July 13, 2005


"There's nothing feeble about me." You tell 'em Shirl!

They don't make 'em like they used to. Jan Moir talks to the Cardiff-born star about life, love and being Shirley Bassey

What has happened to stars? Why are stars no longer proper stars? Is it that the celebrity sky got big, or did the stars within get small?

Dame Shirley Bassey: 'the kids today have no training'

These are the things that absorb Dame Shirley Bassey as she scuttles through the Dorchester Hotel, searching for a cup of tea; a cup of breakfast tea, to be precise, with milk-in-first, not too strong and hot water on the side. That's how she likes it. She likes what she likes. She needs what she needs. I am what I am, as both she and Popeye famously put it, although never together, which is a pity. Shirley also knows what she knows, which is that she is a star and most other people Are Not.

"Ah, showbusiness has gone! Gone! People just want to get on reality shows and make money today. They don't care about talent. Anyone gets on television, fat people, tall people, skinny people, people in wheelchairs. Someone else makes millions out of them and their lives are ruined for ever. I hate it, I really hate it."

Even other singers don't come up to scratch. Divas? The very word has been cheapened, the share price has plunged. Binge-drinking divas? Don't get the Dame started. "Mariah Carey with her demands! She gets her dressing room repainted. I would never do that. What proper singer would? The fumes, hmm? I am allergic to paint fumes, anyway. All that fuss is a waste of energy you could use on stage.

"And Charlotte Church? She needs to take a long rest - a year off to go away and think. Because she has made a very bad choice moving into rock music. She was once the classical voice of an angel," says Shirley, shaking her head. "Not now."

Although Church, who is 19, and Bassey, 68, both come from working-class backgrounds in Cardiff and have met on several occasions, there appears to be little sisterly solidarity between them. Dame Shirley, who has been making records since 1958 and has spent more weeks in the charts than any other British female singer, is disappointed that naughty Charlotte recently admitted to drinking 10 double vodkas a night.

"I think Charlotte has let herself down. When I was that age, there was no such thing as binge drinking. It was totally different. We had an adventure. I was on variety shows, so I loved to stand in the wings and watch the other acts. That was great training. The kids today have no training.

"We used to say, 'Let's go to a dance and see what gorgeous fellows we can meet.' Now, girls like Charlotte say, 'Let's go and see how many drinks we can knock back.' I think it is dreadful. You know, if they live to 30 or 35, they'll know all about it then. You damage the liver and it is not good for the voice. Terrible!"

Perhaps she could open a Shirley Bassey School for Stars, and teach them all how to behave?

"Oh, I couldn't go into that. That would be just too hard. I wouldn't want to be teaching anybody anything. Because if they didn't listenŠ"

I get her point.

"I don't like to shout, but I do. Like this morning with my assistant. Something went wrong. She didn't tell me what time my car is picking me up tomorrow, so I had to call her to find out. But it really wasn't shouting, not proper shouting. It was just a ticking-off as she had done something wrong."

I see.

"There is nothing feeble about me."


Bassey received her CBE in 1993, accompanied by personal manager Beauroid Mills and daughter Sharon

Today, she is with her personal manager Beauroid Mills and they make a comically eccentric couple. She has a wool Kangol cap pulled low over her eyes, a T-shirt studded with fake rubies, a flirty little skirt that she thinks is Chanel but isn't sure, and bare legs in high heels. Meanwhile, his hair is an unusual shade of ash blonde and his smile reveals an improbable hoofprint of porcelain teeth.

They look like refugees hot off the Monte Carlo pavements, which is exactly what they are. Shirley has lived there for 15 years and she likes it because it is safe.

"I like the idea of walking home from a party at 3am in the morning with all my jewels on and not be afraid that I am going to get mugged. I like to be able to drive around in my little turquoise Mini with the doors unlocked," she says.

She loves her jewellery, but wonders if the Burlington Arcade black and white cameo earrings and matching bracelet she is wearing today are not just a little de trop. "I was wearing them with an old black dress at a 10 Downing Street do and Hugh Grant said to me: 'I love your jewellery,' which was nice, but the thing is, if you've got something special like this, men don't notice anything else."

Well, that's not strictly true.

"Nice bit of thigh," growls Beauroid, as her skirt flutters around, revealing a stretch of shapely, toned leg that bears testament to daily gym workouts and yoga practice. Yet there is nothing going on with the Dame and her swain, who have known each other for 43 years.

"We celebrate and embrace our relationship, but it is not romantic," she says of Mills, who was the best friend of her first husband and manager, the gay film director Kenneth Hume. Yes, it has been a famously complicated life. Bassey's second daughter Samantha was born when she was married to Hume, although tests proved he was not the father.

In 1967, a few years after their divorce, Hume died of what the coroner called an "incautious overdose" and there was more tragedy in 1985, when Samantha's body was found in the water at the base of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, after an evening spent in a pub near Bristol. As her more emotional fans say, sometimes Shirley Bassey gets an ovation for just being Shirley Bassey.

Today, she remains distanced from many of the family members she grew up with in Cardiff, although she seems close to daughter Sharon, who was born in 1954. Sharon grew up thinking Shirley was her aunt, and there has never been any news of the father; one gets the sense that being Shirley is a journey that had to be undertaken alone. Yet when she was awarded the CBE in 1993, Beauroid and Sharon were photographed at her side. It is quite a revealing snap; in her Donna Karan coat-dress and pearls, Shirley is all legs and teeth and ostrich feather hat, while her daughter wears box pleats from the high street. They look like Saffy and Edina from Absolutely Fabulous.

"We are exactly like that! That is us. Sharon is always saying: 'Oh, Mummy you are not going to wear that?' Yes, I am. 'Oh, Mum would you please stop talking nonsense and don't be so loud.' I am not nonsense and this is not loud, this is my singing voice, tra laaaaaaaa!" she shrieks, making the Dorchester teacups rattle. She is quite a card.

Anyway, I guess they must be friends, as Dame Shirley accompanied Sharon and her husband on their Dubai honeymoon and confesses to leaning on her daughter for emotional support.

Selling off the content of her London flat

"I am more at peace with myself. I have grown up. Sharon is my best friend and when I am down, she becomes my mother. We spend a lot of time on the telephone and she is marvellous."

The phone lines have probably been burning between them recently as Dame Shirley has been embarrassed that a charity auction to sell off the contents of her London flat backfired rather spectacularly. First, many of the fabulously camp lots - including a pair of blackamoor figures, a leopardskin bed and a black marble coffee table - were sold to happy fans for rather paltry amounts. And then the diehard fans got hurt when they realised that some of the items for sale were discarded gifts they had given Dame Shirley, including an expensive Tiffany travel clock. The farce deepened when various showbiz societies discovered that she was also flogging off awards bestowed upon her over the years. Oh dear, how sad, all a dreadful mistake.

"After I sold the flat, I had two days to box everything up, and some things went into the wrong boxes," says Dame Shirley, who is upset that her fans are upset, but not that upset.

"My fans are very possessive. They always want seats in the front row when I go on tour. How they get them, I don't know, but every time I walk out there, there they are in the same seats, rows of them. They follow me across the country but I don't want to see them there night after night. They think it is mean of me and unreasonable, but they don't see my side of it. I am going to a different town every night and I don't want to see the same old faces, it is psychologically upsetting."

That sounds a bit freaky. "It is. It really is. And to be honest with you, I get sick of singing Goldfinger night after night. Gah! It was a hit in 1963, after all. And I can't keep these presents for ever. I've been in showbusiness for 50 years and things just pile up. But even the lesser talented stars get gifts, too."

Do they really? "Yes, but just because they are in the paper and everyone loves a celebrity, don't they?" So the moral of the story isŠ

"No more gifts!" Nothing at all?

"Nothing. Except I love pink champagne, I love chocolates and anything I can share with friends after the show. One woman used to bake me a huge cake and ring up to find out what colour dress I'd be wearing on stage, so she could ice it to match. Now that was perfect. I loved that cake. But presents - anything you've got to keep - are very tricky."

Unless she really likes your gift. Later, when we look at a photograph of her in a low-cut dress, with a lacy bra exposed, Dame Shirley points to it and exclaims: "Now that lovely lacy bra was a present from a fan. It had a matching tanga. Very nice."

After her 50th-anniversary tour in 2003, Dame Shirley has more or less retired to the safe clutches of Monte Carlo. But there are plans for a Christmas special for ITV - perhaps with Will Young - and despite the downsizing that came with selling her London flat plus Rolls Royce, Dame Shirley says she has plenty of money left because she was always a "good girl" and banked her savings.

One might have imagined that being a tax exile for much of her career would have exempted Shirley Bassey from being made a Dame, but obviously this is not the case. Anyway, it just serves to point up the deep-frozen selfishness needed to shimmer through the difficult circumstances of her life. Dame Shirley is always at the centre of Dame Shirley's world and that's the only way it can be.

"Sometimes," she says, "fans come up to me in the street and ask if I am Shirley Bassey. Not today, I say. And by the time they have worked it out, I have gone."


Blogger Mistress_Mini said...

Now THAT is a star. Some of these current no talent wannabes should take a lesson.

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shirley is a true star, that is for sure! But I must admit that it is all of her beautiful music I love most! It is not only Big Spender!! :)

Read about it by this Shirley Bassey Website

3:29 PM  
Blogger Fallon said...

Careful when out at night with jewels, heres my tale

While I was working for a jewelry store My boyfriend received a formal invitation to a Corporate VP’s wedding. I came up with a clever scheme. I bought a lovely long satin gown on Bay and wearing it to work managed to convince my boss to lend me some really pretty jewellery to compliment the gown, that I could say I had purchased there.
All seemed to work well. The reception was at the Ritz and we took in a hotel room across from a small park. We fit in quite well, and I must say I made a rather good impression. By 12:30 am, we had been at the reception for almost 6 hours and both of us were feeling no pain. Deciding to call it quits we headed out into the warm evening., walking to our hotel to save cab fare. As we left, my boyfriend was stopped by a colleague, and tired I headed on figuring he could catch up. I had just crossed the street when a couple on a motorcycle pulled alongside. The male driver asked me if he could have the time. I stepped over to them(dumb) watching the silly little grin plastered on the long haired female behind him. I raised my wrist to look at the time, and he grabbed it, no lady, gimme the watch. He pulled me, while the lady with him had hopped off the bike and got me from behind. It was over in seconds. She took the diamond earrings and necklace, the bloke got me bracelet, rings and rolex. They even snatched the rhinestone brooch from my gown. They then zoomed off, and were out of sight before I could even regain my feet. Talk about stupid. The insurance company money helped replace the jewellery, but not my self esteem..

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