Sexiest Woman of all time Rachel Stevens talks S Club 7, FHM and The Voice
From S Club 7 to sexiest woman of all time, RACHEL STEVENS has enjoyed a multi-faceted career over the past 15 years. Here, the Voice of Ireland judge tells GILLIAN FITZPATRICK that hard work is the only route to success for this year's winner. Photography by Mark Nixon.
A decade-and-a-half after she first found fame with popgroup S Club 7, Rachel Stevens was told that she was being unveiled as the sexiest woman of all time by men's magazine FHM. In doing so, she beat several superstars with globally recognisably names - including Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears and Halle Berry - to the top spot.
It's an accolade that the 37-year-old is suitably thrilled by.
"It's special - a magazine cover to get framed and hang somewhere, definitely," she says. Rachel is by now a long-established sex symbol, and the head-turning cover shot taken last year for the magazine's announcement shows her in black underwear - her toned stomach looking particularly impressive, I feel the need to add.
"I was three months pregnant with my youngest Minnie for that shoot!" she laughs in response to the compliment. "I've done something like 10 shoots with FHM over the years. We've a great relationship and we work really well together. So when they asked me to do another one last year - I thought 'great!' because I'm always delighted to be asked. At least by the time the shoot actually took place I had just hit the three-month mark and I was beginning to feel a bit more human and a lot less ill.
"These days, it's a nice thing to have to look back when it's 3am and I'm up with Minnie, or when you're surrounded by nappies and mess."
Despite posing for FHM, Rachel says she remains cautious about how she portrays herself publicly - no doubt something that requires careful management. After all this is a woman who on one hand is a judge on RTÉ Sunday teatime show The Voice of Ireland (more on which later) and on the other whose Twitter profile photo shows her reclined on a bed with arms strategically wrapped across her naked torso.
"Any pictures I've done I've always been very much a part of and it's always a creative process. I'm conscious that I'm a young mum too and that I've young fans," Rachel says. "So I go for sensual rather than overly sexy. You need to get the balance right."
It's a policy that no doubt her husband-of-six-years Alex Bourne is quietly grateful for. "My husband thought it was a bit strange when the sexiest woman edition came out. He works in an office and a few of his colleagues were taking the mickey a bit. On one hand he's delighted, of course, but on the other he's telling them to stop looking at the pictures!"
The pair met growing up in London in their early teens and grew closer in the years following her high profile split from her former fiancé, actor Jeremy Edwards. They married in 2009 in a lavish ceremony at Claridge's hotel in London's Mayfair in front of 185 nearest and dearest - pictures of which featured in OK! magazine.
Now mum to Amelie, four-and-a-half, and Minnie, who recently turned one, Rachel remains as petite and youthful looking as she did during her popstar years. When we meet, she's gearing up for the much-anticipated final of The Voice Of Ireland, which airs tomorrow evening on RTÉ One. Previously a guest judge on X Factor New Zealand, she was part of this year's revamp: out were judges Dolores O'Riordan and Jamelia, replaced by Rachel and The Saturdays singer Una Foden.
"Doing The Voice Of Ireland has been so brilliant - just an amazing experience all round," Rachel gushes.
She describes how Larry Bass - head of the production company which is responsible for bringing the Voice format to Ireland - and producer Eugenia Cooney approached her last year to discuss her coming on board as a judge.
"I'm a big fan of The Voice anyway. And then Larry, Eugenia and I had a lovely Skype chat all together and I pretty much said there and then that I'd love to be a part of the show. It all happened incredibly quickly - before I knew it I was flying into Dublin to kick-off filming."
As a working mum, Rachel says she's forever engaged in a "juggling act" to find the right balance between family and career.
"My daughters are my babies and they're always my priority. So I'm always trying to work everything around them rather than the other way around.
"But I'm very lucky that I have loads of support at home. My mum lives around the corner and Alex's mum is brilliant too. It's wonderful when you can leave them knowing that they're happy and safe."
She adds that her children and husband join her in Dublin when they can. Indeed, both Una and Rachel recently proudly shared pictures of Amelie and Aoife Bella, Una's three-year-old daughter, on The Voice set sitting comfortably on the giant red judges' chairs.
"The two girls and Alex came along to filming earlier this month. Una had her little girl Aoife backstage, and baby Tadhg, her newborn. Kian has his three-year-old son too and another on the way soon. So it's a real family affair on The Voice!"
She confesses to not knowing who fellow judge Bressie was in advance but says she found more familiar faces in Una and Kian.
"I'd never even heard of The Blizzards before I met Bressie on The Voice - though I later found out that he was actually signed to my old management company for a while. He's so tall and big! But then, I suppose everyone's so big when they're standing beside little me - I'm always the shortest" laughs the famously petite Rachel.
"Una and I get on really well - she's such a great girl. We would have seen each other along the way at various different events over the years but I've only really gotten to know her well now through The Voice.
"Then I know Kian Egan from back in our S Club and Westlife days when we'd be doing early morning Saturday TV slots together in the UK. He still looks the exact same - there's just more lift to his hair now!" Despite unfavourable comparisons between the level of polish between The Voice contestants and their counterparts on the UK incarnation of the singing contest, Rachel says she's been impressed with the contestants. "I think the talent's been really strong. And it's just been harder and harder to whittle down the numbers, and it's difficult when you really get to know the contestants. Sending someone home has been so challenging. It's heartbreaking actually."
Although the show continues to have strong viewing figures, The Voice has yet to produce a winner with the same kind of recognition that, say, their X Factor counterparts would enjoy.
Pat Byrne, who won the first series in 2012, saw his album peak at no 10 in the Irish charts - his website appears not to have been updated since 2013. Series two winner Keith Hanley has appeared in panto and musical theatre in Cork, while continuing to work in his day job as a carer.
Last year's victor Brendan McCaughey made a guest appearance on this year's Voice with his new single. He has a string of gigs lined up at modest venues across the country, and is currently an ambassador for the Monaghan campaign for civil marriage equality.
Given the less than stellar fate of their predecessors, you'd have to wonder whether it's really fair to put this year's finalists - two of whom are Team Rachel - through a public emotional rollercoaster when there's scant prospect of them hitting the big time. To this, Rachel says simply that it's tough for anyone to carve their own niche in the music industry.
"Making it takes a lot of luck and a lot of hard work," she states. "Even if you're a solo artist, everyone needs to be a team-player. Then your song-choices are vital, because the music is still the most important thing at the end of the day. There are just so many dynamics that go into making it. It's like piecing a puzzle together."
Rachel also recognises that there are other factors at play: "This year on The Voice, for example, Kieran McKillop is on a farm during the week and then he's getting up on stage to perform on national live television. That's a big adjustment to make and it's not easy."
She adds: "But regardless all these talent shows give contestants a great platform to work with and you're being exposed to a lot of people which is a fantastic opportunity in itself."
She admits that she never had to endure a similarly gruelling process when S Club 7 were being assembled.
Indeed she was the only member of the band that didn't have to audition. Instead, she was spotted by Simon Fuller's talent scouts when she went to meet her brother in the canteen at Sony Records in London. They approached her asking if she could sing, and before long she was making the band's self-titled debut album.
S Club 7 were part of the bubblegum pop revolution of the late Nineties and early 2000s - though they certainly among the more successful products of their era: they sold 14million records in their five years together. They even cracked the elusive US-market with a Top Ten hit in the form of Never Had A Dream Come True - a song which also topped the charts in the UK and made No. 2 in Ireland. Their own television show, Miami 7, was a Saturday morning stable eventually seen by an audience of some 90million in more than 100 countries. They have even a feature film - Seeing Double - to their name.
After officially disbanding in 2003, next month all seven members reunite for a 12-date reunion tour, which begins on May 7 in Birmingham and wraps up two weeks later in Sheffield. "I'm really looking forward to the S Club 7 tour. I love being on stage and performing," Rachel says.
She's adamant that despite boasting by far the highest profile of the band's members - and the only one with a successful solo career - her arm didn't have to be twisted to take part.
"It just had to be the right time," she explains. "All seven of us needed to be available. Costume fittings will be finalised soon and we've already been in rehearsals for weeks. For a tour like this you're playing on nostalgia so we'll be singing all the old hits - albeit with a few new routines. So that's pretty full-on along with everything else. But the response has been amazing - there's a lot a love out there for S Club."
Rachel took part in series six of Strictly Come Dancing in 2008, but was invited back for the arena tour earlier this year when Saturdays star Frankie Bridge withdrew because of her pregnancy. Now, Rachel says she feels as good at 37 as she did aged 19 performing and dancing.
"The Strictly arena tour came right at the beginning of this year, which was great for getting in shape and getting over any Christmas splurge. It was a God-send actually! Dancing is the best form of exercise."
But away from the spotlight, life at home for Rachel and Alex is a normal picture of family and domesticity.
"The days of having a lie-in are long gone!" she smiles. "Our oldest will always jump into bed with us and climb all over us. Socialising now involves the four of us visiting friends, or us having people around. Amelie is four-and-a-half and at that incredibly active age. Then Minnie is just trying to do everything her big sister is. They're both so much fun though."
Getting away from it all is important too - especially following a Strictly tour, The Voice Of Ireland filming and S Club performances. "I'm just a holiday person!" she laughs. "And I feel I'll have earned one this year. I love the sun, definitely. But then I also like skiing, and city breaks and doing the whole cultural and tourist thing. For my husband's 40th in a couple of years we're talking about doing a big road trip somewhere exciting. But what's great is that the girls can be involved in it all too which is fun."
This year is certainly one of Rachel's busiest since she found fame. When S Club 7 disbanded, Simon Fuller gave her a €2million record deal and first single, Sweet Dreams My LA Ex, along with its follow up, Some Girls, both charted well. Her second album, Come And Get It, was less successful, however, and her solo music career stalled close to a decade ago. Still, Rachel isn't ruling out future music projects. "It's a definite maybe. Returning to the stage recently has given me a taster for performing and touring again."
She adds: "But overall it feels like a really exciting time career-wise." And if the UK Voice producers came knocking on the back on her RTÉ success, she admits that she'd jump at the chance. "You've got to look at every opportunity and who knows what's around the corner." As for her own children following in her footsteps, Rachel is cautious. "If my daughters were really passionate about music, they really wanted to become singers, and they were willing to work hard then I'd support them completely. I'd be blubbering wreck though! Can you imagine your child up there on stage on The Voice and none of the chairs turned, or someone in the audience started to boo. I'd turn into Mama Bear, I think!"
The Voice of Ireland final is on RTÉ One tomorrow at 6.30pm
Photographs: Mark Nixon. Clontarf Road, Dublin 3. marknixon.com
Styling: Brown Thomas fashion co-ordinator Darren Feeney, assisted by Roisin Haines. Clothing from Brown Thomas, Grafton Street, Dublin 2. brownthomas.com.
Hair: Carolann McGuirk, Reds Hair Salon, Dawson Street, Dublin 2. reds.ie.
Make-up: Lisa O'Connor, warpaint.ie