Tulisa Contostavlos: a media pro in the ultimate media storm

Tulisa Contostavlos: a media pro in the ultimate media storm

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“They’ve f***ed me up good and proper. They’re killing me. They’re f***ing killing me. I just want my life back. They’ve ruined me.”

7 December 2013. Tulisa Contostavlos, former X Factor judge, former FHM Sexiest Woman in the World, former singer with No1 pop-urban rascals N-Dubz, is in her temporary home in north London, howling into her laptop’s video camera. She’s just learnt she’ll be charged with helping to supply Class A drugs to a man who turned out to be Mazher Mahmood, the undercover tabloid reporter.

It’s a crisis point at the end of a hellish six months: in June, Mahmood’s story splashed in the Sun on Sunday. Contostavlos has been in limbo. She’s already fled her £6m Hertfordshire mansion, driven out by the suspicion that paparazzi are monitoring it round the clock. Now she faces prison.

The next day, before she leaves for Charing Cross police station, Contostavlos explains to documentary-maker Jonathan Levi what went on the night before. After the authorities gave notice that she would be prosecuted, she sat with her friends and her cousin, N-Dubz rapper Dappy. They drank, talked, screamed. Then Contostavlos washed 11 Co-codamol down with vodka. Her PA, Gareth, phoned the ambulance.

Contostavlos reports her suicide attempt to Levi calmly, slightly dazed. The mixture of raw self-shot footage and film, almost as intimate, shot by Levi’s crew forms Tulisa: The Price of Fame, a BBC3 documentary that arrives less than a week after Contostavlos’ trial collapsed and she walked free.

Fame is certainly the subject. Beginning with Contostavlos slumped on her bathroom floor after reading the Sun on Sunday story and ending with her, tearful and elated, in the car on the way home from court, the film shows what it’s like in the middle of a media frenzy – and how a media-savvy star handles a situation she can’t control.

What’s immediately striking is the footage shot by Contostavlos herself. Within minutes of the story breaking, and within minutes of learning she’ll be charged, she is recording her anguish. “She decided she wanted to record what was happening to her from the moment she realised she’d been subject to this sting,” Levi says. “With so many documentaries, you miss so much. It takes a week or two to get a commission, to get her on board, to get the channel on board. But she was capturing it herself and she gave me that footage. It was incredibly helpful.”

What sort of person reacts to their imminent possible ruin by thinking, “I’ll make a documentary about this” and whipping out a camera? “I’m not sure if she was thinking in as focused a way as that,” Levi says. “She was thinking, something terrible has happened to me, I don’t know how it will play out but I want to record how I’m feeling and at some point tell my side of the story.

“She’s been so used to cameras from N-Dubz onwards, since her teens. Maybe it’s also a generational thing. It wouldn’t occur to slightly older people to immediately video themselves. It’s the video equivalent of a selfie, saying how you feel in that very confessional way. For a lot of people going through a scandal it would feel artificial. I don’t think it does for her.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary selfie vid was taken the day after the original Sun on Sunday story. “Daaaaaay twoooooo in the Big Media Destruction House,” Contostavlos says to her camera, in the exaggerated Geordie tones of Big Brother narrator Marcus Bentley.

“It’s quite a funny, revealing moment,” says Levi. “She’s realising she’s a character inside a television show. There’s a Truman Show element to it.”

That the Tulisa court case arose from an elaborate tabloid sting – Mahmood went to huge lengths to pose as a film producer, promising Contostavlos the lead role in a Bollywood/Hollywood crossover that would co-star Leonardo DiCaprio - adds extra bite to what happened before the trial. The Mahmood front page had come just over a year after a former boyfriend of Contostavlos published an explicit sex tape online, a development seized on by the tabloids with a zeal that felt tinged with misogyny and class snobbery. Now the press were not only celebrating the possible conviction of this young woman, who had had the temerity to sing herself out of her tough Camden upbringing, and who hadn’t ever taken on the airs and graces that would constitute leaving her background behind; they’d actively orchestrated her downfall.

Those circumstances make the media-scrum scenes in Levi’s film more pointed. Particularly unsettling is the day, during the months when Contostavlos is waiting to be charged, when she travels from north London to the middle of town to film an audition for an HBO comedy at her agent’s office. When she and her small entourage arrive, the same black Range Rover she’d seen earlier outside her flat is there already, waiting. The driver becomes verbally aggressive when challenged. The sense is strong of an individual, particularly a single female, facing intrusion that no amount of previous courting of the media can justify.

“They got themselves into a heightened state of paranoia after she’d been charged,” Levi recalls. “They were of the view that they were being followed, that their phones were being tapped, that they were under 24-hour surveillance. A lot of it was true. That scene is a tiny example. They kept being approached with new bogus offers. They felt the manipulation was continuing in order to get more stories.”

Contostavlos seems to be fighting her battle almost alone throughout Tulisa: The Price of Fame. Her father is estranged and her mother is also unseen – her mental illness was documented in 2010 in another BBC3 documentary, the disarmingly tender and intelligent Tulisa: My Mum and Me. Contostavlos’ coterie of advisers and stylists doesn’t feel adequate.

“She only turned 26 just before the trial,” Levi says. “She’s been let down by a lot of people in her life. Her closest confidantes over the past months have been paid advisers. Her lawyers. Her agent. They’ve been brilliant but she’s paying for them. The people who are loyal are fiercely loyal: Gareth, her aunt, her cousin, her girlfriends. She’s not alone, she has an awful lot of friends, but over the year she eliminated people who didn’t have her best interests at heart. She was finding out who her friends were. She’s got a smaller, tighter network now.”

Gareth the PA almost emerges as the star of The Price of Fame, ahead of his employer. Initially he comes across as the sort of sweet, quiet man we’ve seen on any number of cosy ITV2 celeb-umentaries: perfectly suited to a life of organising diaries and ordering exactly the right latté. But before long he’s deep into some next-level PA-ing, passing on detailed lawyer’s briefings and leaking details of the wrong police station to prevent the press following his client when she’s charged. 

“I wanted to capture that bit because his job is 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Levi. “It’s non-stop. She would have completely fallen apart without him. He’s had a terrible year but they’ve both come out of it. He really stepped up. He was often on the receiving end of really vile tabloid articles himself.”

Levi – who laughs wryly at the notion that a film he spent 13 months on is a “rapid response” documentary, cobbled together to react to a breaking story – says The Price of Fame would have aired, albeit with a rather different last ten minutes, had Contostavlos been convicted. That’s part of his defence to the charge that by enjoying so much access – during one of Contostavlos’ fraught getaways from the paps outside court, Levi and his crew make up half the people in the car – his objectivity must have been hard to maintain.

“You have to be careful not to become one of her friends. I did feel very sympathetic towards her, and I believed her version of events but it’s important to keep a certain distance. Had she been found guilty and gone to prison, I would have had to truthfully tell the story about what happened in court and what led to the guilty verdict.”

If it’s been a nightmarish year for Contostavlos, it’s been a busy and rather odd one for Levi. Throughout the filming of The Price of Fame, he had a parallel project on the go. “It’s a full-access series inside Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane. Two programmes for ITV to transmit in November. For the first time in 150 years they’ve allowed cameras in to spend time with all the patients and staff.

"So I’ve spent the last 12 months dividing my time between Tulisa and Broadmoor. I’ve been at court with her one day and at Broadmoor the next. Which has been... quite weird. But both extremely intense.”

Tulisa: The Price of Fame airs tonight on BBC3 at 10pm

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