Sugar 'n spice and all things nice?

Everyone likes Sugababes. Even those who are convinced that all tweenybopper

bands were grown in test tubes in Dr Evil’s pop dungeon have time for the

British trio. Twentysomethings shuffle about to their icy urban sound,

tensomethings aspire to their streety style, style magazines gush that

their ethnic mix - black, Filipino/Spanish and white - symbolises modern

young Britain.
And it’s near impossible to find anyone who didn’t love

Freak Like Me, the number-one song that won an unlikely trinity of music

awards from Smash Hits magazine, Q magazine and the Brits.

  But if chart life doesn’t get better than this, what are the niggly

rumours about personality clashes within the group that have landed

original members Keisha Buchanan and Mutya Buena with reputations as

bullies (and ``evil-looking freaks’‘, as the London-based music newspaper

NME called them)? The story is this: Siobhan Donaghy, the first white Babe,

left in 2001, claiming she was frozen out by Keisha and Mutya, old

schoolmates with whom she had formed the band in 1998. At the same time,

the remaining two were dropped by their record company, while - sweet

revenge, presumably - Donaghy was kept on as a solo act.

  She was replaced by current white Babe Heidi Range, who escaped an early

version of Atomic Kitten and moved from Liverpool to London to try her

luck. As soon as the Babes signed with a new label and began turning out

chart-topping singles such as Freak and Round Round, stories trickled out

about Heidi being picked on by Mutya. The Popbitch website even claimed

that a depressed Heidi was about to go the same way as Donaghy.

  True? False? Who knows? All I can say is that, during an hour in

Sugababe company last week, I didn’t observe any scowls or tension. If

anything, I’d say Keisha and Mutya (“It’s Mu-tee-ah,” Keisha politely

corrects me) were charming. Mutya, a bite-sized club urchin whose long

nails were painted in alternating red and black, even showed signs of

enjoying herself - worth mentioning, as she is usually depicted as remote

if not openly bored.

  It’s Keisha’s 19th birthday, and she’s laying into steak and chips in a

pub near Island Records’s west London office to distract herself from the

horrific decline into old age. ``It’s all downhill from here,’’ she

predicts grimly. ``But I’m not so worried about it since I heard Britney

say she was looking forward to getting old.’’ That’s Britney as in Spears,

aged 21. Mutya, 18, nudges her friend’s shoulder compassionately.

  They’re a picture of teenage friendship, and it’s this apparently benign

gang mentality that distinguishes them from the rest of their genre. Pop

groups created on television, such as Girls Aloud, claim to feel like old

friends after two months, but Keisha and Mutya share a proper bond that

goes back to schooldays in Kingsbury, north London. They even resemble each

other, with little heart-shaped faces and a taste for maximum jewellery and

tummy-baring vests. As they sing along, heads nodding, to the song burbling

over the pub sound system - Craig David’s What’s Your Flava? - it’s easy to

see what London Records saw when they signed them five years ago: urban

street girls who write their own songs and keep it, in an uncliched sense,

real.

  ``When we first started, I just thought you wrote your own stuff. We

assumed everyone did,’’ says Keisha. ``And it became a big deal: `Oh, they

write their own stuff.’‘’ They were 15 when their first single, Overload,

came out late in 2000, and established them as a girl band with a

difference. It was cool, detached; it wasn’t about love. (Few of their

lyrics are typical teen fodder; the celebrated Freak Like Me still startles

in its dispassionate analysis of sexual attraction.) All Saints, the group

then occupying the real-pop slot, conveniently split up soon afterward, and

the girls from the estates of Kingsbury (in fact, only Mutya lived on one),

found themselves, in their mid-teens, the focus of much expectation.

  But their next three singles didn’t sell as well, and although their

debut album, One Touch, was reasonably successful, it didn’t recoup

London’s pounds sterling 2 million outlay. Then, during a Japanese tour in

2001, Donaghy left the room in the middle of an interview to go to the

toilet. By the time the others went to find her, she was on her way to the

airport and a flight to London, leaving her unsuspecting bandmates reeling

with shock and anger. She complained that she’d felt cold-shouldered by

Keisha and Mutya: ``We never had a laugh or went out as a group.’’ She has

been erased from Sugababes history in Island’s current press release, which

doesn’t mention her.

  ``It was three years ago,’’ says Mutya, thermostat dropping to lukewarm.

Though it was a definitive moment in their short career, they won’t talk

about it. All right, but are they secretly pleased that Donaghy’s most

recent single stiffed at number 52? ``Not at all. We think Siobhan has

brilliant material, and it’s the record company, not her, that made it

chart really low. She’s very talented, but I don’t think she’s got the

right people around her.’‘

Sugababes assuredly do. The currently groovy Richard X produced Freak Like

Me, and their new album, III - follow-up to the much-liked Angels with

Dirty Faces - features material co-written with Pink songwriter Linda Perry

and a new song by the doyenne of grandiose balladry, Diane Warren. They

have fans among the diverse likes of Macy Gray, J-Lo and rapper Redman, and

were the only chart-pop band on this year’s Glastonbury music festival (in

Somerset, England) bill.

  ``It’s nice to be accepted by all sorts of markets, but we don’t do it

deliberately. The audience is really diverse,’’ says Heidi, who plays Quiet

Babe to Keisha’s Bubbly and Mutya’s Foxy. ``We’re the coolest girl group?’‘

Keisha does a creditable job of affecting surprise. It consists of raising

sleekly arched eyebrows and amping up her natural warmth. ``I never thought

we’d end up coolest. I guess we’re different to anything else that’s out

there,’’ she modestly admits. ``It didn’t sink in when we won the Q award

or the Brits or even got to number one - me and Mutya were, like [yawns],

`Oh, yeah.’ I still don’t really realise how lucky we are right now.’‘

How lucky is that? Despite the money, travel and steak and chips, Sugababes

keep the brutal schedule of all pop bands. While they’re touring or

promoting a record, they work nearly every waking hour. On the way to the

pub, Keisha had confided that she rarely checks their daily diary because

``I don’t want to know everything I have to do. I looked today, though, and

I know we’re doing Heat after you.’’ None the less, she looks well on it,

as does Mutya, as they lustily attack their steaks. They’re serious eaters,

claiming they used to be ``much thinner than this’‘, though it’s difficult

to see how.

  Heidi, though, I’m a bit worried about. Though as accomplished an R&B

singer as the others, she’s different from her sassy, slangy bandmates.

It’s not just the minimal jewellery, Marc Jacobs military jacket and

Liverpool accent; she still emanates a new-girl aura. ``Heidi’s not urban,

but she’s cool,’’ Keisha says protectively. But she seems to lack the

protective veneer of the other two, and their assertiveness. When she

speaks the others often talk over her. I dare say they don’t realise

they’re doing it, but each time Heidi trails off, letting them finish her

sentence.

  Moreover, I inadvertently upset her so much that she leaves the

interview twice. Both times it’s over something apparently insignificant

that - I’m later told by someone at Island - Heidi interprets as a dig at

her and her background. The first was a jokey question about the Liverpool

male’s propensity for moustaches, the second a comment to the effect that

her grilled chicken and salad looked healthy. (``She thought you were

picking on her weight,’’ said the Island man. ``She’s sensitive about

what’s written about her.’’ For the record, Heidi probably weighs about

eight stone, and is tall and blonde with it.)

The second time she leaves, a furrow-browed Keisha follows, the two

eventually returning to the table, where we push along for another 20

minutes. While they’re gone, Mutya and I look at each other awkwardly. Is

Heidi all right? ``Yes,’’ she says positively. So, er, any truth to the

stories about Heidi feeling shut out, given that Mutya herself recently

admitted to being ``a little bitch’’ when Heidi joined? ``No,’’ says Heidi,

who is back. ``When I joined, and it’s two-and-a-half years now, it was

harder for the girls than me, cos I was just joining a group.’‘

``We’re very, very close now. Everyone has their own opinion [of us], but

we’re in our little circle together,’’ Mutya adds. Heidi nods: ``We spend

24/7 together, and we couldn’t do that if we didn’t get on. The main thing

is to be happy in life.’‘

One thing that especially pleases them is the fact that a band of different

ethnic and cultural backgrounds can reach the top in R&B. ``London is so

multi-cultural, but before you’d only see certain races doing certain

music,’’ says Keisha. ``It’s great to think we’re opening doors,’’ says

Mutya, ``but when we were in LA working on the album, they found it weird

to see [different] races together.’’ Heidi muses that perhaps it’s still

considered weird in the UK: ``When they auditioned for me, no black or

mixed girls turned up.’‘

Has success been worth it? Keisha says, professionally cheerful: ``You make

sacrifices. We left school at 14 and had private tuition, so we’ve lost our

teenage years, Heidi’s had to move down from Liverpool.’’ There has been

negative press - Mutya reserves particular rancour for the London-based

Mirror newspaper’s gossip columnists `3am Girls’, who ``should’ve been been

number two’’ in a recent poll of 100 Worst Britons. And then there are the

male gold diggers. ``If a guy asked me about my money, I’d say, `You’re

dating me, not my money.’ If you’re not giving them money or food or a

place to stay, then they’re not getting shit off you, and it’s just you

[they like],’’ Mutya says evenly. ``But guys are often intimidated by the

fact we’re successful. I don’t like British guys, anyway. Everyone knows

everyone else. The ones I meet have too much baggage, like kids. If you

meet a guy you like, you want your child to be his first child.’‘

Spoken like a cool, slightly cynical 21st century teenage girl - like, in

fact, a Sugababe.—COPYRIGHT: GUARDIAN NEWSPAPERS LIMITED 2003

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