Twenty minutes into her chat with Waitrose Weekend, Lulu makes the frankly astonishing claim that she is not, and never has been, in showbusiness.
Even a cursory glance at her CV – first hit single aged 15, film debut at 17, seven-year stint hosting her own primetime TV show, winning Eurovision, recording a Bond theme, marrying a Bee Gee, doing Strictly – would strongly indicate otherwise. But let’s hear her out.
‘I’m not in showbusiness – I’m in the music business,’ says the girl born Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie in Lennoxtown, East Dunbartonshire, 66 years ago. ‘To just be an entertainer would be to say that music is somewhere in there, but it’s not. Music is my true love. Human beings just want to be connected. And often it’s like a man needs to have a woman, or a woman needs to have a man. Well the men have come and gone in my life, but the music has never gone. And that makes me feel connected.’
That said, she’s the first to admit that her various extracurricular activities have helped sustain her career across half a century, and credits her first manager, Marion Massey, as the architect of her longevity. ‘She thought I could do anything,’ says Lulu. ‘She’s an amazing woman, who I owe so much to.’
It was Marion who plucked wee Marie – by her own admission, ‘a little punk, a bit of a scrapper’ – from Glasgow and persuaded her to add her hurricane-force vocals to a version of The Isley Brothers’ Shout, the song that thrust the teenager into the glare of overnight stardom.
The eldest of four siblings, Lulu was brought up in a ‘loving but quite violent household’. ‘A lot of fighting went on,’ she says. ‘My parents fought like crazy. I loved them, but they were both crazy. My father was a drinker.
‘It was often scary,’ she admits. ‘But it was what it was. And maybe, in a way, it’s helped me be resilient, and made me who I am. I was the eldest, and I often had to be the parent in the family. That I kept very closed. I was ashamed. Ashamed to talk about it.’ She says this quietly, tears pricking her eyes. ‘There’s no doubt my parents did the best they could do. But they had problems that no-one could help them with.’
After years of keeping her counsel, today there’s a refreshing candidness to Lulu’s conversation that suggests no subject is off limits. ‘I’ve learned through a lot of painful experiences which life brings,’ she says at one point, her voice at a gallop. ‘Thrown from pillar to post, up down, up down, fabulous things and then disappointments, and then one marriage didn’t work and then another marriage didn’t work, and then the loss of my parents…’ She pauses to draw breath. ‘But I believe in moving forward. I’m resilient.’
The marriages were to Bee Gee Maurice Gibb, who she wed in 1969 and divorced four years later, and hairdresser John Frieda, with whom she had her son, Jordan. When the couple split after 14 years, Jordan went to live with his father in America. That must have been the hardest wrench a mother can imagine?
‘It was, but thank God it’s gone – it’s over,’ she says. ‘He came back after three years. And all the pain and all that stuff with my ex-husband is over. We’re the best of friends. There’s a lot of healing been going on.’
But hey, come on – this is Lulu. So let’s dismiss all this talk of heartache and healing and concentrate on some of the dizzying highs of that 50-year rollercoaster ride. Like reaching number one in America with the million-selling title song to her first film, To Sir, With Love. Like being the only artist to appear on Top of the Pops in all five decades of its lifespan. Like winning Eurovision with Boom Bang-a-Bang – even if she didn’t want to do it and hated the song (‘I’m not glad I did it, but I’m not sour about it,’ she says now). Like joining the exclusive club of 007 recording artists with 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun (‘It probably wasn’t the best Bond song, if I’m honest, but my ego was very massaged’). And like enjoying an explosive 90s career revival with Take That on the chart-topping Relight My Fire (her initial reaction to the idea? ‘Those little boys? What would I do with them?’).
And then there’s the not inconsiderable matter of her new album, Making Life Rhyme, which sees Lulu returning to Decca, the label that first signed her as a 15-year-old scrapper. It’s also the first album for which she’s co-written all the songs, and its sassy blend of dirty vocals and piledriving R&B beats signals she has no interest in a twilight slide into MOR easy listening territory. ‘I don’t listen to stuff from the past,’ she says. ‘I listen to Meghan Trainor, Pharrell Williams, Bruno Mars, Calvin Harris… I love them.’
It’s no wonder her grandchildren, Teddy and Bella, think granny is cool. She even sashayed her way on to Strictly Come Dancing – though, with customary frankness, she makes no bones about the fact she and partner Brendan Cole didn’t get along. ‘It wasn’t about him,’ she insists. ‘I don’t think I was in a good place. We just rubbed each other up the wrong way. I think he would have liked a younger girl. And I’d have liked somebody else, too. I wanted Pasha!’
More recently, she took part in The Great Comic Relief Bake Off, where she admitted – and this says a lot about the life Lulu has lived these past 50 years – she had never baked pastry. She’s now got the bug, and is busy trying to keep pace with Bella and Teddy’s other grandmother, who’s ‘brilliant at sewing, baking, everything’.
A few years ago, Lulu was diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘I’ve had that all my life and I didn’t know,’ she says. ‘I’m constantly anxious. I’ve always been anxious.’ And yet, at 66, she feels she’s finally discovered ‘her place in the world’. ‘It’s a great time for me,’ she smiles. ‘A great time.’
She talks about a song from the new album, the country-ish Wayfarin’ Stranger. ‘It’s the song I’d like played at my funeral,’ she says. ‘Because it’s about that journey onwards and out. And then I’ll follow that with Pharrell’s Happy, so people can dance on the way out.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, March 26, 2015
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