Lily Allen: Talented, Troubled and Wallowing in Her Father’s Footsteps

WHATEVER AMOROUS tale they really told, the ostensibly loved-up paparazzi shots that flashed around the world in early January telegraphed the fact that Lily Allen was at last taking her celebrity responsibilities seriously.

She was looking unusually svelte, and 20lb lighter than the champagne-swilling drunk who bantered with Sir Elton John during an awards ceremony in September. There she told Sir Elton, mid-slurp, to “fuck off” , disrespectfully reminding him that she was 40 years his junior, “with my career in front of me”. He amiably replied that, despite his years of sobriety, he could still “snort her under the table”.

But the January photographs showed Lily Allen as never before: in a soft-focus, conventionally glamorous light.

The latest Los Angeles eating fad, the so-called “hypno-diet”, has prompted a marked dive in Allen’s previously prodigious alcohol intake – she’s allegedly been off the sauce since September 22.

Never mind her previous barbs aimed at anorexic models and her vocal support for women with fuller figures, Allen is now on a different page. Shot on a luxury yacht off the chic French Caribbean island of St Barts, the pictures revealed a slender princess of British pop embracing Jay Jopling, the alpha male of Brit art and the multimillionaire owner of the White Cube gallery.

Arriving almost exactly 12 months after the sad miscarriage in January 2008 that ended Allen’s five-month relationship with another man old enough to be her father (38-year-old Ed Simons, one half of the techno duo the Chemical Brothers), the pictures had a teasing piquancy. Was this the beginning of a real romance, or a carefully staged piece of high-profile posturing by a pop star with an important second album imminent, in cahoots with a recently separated art shaker with some unresolved midlife romantic issues?

Jopling, who hasn’t given an interview in eight years, was keeping quiet, not least because, though separated, his marriage to the artist Sam Taylor-Wood has not legally ended. Back in England, and apparently on her own at the end of the first week in January, Allen was also uncharacteristically silent – although she was seen out, and papped, sporting two large rings on her engagement finger.

Guesswork time. Friends report that “a few flings behind closed doors at home” are the only relationships that Allen has engaged in, or wanted, recently. “She’s still not completely got over Ed Simons,” is another regularly heard refrain. According to Simons’s manager, the pair are still quite close.

So was the Jopling clinch, Allen playing the minx – a role that clearly suits – or was she hinting again, as she has in the past, at a precocious desire to give up making music, settle down and lead a quieter life than the chaotic one that has dominated her first 23 years?

Opinions vary on Lily Allen, but on one point her friends tend to agree: she grew up fast. Way too fast, some say.

“She seems at times almost too mature for her age. She’s like an old soul,” says one of the many fortysomething acquaintances who seem to outnumber buddies of her own age in Allen’s large social circle.

Another speaks darkly of “a lot of frozen anger beneath the bohemianism and the bonhomie”, which she believes to emanate originally from Lily’s difficult father, the comic actor Keith Allen, who walked out on her and her mother when she was four, and offered the family precious little financial support thereafter. “My dad’s never given me any money,” Lily has claimed. “He’s a fucker. When I was really young I visited him on a film set. We stayed in a trailer, and I remember thinking, ‘This is great. I want to be famous!’ It’s funny that I’ve craved that kind of responsibility from that early stage.”

Lily Allen has often talked about the competitive relationship that has developed over the years between her and her dad – and which means that she’s now better known than he is. There was a delicious irony in the way she turned up at New Year’s on a Caribbean island while Keith was in London playing Long John Silver in a West End panto. But the feeling for her absconding father clearly runs deep. There’s a particularly touching song, ‘He Wasn’t There’, that closes her new album and hints that Lily’s world is a lonelier, tougher place than the gossip pages and fashionable nightclubs suggest.

It was ever thus. Her mother, the Oscar-nominated film producer Alison Owen, remembers her second-born as a four-year-old, being very “caretakery”, assuming more responsibilities in their broken home – with one older sister, Sarah, and a younger brother, Alfie – than most children of her tender age. Lily herself once said that she thought her mother was “scared of me”. That might explain why Owen sent her daughter away to so many expensive boarding schools, including Millfield and Bedales, none of which held on to her for more than a few terms. She left her last school, Bedales, qualification-free, at 15.

“Mum worked so hard to pay for our education,” Lily has commented, “but it was pointless.”

The only school that seems to have had a positive impact on her was her first, a private primary, the Cavendish, an all-girl Catholic establishment tucked away in a crescent in Camden Town. Here it was discovered that the 11-year-old Lily Allen had a voice – albeit not a conventional one. She played a boy in a production of The Railway Children, and sang ‘Baby Mine’ in Dumbo. Her education effectively ended four years later, when she scooted off to Ibiza for the summer and, so the story goes, sold ecstasy to clubbers and began to dabble in making music of her own.

The restless churning of her adolescence may well have helped to fuel Allen’s meteoric career trajectory, toughened her independent spirit, and underscored the likelihood that this quirkily charismatic singer, media magnet and ubiquitous party girl will become even more of a celebrity presence here in 2009. Her first album, Alright, Still, from 2006, sold a hefty 2.5m copies worldwide, and there’s no reason why her second – It’s Not Me, It’s You, which comes out in February – shouldn’t do just as well.

But this is not the only reason why a dozen or so paparazzi gather outside Lily Allen’s London flat every morning, where, if they’re lucky, they might catch a rare glimpse of Allen herself jogging around Queens Park with her pal the Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac.

The potential for a saleable snap is fuelled by a woman who seems, by turns, sloppily juvenile for her age, and then, more oddly, almost prematurely old and therefore unpredictable enough to guarantee a photo opportunity.

The young component is what everybody notices first – “gobby” has become her middle name – which she has attributed to her father, the infamously confrontational Keith, a graduate of the late-1970s Comic Strip crew whose early performances would sometimes end in impromptu fisticuffs with members of the audience.

Keith was for many years a regular cocaine user, a habit his oldest daughter – who like all under-25s refers to it as “gak” – is ambivalent about. Her attitude to drugs has been elastic: she allegedly celebrated her first No 1 single, ‘Smile’, with a coke binge. But then sang: “I’m not trying to say that I’m smelling of roses/But when will we tire of putting shit up our noses?”

“I think my attitude in life comes from my dad. He’s very blunt,” Lily said two years ago.

For “blunt”, in her case read “vituperative”. A selection of choice Lily insults would have to include the withering putdown of Cheryl Cole: “Marrying a rich footballer must be very gratifying. Your mother must be so proud – stupid bitch.” Then there was the damning of Bob Geldof as a “sanctimonious prat”, which Lily followed up with a tirade against his daughter Peaches for her presentation of a TV programme about Islam. Calling her a “useless oaf”, Lily expressed a desire reminiscent of her father’s youthful pugilism to “kick the shit out of her”.

Slanging matches are never far from the Lily agenda. Of Madonna she recently commented: “She should put it away now she’s had a couple of kids.” Pete Doherty, in her view, “has to be exterminated”. Paris Hilton she deems her “hideously untalented”. Her latest target is her fellow English pop starlet Katie Perry. “It feels like there’s almost a gladiatorial thing going on with Lily and some of these other pop celebs,” says a friendly male journalist who acts as one of her many party walkers.

Lily Allen’s legendary bluntness is currently being directed at her record company, EMI, and, in particular, Guy Hands’ beleaguered private equity company, Terra Firma, which owns it. “They’ll fail,” she said in January. Her relationship with EMI has always been hazy. Signed in 2005 without much of a plan on the strength of her vivid rhyming and her family connections, her initial breakthrough was self-generated. It occurred in 2005 after Allen herself uploaded four of her tracks onto the internet and received a rave response from a monthly music magazine. An early exploiter of MySpace, she rapidly acquired 80,000 online friends.

Since then she has gone her own way, notably presenting a chat show for BBC3, Lily Allen and Friends, which disrupted the promotion of Alright, Still There have been hair-product endorsements, and in 2007 a “Lily Loves” clothing range featuring bright cocktail dresses, trainers and high heels at 267 New Look stores worldwide. Her face has turned up on a student credit card. Part of this, it is whispered, is a legacy of the financial worries that beset her early childhood. Part of it is just her. “Nobody at the record company has much of a handle on Lily Allen,” says one former employee.

Despite the fact that her album is one of EMI’s priority releases in the first half of 2009, marketing budgets at the cash-strapped label have been uniformly slashed, and Lily, a prime victim of the cuts, is hopping mad. “Wankers” she called them in a recent interview, enraged by what she viewed as their cheap and shabby treatment of her on a promotional trip to Paris. “Twenty years ago I’d have been booked in at the Ritz with five grams of cocaine on my table and 10 bunches of flowers. Some new clothes. A chauffeur on 24-hour call. Now I’m lucky to get an Oyster card. I ask for a hotel in Paris and I get a two-star place in the 8th arrondissement on my own.”

In the ensuing furore, Allen was forced to deny that she condoned drug-taking, though she robustly insisted that she knew plenty of people who did without it ruining their lives. She also had a go at militant Christianity and took a few random pot shots at some of her peers. In short, It’s Not Me, It’s You is already living up to its provocative title.

So much for Lily the younger, the loose-cannon pop gob. Alongside that version there’s the other, more complicated and frankly more interesting Lily – the old soul who grew up fast – who has a thing not just for older men, a weakness for silver-haired foxes with artistic interests like Jay Jopling; but for older people, older music, older just about anything. For whatever reason, this Lily Allen seems for ever to have lived a life beyond her years, hobnobbing since toddlerhood with an older generation of actors, musicians and artists – friends of her media-savvy parents in most cases – which has turned her as a young adult into one of the best-connected 23-year-olds in Britain.

Lily Allen is, to an unusual extent, surrounded by people who tend to be, on average, about twice her own age. These include her publicist, her manager (who also looks after James Blunt), and a liberal sprinkling of the so-called “young” British artists, such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, mates of her dad who are all now well past 40. She hung out with Nigella Lawson at the launch of the Saatchi Gallery last year; and has engaged in a songwriting session with Damon Albarn. “She has always enjoyed the conversation of older people,” says one acquaintance, who recounts the way that Allen went out of her way to befriend sixth-formers at the schools she attended. Last summer she got in touch with the London mayor, Boris Johnson, to offer her support for his campaign against knife crime. Her suggestion – a reward scheme in which knives could be exchanged for, er, sewing machines – seemed oddly devoid of youth appeal.

Most of the journalists who have interviewed her prior to the release of her new record are, likewise, veteran book writers rather than excitable pop scribes. Robbie Williams’s biographer shadowed her promotional activities in the run-up to Christmas. A middle-aged lady interviewer got shown around the renovated flat in Queens Park into which Allen moved last summer, and where she keeps various art pieces, including some Mexican religious paintings and a canvas by her godfather Joe Strummer’s old bandmate Paul Simonon.

Queens Park in itself is a strange choice of address for a young singleton like Allen. This heavily residential enclave of northwest London is a nappy valley for the Portobello crowd once they pass 30 and start families. It is a very long way, culturally, from the buzz and the bars of Camden or Hoxton. Then again, it was only last year that Allen – a wild child with strongly umbilical leanings – finally moved out of her mother’s house in Islington, where the two would occasionally share the same bed.

Allen was born in Hammersmith, west London, in 1985, conceived according to her mother on her wedding night. Alison Owen, a 23-year-old self-described “single-mother punk student” with a daughter by a previous relationship, had fallen for one of the rising stars of the British alternative comedy scene, the Welsh actor Keith Allen. Not that either of them was making much money at the time. Owen was scratching a living in the nascent pop-video business; Allen Sr was getting by doing stand-up gigs for cash. Living in a council flat in Bloomsbury, the couple soon had two children and, by 1989, a busted marriage which left Owen on her own with the kids, little money and a nervous breakdown. Lily recalls eating spaghetti on toast listening to her mum on the phone tearfully begging her dad for cash.

Whatever she may have lacked in material comforts, Allen has never been without stimulating company. From the age of 11 – by which time her mother’s career as a Hollywood producer had taken off and the family were living comfortably with the comedian Harry Enfield in a big house in Primrose Hill – Allen’s social life had reached adult cruising altitude. Her mum would take her to dinner parties and film premieres where she remembers meeting Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Minghella. Her godfather was her dad’s punk-rock buddy, the leader of the Clash, Joe Strummer, whom Allen loved, even though she never really twigged what a huge band the Clash were (“I didn’t realise he was quite so famous until I went to his funeral in 2002”). Through her mother’s pop-video connections she knew the jazz-punk band Rip Rig & Panic, whose singer Neneh Cherry was like an aunt. Miquita (the daughter of the group’s other vocalist, Andrea Oliver), now a TV presenter and one of her few younger friends, became like a sister.

At this point, the career benefits of Lily Allen’s boundless contacts and burgeoning popularity are obvious. But will they be enough to keep her off the booze and on an emotionally even keel as she embarks on the most ambitious tour of her career so far?

There has been a downside to her ineffably exciting life in her failed relationships, notably with the DJ Lester Lloyd, the Irish rich kid who sold their story for £25,000 to a tabloid in 2007; and, more hurtfully, with Ed Simons, the Chemical Brother whose child she miscarried and with whom she split shortly afterwards. “Lily desperately wanted that child, and she is still too upset to talk about it,” says someone who tried to quiz her about it recently. Meanwhile, nobody places much store by the recent Jay Jopling scenario, not even Lily herself. “I’m completely incapable of lying,” she said.

© Robert SandallThe Sunday Times, 25 January 2009

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