Sophie Ellis-Bextor: 'I kept selling Blue Peter badges in the playground'

The singer on chart battles with Victoria Beckham, doing the cha-cha on Strictly and the perks of having a TV presenter mum

Hello Sophie! What's the plan for lunch today? (1)
That's a very good question. I don't know. We're at the end of the weekly run before we get the shopping in, so I think my choices are going to be limited. I'll cobble something together.

I noticed the other day that a magazine spelt your name wrong on their cover. Are you used to people getting it wrong yet?
God yes. In a way it was disappointing they only made a small mistake – "er" instead of "or" at the end of my name. Quite pedestrian really. I've had some really extraordinary misspellings of my name, including Beckstar. That was probably my favourite.

A lot of people drop the hyphen. Does that upset you?
No. I always say it's optional. I don't mind.

Your last album, 2011's Make A Scene, peaked at No 33 in the UK. Your new one Wanderlust went top 10. What's happened?
Thank you for noticing! It's been pretty amazing what's happened with this album. It was a little bit of a risk this one as it's a bit of a departure (2). I suppose the interesting thing about the last record was that I was doing a lot of gigs overseas, so I know that here [in the UK] it didn't set the world on fire but actually it kept me busy. And that's what lead me to spending a lot of time travelling, especially in eastern Europe. That led me to want to do something a bit more homespun with a British sound, but also influenced by some of my travels.

Do you concern yourself with chart places and all of that?
Most people know me from Groovejet but having been in a band before that (3), the basic objective of every album I've ever done has been to keep the day job and be successful enough to make another one. That being said, it's been such a joy with Wanderlust because my expectations were very well managed. I was thinking I'd like it to go top 75 and top 40 would be great.

That is very well managed!
Well, it's a different kind of record. I didn't know if anyone wanted to hear it from me and I didn't know if anyone would be that interested. When I made the album it was before I'd done Strictly Come Dancing (4) and so I was thinking, "Oh God, people are probably going to want to hear me do something more mainstream and pop," but this felt a little bit unexpected and that was a nice feeling but scary too.

Reading on mobile? Watch a video of Young Blood, from Wanderlust

In the nicest possible way, do you think Strictly Come Dancing reminded people of who you are?
I'd imagine so. Actually that's part of the reason why I had to think long and hard about whether I wanted to do it. It's funny, we do have a mentality in the media world where if someone's not being seen on the TV all the time, we think, "Oh poor them, they must want to be." But actually I was pretty happy. I was working all the time and I was able to take my kids to and from school and just enjoy life. So doing something that was so much in the public eye was something I had to think long and hard about. I was worried about what it might bring.

How does it work with Strictly? Did they approach you? Or is there a hotline number to call?
[Laughs] "Hello, my cha-cha needs work!" (5) No, they've approached me consistently for the last few years and for a long time I just thought, "No, I make dance music, why would I want to go on a show where people will be able to see if I can actually dance?" But last year was about having a bit of an adventure and pushing myself to do things I hadn't done before.

Did the high camp of it all feel connected to the pop world?
Yes very much so. It's funny because I already knew I liked a lot of those elements; I like music, dancing and big production values and sparkly things, but when you put it all in one place it's so heady, it's brilliant. You could gorge on it.

Speaking of overdosing on camp, have you ever been asked to do Eurovision?
There was a conversation about it a while back but I think it would be like throwing me to the wolves to be honest. I love watching it, but no thank you.

You're big in Russia and have a big gay following – what do you make of the situation there at the moment in terms of gay rights and freedom of speech?
It's completely heartbreaking. I've been going to Russia for over a decade now and it's extraordinary really, because I started to see a proper positive change over there. Youth culture started to feel more progressive and it felt like things were becoming more accessible and accepting – and then suddenly it's gone.

Do you think pop stars should stop performing there?
It's difficult. I think you have to judge it case by case. If I was doing one of my concerts, I wouldn't think twice about it, I'd definitely go. I would make a positive statement in the show offering my full support to the gay community. I think boycotting travelling makes those people feel more alone. But I think if it comes to endorsing something, for example singing at the Winter Olympics, then that's more of a grey area.

Apparently your collaboration with Spiller was the first song to ever be played on an iPod. That's quite exciting isn't it. What's the last song you bought on iTunes?
Oh golly, I downloaded something just yesterday. It was probably something I already own on a different format somewhere. Actually you know what I think it might be? It was probably John Grant.

You famously had a chart battle with Victoria Beckham back in 2000 (6). What's your enduring memory of that time?
It was insane. It was even on the news.

Mine is when Victoria wore a lip ring and dragged David down to Woolworths to try and shift some more copies.
[Laughs] There was a lot of that stuff. I always wonder when I talk about it whether it's one of those things where people go, "Will you shut up about that now?" but you did ask me the question. I think the worst bit was that when I was No 1 I'd agreed to do a Radio 1 roadshow in Plymouth on my own. When I finally got home I didn't have any food or drink in so I went to the local pub and asked for a glass of champagne but they didn't have any, so I had a pint and then I started to fall asleep half way through it. That's how I celebrated.

Do you have a Blue Peter badge (7)?
I've got a few. I used to have more but I kept selling them in the playground. In fact I've got a Blue Peter badge that my mum doesn't have, because it's a special one you get for going on the show twice for two separate reasons.

Robbie Williams once said you had a face like a satellite dish. How would you best describe his face?
Gorgeous! He actually said I had a face like a satellite dish and his nan's ankles. I would like to take this opportunity to point out actually I've got my nan's ankles.


(1) The interview took place at 12:30, which is a sensible time to start thinking about lunch. Back to article

(2) Wanderlust was produced by Ed Harcourt and apparently influenced by Russian fairytales, Twin Peaks and chamber folk. Back to article

(3) Arse-end of Britpop also-rans, Theaudience. Back to article

(4) Series 11 of the BBC's celebrity ballroom dance show, in 2013, in which she and dance partner Brendan Cole reached the final. Back to article

(5) In the end, Strictly judge Darcey Bussell enjoyed Sophie's cha-cha but thought her knees were a little soft. Back to article

(6) Spiller's Groovejet, which featured Sophie on vocals, beat Victoria Beckham and Dane Bowers's garage classic Out of Your Mind to No 1 in August 2000. Back to article

(7) Her mum is Janet Ellis, who presented the long-running BBC children's programme Blue Peter from 1983 to 1987. Back to article


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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