Tulisa and the fake sheik scandal in her own words
Last month, the case against Tulisa Contostavlos was thrown out. She's lost friends, work, her reputation - but now she's going to fight to get them back. The former X Factor judge opens up to Simon Hattenstone
Published 11/08/2014 | 02:30
It's the end of the day at the end of a week that Tulisa Contostavlos hopes she never has to go through again. She sits down, and exhales like a slow puncture. "I've had to stay silent for a year," she says. "I've had to sit back and look like the bad guy, while my whole life was ripped apart."
In June 2013, Contostavlos was "exposed" by the Sun on Sunday's Mazher Mahmood, aka the Fake Sheikh, in a front-page splash alleging she had fixed a cocaine deal for him. Even by Mahmood's standards, it was an elaborate sting, involving first-class plane tickets between London and Las Vegas, luxury hotel suites, the prospect of a £3.5m film contract opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in a big Bollywood production. You couldn't make it up - only Mahmood did, and Contostavlos bought it.
Since then she has lost more than a stone, changed her physical appearance, ditched (or been ditched by) nearly all her colleagues, been abandoned by friends (and found a few brilliant new ones), had her endorsements frozen, lost any number of contracts and contemplated suicide.
At the outset of the trial last month, her friend Michael Coombs pleaded guilty to providing Mahmood with £820 worth of cocaine. The Sun on Sunday printed texts in which she offered to "sort" drugs, and filmed Coombs arriving at the Dorchester hotel in London to deliver them at a later date. In court, Contostavlos proclaimed her innocence but could see only one outcome. "My heart told me: there's no way this can happen. I'm very religious and I kept saying, God won't forsake me." And her head? "My head was telling me, if they're allowed to take it this far, to tell so many lies, God knows where it can go." She thought she'd be convicted? "100pc. I was preparing for prison."
But on 17 July, four days into the hearing, it emerged that Mahmood may have lied in a pre-trial statement. His driver, Alan Smith, had told police Contostavlos had talked about how much she disapproved of drugs when he drove her home one night, because she'd seen the damage it had done to a relative. Smith had been expected to give evidence supportive of Contostavlos, but later changed his mind. Did he discuss his statement with Mahmood? In a pre-trial hearing, the journalist denied this; but under cross-examination in court, he admitted he had received the driver's statement and that they had talked about it.
The case was thrown out: Judge Alistair McCreath told the jury there were "strong grounds to believe" Mahmood had lied on oath, and "the underlying purpose… was to conceal the fact that he had been manipulating the evidence". Proceedings against Coombs were stayed; Mahmood was suspended by the Sun on Sunday pending an internal investigation. He may now face perjury charges.
I meet Contostavlos four days later. It is the first interview she has given to a newspaper in more than a year, and she has plenty to get off her chest. Only this morning she was in court for a second, unrelated case: she was convicted of assaulting celebrity blogger Savvas Morgan and fined £200. She is livid and insists she committed no crime - she will be appealing. Contostavlos is perfectly friendly but has lost the easy smile and chirpy chutzpah of her X Factor judging days. Occasionally she seems close to tears.
In a statement she made after the trial collapsed, Contostavlos said Mahmood's sting had come at a time when she was feeling especially vulnerable. What did she mean? Well, it was only a few months after an ex-boyfriend, Justin Edwards, had posted a private sex tape online. She made her own video in response, naming Edwards and saying she had nothing to be ashamed of. But she did feel ashamed: "I was very depressed and I blamed it all on the industry. I thought, if I wasn't in this industry, I wouldn't be experiencing this situation, which was an utter violation of my human rights. Humiliation. Just walking into shops and facing people was a task, never mind sitting on the panel of a national TV show going out to millions. I wanted to get out. I wanted to go into acting, and piss off to America."
She went to Los Angeles for auditions, which is where she was targeted by Mahmood, posing as a Bollywood producer. First she was approached by somebody claiming to work for 21st Century Fox, who set up a false Twitter account and followed her online. He then introduced her to Mahmood. She was flown to Las Vegas to discuss a major film, starring DiCaprio and backed by financiers who had a stake in Slumdog Millionaire.
"He was my childhood crush," she says of DiCaprio. "I'd admitted it in interviews, so they knew." They had done their research: she believes Mahmood and his team chose Bollywood because they knew Gareth Varey, her close friend and PA, had worked in India as a dancer. "I think they'd studied the people he'd worked with, the movies he'd worked on - because that's what they based it all on. I flew to Vegas first class, was picked up by limos, had two huge suites." Most of the time she was being secretly filmed by Mahmood.
She made it her business to find out what the producers were after. "I didn't get as far as I have from sitting back and being dopey. I know what it takes to get a job, and I'm going to pitch myself. You look at the person who wants something and you listen to what they're saying. You pick up on it and begin to be everything they want."
They told her they wanted a British actress. "He says, actually, we're looking for an urban, ghetto kind of British, someone with your accent. And my instant reaction was, 'Oh yeah, mate, I can give you all of that!' I'm pitching, fighting for a job. That's how I've gone into every meeting since the age of 11. There was a reason they called me 'the female boss' in N-Dubz - I did all the talking."
N-Dubz formed in 2000, an urban hip-hop group consisting of Contostavlos, her cousin Dappy and former boyfriend Fazer. She was talented, mouthy, but also insecure and struggling at home: her Greek-Cypriot father, briefly successful in the 1970s band Mungo Jerry, had left home when she was young, and she was an only child brought up by an Irish mother with schizoaffective disorder (she has often said she feels like the mother in their relationship). She self-harmed, smoked weed - fans warmed to her honesty.
It was this drug-toking, street-savvy girl the fake film-makers wanted - even if that was a girl Contostavlos, now 26, had left behind some years ago. Most of the time she dealt with Nish, Mahmood's fixer. "We weren't even allowed to bring her to court, because it was said she wasn't a part of it. But for me she was a stronger character than Mahmood because she played the 'friend.' She played this very caring, almost guardian angel. I found Mahmood extremely slimy." Mahmood told Contostavlos that they didn't do official auditions, they did "social auditioning" - in effect, every encounter was an audition. Nish, she says, cajoled her into becoming the bad girl. "She would make out she knew what I needed to do to get the job. So I would listen to her and think, oh yes, she's got my back." She says Nish told Gareth Varey, her PA, that the producers were choosing between Contostavlos and Keira Knightley.
"I was told via Gareth that they really want the bad girl, and they're going to give it to Keira Knightley. So I had to prove the reason I'm better is because I am the girl in the role, and Keira Knightley could never be that."
Whenever she met Mahmood and his team, she became that person. "I went in trying to concoct stories from real-life situations. So I talked about a court case involving an ex but exaggerated it. I admitted I'd smoked weed at night every now and then. I'd not smoked weed in ages, but I was using that because it was the only thing I'd done."
On 10 May 2013, at the Metropolitan hotel in London, Nish suggested they go to the bathroom together; Contostavlos says she had been plied with alcohol for six hours.
"It's just me and her, and in so many words she tells me, 'This is it, they want to give it to you, they want to give you £3.5m. You've just got to go in now and do whatever they want - be the bad girl, the ghetto girl. Tulisa, I want you to have this so badly, trust me.' I walked out thinking, I've got this."
So she went into hyper mode, and her mild exaggerations became whopping lies. "All of a sudden I go from saying, hey, I smoke a bit of weed to hey, my ex is the biggest coke dealer in London and I used to shoot crack!" She laughs. "I was drunk as a skunk. One of the things they disputed in court was how much I'd had to drink. Every time I finished one drink, they'd put another in front of me. I felt under pressure to show I could drink them under the table."
She says they asked her to take drugs with them. She politely declined. She says Nish suggested she retire to the bedroom of one of the producers, which she interpreted as sex for payment, or at least payment in kind. Again, she declined.
As a number of Mahmood's victims have alleged, Contostavlos believes her drink was spiked. She says one of the two friends with her passed out. "It's my belief all three of us were spiked." (Mahmood has strongly denied this in court.) "So it gets to the point where he keeps asking for drugs, and I've gone on a mad one where I've told him I can get him drugs."
How many times had he asked?
"Four or five. I was so trashed I'd made up this ridiculous thing about 'white sweets'. I was trying to sound like I knew about the gangster world." Contostavlos told them half the guys she knew were drug dealers. OK, they said, put your money where your mouth is - which is when she panicked. She didn't know any dealers. She thought about who she could contact who'd sound convincing and landed on Coombs. There was a logic of sorts: she had acted opposite him in the TV series Dubplate Drama, playing a cocaine addict with Coombs as her dealer. Can she remember what she said to him? "Yeah: talk a load of shit to them, just make 'em think you're going to get it."
And he went ahead? She says she still doesn't know. That was the last time she spoke to him, though Mahmood's team filmed Coombs handing over a package at the Dorchester. "I wouldn't put anything past the Sun. It could have been talcum powder, and they could have done anything with it."
After disbanding the case, Judge McCreath said that, because Contostavlos had been denied the opportunity to give her defence, it was only fair that he provide a summary of it: "She never intended drugs should be supplied to [Mahmood] by Mr Coombs or by anyone else. Anything which he [Coombs] did in that regard was out of a misplaced desire on his part to help her out of her dilemma, not because she asked him to do it; this was something she did not intend."
Did Contostavlos not think it unlikely that they were so keen to pair her up with DiCaprio, given her limited acting experience?
"But the amount of money they spent, thousands of pounds." She looks at Varey. "He's the one who said, at times, something's not right. And I was, no, no, no, they're going to give me £3.5m, I'm going to be a movie star, I'm going to meet Leo. If somebody had told me what it really was at the time, I would have said, that's impossible, how is that even legal?"
Ten days after she contacted Coombs, Mahmood revealed his real identity. She says she can't even remember this, it was so traumatic, so her long-time publicist Simon Jones intervenes. "I'll tell you exactly what happened. I get a call, and he says, 'It's Mazher Mahmood, from the Sun' and I was like, 'Oh great! How can I help you?' He said, 'I just want you to know that your client is going to be on the front page tomorrow for selling me cocaine.' I said, 'Who?' And he went, 'Tulisa.' And I went, 'Tulisa Contostavlos?'" His voice rises in disbelief. "I actually went, 'Tulisa sold you some cocaine?' Mahmood said, 'I can't get into it any further, but we've already gone to the police, so I'd expect you to be hearing from them shortly.' I said, 'Woah-woah-woah, I just don't believe this, I'm going to have to call you back.' I couldn't get hold of Tulisa. I called Gareth and he said it's the movie people. It's the moment you just go sick in your stomach."
As he recounts this, Contostavlos's head is down and she is almost in tears. "I wasn't even thinking I'd done anything wrong, or I was going to get arrested - I just thought they'd set me up to talk rubbish. That alone terrified me, that they'd print some of the shit I'd come out with."
Varey thought the splash "would be the straw that broke the camel's back". What did she think? "I hadn't got my head around it enough to want to go that far, but I was getting there. It was a big debate: 'Do I?'"
Does she mean suicide? "Yeah. The fact it had gone as far as it had meant, to me, there's a higher power out to get me." Did she talk to her friends? "No, I wasn't going to terrify them. It's always something I've thought about, and it's something I attempted once when I was very young. People hear that and are like, 'Agh!', like it's a big deal, but it's not. It's a simple thought process: my life is ruined, it's over, do I stick around or do I end it? It could last for a second or a minute, then I'll be all right again. The fact of the matter is, I'm still here."
Did she make a suicide attempt? "Maybe once. Something along those lines. Well, it wasn't a strong enough attempt. I didn't really know what I was doing." She took pills and alcohol. "Luckily, they weren't enough to finish me off."
One thing she blames herself for is getting Coombs involved. Before the case collapsed, he would almost certainly have received a custodial sentence. How would she have felt?
"That would have been a very hard thing. I never wanted any of this. Mike is not a drug dealer."
She still lives with Varey, who is gay. But they no longer sleep in the same bed. "The way I've been waking up screaming… it's not been fun."
What about her face - is she aware that people are suggesting she has had cosmetic procedures? Yes, of course, she's not daft.
"Look, the papers have always said I've denied it, but I haven't given an interview in a year, so where have I had the chance to deny it? Yes, I've had my lips done, and I'm happy with my lips. And I also had a tiny bit of filler in my cheeks." Anyway, she says, let's talk about the positives. She's going to record a single. Is she going to go on holiday? No, she's too much to do.
"This is only the start. I've had my reputation ruined. Now I've got to fight to get it back."
Has Simon Cowell been in touch? "Well, me and Simon were never really that close. It was always like a work relationship, but I've never heard a bad word from him. The people I was close to on X Factor were Louis [Walsh] and Nicole [Scherzinger] and even Gary [Barlow]. Louis's always the first person to text."
Can she understand why Mahmood thought it a good story? "No. If I was a drug dealer or a bad person, I can understand that. But there's a difference between entrapping a criminal and setting up an innocent person."
She is convinced there was an element of targeting the chav who flew too near the sun. "Other celebrities can be seen on camera with cocaine. But certain people of a certain class can have one story and almost be seen as cool, whereas I supposedly gave someone a telephone number and am the biggest criminal of the year." She has lost a year's earnings. I find myself staring at her Female Boss tattoo. Is this still accurate? "More than ever. I've surprised myself. I feel stronger, wiser - enlightened."
She describes Mahmood giving evidence behind a screen and she kept shifting to force him to look at her. She was boiling over.
"I reached a point when I thought, no, I'm not stooping to your level. I'm better than this. I looked at him and thought he's draining me. I said, right, you're going to have to do it, and I was battling with myself, then I sat there and did it - I said a prayer for him."
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