THE SUNDAY TIMES
04 FEBRUARY 2018
BILLIE PIPER ON FAME, FAMILY AND FEMINISM
The pop star-turned-actress and woman’s woman opens up about 20 years in the public eye ahead of her new TV show, Collateral, co-starring Carey Mulligan. Interview by Christa D’Souza.
Photo: MATTHEW KRISTALL
It can’t be — but it is — almost 20 years since I last interviewed Billie Piper. In 1998, the builder’s daughter from Swindon was not yet 16, fresh out of Sylvia Young Theatre School, and the youngest artist ever to debut at No 1. “Why you gotta play that song so loud? Because we want to!” as that first megahit, the one with the spaceship video, went.
What a year 1998 was for earwormy girl-power pop, with the Spice Girls, B*witched, Cleopatra et al. Piper was the most precocious and prettiest pop star of them all. The details of that interview are hazy — it was such a long time ago — but I still remember thinking how sweet, adorable and enthusiastic she was, and at the same time what a curse fame can be when you are a child. A year or so later, we bumped into each other on a flight to LA (in economy class), and a while after that, pictures of her teetering out of the pub with her new husband, Chris Evans, started appearing in the tabloids.
Scroll forward to now, and here the two of us are again, sitting in a booth at the swanky Colony Grill, in Mayfair. Wearing glitter on her fingernails (courtesy, apparently, of her two sons by ex-husband Laurence Fox), a red check jacket from the Kooples and biker boots, Piper, now 35, has hardly aged at all.
“Whaaaat?” she giggles. “I’m just at that point where I’m thinking, am I mutton dressed as lamb? Should I be showing my knees? There’s this bulge of skin that doesn’t stay up any more, and although the modern world tells me to celebrate that, I don’t f****** wanna!”
We meet this time around to talk about her role in Collateral, a state-of-the-nation TV thriller, pivoting on the death of a pizza delivery man, co-starring Carey Mulligan and written by David Hare. Piper only really met Mulligan at the read-through: “Our scenes didn’t cross, but she was pregnant while filming and we talked loads about our children.” She bonded with Hare, a hero of hers, immediately. “He’s louche and has a wicked sense of humour. I love the way he dresses, too, like a poet, with his brogues and his scarves, and the way that he can cross his legs a few times over.”
I have been warned by Piper’s PR not to mention anything about the break-up of her marriage to Fox, scion of the theatrical clan, who she wed at the age of 25 in 2007 and divorced in 2016. He has been quite vocal about the split, admitting last year how it derailed him, how he had panic attacks, and how he had struggled with her close friendship with her ex, Chris Evans. Piper has always maintained a dignified silence. One gets the feeling she has quite a lot to say on the subject — candour is part of who she is, everything is always writ large on those unusually mobile features — but perhaps in deference to the kids, she is shtum on this particular subject. What she will allow is that when it is her turn to have the boys — Winston, 9, and Eugene, 5 — she does all the school runs, all the playdates, all the “hard stuff, because actually I like the hard stuff, having done it with my younger siblings when I was growing up”.
Piper was an only child until the age of seven, when her parents had three more children in quick succession. It was a big upheaval both for Piper, who had been used to all the attention while performing play after elaborate play behind the sofa, as well as for her mother, who suffered postnatal depression and severe panic attacks after the birth of the youngest, Elle. Well before hitting her teens, Piper was changing nappies, preparing bottles and bathing her siblings.
Today, Piper is a real girl’s girl, or rather woman’s woman, but not nauseatingly so, thank God. She’s a little baffled by the sudden explosion of the #MeToo movement. There’s also the thorny question of culpability. “I find the abuse of power really upsetting, but if I’m honest, what I find really sickening is all the agents subjecting their clients to it, knowing full well what’s going on. Like sanctioned pimping. But at the same time, it comes in many shapes and sizes. It’s not just about [people in power] grabbing a tit, or saying, ‘Show me your dick.’ Let’s say I know a lot of headstrong actors and actresses wanting to get something, who wouldn’t say they’re victims of this.”
She’s weary of “the whole sisterhood thing” on Instagram. “Or, at least, I have my reservations,” she says carefully. “Under the guise of being all supportive and there for each other, women can be very judgy and competitive, especially on social media. The emotions are the same, it’s just the semantics that have changed.
“Look, I value my friendships with women, but I value friendships with men, too,” she continues. “I’m bringing up two boys, after all. And I’m also not sure how much we have moved on anyway. A lot of social media is about women looking really oversexed. That doesn’t feel like feminism to me. Like, this whole thing of ‘I’m liberated enough to bare my arse’ doesn’t remotely cut it with me.”
What a long way it feels from the early days. I’m thinking especially of the disastrous promo tour she went on in 1999, in an attempt to break into America (she wrote about it in her 2006 autobiography, Growing Pains), wearing next-to-nothing for the cameras, getting pawed at by lecherous DJs, feeling she had to comply otherwise they wouldn’t give her records airplay. At 16 she developed an eating disorder, surviving for six months mostly on a diet of Marlboro Lights, coffee with Sweet’N Low and three nuts if she felt she was going to pass out. Then, alone in a Chicago hotel room with a bottle of melatonin, she contemplated suicide. “I was out of control, living on other people’s schedules, I didn’t want any of it any more, but I couldn’t get out of it,” she wrote in the book, “… [until] it dawned on me … there was one way out. Kill myself. Make it stop.”
“The oversexualised years,” she sighs. “I think that’s why, for so long, my desire to hide my body in baggy clothes took hold. I like girl’s clothes now because I feel in a better place, but the hangover from that time lasted a while.
“I think I’m in a good place now,” she continues carefully, “or, at least, a juncture.” She confirms she has a boyfriend, the former Tribes frontman Johnny Lloyd, with whom she has been going out since her divorce, which, of course, you’d know if you followed her on Instagram. In March, she’ll be going to New York to reprise her multi-award-winning role in Yerma, Simon Stone’s update of Federico Garcia Lorca’s harrowing tragedy from 1934 about a childless woman driven to insanity by her desperation to experience motherhood. If the critics like it a tenth as much as they did here, she’ll probably be a huge Broadway star. Then there is the project she is working on with her bezzie, the Enron playwright Lucy Prebble (who wrote the lead role in The Effect specially for Piper, and also wrote her role of Belle in Secret Diary of a Call Girl) — a TV series that she will both star in and direct.
Bound by secrecy, Piper can’t say exactly what it is about, but hints it is drawn from personal experience. Hopefully, there’ll be a character like her in it; someone who keeps her Christmas tree up all the way through February, has an obsessively tidy house, but a “horror show of a handbag, usually with an old spoon in it from when I’ve left the house eating a yoghurt”, and never has the right underwear for an awards do. “I mean, who has a flesh-coloured slip on hand? I haven’t got that wardrobe — my bras are from when I was 16 and my pants have all got holes in them,” she hoots.
So, just asking, but in terms of future plans, would she have another child? “Yes, I’d have another,” she says, her eyes lighting up at the thought. “In my dream world I’d have loads, but I don’t know how healthy that is for the children. I was one of four and it’s taxing for both parents and kids. I do like the idea of chaos, but as one who invests so heavily in how other people feel, the thought of having to worry on behalf of another human being… I’m trying to work on that one.”
And having lived it large for such a long time, does she ever feel jaded? “Jaded? No, not remotely,” she says, suddenly sounding like the 15-year-old I first met back then. “In fact I feel quite optimistic, as though there’s lots of life I haven’t lived. In one way, I feel like I’m in my forties, you know, like in dog years, because I started so early, but in another I feel like I’m just starting out.”