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By Chas Newkey-Burden
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Chas Newkey-Burden
All rights reserved.
Much has been said of the dramatic transformation Tulisa made to her appearance and image when she signed up to join the X Factor judges' panel in 2011 – but that was not the first time she had radically reinvented herself, as all pop artists must do if they hope their fame will endure. The feisty, urban-imaged Tulisa of N-Dubz is significantly different to the Tulisa of her early years a school. In fact, Tula Paulinea Contostavlos was a shy, geeky pupil at the La Sainte Union school, which she attended until she was 12. There, she often stood alone in the playground. She was nearly always too timid to speak during class.
'I'd always be the odd little one out,' she later recalled. She did try to fall in with the in-crowd but kept getting it wrong. As a consequence of this she rarely stayed friends with people for long and tended to drift quietly from group to group. Despite her shy behaviour she was as bright as button and a conscientious student. Her homework was always delivered on time and usually received top marks from her admiring teachers.
X Factor viewers will remember well how she thumped the judges' table as she defiantly explained with a roar how she 'worked my way up from Camden – that's why I'm here today!' She has indeed worked hard – but not entirely as an outsider. Her family actually has an entertainment industry heritage going back generations. Indeed, her mother, Ann Byrne, was a pop star who herself came to prominence through a television reality show. Ann had grown-up in Dublin's southern suburb of Churchtown. She moved to England when she was 15, and was soon keenly chasing musical fame. For Ann, she was to achieve it on Rising Stars, which was the BBC's rival to ITV's New Faces, which is itself an antecedent of The X Factor.
In fact, the musical heritage in Tulisa's family goes back further than her mother. Tulisa's maternal grandfather Tommy Byrne was a singer in Ireland who found fame as a teenage soprano. He won the Feis Ceoil – an Irish musical competition – three times in a row and went on to sing alongside the likes of Val Doonican and the Four Ramblers. Privately, he also sang the Irish folk tune 'Molly Malone' to Tulisa when she was very young. 'That's where I get my music from,' she said. Also, Tulisa's uncles Michael and Brian Byrne formed a band called The Spicelanders which performed at folk clubs, festivals and contests around Ireland. They then joined forces with the hugely talented Donal Lunny and soon merged their two groups – Lunny's had been called The Emmet Folk – to create a new act called Emmet Spiceland. They enjoyed hits in Ireland including 'Báidín Fheidhlimi', 'Down By The Sally Gardens' and 'Mary From Dungloe'. Brian then moved into musical theatre and made appearances in West End musicals. He went on to marry a dancer from the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang called Mavis Ascot. She later choreographed the original Riverdance with Michael Flatley and Jean Butler.
By choosing a musical career herself, Tulisa was following in the footsteps of generations of family and has the industry in her blood. So, how just how musical were Tulisa's ancestors? One of her aunties, Ann's sister Moira, paints a picture of a clan in which the very musical, show-business behaviour continued inside the home. 'Everyone in our family was always singing – it was our way of life. As kids we were forever putting on shows for our parents,' she told the Daily Mail. Indeed, during Brian's West End stint, the four girls used to perform in the foyer prior to the show. It was there that they were first spotted by an industry figure, a meeting that was to launch their careers. It was the radio presenter Monty Modlin who saw them singing and invited him on to his show. Before long the sisters were performing live in halls around the country, and were also invited on to television shows, including Rising Stars. Sometimes they were the warm-up acts for household names such as Jimmy Tarbuck, Les Dennis, Cannon and Ball and Russ Abbot. Mr Dennis was one of those who picked Ann out of the pack. He loved it when she sang 'The Trolley Song', by Judy Garland. During the between-song banter that was all part of the girls' act, Ann stood out as a true wit and mimic. 'She would have us howling with her impressions of Marilyn Monroe,' said Moira.
What fun they had during these musical evenings – but pain was just around the corner for Ann. At the age of 18, her band Jeep began to take off, with hits such as 'Chattanooga Choo Choo'. They would sometimes don US military clothing to perform on a real-life army jeep. It was also around then some of those close to her became troubled by noticeable changes in her behaviour. The first signs of her mental-health issues were appearing, though not in a form that anyone could have properly understood at the time. Her sister Moira said that it was only when Ann entered her twenties that she noticed the issue developing. It was during a trip to Monte Carlo that she particularly began to notice them. 'She went very quiet, very motionless, very thin – but racy. Her body was racing but she was very blank. We knew she was having problems but we didn't have a diagnosis ... It was very upsetting to see it and very scary to see it.' Just a week later, the band split up.
In the wake of Jeep's break-up, it was expected that, of all its members, Ann was the most likely to continue building a successful career in music. However, the expected solo success was not to transpire. Instead, there was pain and disappointment in store for Ann as her mental health issues took hold on her life. In 1988, she married Steve 'Plato' Contostavlos, another musician. He was a 'session' musician – a freelance performer available for short-term hire by acts needing such talent. Among those he had played for were the English rock band Mungo Jerry, most famous for their 1970s hit 'In The Summertime'. He also sometimes worked as a barber, in Edgware, north London. This uncertain professional life meant that his income was similarly erratic. However, Plato came from comfortable stock. His father, Spiros, was a diplomat who had worked at the United Nations alongside Kofi Annan and the family owned a five-bedroom house in West Hampstead, as well as a holiday villa in Greece.
Their marriage prompted Ann and Plato to form their own musical outfit for a while, playing alongside Plato's brother Byron. 'They wanted to be rock stars,' explained N-Dubz member Fazer in the band's book Against All Odds. Instead, they were to become parents, as our heroine officially enters the story. Within months of Ann marrying Plato, she gave birth to a beautiful baby daughter on 13 July 1988. They named her Tula Paulinea, though she was soon referred to as 'Tulisa' as she grew up as an only child. In Ancient Greek her name means 'the lady herself says', a balance between good and evil. In the 'naughty but nice' image she has developed since maturing from N-Dubz into her X Factor role, she partially lives this out.
How much has she fulfilled other potential destinies? There is a growing belief that people's birth order position – whether they are a first, middle, last or only child – has a considerable influence on their character. Tulisa is an only child, and has said that this meant she was a loner. Historically, there was some stigma about only children, who were a rarity. However, changes in social attitudes – particularly the empowerment of mothers to decide for themselves how many children they wish to have – have seen an increase in the number of families with just one child and therefore also in the acceptance of such children. Only children often have high levels of self-confidence and strong communication skills, due partly to the fact that as they grew up they heard and participated in more adult conversations than they would have done with more children in the household. Tulisa was Plato and Ann's only child together.
She has never stated her opinion on the birth order theories but Tulisa has indicated that she does believe in astrology. She had a tattoo on her body that represented her star sign, Cancer. Characteristics and traits commonly associated with Cancerians by those who believe in astrology have been seen in Tulisa. For instance, her nurturing side which has been seen multiple times, most strikingly in the almost maternal role she has taken with her own mother and also in the way she so effortlessly took to the mentor role in The X Factor. However, the often-nostalgic Cancerians are sometimes plagued by fears that bad experiences they have had in the past will repeat in their future. Tulisa is known to be haunted by fears that the hell she went through due to her mother's mental health issues will reappear in her life. She particularly fears that she will succumb to the same illnesses, and has investigated the chances of this happening, as we shall see.
Long before that fear gripped her, Tulisa grew up aware of and often submerged in the musical and theatrical atmosphere of the elder members of her family. As we have seen, her grandfather sang Irish folk songs to her. She also often heard the sound of 1940s American music and it was this that began to inform both her interest in becoming a vocalist and, ultimately, her vocal style. 'I don't really listen to it any more but I'm sure that some of my vocal sound probably comes from training my voice from young to 40s music so it has that powerful vibe to it,' she later said. Many of Britain's recently successful female singers grew up listening to the music that influenced their sound. Adele, for instance, heard the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan as a child. As for the late, great Amy Winehouse, both sides of her family are steeped in music for generations, so the sounds of jazz and blues were the soundtrack to her formative years as well. The soundtrack of one's youth clearly has an effect. As Tulisa said in one of the first interviews N-Dubz ever gave: 'I didn't get no [vocal] training, I must have grown up listening to music.'
Music brought Tulisa moments of happiness that she needed as her mother's mental health issues increasingly became part of her life. She will always remember the terrifying day when she was just five years of age and she watched her mother taken away to a hospital to be sectioned. Now, she understands what happened and also the seriousness of someone being placed under psychiatric care, but at the time she only knew something very upsetting had happened. 'My parents were arguing and I remember the police and ambulance lights flashing outside as my mum was taken away to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, North London,' she told the Daily Mail, looking back. 'I knew something was wrong because everyone around me was upset but I didn't understand what was actually going on.'
The trauma continued when Tulisa next saw her mother, and realised afresh that there was something seriously wrong with her. However, within weeks of that visit it seemed that everything was rosy again. 'I visited her in hospital and she seemed distant, not like my mum at all,' said Tulisa. 'But she came back home after a few weeks and life seemed to get back to normal.' It did not seem that way for long. Soon, Ann's mental health issues began to cause problems for the family again. It was claimed that, for instance, Plato once found Ann trying to feed young Tulisa raw eggs. Tulisa was reportedly sitting at the table saying, 'Please, Mummy, don't. They're raw.' The danger of this moment is clear, but it would soon be upstaged by ever more terrifying turns of events. Tulisa, as an only child, began to feel 'suffocated' in the family home due to the issues and would go on to behave troublingly, even resorting to self-harm.
The problems underlying this were both serious and deep-rooted. Ann had been suffering from a schizoaffective disorder since before Tulisa's birth. Its symptoms are a cruel combination of those of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder: hallucinations, delusions and wild mood swings from the pits of despair to manic elation. In Ann's case, she would have what Tulisa has described as 'episodes'. They would, she wrote, 'bubble up during the year and she'd have to go into hospital for one to four months'. The episodes included her hearing voices, severe mood swings, periods of intense paranoia and potent emotions. Naturally, Ann's condition was an enormous strain on Tulisa throughout her childhood; at times it made life almost unbearable for her. She tried to be as loving and supportive as she could, but as she wrote it was extremely 'hard watching her suffer'. Even while discussing this most upsetting of issues, she is keen to emphasise that her mother is 'a beautiful, kind person' and her 'idol'. Ann's older sister – and former Jeep co-member – Louise sometimes stepped in to help, inviting Tulisa to go and stay with her when the going got tough. One such intervention was key, as we shall see.
Significantly, given the road Tulisa would later take, Ann's behaviour was a factor in turning her daughter into more of a street girl. She recalled how the 'whole ... worry' of her mother's mood swings meant she would often avoid being in the house altogether. 'I never wanted to go home and be around that,' she wrote. This was not just for her own sake but also for her mother's. 'It made me sad, so I would stay out and try not to worry her with my problems.' Even when trained experts attempted to help, Tulisa felt that their interventions were unsuccessful. 'The doctors didn't seem to be able to stabilise my mother's moods and I felt myself being dragged further and further down by the environment I was forced to live in,' she said in 2010. 'Music and my dream of becoming a success was all that kept me going through those very dark times.'
Her father, too, suffered greatly, so it was not a huge surprise when Plato eventually lost patience with the situation and left the family home. However, it made for some difficult times between father and daughter. He had met a new woman, called Mel. Plato and Mel had first met in the late 1990s. Plato wooed her using an unconventional gambit: 'If you agreed to date me, and we dated for a year, would you marry me?' When he told Tulisa that he was leaving Ann, it was the hardest conversation they had ever had. His daughter, who had already been through so much, was distraught. 'I could see how sad she looked but I had just had enough,' he said. 'I just needed my own space.' For Ann, and therefore for Tulisa, this parting had severe consequences. 'My dad left home and it triggered one of her episodes,' said Tulisa of her mother's response. 'One minute she'd look all mournful as if someone had died, the next she'd be angry and aggressive, smashing cupboards and shouting. I wasn't allowed to turn on the TV because she thought it might harm us – the same with the hot water.'
Life was becoming genuinely intolerable for Tulisa. She was not even 10 years of age and yet was having to face the most difficult of experiences. To watch, at the age of nine, one's parents split was enough in itself. However, she had also seen her mother sectioned to psychiatric care and had witnessed at first hand the erratic behaviour that had led to that move. 'It was impossible to have a conversation with my mum because she'd drift off into her own little world, but at the same time she didn't want me to go out and leave her so I couldn't even escape to a friend's house. I was like a prisoner in the flat with her. Inevitably, she went into hospital again and I stayed with my mum's older sister, Louise. She had children of her own and it was felt she was more able to look after a young girl.' Tulisa spoke to The Sunday Times about what life was like for her in the aftermath of her parents' divorce. 'Me and my mum spent a year in a one-bed council flat,' she said. 'There was no shower – we'd have to run across the hall, so it was far from glamorous. Don't get me wrong, my dad did his utmost to support me. He worked, but he was never rich. Most days, I would live off £3.'
Excerpted from Tulisa by Chas Newkey-Burden. Copyright © 2012 Chas Newkey-Burden. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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