Tulisa Contostavlos is lying on a huge cross for the RT photoshoot, arms out wide, face intense. Suddenly the former N-Dubz singer and X Factor judge bursts out laughing. “By the end of the series, they’re going to hang me on one of these, know what I mean?”
When the 23-year-old started as the replacement for Cheryl Cole, the media couldn’t give her more love – Tulisa is so gorgeous, so gobby, so normal, so natural, so everything. Then, as the weeks went on, the stories became more negative – Tulisa’s too normal, too gobby, the ratings are going down, the new judges aren’t up to it. She says it was always going to be like that; of course, there would be some people out there desperate to duff her up.
“I knew I’d be criticised. I thought it would be worse.” Why? “Cos I just knew half the country hated N-Dubz.” But that means half the country liked them, doesn’t it? She grins. “Yeah, but the half that hated them were all probably X Factor fans.”
She says it’s been a brilliant experience, but her feelings about the show change constantly. “You know what? It started off being really enjoyable. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it now, but it’s an emotional rollercoaster. I’m happy when things are good with my acts. But if I lose an act, I’m down in the dumps.”
She certainly doesn’t seem down in the dumps today. She dazzles in matching silver dress and heels, and is full of life and laughter. With those beautiful cheekbones, and black hair scraped off her face, she’s got more than a touch of the Audrey Hepburns. She’s come a long way from the tracksuit-bottomed grimy girl in those N-Dubz videos – and that girl had already come a long way from the tormented teen who self-harmed and contemplated suicide.
Her physical transformation for The X Factor has been amazing. Ah, she says, that’s just a shell – when she’s at home or shopping in Tesco she’s straight back into her trackies. She pauses. Well, there is one big difference. Her teeth. She shows them off: lovely, regular, pearly white. “They’re veneers. I’ve always wanted these done, and when I got the X Factor job it was an excuse to say I’ve got to do it now. I hated my teeth before.” What was so bad? “You’ll see.” She calls up a photograph on the net. “See – too much gum, tiny teeth, gaps.”
How much do veneers cost? “About two grand. But I got them for free. It’s mental, the amount of free things I get offered. These are things I work to afford, and I don’t have to pay for them, it’s ridiculous! I could sell half the free things I have and be able to put a mortgage down on a house.”
For a long time that was Tulisa’s dream – to buy her own home. She was born in north London to musical parents. Her mother had sung with a group and toured Europe, while her father had enjoyed brief success with 1970s pop group Mungo Jerry. When Tulisa was nine, her father left home, leaving her to look after her mother, who has bipolar and schizoaffective disorders, in their tiny council flat.
A story appeared in a newspaper back in June in which her father claimed Tulisa had had a comfortable upbringing and money had never been in short supply. Unfortunately, she says, this isn’t true. “Proud Greek men say a lot of things to make themselves feel proud.”
Everyday life was bleak. Last year she made an incredibly moving BBC3 documentary about her life with her mother, and children living with mentally ill parents. In My Mum and Me, Tulisa talked powerfully about being the primary carer for her mother and the fear of always having to look
In the film she reads out a diary entry from 2005. “Mum has had one panic attack and one seizure,” it says. “I spent the whole day at the hospital. I want to help, but it stresses me out so much.” At five she watched her mother being sectioned, and believes the stress of it led to her later eating disorders and self-harm. At 14 she took an overdose and three years later attempted to slash her wrists. She made bad friends, smoked too much weed, and withdrew into herself.
I say that the film seemed liberating for her, but she shakes her head. “Honestly? It was a little bit depressing. I did find myself going home feeling down. I had tried not to let my whole life revolve around my mum being mentally ill, then I felt every day I was going into hospitals, seeing it again, and it brought back the whole vibe. I couldn’t wait till it was over. I’m glad I was helping people, but I’ve moved on now.”
She worried that she would end up like her mother. But now, at 23, a year older than her mother was when she first became ill, she feels more confident in herself – she thinks she was so down because of the stuff happening in her life, rather than being a depressive. What made her most miserable was the fear that life was spiral- ling out of control and she would amount to nothing. Now she knows what’s going to get her down, and how best to avoid it – by surrounding herself with positive people.
Occasionally, her past still gets the better of her, and she’ll become negative. “I’ll think, ‘I don’t belong here.’ I get those moments now and again. Although I can be very feisty, that’s a defence mechanism for me. I’m defensive because too many years of my life I was treated like s**t.”
In what way?
“Mostly in school, being bullied. Feeling weak all the time. Having to walk down the road with a baseball bat in my back pocket. Feeling scared.” Did she hit anyone with the bat? “Ummm… no, I didn’t end up having to use the bat, but I did have to punch people back a few times. Luckily the days I had the bat on me, nothing went wrong. This was a time when people were saying, ‘We’re going to come down with 20 people and put you in hospital’.”
“It was just street, ‘hood, rubbish.”
At her lowest, when she cut her wrists, was that because of home life or the bullying? “Everything.” I ask if she’s still got scars. She lifts her sleeves. “You know, I’m lucky because I heal very quickly. I don’t really have any marks on me.” There’s a little scar on her arm. What did she do that with?
“Scissors. I also had a compulsive skin-picking disorder. I used to ruin anything I could find on my body, especially my face. And if I hadn’t healed the way I did, my face would be ruined with scars.”
At the age of 11, she formed the group that became N-Dubz, with her cousin, Dappy. They were more like brother and sister than cousins. Today she has his name tattooed on her neck, and he has hers on his arm. “When I was growing up, he was always protective of me and I was of him. Imagine at 11 you then get a band together, so that’s 12 more years spending every day in each other’s pockets. It’s mad, it’s mental.”
At times, she says, their relationship was claustrophobic, and it’s good to have a bit of distance now. He was the first one to get the tattoo. “Dappy’s not very good with women, in the sense that he’s not very good at showing his love, and he says things like ‘I’ll never love a woman as much as I love my mum and Tulisa’. We’re the number one ladies in his life. So he got the tatt.”
Two years later, she returned the favour. “Everybody I know has a tattoo of the guy they’re dating or their first boyfriend, and I was like, all the guys I’ve dated have come in and out of my life and have meant nothing to me. If there’s one guy I have a strong bond with, who’s been there for me, it would be Dappy. We’re always going to be friends.”
The other member of N-Dubz is Fazer, often referred to as Tulisa’s boyfriend. Are they an item? “I’ve never answered the question. I say I have a boyfriend and I won’t say who it is. I don’t talk about my love life, other than saying I have one and want to keep it private.”
Why doesn’t she have a tattoo of Fazer?
She smiles. “I don’t talk about my love life.”
Tulisa says there is a romantic side to her, but it’s only part of who she is. “I have very bad mood swings, or so I’ve been told by every boyfriend I’ve ever had, cos I’m a Cancerian. One minute I’m the cutest little cuddly toy, and then the next minute I’m an ice queen. I’m still like that.”
There was evidence of that moodiness in The X Factor after Tulisa criticised the behaviour of one of Kelly Rowland’s acts, Misha B, and there were stories of the two judges being at war. Is it true she and Rowland can’t stand each other? “No, we have our ups and downs. When we get on, we get on really well.”
At the auditions, she says they couldn’t have been closer. “We were going for dinners, to each other’s hotel rooms, we were proper cool. Then we didn’t see each other for a long time. Even when we came back to the live shows, we didn’t get to see each other. We’d be in studios at different times. So that gave us a good two months of not being as tight as we were before. Then we had that bust-up on the panel and we came off stage, and we just didn’t talk.”
Eventually, they felt it was getting ridiculous. “We were both fed up with everything going on in the papers and the rumours because the truth is we were just staying out of each other’s way.”
One of the rumours, I say, was that you were upset because your boyfriend had… She cuts me off. “That’s a load of rubbish.”
You were upset because the man in your life – who shall remain nameless – gave his phone
number to Misha B. “Load of rubbish. The man in my life has never exchanged numbers with Misha B. No, Kelly and I just weren’t talking. Then she came into my dressing room and said, ‘This is stupid, let’s forget about it.’ After the next show we had an even deeper chat about how we were feeling and the pressures of the show.”
It’s as if there are two competitions going on – one for the contestants, one for the judges. “That’s what I said. I feel like I’m being judged more than I’m being a judge.” But Tulisa knows she has no grounds for complaint. “When I was in N-Dubz I used to say it’s my job and I’m getting on with it; if you don’t like my videos, don’t sit on YouTube all day then tweet me.
“But this isn’t my show. The X Factor has been around for years, it’s the public’s show, and I’ve put myself up there for that public to judge me.”
If she was asked back next year would she return? Oh yes, she says instantly. She talks about what she brings to the show. “I get closer to my acts than any other judge. I want them to feel they’ve got a little family. They say I’m like a mother hen. Even Dappy and Fazer used to call me the mother hen. So if that’s what I do with my own band, when I’m in charge of these other bands, obviously I start mothering them.”
Does that come from mothering her mum? “Yeah, probably. I feel I’ve got a duty to do it.”
Her other quality, she says, is her honesty. “Ever since I started this show I’ve never faked a comment. Nothing I do is premeditated. I go out and be myself and give my critique.” That’s why, she says, she gets confused when people criticise her. “When people say you’re so rubbish I’m like, ‘What d’you mean I’m rubbish? I’m rubbish at being myself?'”
Are the other judges as true to themselves? “I do feel Gary Barlow and Kelly are very professional. When they step on stage, they’re like ‘this is a job here’. Because I’m younger, I’m a bit giddy and more rebellious.”
Despite the criticism, she has helped The X Factor to reinvent itself post-Simon Cowell. “If you love Simon, you’re going to miss him. And if someone said put Simon on the panel as the fifth judge, I’m not going to say no because he’s brilliant, but now it’s something new and different. And people don’t like what they don’t know.”
Which of the judges is she closest to? “Louis Walsh.” She says Louis is the kind of person she needs to be around to stay on an even keel. “He’s happy all the time. He’s one of those people that make me smile. I can’t go into a dark place if he’s sitting next to me.”
Tulisa Contostavlos appears on The X Factor, Saturday 8.00pm, Sunday 7.30pm ITV1
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times that went on sale 3 December 2011