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Shirley Bassey's glittering showbusiness career has seen the diva remain at the top of her profession for the past 40 years. With worldwise hits like Big Spender, Kiss Me Honey Honey Kiss Me and Goldfinger, she has become one of the most popular artists of the 20th century.
Shirley Bassey is one of the true legends of show business. For more than 40 years, she has dominated the music world with her unique style and glamour - and her simply awesome voice. Songs such as Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever and Big Spender, together with her stunning concert performances, have helped turn her into an icon, instantly recognised throughout the world and adored by millions of fans.
She was recently named as one of one of the 100 most famous people of the 20th Century, and her star appeal has seen her survive at the very top for longer than almost any artist.
Shirley has a 20 date British Tour scheduled for next May and June which offers her legions of fans another oppourtunity to show that she is still a formidable performer at the age of 62.
These days she enjoys the trappings of success at her luxurious apartment overlooking the Mediterranean in Monte-Carlo, where her neighbours include Ringo Starr and Boris Becker.
It's all a far cry from her humble beginnings as the youngest of seven, growing up in the Cardiff docklands known as Tiger Bay. Her mother Eliza, hailed from Yorkshire, and her father Henry was a Nigerian Seaman, who walked out of the family home when Shirley was just two.
Shirley left school at 15 to work in the packing department of a factory, supplementing her income by singing in local clubs.
She has been divorced twice- her first husband, film producer Kenneth Hulme, committed suicide- and she now lives alone.
OK! was invited into the much-loved star's home to talk about her glittering show business career and the secrets of staying at the top for so long.
Shirley, your life story would make an incredible film. Who would
you like to star in it?
I wouldn't have my life made into a film. I wouldn't even write a book. I've been asked many times, but I don't believe in it. It seems that the moment somebody becomes famous they must write and tell all, but I am not a kiss and tell person. I am quite a private person. Somebody wrote an unauthorised book and I read the first page and closed it and never picked it up again. It was a load of rubbish. I've never met the person who wrote it and I don't want to.
How long have you lived in Monte-Carlo?
I moved here six years ago, but I've been coming to Monte-Carlo for 40 years, singing. I used to live in Marbella but that was getting a bit too much with the nightlife. I love Monte-Carlo and decided it was a good place for me to settle. I looked at so many apartments before I settled on this one. It was the last one they showed me- and the most expensive.
Do you go out and enjoy the glittering Monte-Carlo social scene?
I don't go out much. When I'm here I'm just lazy unless friends invite me to dinner and I want to go. I prefer to stay in, make a sandwich, put it on a tray and take it to be to watch television. I watch a lot of tennis. I get Shy so I watch a lot of films and I like UK Living. Breeze and cookery programmes. If I do go out, it's to the gym.
You look so fit. Is that through working out?
I go the gym in the Grand Hotel for two hours almost every day. It's just a few minutes walk from my apartment, and I've been going there ever since I moved here six years ago. I miss it so much if I don't go- I suppose I'm a bit of a gym junkie. I like to go in the evenings when it's quieter. I do like the treadmill, then I do all the machines. Then I have my shower or go in the sauna and have a cold, cold shower, then I go home.
Have you ever had a weight problem?
After my daughter died. That was such a terrible time for me. I'd wake in the night and go to the fridge to get a bar of chocolate and a big lump of cheese- and I mean really big. It got to the stage where I was having to wear a maternity dress. Eventually I checked myself into a clinic in Los Angeles to get some help. It worked wonders, it was like a form of brainwashing. They re-educated me to be so careful about what I eat.
Do you entertain much?
I like to have friends over and I enjoy cooking for them. I like to cook, even if it's for just myself. I like to cook spaghetti, mushroom or vegetable risotto and I also love chicken and salmon. But I eat to live, not live to eat like some people. My tastes are quite simple. I love nothing more than a plate of chips and a bowl of ketchup to dip them in. There's a Marks and Spencer just around the corner and I love it. I have my M&S card and the food is just wonderful.
How are you going to celebrate Christmas and the Millennium?
I will have Christmas lunch with friends at the Hotel Hermitage in Monte-Carlo. They have a fantastic buffet. But I hate it when you go into a restaurant and they put too much on a plate. It comes from when I was a child and there was very little on the plate. New Year's Eve? I don't want to know. I'm going to stay in with a bottle of champagne and watch the television.
Have you got your eyes on any special Christmas presents?
I'd like a big yacht and a red Ferrari!
Will you be seeing any of your family?
I'll be flying back to England to see my daughter who lives near Reading and my four grandsons and take them all out for a pre-Christmas dinner. I don't get to see them as often as I'd like. They spent the summer with me in Monte-Carlo. Next Christmas if I am here and not working I'll have Christmas with them. I'd love to have a show in Disney world or something like that round about Christmas time and take them all with me, it would be wonderful.
There are photos of your family all over your apartment. They
obviously mean a lot to you….
I had such great fun when my grandchildren were here in the summer. They call me "nana" which I love. The oldest boy is 20 and he didn't come, of course- girlfriends and all that, you know. There's a fair near the harbour in Monte-Carlo just before Christmas every year. It really brings out the child in me. The grandchildren would love that. As a child I adored it when the fair came to Cardiff. Mind you, that's all there was to do.
Do you go back to Wales much?
Since my mum died, I have not been back to visit. I only go back for shows where I see my family backstage and we have a party and we just talk. There's really nothing to catch up about- I left home at 16, so we're practically strangers because they only ever see me when I'm in Wales to do a concert or when my mum was alive. There are so many members of the family now- children and children of children- and it got to the stage where I'd say, "Who are you?" and they'd say, "I'm your great niece."
Are you as happy now as you have ever been?
Happiness is always a fleeting thing. I am content, but I think I've been happier. I'm getting to the stage I would like to have a partner now because I've been there, done it, and it's lonely at the top. I'm without anybody to share it with. I want to wake up in the morning and see my other half there, at the other side of the bed. That would be nice.
How long has it been since you had a serious relationship?
It's been 20 odd years since my divorce and I haven't had a serious relationship since, although there have been romantic relationships. About three years ago I went out with someone for about a year, but it was just a romance, not serious. Nobody I would have liked to marry.
Would you like to marry again?
I don't know that I would, but I would like to have somebody around. I have been on my own for too long. Success is lonely. You don't know if somebody wants you for you or because of your success. I've noticed over the years people attach themselves to you because they think it's going to rub off on them, which it does. It gets them noticed. I've seen it with other stars. They have hangers-on. God, I couldn't stand it.
Have you become a good judge of character?
Yes, I think I can pick out the goodies from the baddies. I've become a very good judge of character.
Are you romantic?
I go through romantic phases. If you listen outside my door you can tell when I'm in a romantic mood because I play a lot of romantic music like Julio Iglesias, or something in Spanish. I once did an album in Spanish. It suits me because it's such a passionate language.
Do you fall in love easily?
I used to, I get crushes, really big crushes. "Oh, isn't he so gorgeous?" that kind of thing. I used to be a terrible flirt and it's still there. At parties I have gone up to somebody and said, "Hello sailor" and then a big lady would come over and say, "Do you want something?" and I'd realise he was spoken for.
Some people say you're difficult. Are you?
Everybody say I am, but I don't think I am. I was once in a nightclub many years ago and this boxer said he wanted to be introduced to me and we were talking and he said, "You disappoint me because you are too nice. You're not what I expected you to be". He wanted me to be a kind of loathsome bitchy star I suppose.
Are you ever like that?
No, not at all-unless anybody comes and gives me a bad time. One time I gave a dinner party for about six at one of the famous restaurants in London and one of my guests left to go to the bathroom. Up came this woman who was quite drunk and sat in my friend's chair. I politely asked the woman to move, but she became a bit loud and then I became a bit loud. Then this man came up and said, "We thought you'd be a nice person." I said "I am a nice person until somebody comes and sits at my table who is not invited." That I can't stand.
Do you enjoy being so famous?
I'm constant amazed, especially when I'm in a country where I don't think I'm going to be recognised. It's always a surprise for me. It's amazing how people love success-they're drawn to it. I can't go anywhere in London without being recognised- even when I'm disguised. It's the voice that gives it away. In New York and Los Angeles they recognise me. Sometimes it can be nice. It all depends in the mood people are in. It's Ok when they just want to look and smile and come up to you and say, "I'm a great admirer of yours," as long as they go, but some hang around and you end up having to make conversation because they're just standing there gawking at you.
Do you get bothered walking around in Monte-Carlo?
No, I feel very safe here, although I don't walk around that much. It's the only place I know in the world where you can wear jewellery and feel safe. There are so many policemen and plain clothed policemen that if something happened, they'd have the border closed in seconds.
There is a huge book about diamonds on your coffee table. Do you
really think they are forever?
Oh yes, I just love jewellery; I buy a lot at auction. Sotheby's send me their catalogues from all over the world- Hong Kong, Geneva, New York- and I always see something I like. There was one just recently in Milan with a beautiful coral and diamonds set, necklace, earrings, and ring and I put a bid in for it- and I got it! I'm not going to tell you how much but I'm waiting for it to arrive.
So, you really are a big spender?
I didn't used to be, but I think I've sung myself into being a big spender over the years. I've got a black belt in spending! I spend too much on clothes, which gives me a guilt complex because they don't get used. I never wear them. I go out and buy clothes on impulse if I'm down to bring me up. It's like an aphrodisiac. I can easily spend £10,000 - £12,000 in one go.
Who are your favourite designers?
I like Sonia Rykiel, Tomasz Starzewski and I have quite a few Isabell Kristensen gowns. I like buying dresses, shoes, everything. I suppose I do it because I was the youngest of seven and as a child, I was dressed in hand-me-downs. It comes from that, although I've cut down on all the big items of luxury- things like the houses. I've sold the villa in Sardinia and the villa in Lugano in Switzerland.
Where you sad to leave those homes?
Yes, they meant so much to me. I had so many happy times there. I helped design the villa in Sardinia. It was by the sea with a turret, so I had a round bedroom and a round staircase. I lived there for about ten years until the kids grew up, then I got divorced. It was beautiful, with it's own beach, its own pier, its own boat.
What about the villa in Lugano?
It was right on the lake with a big swimming pool, grotto and a boat. It was really wonderful- a lovely, lovely villa. I really did hate parting with that but the kids went to boarding school and I was all on my own with my staff and suddenly you end up taking care of them. They bring you their troubles. After that I said I never want to have any live-in servants again, so I have dailies that come in now and they go home when their work is finished and I'm on my own.
There are many pieces of art in your apartment. Are you a keen collector?
If I see something I like, I buy it. On the wall of my lounge is a massive Italian painting, which I bought many years ago, even though I didn't have anywhere to put it. I kept it in storage until I moved here. I'm a big fan of Art Deco and I also like things from the Far East and Africa.
Have you ever tried to trace your African roots?
No. My father was from Nigeria but I've never had any great desire to go there.
You perform so many live concerts. Does all the touring ever become
too much for you?
Yes. Many times. I stand in the wings and think, "What the hell am I doing? I shouldn't be doing this." It's nerves. I know I have to do it, but I don't always feel like doing it. It's not a 9-5 job where you can just take the day off. You have to go on stage otherwise you get sued- and you'll disappoint an awful lot of people. When I've been really sick and had to miss a show, disappointing those people has made me feel sicker. When I've gone back, I've always made it up to them.
Does all the apprehension go when you're on stage?
It all depends how the adrenaline is going and sometimes it's not going at all, so I'm going on autopilot. But that doesn't happen very often, thank God. I have shows when I think, "When will the adrenaline start, when will I get excited about this?"
Do you think you'll ever get to the stage where you want to stop
No. I have a British Tour coming up and that certainly won't be the last one. Every day I want to retire but I won't. When I say, "This is awful, this is it, I don't know what I'm doing here," my managers just laugh. They don't take any notice- I've said it too many times before. I hope I know when the time has come to stop. I'd hate the audience to think, "Oh, she's terrible, she's lost it". If I ever do a farewell concert, rest assured, it really will be my farewell concert. That would be it.
You only ever seem to get rave reviews…
There was one once- I forget his name- and it was scathing. He went as far to call me a caricature of myself and a poor drag queen. He really was lethal. It was vitriolic. Years later he came to see me at the Royal Festival Hall in London and he said, "It's not very often that I'm made to eat my words but I will this time. I have said bad things about Shirley Bassey in the past but last night I witnessed a great performer who has learned and keeps learning. It was glowing that I framed it.
What do you think of the drag acts who 'do Shirley Bassey'?
I've seen so many bad ones and I've only seen one or two good ones. The best I ever saw was an American in Marbella with naturally blond hair and blue eyes. When he came out on stage he was not blond and blue-eyed- he had put contact lenses in to make his eyes brown, he had a brown wig on and he had made his skin brown and he spooked me out for ten minutes. He had taken away my identity. He had my eyes, my mouth, my hand movements. This one had studied and studied me and watched every video he could get his hands on- it was spot on.
Do you have any favourites among your own songs?
I have a favourite fun song "Kiss me Honey Honey, Kiss me" and "Big Spender" is another favourite. I never tire of them because they're fun numbers in which audiences join in.
Do you work hard to keep your voice so strong?
Yes, yes, yes. I've learned to vocalise, to warm it up. Ballet dancers warm up, Opera singers warm up, but pop singers don't. That's how you loose your voice. So I took vocal exercises from an ex-opera singer called Helena Chanel and she taught me all those wonderful weird notes to do that opera singers do. I said to her "I can't do it, I can't do it, I'm a pop singer!" but she said, "you're not a pop singer. You've developed beyond a pop singer."
Does a long tour take its toll on your voice?
No, because I've trained for it. I work out long before I get to the venue and I make sure I work out before each show, I go to the gym, then I vocalise, then I do a full sound check with full voice- it's full out-then I do the show in the evening. I feel that my voice has got a lot stronger over the years. I could be disguised with a hat and dark glasses, no make up and the moment I open my mouth someone says, "Hello Shirley". It's that voice that gives me away.
You always come across as being very emotional on stage…
I do get so emotional because of the power of the voice. I wonder where that power comes from, but emotion comes from that power. Sometimes you get to the stage where if a song is sad-especially if it's a new song-the tears start to flow. If I see someone I know in the audience I have to look away. It affects me too much.
Your stage gowns are very revealing. Do you always wear underwear on stage?
I rarely wear underwear on stage. It's been like that all my career. From the year dot my body has been sewn into my dresses.
Where do you keep all your dresses?
My stage gowns are all stored in a warehouse in London along with some of my private things which I don't have room for.
Would you ever go on stage in jeans and a T-shirt?
No, I like to be glamorous. I had a sister, Grace, who was so glamorous. God rest her soul, she died a year ago. She was my favourite sister and she was so glamorous. She used to wear camiknickers with a little camisole top and a suspender belt and she was ever so careful with her stockings-she'd put them on with gloves. To watch her getting dressed was a delight.
Even when you were starting out, sis you go for the big glamorous look?
Yes, right from my very first show at a club near my home. I didn't have any glamorous clothes, but I did manage to get my hands on a bustier, which was black, strapless, lacy and it was lovely. I t was meant to be worn underneath, but I didn't care. One of the girls leant me a long lavender net skirt and I put them together and they looked quite smart. I looked din the mirror and that was glamour for me, a borrowed bit from here, a borrowed bit from there.
Was that first show a great success?
I went on stage and it was great until I hit the top note and the skirt started to come down. I grabbed hold of it and started to run off. My manager said "Next time, you stand still and let it drop!" He was always searching for publicity! He also wanted to change my name from Shirley Bassey, but there was no way I was going to do that. If I became famous, I wanted all my school mates to know it was me.
Can you imagine still working in a factory in Wales?
I'd probably have had a lot of kids and I would look my age. I defy it and keep pushing it back with exercise. I'm certain I would not have done exercise. I'd have been as fat as a pig. I wouldn't have had time with all the children and the breast-feeding. It was obviously not meant for me because I'm not the motherly type. I love my children and I adore my grandchildren but I've never been one to yearn to have another baby.
After "Goldfinger", "Diamonds are Forever", and "Moonraker", you
are the voice everyone associates with James Bond. Would you like to sing
another James Bond theme tune?
If it was a good song, yes. But I don't think much of the current one. It has to be a strong song, not a wimpy one. I did three and if they never ask me again I won't complain.
Do you take an interest in the pop charts?
No, not like the old days. I do like the Spice Girls though. I think they're wonderful, they're great. Every now and again the music business needs an injection and they have given it one in the way that the Beatles did.
What other singers do you admire?
I love Lisa Stansfield. I think she has a wonderful voice. Barbra Streisand had a great voice but I think she just gave it up to be an actress.
Why have you never really done any duets with other famous singers?
Because nobody wants to sing with me because my voice is too strong! The only ones I've done are with Tom Jones and at the Rugby World Cup a few weeks ago in Cardiff with Bryn Terfel, and he's an opera singer. That was such an emotional event for me- especially the reception I received when I came out with the Welsh flag wrapped around me. Doing the number with Bryn and the Welsh Choir was just wonderful.
How have you managed to stay at the top for so long?
I am constantly reinventing myself, I suppose. The voice gets more powerful and people get excited by the fact that "hey, she's still there" and it's the glamour- I must have those glamorous gowns.
There's no other singer quite like you….
No. Nobody's doing what I do. And the voice, sometimes it even takes me by surprise. I think "God, where does it come from?" Nobody in my family sings, nobody from my mother's side. We don't know about my father's side. There was probably some ancestor out there chanting for rain with this powerful voice centuries ago.
And what do you think about your home in Monte-Carlo. Do you think
you'll stay here forever?
I don't know. What is forever? I'm a gypsy. I love travelling. I love living out of a suitcase, I love hotels- as long as they're five star hotels.
Where else would you consider living?
I love Australia, it's my second home. I had my 21st birthday there and its been a special place for me ever since. The people just took me to their hearts- and I feel the same about them. I've been back about 19 or 20 times, it's wonderful. I've seen Australia grow, I saw the foundations going into the Sydney Opera House and I saw the buildings going higher and higher. When I first went there, there were no high rise buildings at all. Sydney is one of my favourite cities. I also love New York for the pace and the excitement and Paris for the romance.
You can see Shirley Bassey at home on OK! TV on Friday 17th December on ITV at 8.30pm
Shirley Bassey's Millennium Tour begins in Bournemouth on May 4th 2000, and ends at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on June 14th. For further information phone 0870 6077525.
Interview by Martin Smith. Photographs by Terry O'Neil. Hair and makeup by Debbie Kronin for Chanel and using MichaelJohn products.