Bad girl gone good
Her scantily clad days are over; Gabriella Cilmi is back to sing
Gabriella Cilmi has officially resigned. Not as a pop star -- she has a new record out, as it happens -- but as a pouting, long-lashed sex kitten. If you are proud owner of the May 2010 FHM issue in which she flashes eye-watering quantities of cleavage, treasure it because she won't be repeating the stunt. She's a music anomaly -- a bad girl gone good.
"There's a difference between sensual and sexual," says Cilmi, daintily polishing off lunch in a Dublin hotel. "The over-sexualisation of young girls in the industry is an issue at the moment. I was approached to do FHM when I was 16 and turned it down. As soon as I turned 18, it was discussed again. The line was, 'oh you're a mature woman, you can take your clothes off'."
A picture of grown-up demureness in full length patterned gown, at 22 years old the Melbourne native has rebooted her image. Her latest record, The Sting, is a twerk-free zone, with lots of Adele type emoting and little of the single entendres that dominate the modern pop star's lyric sheet.
Standing up to the sexualised mores of the business wasn't easy, she says. At around the same time that she was dumped by her record label she was forced to start over -- pressing the reset button on her career and, to an extent, her life, breaking off relations with her management company and starting afresh.
Cilmi has sold two million albums and was briefly thought to have the potential to be the next Amy Winehouse. She is savvy enough to understand that her looks -- up close she is stunning -- are part of the attraction and, on her 2008 debut LP Lessons Learned was happy to smoulder for the cameras.
The difficulty set in as she commenced work on the 2010 follow-up -- Ten. So far as her handlers were concerned, the tide was going out on female singers. If Cilmi was to have a future she needed to ratchet up her sex appeal -- to become a sort of Antipodean Rihanna.
"They told me FHM was the only cover I could get," she says. "It was presented as 'oh this will be really tasteful'. I thought I would have approval over the images."
Cilmi posed naked except for a pair of leather trousers, draw on her repertoire of Page 3 style 'steamy' glances and generally flaunt her inner Lolita. Afterwards she went home and cried. And that was before she even clapped eyes on the pictures.
"The first time I saw the cover I was in Australia," she says. "It was upsetting -- very intense. The images in the magazine are so removed from the person I am. It seems a dream I actually did it. I mean, I can't put the blame on other people. Ultimately I was the one doing the compromising. It was weird."
FHM was just the beginning. Her videos grew progressively steamier , photoshoots for Ten lingered over her curves (she frolics on the cover apparently wrapped in black duct tape). The nadir was a live show in which she was required to dress up as Hugh Hefner's idea of a 'sexy' android. She stood there singing, wishing the ground would open and swallow her.
She had journeyed a terrible distance from her roots. Born in Melbourne in 1991 -- yes, she is younger than Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit -- Cilmi received her musical education from her parents, huge devotees of Led Zeppelin, Nina Simone and everything in between.
Precocious and ambitious, at 12 she was signed to a development deal by Warner Music (she was discovered performing Jumpin' Jack Flash at a community festival). Five years later, she was living alone in London, working with Sugababes songwriters Xenomania and wearing as little as possible whenever a camera was in proximity.
Cilmi's experiences make her one of the best qualified individuals on the planet to comment on Miley Cyrus' controversial rebranding as a ubiquitous twerk-bot -- a furore that was ratcheted further last week as she 'dirty danced' with Santa at the Jingle Ball in New York.
"It happens to a lot of young girls in the industry," says Cilmi. "The way Miley is pushing it isn't very new. That stuff goes on in the industry an awful lot. Why do it in such a public fashion? I mean, Wrecking Ball is a good song. I don't think she needed to take her image as far as she did. How far do you go before it's too much?"
Cilmi is obviously bruised by her experiences. However, she feels it is important to speak up. Somewhere out there is another shy, pretty future pop star who may well think that she too has to tell sex to sell records. Cilmi feels she owes it to these starry eyed girls to go public with what she encountered.
"The fact we are having a conversation about this now may hopefully stop another young girl going that route. You know, you don't have to do it. You have people like Adele and Florence Welch making great music. There is another way."
- The Sting is out now.
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