BILLIE COMES TO TOWN (1999): The working life of pop princess

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Billie: Because We Want To
BILLIE COMES TO TOWN (1999): The working life of pop princess

You don't see it often and when you do it’s only briefly -- but it drains through Billie’s face for an instant.

“Yeah, I’m really tired. I’ve been up since 5.30 so now I’m like, urghh.”

She forces a smile, then momentarily disappears back into her own world.

It’s Wednesday afternoon and the 16 year-old British teen-pop sensation is sitting in the unglamorous Green Room at TV3, where years of smoke rise out of the threadbare seats and carpet. Not Bernadine Lim’s first choice for a place to interview Billie but “there’s been a bit of a situation ...”

She needs to get in before Ice TV so that her piece can air on tonight's news, but the studio is required for news updates. While Billie and her two backup singers put on makeup, a camera is set up for the interview in the back of a convertible.

It’s an excellent idea -- until torrential rain sweeps the car park. Billie accepts the changed situation and the interview goes ahead in the Green Room.

Say what you will about her music -- “It’s big in Room 12,” says a wag at work; the 10-year-old girls know it – Billie is thoroughly professional, seems a genuinely nice person and works hard for her money.

The interview over, she is whisked downstairs where she and the dancers do three perfect lip-synch takes to her latest hit, Honey to the B, then it’s straight to an Ice TV interview.

It’s 3 pm and there’s an appearance at Lynnmall to go. Her day started on Mai FM’s breakfast show at 7.30 am.

Wednesday was a fairly typical Billieday. Thursday she didn’t start until 10am but went through until after the record company function about 10 hours later. Yesterday she had to be up around 6am to catch the Melbourne flight and she’s now in Australia for 10 more days of interviews, handshaking, live appearances, talking to instantly forgotten strangers, signing CDs, posters, pieces of paper passed by fans . . .

It’s hard, but she loves it, and says uncomplainingly that she also chose it.

Billie, from Swindon, gets her life down to soundbite shorthand: a scholarship to a theatre school at 12 after years of acting and dance classes; chosen as “the face” of Smash Hits teen magazine; a guy from Virgin Records asking her to do a demo and “basically that was it.”

Her first single, Because We Want To (“Why you gotta play that song so loud ...? Why you always run around in crowds?”), debuted at No 1 in Britain and is an addictively catchy piece of pop, especially if you were too young to have known the Spice Girls when they first broke.

Billie’s second single, Girlfriend, also debuted in the British charts at the top spot. In this country primary and intermediate school kids -- or whoever bought the music for them -- have made Billie a star. Her Honey to the B album has sold almost 30,000 copies.

For all that sudden rush of success these past 18 months, she’s well grounded. One reason is accompanying her on this Antipodean circuit, Her dad, Paul, is a builder of conservatories and says with admirable humour and directness that when Billie comes home she does dishes like the other kids.

He’s interested in places, points his recently acquired portable digi-cam at Billie sometimes, went down to the Muddy Farmer the other night and met a coupla lads there, and is curious about the America's Cup development and Australia. He’s a dad quietly proud of his daughter and the confidence she has, but thought the top she bought this morning at World on High St was “a bit tight.”

The 10.30am call at World had been for a TV One newsbite which was over in minutes.

Billie prowls the racks and buys the top and a pair of pants. They are conservative choices and don’t seem frivolous. She wears the pants for most of the day. She signs autographs for some kids in the shop and chats easily with them. Then it’s to D-72, a quick makeup check and an interview for Breakfast television.

Paul talks about the knocking machine in Britain which “they don’t teach in schools.” He mentions the tabloids. But also in the States he’s noticed that if a Ferrari stops outside, someone will say “nice car.” In Britain they wait till he’s gone, then scratch the side. He shakes his head.

“What’s it like here, then?”

Interview over, it’s back to the hotel for lunch and a quick rest before the TV3 interviews. No such luck. There’s a fire alarm and they have to evacuate.

Which may also explain why Billie can look tired. It’s a fleeting lack of expression. The shining 16-year-old disappears in an instant and her mouth droops slightly. Her eyes look nervous. It appears again during the Ice TV interview.

She wings it with Jon Bridges who fires off at unexpected tangents, and she’s clearly smart and enjoying it.

Then there’s an abrupt halt to change some tape - and there it is again, the weariness and her eyes darting around the room, reading it for the first time.

The camera rolls and Billie’s back.

In the van on the way to Lynnmall, where kids have been gathering since 3pm for her 4.30 appearance, she and the dancers giggle like schoolgirls over footage Paul shot while they were filming Honey to the Bee. They sing along with the radio, make jokes and Billie signs some posters. They laugh and have fun.

“I always get nervous before these,” she says to no one in particular.

At Lynnmall she’s rushed through Farmers by a phalanx of security to where nearly 3000 fans and parents are crammed in front of the small stage. There’s a Maori welcome and Billie is greeted by ear-abusing screams. Everyone under five bursts into tears, some kids have to be pulled out of the crush. She performs four energetic hits and she’s off. The audience loves it, Billie and the dancers enjoy themselves.

Backstage she is greeted by kids with CDs for her to sign. Beneath flushed cheeks there’s the fleeting lack of expression again. Then she’s signing, laughing - and it’s back to the hotel.

She disappears through Farmers, the roller door comes down between her and the fans and she’s gone between security guards, her Dad with her. Tonight she’ll just stay in.

Tomorrow’s another day.

Not long after this Billie's life went somewhat more controversial: in 2001 she married Chris Evans (the British radio DJ) who was 16 years her senior; they separated three years later; she started appearing in more seductive poses in magazines, then got her life back on track with a part in Doctor Who. In 2007 she appeared as the central character, a prostitute, in the television series Secret Diary of a Call Girl. So far she hasn't recorded anything since her Walk of Life album in 2000. She has said she never made any money while being a pop star.

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