All Saints: Saintlier than thou

Older and wiser after their acrimonious split, Britain’s bitchiest girl group are back together — as friends, mums and bandmates.

IN AN AIRY north London recording studio, Nicole Appleton and Melanie Blatt of the newly reformed All Saints are on a mission — to bring back thighs.

“We’ve going to bring back thighs,” says Nicole. “Enough of these size zeros. Thighs, and back fat, and over-the-belt fat, it’s all got to come back again, and we’re the ones to do it.” How sinister is size zero? Very sinister, they both agree. “It’s awful, frightening,” says Nicole. “Kate Moss is naturally thin so it looks good. Nicole Richie looks ill and old. If girls want to be like that, and they’re starving themselves to do it, not only is it wrong it’s unattractive.” Nicole waves a hand at her own frame, which, frankly, shows little evidence of “over-the belt fat” (or any fat for that matter).

“I wasn’t born thin,” says Nicole. “I train. But I would never starve myself.” She shakes her head despairingly. “I mean, what is happening with women these days? I just couldn’t see myself looking that thin. I like a bit of waist and leg.”

All Saints are back, with a new single (‘Rock Steady’) and new album (Studio 1), which is some kind of miracle. At the end of the Nineties, All Saints (Blatt, Shaznay Lewis, and sisters Natalie and Nicole Appleton) were a Girl’s Own phenomenon — four friends, barely into their twenties, who sold 10 million records (including ‘Never Ever’, ‘Bootie Call’, and ‘Pure Shores’), and won a clutch of awards (including two Brits, and an Ivor Novello for songwriter Shaznay).

Not only were they a girl band with credibility (a cultural antidote to “rivals” the Spice Girls), arguably they ushered in a completely new way of being a young woman. Who could forget the combats (making an appearance in grateful women’s wardrobes everywhere); Mel Blatt’s pioneering refusal to hide her baby bump in public or onstage (“It’s a child not a terminal illness”); that oozing effortless R&B cool (it was never embarrassing to like All Saints). The Met Bar, the partying, the “attitood”. And of course, the men. Namely the Appletons’ men (Robbie Williams for Nicole, Jonny Lee Miller and Jamie Theakston for Natalie).

Then, meltdown. It was all very complicated but, basically, Shaznay and Mel (“the Musical Two”) loathed the Appletons (“the Glamour Twins”), and vice versa. There were screaming arguments and icy stand-offs (with management and each other). There was Nicole’s pregnancy by Williams and subsequent termination, which she claimed was forced upon her by the record company (all detailed post-split in the Appletons’ tell-all tome, Together). Then in 2000, the final fight between Natalie and Shaznay, over — of all the girly things — clothes, namely a combat jacket on a photo shoot.

“It was unbearable going to work,” remembers Nicole with a groan. “Sometimes it was fighting, sometimes just ignoring each other. We would just go into a room and not speak. It was separate hair, separate rooms, separate flights, separate everything.” Natalie agrees: “It was like our songs were our children, and we fell out of love.” At least no one could accuse All Saints of being “manufactured” or “false”. Even after the split, when they were pursuing solo projects, they were still trading insults via the press. Despite all this, Nicole couldn’t have been more pleased a year ago when Mel, with the blessing of Shaznay, got in touch with her when they were holidaying in the same part of the south of France. “Mel was so scared to call me,” says Nicole. “But, despite everything that had happened between us, I would never have been nasty — I always had a torch for them.”

The Saints didn’t want to talk individually (it’s a band thing), and arrive today in pairs, first Nicole and Mel, then Natalie and Shaznay (a statement in itself — these pairings would never have happened in the old days). The Appletons are both friendly and direct (battlers, when cornered, you suspect), with a slight transatlantic twang (they spent part of their formative years in the US and Canada). Mel is friendly too, but with a laid-back “slacker” vibe. Shaznay, always the most introverted and publicity-shy Saint, is lovely, if slightly wary.

All the Saints seem more than happy to chat about the iconic elements of their past. Baby-bump gate? Mel laughs: “I had no bloody choice! Towards the end I would have liked to have hidden it. I didn’t want to be onstage, trying to pretend to be sexy.” The Spice Girls? “I don’t like what they represented on principle,” says Mel. “I’d never say they did something good for the world, but as individuals they’re lovely girls.” As for the combat trousers, it turns out there was no style-master plan. They were just “cheap and comfortable”. As Natalie puts it: “They hid all the wobbly bits.”

Studio 1 bears the All Saints signature sound — a blend of pop, hip hop, R&B and a bit of rock thrown in for good measure — was it weird to be back in the studio together again? “I didn’t know what to expect,” admits Mel. “Would it be the same? Would it be worse? But it was actually better, because we’ve all grown up.” Shaznay confirms that there wasn’t any bad atmosphere. “We’ve all had our little chats. We’ve all said our ‘sorrys’. We’re cool, we know where we’re at.” In fact, these days, the Saints seem able to see the funny side. “I kind of love all the crazy stupid shit we did,” says Mel, laughing. “At least we did it properly, we were so not boring at all.”

“Isn’t that what All Saints were all about?” says Natalie. “The drama and chaos, the bitchiness and great music.” What about that fateful fight over the combat jacket? “That was just one of our spats,” says Natalie. “Everyone had equal spats. I had spats with Mel, spats with Shaz, spats with Nic. They all had spats with each other. That was the fun aspect.” Shaznay nods and smiles. “We’d have broken up over a cigarette at that point.” “Don’t forget,” says Natalie, leaning forward now, intense. “We were just kids when we started out, growing up, trying to get to a place. Now we’re adults, we’re married, we have children. We’re on a whole different level now.”

Indeed, now they are in their early thirties, the Saints seem to be different creatures altogether. Natalie is married, to Liam Howlett of the Prodigy, and they have a son, Ace, as well as Natalie’s 14-year-old daughter, Rachel, from her first marriage. Shaznay was also recently married, to dancer Christian Storm. She gave birth to their son, Tyler, a mere six months ago. “I love being married, I love being a mum.” Is she surprised by that? “I’m surprised by how much I love my little boy. I thought the way I loved my husband was the ultimate high, but now this.” Shaznay laughs. “My husband feels the same — he’s always saying he loves our son more than he loves me.” Has motherhood changed her — could she write sexed-up songs like ‘Bootie Call’ these days? “Im more wary now to be honest,” she says. “When I think about some of the stuff I wrote before, I can’t believe I wrote it. I’m a mother now, I’ve got to be respectable for my son.”

Although Mel is separated from her long-term partner, Stuart Zender of Jamiroquai, they remain doting parents of Lily Ella. “I’m quite independent, so I quite like being the only boss, when it’s on my turf anyway.” Nicole is with Liam Gallagher of Oasis, and they have four-year-old Gene. “When you live a very selfish life, which is what you do in this business, a kid straightaway pulls you back, shows you what is important,” says Mel. “It’s coming home to ‘real’,” says Nicole. “Doing real things with them. It’s so unconditional and amazing.”

Didn’t Nicole say something to Liam when she was giving birth, along the lines of “Don’t you wish you could do this?” Nicole looks confused. “All I remember is telling him to get out of the way of the TV because I was trying to watch Richard and Judy. It was the easiest birth ever.” She considers. “But yeah, it was special. I felt like Wonder Woman. ‘Look at what I’ve done!’ Any man is missing out on a moment like that.”

How to put this delicately … From the outside, Liam wouldn’t appear to be the ideal person to settle down with. “People always judge him,” says Nicole, “but when you meet him he’s so different. He’s such a good dad, he’s addicted to his boys (Gene, and Lennon, from his marriage to Patsy Kensit). He’s this big climbing frame for them. At heart, he’s just this big lovely Northern guy.” She laughs happily. “We do each other’s heads in, but it’s all out of love. I guess we met our match.” Mel agrees: “He’s really nice, polite and sweet. It’s almost a let-down.”

Both Nicole and Mel are adamant they have never felt stifled by domesticity. Indeed, since they’ve made friends, they’ve been hanging out together non-stop — school runs, gym, staying over at each other’s houses, ordering pizza with the children, trips to Fresh & Wild. I hate to break it to them, but they sound like the original Yummy Mummys. “Yummy?” cries Mel, appalled. She points an accusatory finger at Nicole, who is falling about laughing: “She wears make-up, I don’t.”

Call me a cynical old boot, but, after all the “history” (the fighting and carryings-on), could things really be so loved-up in the Saints camp? Maybe not completely. Mel and Shaznay admit to being put out by the Appletons writing Together (in which they were portrayed as “control freaks”). “I didn’t read it,” says Shaznay. “But I was upset, naturally because my friends had done that, and I wouldn’t have done it to them.” Natalie admits to some misgivings at the time of writing. (“Then, I thought, fuck it, we’re not speaking anyway.”) Somewhat poignantly, Nicole says that the main reason for the book was that other people were threatening to reveal all about her pregnancy by Robbie Williams. After Nicole went public about having the termination, was there any point when she felt victimised by the media?

“No,” she sighs. “I’m in the public eye. I know I’m not going to be treated like a normal person walking down the street. I was just trying to be honest.” She continues: “Women should feel they have a choice, and that should never be taken away from them.” It can’t have been an easy decision, it never is. “No it isn’t,” she says flatly. “If I’d been able to have time to think about what I was doing, things probably would have been different.” Does she wish they had been? “No, because my life is my life now, and I’m very happy with it. But I also feel that if I hadn’t been in the band and been manipulated and brainwashed, then maybe I would have changed my mind and done something different.” Nicole adds that, in a way, she found it “healing” to have it all out in the open: “It made me realise I wasn’t so alien. People do things, life goes on, and you must encourage yourself to stand up and walk through the door again.”

Arguably, the Appletons had a tougher ride generally, mainly due to their reputation as party animals. Are women in the music industry more criticised than men — a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”? “It is so different,” says Nicole. “You see women having a good time and they’re slated. Men do it and they get bonus points. I was young and single. All I did was try to have the best time of my life, like I would if I wasn’t in the public eye.” What about the men? (The tabloids loved all that.) Nicole shrugs. “I went out with Robbie Williams and Liam Gallagher. I was accused of going out with many different people but that wasn’t my fault.” She shakes her head: “Again, if I was a guy, this wouldn’t have been looked upon as anything. I have a good track record anyway, I’m proud of myself.”

Nicole points out that, before All Saints regrouped, she was an at-home mum. “My child had no one else looking after him but Liam and me. I’ve done my dues going out as a youngster. I’ve done my dues as a responsible parent. But if I want to go out and get shit-faced I’m entitled to. My child is so looked after and that’s the important thing.” For her part, Natalie says that she can’t believe they allowed the criticism to get to them. “We were naive, sensitive and paranoid about what everyone thought of us. Looking back it was pathetic to get upset.” She punches the air mock-theatrically. “We got to party! We should have been proud of ourselves. “Bring more champagne!””

Of all the Saints, Natalie, confident, ballsy, (“Whenever I’m interviewed I’m asked how I juggle work and children — why doesn’t my husband get that?”), is the biggest surprise. There is no sign of the neurotic wreck who screamed when she so much as touched tree bark in the jungle in I’m a Celebrity? “That was embarrassing,” she concedes. “Paranoia took over.” Didn’t Natalie once say that she was tired of being portrayed, along with her sister, as bitches, adding: “If they want a bitch, I’ll give them a bitch”? Natalie shrugs. “I can’t remember that. But if you’re in this industry, and you’re a woman, and you have an opinion, you are a bitch. A man says what he wants and he’s ‘strong’, and they respect that. The way my husband is with work, I would get slammed. They’d think: Oh, she’s strong, she’s got an opinion, she’s a bitch! Women just can’t do it.”

Natalie and Shaznay agree absolutely with Nicole and Mel’s concerns about the rise of Size Zero culture. “My daughter is 14, and she says “Mummy I’m fat”, and she’s not,” says Natalie. “It’s all around now isn’t it?” says Shaznay. “It’s those magazines. They’ll say Beyoncé is amazing, and hasn’t she got a great body, and Charlotte Church isn’t far off and they absolutely hammer her. And I remember once reading a column about somebody saying I had a fat arse. And my arse is smaller than Beyoncé’s is now.” Shaznay sighs: “It’s so sad. Every other magazine is so negative. All that dissing everybody and talking about cellulite. Cellulite has been around since the beginning of time — what’s the big deal? All Saints say, ‘Ladies, love your cellulite’. Well, why not?” smiles Natalie. “If you’re confident in yourself then men like that.”

The next time I see the All Saints it’s the following day at a sedate gentleman’s club in central London, where they are preparing for the Observer Woman photo shoot. There are no combats to be seen. Garbed in slinky skirts and killer heels, the look can only be described as Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary meets Valley of the Dolls. Natalie patiently gets make-up applied to her legs. Nicole teeters on heels, jokily suggesting band-name changes (“How about the Squits”). Mel twists around the waistband of her skirt, as Shaznay wanders past, looking far foxier than a woman has any right to when she has given birth six months ago. A little later, and they are taking their positions among the rocking horses, building blocks and teddy bears on the opulent toy-strewn staircase, giggling, bumbling about, making jokes, completely at ease with each other.

At the interview, the previous day, I asked the Saints whether, all these years on, they had any real sense of their wider cultural impact? (For all the drama, they still rank as one of most important British female outfits of recent memory.) “Well, I hope we had some kind of impact,” said Natalie. “I hope we’re not just remembered as some stupid girls who fell out.”

For her part, Shaznay says they would never have released any new material if they hadn’t been happy with it. “However much we fell out where the friendship was concerned, musically we were still in a good place. There was no point in musically ruining what went before.” Most of all though, there is a strong crackle of nerves about the members of All Saints. Of course some of that could just be put down to going back into the fray with a new single and album. “I’m curious,” says Shaznay. “You just don’t know what will happen, do you? There are no guarantees about anything.”

Then there are the other, less tangible, concerns. Talking to them, all of the Saints made it clear that what hurt most about the band split was the loss of their friendship. As Shaznay puts it: “The four of us went through such an amazing thing together that nobody else would ever understand. The fact that all these years were going by, and we still weren’t talking, it really bothered me.” Bearing this in mind, they all feel that they’re taking a risk getting All Saints back together. “It’s all about the friendship for us, that’s the most important thing,” says Mel. “It should always have been about caring for each other first and the band second. It wasn’t like that in the beginning but it is now. So, we’re sacrificing a lot to do this, not only leaving our families and our children, but potentially jeopardising our friendship.” Mel smiles brightly. “Hopefully it won’t.”

© Barbara EllenThe Observer, 5 November 2006

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