “Stop” and “No”, and they are powerful. No matter how much fun they’ve been having up to that point, if one of them – even laughing – says “No” or “Stop”, then they must stop whatever they are doing. I want to raise considerate, kind people who can take other people’s feelings into account.’
None of them has read her memoir, but Sophie has already told her eldest son what she went through. ‘You gauge it on each child. It might be that it’s not right to talk about it at the same stage with the next child down, but certainly with Sonny I felt like he could understand. I did it in a way that was appropriate – I just told him, “I spent a lot of my time in something that wasn’t great, and you don’t have to do the same.” I’m selective, but I try to give them the insight of whatever I’ve learnt – it’s part of raising someone.’
Beyond that, she’s not worried about their reactions to the book. ‘I don’t think there’s anything that I would struggle to talk to them about. In fact, if I’m perfectly honest, I think they’re going to be pretty uninterested in the whole thing!’ She laughs. ‘My mum’s quite an open person. I’ve learnt things about her from what she’s said on the radio. That’s how she’s comfortable talking about herself, and it’s never bothered me, so my kids have just got to deal with it. They can cope with knowing I’m a whole adult person who lived a life before I was with their dad.’
Her life involved a lot more than the bruising experiences mentioned above. Sophie writes about her parents’ split when she was four, but also about the playground kudos that came with her mother’s presenter role on Blue Peter. Sophie talks fondly of the step-parents she acquired as a child – her mother’s husband John Leach (who died last summer) and her father’s wife Polly Mockford. And she charts the arrival over the years of her younger siblings: Jackson Ellis Leach, 34, who is a drummer in Sophie’s band, Martha Ellis Leach, 30, Dulce Bextor, 24, and 23-year-old twins Bertie and Maisy Bextor.
But perhaps the most heartwarming section of the book is devoted to her husband. It’s a love letter of sorts, that details the kindness and respect he has always shown her, and the easy friendship that evolved into more. She met Richard towards the end of her relationship with the abusive ex, when he auditioned to join her band. She recalls that the first thing she ever said to him was, ‘Nice amp,’ which was surprising, she writes, because ‘it is the only time in my life I’ve either a) really looked at an amp or b) complimented anyone on one.’ At home, they now have a neon sign bearing the words ‘nice amp’.
Things moved fast. She found out she was pregnant six weeks into their relationship, when they hadn’t even yet exchanged ‘I love you’. Shocked, Sophie considered terminating the pregnancy – ‘but I couldn’t get to that headspace,’ she writes. ‘As my tummy grew, so did the love that Richard and I felt for each other.’ Then, nine months after Sonny was born, Richard proposed to her – though she blurted out ‘Yes!’ before he’d even asked the question.
When I bring up this high romance, she becomes a bit awkward. The chapter on Richard was the hardest to write, she admits. ‘I’m not very good at that kind of thing. But I was much better at writing it down than I am at talking about it.’ She knows he liked it, but he didn’t say much, which she seems relieved about. ‘He’s much more likely to be romantic than I am, so he probably didn’t want to embarrass me.’
Whether or not she can say it out loud, her book suggests they are very well suited and deeply devoted to each other – but that’s not to say they haven’t been through some tough times. During Sophie’s pregnancy with Sonny, and even while she was still in hospital after his birth, she was trying to untangle her finances from those of her ex. Despite being given her home studio equipment and a brand-new car in the split, he felt he was entitled to more. Her pregnancy was also mysteriously leaked to the press, leading her to worry about who she could trust with personal information; it later emerged that her phone, as well as her mother’s and Richard’s, had been hacked.
Then at 28 weeks pregnant she was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, a condition which causes high blood pressure and meant that Sonny needed to be delivered by caesarean two months early. Sonny stayed in hospital for six weeks, with Sophie and Richard visiting twice a day. But it’s what happened a couple of months after he returned home, when the new family had settled into a happy routine, that makes for the most alarming reading. Sophie woke to find that Sonny had slept through his usual feeding time, and had a temperature of over 41C. He had meningitis.
Thankfully, the doctors were able to treat him quickly and his temperature was back under control later that day – ‘but I think the jolt of fear and adrenaline took a while to process,’ writes Sophie. ‘For years after I would freak out if any of the kids had a high fever.’
She’s typically philosophical now when she reflects on the stress of that period. ‘The main thing was, we didn’t know any different, and I’m quite an optimistic person anyway so I didn’t go through it all in a state of panic,’ she tells me. ‘It’s more that I look back and think of it as quite an intense period of our lives. Richard and I deal with quite a lot all the time and I think that was what forged our ability to cope – because there was not any let-up.’
Perhaps it also primed them to cope with the wobble in their marriage that was to come nine years later – during Sophie’s 2013 stint on Strictly Come Dancing, in which she was a finalist. She doesn’t mince her words about this experience in the book: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ she writes.
Her opinion of the show is based on that series, so it’s hard to know whether it would resonate with more recent participants – but I suspect much of it would. She believes pastoral care is lacking, and that there should be a counsellor on board to make sure everyone’s coping. ‘Everybody’s dealing with really big, real-life things, and it takes over probably like nothing else you’ve ever done,’ she says. ‘So much of it is ridiculously wonderful – the sets, the lighting, the music, the costumes, the make-up. I just think if there was a bit more emotional support for the people in the midst of it, it would at least be a nod to the fact that they’re thinking about it.’
She points out how demanding the schedule is, with rehearsals or recording six days a week for up to 13 weeks. The professional dancers, she believes, shoulder more strain than they should: ‘I think I was very unusual in that I never cried in front of Brendan [Cole,
her dance partner]. But they’re like counsellors as well. I heard stories about previous contestants. You know, imagine the confessional at the hairdressers, and then pretend you’re doing a paso doble with your hairdresser.’
Richard (who gave his blessing for her to write about this) struggled with her involvement in the show. ‘At the TV studio everything was adrenaline-fuelled and exciting but at home things were strained and I was finding it hard to give Richard the reassurance and support he needed,’ she writes. It took a while after the show finished for their marriage to recover.
She also found the judges’ emphasis on sexual chemistry deeply uncomfortable. ‘When we did the Argentine tango, all the comments were about whether it came across as a man having an affair with his other woman, because that’s apparently what that dance is about,’ she says, still a little incredulous. ‘And I’m like, “I’m not sure I want an extra couple of points for looking like I’m having an affair, because my grandpa’s watching, and my husband’s in the audience.”’
Did she expect Strictly to have an impact on her marriage? ‘God no! I had no bloody idea. I’d never seen it.’ Though she doesn’t name names, it’s well documented that two celebrities’ marriages ended during that series. ‘That’s not a small-fry thing,’ she says. ‘If I go on tour and there’s 15 of us in a crew bus, I don’t have two of them leave their partners at the end of the tour.’
Speaking of tours, her next one as a headliner – the Kitchen Disco Tour – has been pushed back to March next year. In the meantime, she’s promoting the appropriately titled Spinning Plates in between recording episodes of her podcast of the same name, performing at festivals, gearing up to support Steps on tour, and dealing with her toddler’s nocturnal wanderings (the week I meet Sophie, she and Mickey had spent a night sleeping on the floor outside her bedroom). She likes to be busy, but is glad the book allowed her a moment to stop and think.
‘My 40s are a good time to reflect on where I’m at,’ she says. ‘I’m clear in my mind about what I want, but also a lot more open, and more aware of where I’ve been in the past.
For me the book is all part of taking stock, and thinking actually, I’m quite a happy person.’ She does seem happy – and refreshingly unapologetic, too.
Sophie’s memoir Spinning Plates: Music, Men, Motherhood and Me will be published on 7 October by Coronet, priced £16.99*. For tickets to see Sophie talking about her book on 6 October at Henley Literary Festival and 8 October at Cheltenham Literature Festival, visit sophieellisbextor.net