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Charlotte Church interview: ‘Being famous is like being in a psychological grinder’

Charlotte Church interview: ‘Being famous is like being in a psychological grinder’
While the Welsh singer trains as a sound healing therapist and is opening a new wellness retreat, which is the subject of her new reality/lifestyle show ‘Charlotte Church’s Dream Build’, she talks to Charlotte Cripps about saving the world, media scrutiny, and why she’s on her own healing journey

Charlotte Church knows exactly why the press turned on her. “Well, it was due to the fact that I smoked and I drank and I went out with my friends and I had sex… all normal things,” says the Welsh singer. Normal, yes, but not from the girl they had dubbed “Voice of an Angel”.

If you’re over a certain age, you’ll probably remember when an 11-year-old Church first gripped the nation: after phoning into This Morning to sing “Pie Jesu”, she made her debut TV appearance on Jonathan Ross’s The Big Big Talent Show a few days later. She was sweet, doe-eyed, precociously cheeky. “You’re 11 years old, and you’re into opera?” asked Ross, bemused. Then she stood up, and that massive soprano voice emerged. After that, she sang for popes, princes and presidents – Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Pope John Paul II and Prince Charles among them. Her debut album, 1998’s Voice of an Angel, sold more than six million copies, and Church went from a normal Welsh schoolgirl to a bankable commodity in less than a year.

The media scrutiny was almost instantaneous – but it got worse as she entered her teenage years. The world of fame at the turn of the century was a particularly unpleasant one, and the “brutal” British tabloids hounded her. In 2002, the radio host Chris Moyles offered live on-air to take her virginity when she reached 16. A few months later, she won the Rear of the Year Award. When she started pursuing teenage pastimes a little too publicly – she was often photographed out partying or slouched somewhere drunk – the papers were positively gleeful.

“The press just decided to go with this narrative of the fallen angel,” says the now 35-year-old from her home in Cardiff, taking huge mouthfuls of a “crisp sandwich”. “There was a whole ‘ladette’ thing around that time as well. And they totally pushed this idea of, you know, ‘chavs’. And I was totally seen as a chav. The tabloid press, they’re creating fables, over and over again. It’s almost like fairy tales, but as sordid a fairy tale as they can make it.”

By the age of 19, Church had moved from classical music into pop. She released the teen-angst album Issues and Tissues in 2005. Its lead single, “Crazy Chick”, reached No 2 – but Church loathed its anodyne melody and cliched lyrics, later calling it “throwaway pop” and admitting that she had been forced by the label to record it. The Charlotte Church Show launched on Channel 4 in 2006, and ran for three series despite mixed reviews. All the while, the press still hounded her.

There were other young women being treated brutally back then, too: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan. “What they were subjected to…” says Church. ‘There was a way in which young women were presented, and particularly young working-class women. And because I didn’t have any life experience, and because I hadn’t stepped into my female power in any way, shape or form, I allowed that narrative to be told. I even played along with it, because it’s what people wanted.”

Suddenly, something catches her eye. “Is that a gong there? You’ve got a gong?” she asks, bursting with excitement. I’m not sure what she’s talking about? “Over there!” It turns out it’s the geometric patterned cover of my ironing board she’s spotted.

She must have interior design on the brain. Church has landed her first reality/lifestyle TV show, transforming her new derelict house in rural mid-Wales into a luxurious wellness retreat, wedding venue and glamping spot. Charlotte Church’s Dream Build – which airs on Really and Discovery+ from 11 January – will follow Church over eight episodes, as she renovates the property with the help of her stepdad, James, and a crack team of builders. She’s also filmed being mum to her children – 13-year-old Dexter and 14-year-old Ruby, from her previous relationship with Welsh rugby star Gavin Henson, and her 18 month-old daughter Frida with her “super lush” husband of 11 years, guitarist Jonathan Powell. 

“I’m trying to do my bit to help save humanity and help us live more consciously and more fulfillingly with the natural world,” explains Church, “because western civilisation is doing none of us any favours. I want to be a part of the story of saving the world.” And glamping will do that? Or does she see herself as a wellness guru, like a nicer, Welsh version of Nicole Kidman’s character in Nine Perfect Strangers? “I won’t be microdosing people as she did,” she says with a laugh.

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Church singing at Rupert Murdoch’s wedding to Wendi Deng in 1999 – she later told the Leveson Inquiry that she was pressured into waiving a £100,000 fee in return for good press

She is training as a “sound healing therapist”, though. “I think that [saving the world] is through helping people to relax, to slow down, to face themselves, to find beauty and nature, and to be loving. All of the practices of capitalism are deepening our unhappiness, and our inability to live with ourselves… This constant entertainment, this constant distraction, means that we can’t be connected.”

Rhydoldog House, the former home of designer Laura Ashley, has 49 acres of woodland and grounds. It’s a total bombsite, with crumbling walls and collapsed ceilings. “I’ve blown my life savings” on this project, she says. She’s got a £750,000 mortgage and her parents have given her £300,000 – “because I gave them a whack of money when I was a teenager”.

This all came about, Church explains, because “I feel like I’m recovering from Western civilization. No matter who you are, no matter what strata of society, you’ve been f***ed over… And it hurts.” Being famous just amplifies all that. “I’ve lived through all sorts of s*** and trauma, chaos and pain. Being famous is like being in a psychological grinder. Like, you’re constantly questioned and rejected and betrayed a lot of the time. People sell stories and, you know, it’s big. It’s a lot.”

She made her debut TV appearance on Jonathan Ross’s ‘The Big Big Talent Show’ on ITV aged 11 singing ‘Pie Jesu’ which blew people’s minds

In 2011, Church testified before the Leveson Inquiry about media intrusion into her personal life. She spoke about her phone being hacked – after which stories began appearing in papers about her mum trying to kill herself and her father’s affair – and about “suffering the indignity of paparazzi trying to take photographs up my skirt and down my top”. She also revealed that she was pressured into waiving a £100,000 fee to sing at Rupert Murdoch’s wedding in exchange for a promise of “good press”.

They didn’t keep their side of the bargain. Church and her parents received £600,000 in damages and legal costs after settling phone-hacking lawsuits with Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers. “I started to understand how this rot ran through the whole system, in ways it made me feel a bit helpless,” she says now. “It taught me the way in which the press and the political system was so insidious. Like, so much of what we have is propaganda, especially when it comes to Rupert Murdoch.”  

Over the past 10 years, “I’ve had a much quieter life”, says Church. “I wanted to make that space in my mind and in my life to be a mother and just take time to recuperate and understand who I am, what I want, and what I want to do.” A “quiet life” is subjective, though, and while her solo pop material might never have taken off, her famous club night Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon has prompted something of a Church renaissance. With her covers band, she works through an eclectic set of pop songs – “anything from Nine Inch Nails to David Bowie to Destiny’s Child” she says – and feels “like a wild woman” performing it. 

‘I’m trying to do my bit to help save humanity and help us live more consciously and more fulfillingly with the natural world,’ explains Church about her new wellness retreat in Wales

“People absolutely loved it – so we just carried on,” says Church. It’s cathartic for all involved. “People have been so starved of joy. From the never-ending Brexit news cycle to the terrible warnings about the planet, to declining mental health and rising anxiety … So we just kept doing it because it was so joyful. And people would just completely lose themselves in it. They would be singing their hearts out, dancing, and crying. I mean, it’s really powerful.”

If there’s one thing the Pop Dungeon and the new wellness centre project have in common, it’s that they both come from Church’s desire to connect with people. “It’s not about the surface level things – it’s about this deepening of existence,” she says. “And I just want to be of use.”

If that means investing her life savings, then so be it. “I’ve been in an incredibly fortunate position, where I earned a lot of money as a kid, which I’ve been living off with my family,” she says. “We’ve had a lovely life but now it’s getting to the time where it’s like,’ I’ve got to get out there and work. I’ve got to earn it.’ I’ll figure it out.” She laughs. “If I have to sell my house, it’s not the end of the world.”

Charlotte Church’s Dream Build’ premieres on 11 January exclusively on Really and Discovery+ at 9pm