In the past Lulu has always been cautious about revealing her true feelings to the public. She would put a big smile over any cracks or pain. Brush things off. Death or divorce, love or loss, mostly what the public saw was a small bundle of joy and energy.
But at 62, she is finally letting people in. Not only is she back on our screens in Strictly Come Dancing, but she has also opened up to the cameras and allowed them to follow her around for a new film about her life.
Getting stuck in
“If you’re going to do a documentary, let’s get to a bit of the real stuff,” she says, tucking into a bowl of pappardelle pasta with beef ragù at Trullo, her son Jordan’s Italian restaurant in north London.
“Let’s get to the real me that I’ve always been so cautious and careful not to show. If I’m going to let people follow me around about my life, let’s really look at what’s driven me.”
Lulu was born Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie in Lennoxtown, Glasgow, on 3 November 1948. It was a grim area – a tenement block that reeked of deprivation – which she’s always been determined should not define her.
She began singing in clubs and competitions at 14, and when people heard that very big voice coming from such a very small girl, it quickly drew attention. In 1963 the single Shout launched her career and became a top-ten hit. At 15 she left Glasgow, after being taken under the wing of her manager, Marion Massey. They moved to London, where Lulu appeared glamorous and sophisticated.
Inside, she felt very different. She remembers being a naive young girl who was suddenly a pop star. It was all about seeming grown-up. “Why have I survived all these years?” she asks. “Well, it’s not just because I come from Glasgow and sang Boom-Bang-a-Bang.”
Finding a voice
She had enormous drive, but her confident, vivacious public image disguised conflict and confusion. Her drive was something she felt slightly ashamed of. Her mother was very old school, believing that qualities such as ambition and speaking your mind were reserved for men.
Lulu didn’t agree, but all through her life, “My mother’s voice was ringing in my ears.” Lulu may have left home wanting everything that came with a pop star’s life, but she was also homesick. She felt guilty that she wasn’t there to help her mother.
It was also painful for her mother to lose her to Marion Massey, who in many ways became a surrogate mother. In London, Massey introduced Lulu to producers such as Mickie Most, who gave her catchy hit songs and propelled her career for more than 25 years.
But the material wasn’t really what Lulu wanted to sing. Her voice was raw, emotion-fuelled, high octane. The songs she loved, and loves, were black in origin, gritty R&B. A highpoint was collaborating with David Bowie on The Man Who Sold the World (1974).
Lulu eventually parted company with Marion, going on to guest with Take That on Relight My Fire, which scored a number one in 1993. “How I feel now about Marion is that it’s very painful,” she admits. “I didn’t understand when we split up how painful that was for her. In fact I got really choked. I’ve also got a pain in my throat thinking about when I left home. How painful that was for my mother, now I’m a mother myself, a grandmother in fact.”
Looking for harmony
In the documentary we see her marry Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees in February 1969, aged 20, and watch the marriage quickly fall apart. They met on Top of the Pops and became the Posh and Becks of their day. Thousands of fans gathered outside the church. But they divorced in 1973 after only four years.
She wonders now if she should have worked harder to understand him. “Most girls my age in Scotland were starting to get married and have kids,” she recalls. “I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I thought we had a lot in common. Well, we had music in common. There’s never one reason that something didn’t work. Being too young is absolutely a big piece of it.”
Soon afterwards she met fledgeling hairdresser John Frieda, across a cloud of hairspray. “It was instant for me,” she says of the moment he started to do her hair and they fell for each other. They married in 1977 but, again, the relationship was complicated, intense, competitive.
It coincided with a crossroads in Lulu’s career. She was happy to be modelling for catalogues because she was adapting to being a mother for the first time, but she didn’t want to let go of her career. She was working hard, but not feeling fulfilled. In truth she was depressed, and when, aged 40, she had a miscarriage, she was almost undone.
It came at a devastating point in her relationship with Frieda, 11 years after Jordan’s birth, during a summer season in Bournemouth. A week later she was back on stage. At this point, Frieda’s hair products business was going global. The marriage imploded. She felt her life was all about loss: of her baby, her cool and her marriage.
“In the past I’d always say, ‘I’m not going to talk about this.’ But now I think, ‘I’m 62.’ Yes, it was a balancing act. And often I wasn’t doing the things I loved but the things people wanted, and how stupid was that. It was very painful for me not to have another child. But how much of a victim was I really? I’m still here.”
It seems Lulu has spent life dealing with contradictions. The Glasgow girl who became a glamorous star in London, the devoted mother who didn’t want to give up her career. Collaborating with Bowie and Take That and yet at the same time being an all-singing, all-dancing mainstream entertainer with a Saturday-night TV show.
And yet, despite the conflict and drama in her private life, Lulu couldn’t be happier to be back on Saturday-night TV, and still straddling both worlds. An edgy, revealing documentary alongside fluffy and light Strictly Come Dancing.
We catch up late one evening after rehearsals. “I’m 62, for God’s sake – if I don’t do it now, I never will. It might be too late already, but I’ll give it a go. I’ve cleaned the slate so I can dedicate my time to the show. I’m good for a few moves, but I’m no dancer. I’ve never been elegant. Everyone saw I was shocked when I found I was with Brendan.”
Her main anxiety was that he’s so tall and she’s only 5ft 1in. “He’s a brilliant dancer, but I was thinking, ‘Will I be in safe hands?’ He’s feisty, but so am I.”
Lulu – Something to Shout About is showing on Saturday 10:30pm on BBC2