Lulu lets loose
A tormented childhood, a near-fatal car crash and that fling with Bowie – as she opens up about her tumultuous life...
H aving been blessed with just one child – and a son at that – Lulu had heard all the old adages and feared they might be true. ‘You hear the stories, don’t you?’ she says. ‘Especially the one about a daughter being yours for life, but only having a son until he finds a wife. When you’ve only had one child, a son, that’s something you worry about. I used to pray, “Please let him marry a girl who gets on with his mum, otherwise I’ll never see him or my grandchildren.”’
Her son Jordan, a restaurateur and former actor whose father is the hairdresser John Frieda, married his wife Alana in 2008, and the couple now have two children. To say that Lulu – or ‘Nanny Lu’, as Bella, seven, and Teddy, four, call her – is a besotted granny is to put it mildly. But she seems just as smitten with her daughter-in-law. ‘My prayers were answered!’ she says. ‘When they decided to marry, I won the lottery.’
She even goes as far as to suggest she now has a closer relationship with Alana than she does with Jordan. ‘I love my daughter-in-law. I have a great relationship with my son too, but maybe I’d like us to be even closer. He’s very busy so I talk more to Alana.’
Few mother-in-laws could, hand on heart, boast of such closeness. What’s the secret? She laughs: ‘You have to work at it. You have to work at everything. A lot of it’s about knowing when to let go. That’s a constant lesson.’ Then she gives another guffaw at the idea of being presented as some showbiz sage. ‘I don’t have the answer to everything because I’m a work in progress myself. Sometimes things aren’t the way you want them. The more I know, the more I realise I know nothing,’ she says.
What a force of nature Lulu is. Now 68, she’s been married twice, neither time too conventionally. Husband No.1 was Bee Gee Maurice Gibb; No.2 was John, at the time the king of celebrity coiffeurs. In between there was a jaw-dropping fling with David Bowie (who had unforgettable thighs, apparently) and a more recent ‘thing’ with Take That star Jason Orange, who’s 22 years her junior, when she recorded with the band. How to explain all that to the grandkids?
It comes as a shock, then, to discover that she spent her early life craving convention – even if it brought her only heartache. ‘I was programmed to think that the answer to life was a white picket fence and three children, you know, the happy-ever-after. And it’s unrealistic.’ She was a woman driven entirely – and often disastrously – by her feelings, she says. ‘When I was younger I was probably completely ruled by my emotions. But now that’s not the case because I put so much work into looking at myself objectively.’
What a contradictory conundrum Lulu’s life has been. One of the most interesting chapters was that fling with Bowie in the Seventies. It was outlandish at the time. She was the slightly kooky pint-sized Scottish singer with the huge voice; he was, well, David Bowie. ‘Has there ever been an odder couple?’ is how she herself summed it up in her autobiography I Don’t Want To Fight.
‘He was the cool dude and I was just not’
Bowie – struck by her voice and, clearly, more – invited her to record with him at his chateau-based studio in France, leading to the ultimate pinch-yourself moment. They ended up in bed together, even though he famously told her she could do with losing weight. Wasn’t she outraged? Apparently not. ‘He wasn’t suggesting I should lose weight because he fancied me more that way,’ she pointed out in her book. ‘It was more a professional observation. He was one of the pioneers of the emaciated, heroin-chic look and he thought it would help my career. It was typical of David.’
He was, she says, ‘totally seductive’, with a ‘magnetic sort of personality that was intoxicating to be around. He had a reputation for being very sexually adventurous, and I’m sure it’s true,’ she wrote. ‘But with me he stayed within fairly normal territory. It wasn’t wild or anything like that.’
It must have been flattering to be singled out by Bowie as worthy of attention? ‘Oh it was,’ she says today. ‘A thousand million times. I was not cool and he was cool, so I was unbelievably flattered. He was the cool dude, and I was just not.’ Did the relationship have long-lasting effects on her confidence, perhaps? ‘Did it change my life and I then became something else?’ she ponders. ‘I think it influenced my life. But then I married John Frieda. I didn’t stick around with David Bowie.’
Presumably Bowie didn’t feature in her picket-fence fairytale future? Or did he? ‘Was I looking to marry David Bowie to have children with him?’ she says, with some incredulity. ‘No. That never even entered the frame.’
One of the most striking things about our chat today is how much she returns to the theme of having been quite a ‘conventional, conservative’ sort of person, even when she’s laughing away about her affair with Bowie. You might think someone like Lulu, whose life has taken the classic rags-to-riches trajectory (all the way from the tenement home in Glasgow to the lavish LA lifestyle).
We’re here because she’s laying bare her life in a new project where she opens up about being a British icon for a Vauxhall cars promotion. With a nod to the Carpool Karaoke segment from James Corden’s Late Late Show, it features celebrities driving around places that are special to them and reminiscing about their early lives, and Lulu returned to Glasgow. You’d think she’d have had her fair share of flashy motors, but surprisingly she reveals
she’d always choose a saloon over a sports car. ‘I’ve always been a bit conservative that way, I always wanted something safe.’
Her desire for safety might be down to the fact she almost died in a car accident in 1979 (she severed an artery in her head and smashed a knee in the crash after a gig), but she points out that was nearly 40 years ago, and she hadn’t been a fan of fast cars even before that. Her first car – bought before she’d even passed her test – was a lowly Renault.
But obviously such a trauma as the crash didn’t help. Even today, she’s off to the osteopath after we chat. ‘It’s a recurring problem with my knee and lower back, but it also affects my neck and then my jaw,’ she says. ‘If you’ve been jarred or bashed about it’s very hard for you to heal because the muscles have a memory and you will tend to lean in a certain way to stop any discomfort – which creates another discomfort.’
It seems that although she’s still charging about on stage like Mick Jagger, this is only because of careful treatment. A stint on Strictly didn’t help her knee problems, and she can no longer ski. So is she by nature conservative and safe, or one for living on the edge? In truth you can see both sides of her. The fun, feisty, devil-may-care Lulu runs alongside a darker character. She can be quite the diva. At several points during our interview she’s downright difficult, making sweeping references to her troubled childhood (she would frequently watch her father beating up her mother) but berating me for referring back to her autobiography for the detail (‘I wouldn’t go by that,’ she snaps, inexplicably, when I quote her own anecdotes back to her).
She admits she’s a mass of contradictions. ‘I have a natural propensity to be... what’s the word, not irritable, more kind of restless,’ she says at one point. Doubtless this conclusion has been born of many, many years of therapy, and she does at times sound like a selfhelp manual. She talks about having posttraumatic stress disorder. ‘I can be quite frantic.’ Where does she think this comes from? ‘Because of my past. You grow up anxious because of situations. My childhood, my nature, all mushed together. I’m just a very anxious person. I have a natural tendency to tip over the edge.’
Interestingly, she feels her personality isn’t necessarily suited to being in the volatile music industry. Quite the opposite, in fact. ‘If you’re in the music industry you’re a gambler, and I never gamble. Maybe because I had the type of childhood where I had to go to the pawn shop with my mother’s ring. We didn’t know whether money was coming in. I grew up wanting to feel secure.’ Which is something you can never do in showbiz? ‘Exactly!’ she says. ‘It’s not secure. It’s the
‘I have a tendency to tip over the edge’
last thing you would choose. But sometimes it’s your destiny too.’
The young Lulu – born Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie – was performing on stage at the age of 12, a ferocious and precocious talent. By 15 she’d been signed to Decca Records and had moved away from home to live with her manager’s family in London. By 16 she was being asked, by Eric Clapton no less, what she was doing that evening. She jokes she’d be able to think of a better answer these days. Her mother went to pieces after she left. ‘I was a child. None of us had any idea what would happen.’ Would she sanction such a thing with her grandchildren? ‘No way!’ Obviously the story of her early days in showbiz – hanging out with The Beatles, who saw her as a little sister, and taking career advice from Frank Sinatra – is the stuff of legend. Less clear is how she emerged from this era seemingly intact.
Why did she never go over the edge? ‘Maybe I’m just lucky.’ But maybe it’s not that simple. She cites the early influence of her manager Marion Massey, who insisted Lulu stay with Marion’s mother when she moved to London. Marion had been an opera singer before finding her way into the pop scene. ‘Maybe if I’d been with a younger manager who just looked after rock ’n’ roll bands I’d have been influenced differently,’ says Lulu. ‘I know I have a kind of common sense too.’
Crucially, she never got into the drug scene, which seems to have been her saving grace. However, she did encounter the world of rock ’n’roll excess through her marriage to Maurice Gibb, whose heavy drinking was a significant factor in their eventual break-up. Similarly, Lulu and Bowie were heading in different directions, she says.
There have been equally eyebrow-raising relationships since, though. While recording with Take That she enjoyed a very brief fling (she’s since called it a ‘little flirtation’) with Jason Orange. Is she single now? She cuts off that line of conversation, saying it’s ‘not what I want to talk about’. She will confess to a recent crush, though, admitting that her ideal man is none other than Barack Obama. ‘I want to meet him. It’s not that I want to take him away from his wife. I just think he’s fabulous. I’ve always had a crush on him. He’s just an amazing person. I like the way he thinks. He’s unreal.’
Obviously 2016 was a sobering year for anyone in the music industry, seeing so many legends die. Bowie passed away just over a year ago, leaving Lulu reeling. She didn’t know he was ill and they hadn’t been in touch for years. ‘It’s so shocking when people like Bowie just die like that. George Michael just died like that – no warning.’
Does the loss of contemporaries make someone like her consider their own mortality? She considers the question. ‘I wouldn’t say people dying puts the fear of God into me; what it puts into me is the sense of unbelievable gratitude for what I have,’ she says. ‘When you get to my age it’s not about sitting in fear. It’s about being grateful and enjoying the present.’
She’ll be back on the road later in the year, getting a second wind, it seems. She talks of how, when she did return to live performing a few years ago, she was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to sell tickets after not touring for a while – especially in a music industry that everyone knows is a young person’s game. ‘Three years ago I did my first solo tour in about eight years. There was a lot of worry and anticipation. Were people going to come? Was I going to sell tickets? But it sold out, so we did another last year, and now we’re going to do it again.’
After the UK leg in October, she’s heading Stateside too. ‘I’ve never toured America before, so I’m excited. I’m playing a little bit of rock ’n’roll, a bit of soul, a bit of pop. It’s kind of a potpourri. We’ve actually had to add dates to the tour because there’s demand for an old fart like me,’ she says, only halfjokingly. ‘I never want to sit still.’
Lulu at work in the studio and (left) with David Bowie in 1973