Anastacia: Sprock Chick

“I’M LOOKING FORWARD to my 40s,” declares Anastacia, a tiny woman with big hair, bold glasses and a big, big voice. “I want lines in my face!”

Not the kind of talk you normally hear from a pop diva barely out of her 20s, but when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer early last year, she didn’t think she’d live to see wrinkles. “I thought I was going to die,” she says calmly. “Which was more fascinating to me than scary. I was like, ‘Wow! I never thought I would go like this. I’d always thought I’d go fast, not be on my death-bed for months.'”

We’re sitting in a plush hotel suite in Copenhagen a few hours before her sell-out stadium gig in the Danish capital, and apart from the usual tour travel aches and pains, Anastacia says she’s healthier than she’s been for years. Despite her frequent forays into the singles charts, I confess it came as a surprise to me that she had the fans to fill stadiums, but the belting blend of soul, pop and rock she has – somewhat unfortunately – labelled “sprock” has put her third album, Anastacia, in the top five of the pan-European chart for an extraordinary five months now.

Even the singer herself finds it hard to take in. “I still feel like the girl next door,” she grins. “Granted, I’m in much nicer hotels and I drive a nice car, all of these lovely things that come along with the bling life.”

But for her, the main thing success means is that she can look after her family, especially her younger brother Brian, who is autistic. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she’s had little contact with her father since. Bringing up her three children alone in Chicago and later New York, her mother lived “from cheque to cheque, moment to moment” until Anastacia was asked to dance and later sing on a TV talent show, Club MTV.

She had moved to Los Angeles to break into the music business, but was on the verge of giving up: “I didn’t like the rejection”. Yet when she sang one of her songs on the show at the end of 1998, record companies finally began to show interest. For Anastacia, actually seeing that huge voice blast out of her tiny frame on TV was a revelation. “I kept rewinding it. It was the first time I’d really heard my voice – or put it together with the look. It was extremely odd. It looked so weird coming out of me.”

Describing herself as “the love child of Cher, Bette Midler and Ethel Merman”, she is refreshingly willing to laugh at herself. When she guested on the French and Saunders show recently, for instance, she cheerfully tells me that Jennifer Saunders described her dress style “as if leather has vomited all over me”. Her first single ‘I’m Outta Love’ was a huge hit and has since been mauled by Pop Idol hopefuls world-wide, but Anastacia soon proved herself more than a reality show one-hit wonder.

But by the end of 2002, she was feeling increasingly tired and suffering from persistent neck pain which she decided to treat with a breast reduction. It was the routine mammogram before this operation that revealed her tumour. After that, things moved quickly. She had a biopsy on a Thursday morning, was told it was definitely cancer the following afternoon, and on Sunday her record label called to tell her that the press had found out and were about to run with the story. Which is why friends like Elton John first learned of her illness in the tabloids. “It was a terrible way for them to find out, but I couldn’t call too many people because I was still trying to absorb it myself.”

The position of the tumour and the surgeon’s determination to try and save as much tissue as possible made the biopsy more than usually painful. And since she also suffers with Crohn’s Disease – a colon complaint that makes it difficult to ingest drugs (or, for that matter, many foods) – painkillers didn’t work. Yet five days later, she was on the set of Chicago, shooting a video for her contribution to the soundtrack, ‘Love Is A Crime’. “I didn’t think I could cancel such a big event,” she says. “The video is amazing. You’d never guess that I was hurling in a trash can between takes.”

Straight after the surgery to remove her tumour, she went into the studio and began writing songs for her third album. “Why would I want concentrate on the cancer?” she shrugs when I ask why she didn’t let up a little. But once the radiotherapy started, she couldn’t write at all. “It was impossible. I cried in the studio; I felt I was wasting people’s time and I felt very guilty. That’s when I had to surrender, to be a patient.

“I was dumber than a doornail. I couldn’t finish a sentence because I’d forget what I was saying. I started laughing about it more than crying – my friends were like, ‘Oh shut up, dummy!’ They’d joke around with me and instead of being upset about it all, I surrendered to it. Then about a month after all treatments were done, I felt myself come back. I booked studio time and wrote song after song.”

With the cancer now in remission, she talks happily about her hopes for marriage, children – and a long career. Only two of the songs on the album are actually about her illness, but she allowed herself to be filmed during treatment and decided from the start to be as open as she could. “Cancer is such a terrible word to most people, but I wouldn’t be so scared if I had it again because know I know a lot more about it now. You can die of breast cancer, and if it goes into your lymph nodes – which mine didn’t – the chances of success are smaller. That’s why I speak out – because the earlier you can find it, the more chance you have.”

© Sheryl GarrattThe Evening Standard, 12 November 2004

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