Tulisa Contostavlos lives in a house covered in religious iconography.
The way she talks about it – the Mother Mary by her bed, for example – the place sounds more like the home of a devoted granny than Britain’s most famous bad girl. It sounds as though it would make a brilliant, unexpected Through the Keyhole.
We are sitting on a sofa in a photographic studio in east London, ostensibly to discuss her comeback single, a pounding dance anthem called Living Without You that comes complete with a sexy video in which a barely dressed Contostavlos uses handsome young male models as chairs. But talk naturally turns to the year she has just had, and what has got her through it: surprisingly, her faith.
Her dramatic fall from grace – from pop star to The X Factor judge to being charged with supplying class-A drugs to an undercover reporter – has been played out like a modern-day parable, with her cast in the role of the fallen angel.
“I’ve always been very spiritual,” she tells me, out of the blue. “I’m probably more religious and spiritual than people know.” She was baptised in the Greek Orthodox church – her father’s religion – but took communion in the Catholic church of her mother. Her faith isn’t a new-found thing – it is the rock on which her whole life has been built. “I like to go to church on my own, to the local church that I’ve gone to since I was a kid. I wait until it is completely empty and light candles. The place I go to has 12 different icons, and I always go to Mother Mary, on the left-hand side, and I just sit there for half an hour and pray.”
Really? My jaw at this point must be sort of slack with amazement.
Yes, really. It’s so funny, you’re the first person to really ask me about it. I’ve never really talked about it because I know a lot of people aren’t into it, and I don’t want to bore the s— out of people. If they don’t want to hear it, then there’s no point trying to explain it.”
Did she think that it would ruin her image if she admitted to it?
“Yeah. It’s like a personal thing.” She shifts uncomfortably on the sofa. “But if a funeral car goes past me, or I see flowers on the side of the road, or I have a bad thought, I make the sign of the cross.” Which she does now, an embarrassed smile on her face.
For all of her adult life, and a great deal of her childhood too, Tulisa Contostavlos has played the role of the urban hoodlum, the bad girl done good.
It is a part she has played with such aplomb that the lines between reality and fantasy have often been blurred, as was witnessed when the bad girl done good did bad again, allegedly setting up a cocaine deal for the so-called Fake Sheikh, Mazher Mahmood.
The story, which was published in The Sun on Sunday in 2013, led to her losing her job on The X Factor panel and attempting suicide as she faced up to the possibility of prison. It was only when the judge found he had the “clearest evidence” that Mahmood had told a “knowing lie” in a pre-trial hearing that the case was thrown out, but for Contostavlos the damage was already done.
In the days after the collapse of the case, she told a shocking story. She said Mahmood had posed as a Bollywood producer, telling her that she was in line for a role in a film alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, an elaborate sting involving first-class flights to Las Vegas and five-star hotel suites. Mahmood – and his employers, who have since suspended him pending investigation – spent a lot of money trying to bring her down.
She says she was told that the role she was going for was an urban “ghetto” girl, and that she was up against Keira Knightley. In order to clinch the part, Contostavlos would have to do “social auditioning” – ie be in character all the time, every time they met – so she set about playing up to the bad-girl image she had constructed as one third of the hip-hop group N-Dubz. She said that on a night out at the Metropolitan Hotel in London she was plied with alcohol and offered cocaine. She refused to take it. “I’ve never taken coke,” she says now. Really, I say. “Yes, really.” She believes that this was her downfall. “Never in my life did I think I’d wish that I did coke like everyone else.”
Contostavlos believes her drink was spiked. It was suggested that she go to a room with one of the “producers” – again, she refused. Mahmood, she said, kept asking for more drugs and it was here that she messed up. In an attempt to convince Mahmood of her credentials, she claimed to know loads of drug dealers. She said Mahmood asked her to prove it. “They’d spent all this money, so they had to set me up in some way.” She panicked, and called a friend who was later filmed handing over a package at The Dorchester. Game over.
A few days after that case collapsed she appeared in court again, this time charged with assaulting a celebrity blogger who published a video of her giving oral sex to an ex boyfriend – a video that then went “viral”. She was fined £200 but is appealing the decision. There is no doubt that she has done some stupid, stupid things in her time, but all of this just adds to my suspicion that what she really needs is a big hug and a whole load of TLC. I want to take her home and wrap her in cotton wool.
She has just been shot in dresses by Hervé Léger and Victoria Beckham, dresses that hide her fragility in their glamour. Now she is in jeans, a shirt and a pair of Nike high-tops, her legs tucked up under her teeny-tiny body. She says she has found an “inner peace”, though I’m not sure I believe her. She has an air of vulnerability about her that makes her seem less Female Boss (her nickname on The X Factor, which is tattooed on her forearm), more little girl lost. “I feel like I’m on top of the world,” she says, as soon as we sit down, and though that may well be true, it seems delicate, fleeting, like so many things in her life.
She was born 26 years ago in Camden, north London. Her father, Plato Contostavlos, was a member of the rock group Mungo Jerry, while her mother, Anne Byrne, was part of an Irish girl band called Jeep. They broke up when Tulisa was 10, and she grew up with her mother in a one-bedroom council flat in Belsize Park. When Contostavlos was five, her mother was sectioned with schizoaffective disorder. This mental illness has been one of the few constants in her life, and she hasn’t felt able to burden her mother with the events of the past year.
“Most people turn to their mums in times of drama,” she says, “but I like to be around my mum when I’m happy. We’re like sponges and she will suck out all my negative energy. If I’m depressed around her, she senses it and becomes depressed. It becomes very unhealthy. It’s a drama in itself.”
Contostavlos went to the same school – Haverstock – as Ed Miliband, but she never sat her GCSEs. At 11 she had started a rap band with her cousin Dappy and his friend, Fazer. The Lickle Rinsers Crew, later renamed N-Dubz, was to be her salvation. They had several top-10 singles and a platinum-selling album, and it was her tough-girl image that led to her place on The X Factor panel.
She has previously spoken of a wild past, and has hotly disputed her father’s claims that she had an affluent childhood – her grandfather, for example, was a UN diplomat who had a home in Hampstead and a villa in Greece. But today she seems to concede that, bar her mother’s illness, she has played up things in the past. “Yeah, course. Because going in N-Dubz, that was part of the image. And the reason I was taken on board [The X Factor] was because I was this feisty female. So I had to play on that. But anyone who knew me was like, ‘She’s not a bad girl like that.’ Don’t get me wrong. I’ll always be a little bit rough around the edges, but I’m a million miles away from being that person.”
She admits that she “had a few bad experiences when I was younger that led me to being a prude”. What kind of experiences? “It was just a period where I really wanted a boyfriend and if a guy came along and was like, ‘OMG, you’re beautiful, I want to spend the rest of my life with you!’ I believed them. Then, second date, I was in bed. They were older, like 20.” And you were 14? “Yeah. But it’s OK, because I woke up rather quickly to the fact they just wanted to have sex with me. Stupid me.”
She is single now, and in no hurry to rush in to anything, which is perhaps not surprising given how untrustworthy the men in her life have been, from Mahmood through to her ex Justin Edwards, who distributed the sex tape. She surrounds herself with gay men now. She is, she says, “a gay man in a woman’s body”. Her best friend Gareth, with whom she lives, is her PA and protector. “It’s great to be around guys that don’t want to shag me. Maybe that has a lot to do with it.”
If Contostavlos has one vice now, it would be cosmetic fillers. Before the trial she had her cheeks and lips done and the general opinion is that she didn’t need to. “I don’t get permanent ones,” she says, a trifle defensively. “It’s like every six months you get a top-up, but mine have practically gone. It’s really not as much as people think. I’d lost a stone [before the trial] and I’d look in the mirror and think, ‘That’s not how I used to look.’ Now I’m having collagen waves to try and break it [the filler] down.
Have you had a collagen wave? It’s very natural, like a facial, a heat pad that goes over your skin and makes you produce natural collagen cells.” Does it irritate her that people feel they have the right to comment on her looks? “People are lucky I even admit to that s—,” she laughs.
Here, then, is a glimpse of the old feisty Contostavlos, and the more we talk, the more it comes through. I ask her about the suicide attempt – she washed down some pills with alcohol – and how detached she is now from it all. “I was just in a numb state,” she says. Did she ever think about taking medication? “No. Never. I feel I’m strong enough to deal with whatever’s going on in my head.” After the sting, her doctor offered her antidepressants and suggested she see a professional. “She said, ‘Without wanting to offend you, you’re in a f—ing state’.”
But her faith got her through; that and her own steeliness. “My way of dealing with most issues is hear no evil, see no evil. If I just ignore things, then they’re not there. If you want to block it out, you can block it out. Problems are only as big as you make them.” I wonder whether, if she tells herself this enough, she might actually start to believe it.
We talk a bit about her music. She wants to do another album, but only if the material is right. “I want to prove myself musically. I want to bring out as many hits as possible, and then an album. I want people to think Tulisa makes bloody good smashers, and if I don’t get to that point I won’t make an album.”
Then what would she do? “I’d find something. This is me. I’m like a f—ing cockroach. Every year I have an apocalypse, but I always survive.” I say that seems sad. Isn’t she more of a lioness? “Nah, it’s fine. Life as a cockroach is good.” And I hope she’s right, truly I do.