Overly Familia?

I do not, I am vaguely embarrassed to admit, own a copy of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s most recent album. Nor do I own the one that preceded it. The last time I purchased an Ellis-Bextor LP was in 2011 or 2012, and I have never seen her play live.

It would be inaccurate, then, for me to claim to be a very dedicated fan. Even so, I have been fond of Sophie since ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ launched her onto the Video Hits playlist in 2002, a vision in green eyeshadow and red lipstick.

As Sophie’s career entered its troubled second act, characterised by middlingly-received Eurodance features and increasingly cringeworthy endorsements, I willed her back to success from afar. Eventually her career renaissance became a reality, courtesy of a stint on Strictly Come Dancing and a transition to folk music.

I enjoy Ellis-Bextor’s new, comparatively stripped-back style, but have not felt compelled to invest in it beyond a couple of singles. Still, I like to keep track of her goings-on. So, hour and location aside, it is not odd that I find myself browsing a pop music forum’s Sophie-specific thread at two o’clock in the morning in a Berlin airport terminal, killing time before an early flight to London. There’s a link in the thread to a Q&A event occurring later that same day, not far from my Camden hostel. The company hosting the event is calling for audience members and I have no firm plans, so I send off an application form.

Twelve hours later I am standing on a sidewalk in a short line of people. We are waiting to enter an office building where Sophie will soon answer some questions and pose for some pictures. People who work in the building hurry in and out, some of them casting glances of pity and distaste at us as they stride towards the nearest Pret A Manger.

A man with a lanyard and a clipboard makes his way down the queue, checking each person’s name against his list of registered audience members. This task does not take long, and when he’s finished he strikes up conversation with those in the line he already knows — serial seat-fillers. They drop names, trade anecdotes about past tapings and complain about poorly-heated studio sets. These people are not here because they want to hear Sophie speak, particularly. They’re here because they have nothing else to do.

A lanyard-wearing woman emerges from the building and asks whether any of us would be willing to ask Sophie a pre-written question. I volunteer. My question, written in texta on a scrap of paper, is passed to me as we’re led inside the building and into a room on the ground floor. I read the question, cringe and take my appointed seat in the second row.

Most of the seats are filled by people who work in the building. They tap out emails and chat with one another, ignoring our arrival while songs from Familia, Sophie’s most recent album, play over a stereo system. We, the externals, are conspicuous for our coats, which are shoved under and thrown over the backs of chairs.

The music is paused briefly to allow an American MC to introduce himself. He takes to the stage (a raised platform flanked by large cameras) and explains how the interview will work. It’s being streamed live on a Facebook page, and will, he claims, be watched by millions from around the world. The MC uses phrases like “lots of energy!” and “let’s get excited, everyone!”, and repeatedly pronounces ‘Bextor’ as ‘Baxtor’.

A few minutes later ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ is playing and people are gathering at the doorway. The song fades out and the MC returns. There’s a countdown, the MC whips up some applause and cheering from the crowd and the stream goes live. Sophie and her interviewer (a London fitness blogger and would-be media personality) totter onto the stage and greet the audience, hoisting themselves onto high director’s chairs.

Sophie sits poised with her (very long, black stockinged) legs crossed, and is silent while the interviewer rattles off an introductory spiel that sounds like a barely-modified press release for Familia. Then the questions begin. They’re lines of enquiry that Sophie has surely been led down dozens of times, covering parenthood, social media, reality TV, her locally-famous mother and the duration of her career. There’s some brief discussion of Sophie’s music, but a transcript of the interview would fit best in the Lifestyle section of a Sunday paper’s glossy liftout.

Sophie is serene and collected — a good sport. She answers the questions with ease, charm and good humour, and the crowd laughs dutifully at her jokes. The interviewer blasts through her list of questions within 15 minutes before throwing to the crowd. There are four pre-written questions still to be asked. We cover cooking (Sophie enjoys preparing fish dishes) and alter egos (Sophie does not have a Sasha Fierce equivalent) before my turn comes up. I embellish my question slightly in the hope that it might seem less forced, and just about manage to get the words out without flubbing them, but the query written on that scrap of paper remains unavoidably dull:

“I know you have four sons, what’s it like living in such a male-heavy household?”

Sophie has probably performed her answer to this question more times than she’s sung some of the songs from Familia. Even so she manages to eke out an interesting response, speaking about how she avoids imposing gender on her sons.

Then the interview moves on. There’s one more question from the audience; this one’s about Sophie’s music taste. Someone near the back of the room snorts in apparent disbelief when Sophie says she likes Tame Impala, and not long afterwards the interview is wrapped up with another round of applause. We’re kept in our seats while Sophie and her interviewer pose for a waiting photographer, and then the American MC issues instructions for the non-employees to be escorted from the building. We’re led back past reception and through the front door.

Standing on the sidewalk, coat zipped up, I’m bewildered at how quickly the whole thing has finished. The other audience members disperse; some of them double back to join a newly-formed queue for the next celebrity interview. Sophie, I assume, will soon slide into a car with tinted windows to be driven through an underground carpark and back home, where she will bake some salmon fillets and supervise an hour of gender-neutral, pre-dinner playtime.

I cross the road and stop on the corner, unsure of where to go from here. The building’s WiFi network extends to where I’m standing, so I post a picture of Sophie to Instagram (since deleted) with a vaguely sour, regrettable caption alluding in part to the jarring speed with which we were escorted from the premises.

Five or 10 minutes pass. I’m about to skulk away when Sophie’s interviewer emerges onto the sidewalk from the building’s main door, escorted by the American MC. Sophie follows them soon after, now wrapped up in a quilted coat and with a woman I assume is her assistant in tow. As Sophie heads down the street, catching the attention of the next batch of seat-fillers, I dodge around a stationary delivery van and reach her side.

I say hello and immediately launch into a mumbled apology for my banal question, explaining that it was given to me by the segment’s producer. She shrugs this off, then waits politely while I struggle to articulate my affection for a nine-year-old album track and compliment Sophie on her most recent single. She thanks me for my support, and then her companion offers to take a picture of us. After this I say goodbye and we part ways; I walk up the street as Sophie enters the back seat of a waiting car (the windows are indeed tinted).

At the end of the road I turn right onto the high street, and so does Sophie’s car. This being London, the traffic is heavy; my walking easily keeps pace with the vehicle, and then surpasses it. As I pull ahead I fish my earphones out of my jacket pocket, plug them into my iPod and give ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ a spin.

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