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Elaine Paige: From Barnet to Broadway

PUBLISHED: 16:02 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013

Singer Elaine Paige is celebrating 40 years in showbusiness. Can it really be that long? asks Jess Alldred

ELAINE Paige may only be 4ft 11ins tall, but in singing terms she is huge. Her voice, her smile and her ability to reach each and every member of an audience has made her one of the biggest stars of British musical theatre.

Elaine has recorded 20 solo albums as well as six cast albums; she has won five Olivier Awards and has been invested as an OBE. She is a producer, a broadcaster and as a leading lady has a string of smash hit musicals to her name. However, this international musical phenomenon began life much closer to home, in Hertfordshire.

She was born as Elaine Jill Bickerstaff, in Barnet, March 1948. Her parents were Irene and Eric and they had one elder daughter, Marion. Eric was an estate agent and a keen drummer in a four-piece band called The Arcadians. Irene was a milliner and had a hat shop in Barnet high street. To this day Elaine is still fascinated by hats.

'I still can't pass a hat shop without taking a peek inside,' Elaine admits. 'I love hats and always leave a milliner's with at least one lovely box under my arm. I can't help it!
'Being invested as an OBE was a lovely excuse to wear a gorgeous hat. Both my parents were able to go to the Palace with me to celebrate the special day.'

She received her OBE for services to theatre and was delighted to accept the honour. It was a far cry from the schoolgirl singing in front of her friends and family in Barnet.

'As a teenager I would listen to the soundtrack of West Side Story and be transported away to another world'

Music was a big part of Elaine's early life. Her mother had a good singing voice and her grandparents had been involved with concert parties, both performing in the shows and writing them. During her childhood, Elaine listened to her mother's favourite records - the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como and Matt Monro.

Elaine attended the Southshaw Secondary Modern School for Girls, in Oakley Park. There she was inspired by the Head of Music, Ann Hill, who encouraged her to take part in the school performance of The Messiah. Elaine has subsequently referred to Mrs Hill as 'visionary' for her guidance during those early years.

'She was a wonderful, wonderful music teacher,' Elaine reminisces. 'She was so supportive and a great help to me. I kept in touch with her after school.'

It was after another school show, The Boy Mozart, that Elaine's father realised her genuine talent and asked if she would like to go to stage school. This was a thrilling suggestion for Elaine and later that year, she became a student at the Aida Foster Stage School, in North London.
As a teenager, Elaine loved to sing. 'I was always singing - I couldn't help it,' she laughs. 'I would listen to the soundtrack of West Side Story and be transported away to another world!'

Today, some 40 years on, Elaine is as stylish as ever. She has a sassy blonde crop, an enviable figure and an illuminating smile. It's impossible to believe she is 60 years old and is about to embark on a national tour to celebrate a 40-year career in theatre. Her critically-acclaimed, award-winning roles include Eva Peron in Evita, Grizabella in Cats and Florence in Chess. Edith Piaf in Piaf, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Anna Leonowens in The King & I and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd all followed. Most recently she returned to the West End in the title role of The Drowsy Chaperone.

'I have been around such a long time, there is plenty of material to choose from!' she laughs when discussing her repertoire. The tour will feature many of her famous songs, as well as some personal favourites. 'It's hard to choose what to leave out because so many of the songs have wonderful memories attached to them!'

She mentions some of her most enduring roles. 'Evita will always be there right at the top as one of my most memorable shows,' she says of the 1978 musical hit produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. 'That was the one show which entirely changed my life forever.'
This was her big break as a leading lady. She simply mesmerised audiences and critics alike.

'Chess was memorable because it gave me my number one single, I Know Him So Well, with Barbara Dickson.Piaf was wonderful. It was such an emotionally charged character to play; a real acting role.

'And Sunset Boulevard was fantastic because it finally took me to Broadway which was thrilling. I will never forget those sensational days after the show opened: they all went crazy in New York. It was a whirlwind!'

Despite all her experience, Elaine admits she still gets nervous before she steps out on stage. 'As you get older you are more aware of the pitfalls: the dreadful things that can go wrong during a live performance. So I think the nerves get worse!'

'Chess was memorable because it gave me my number one single, I Know Him So Well'

Elaine is not particularly superstitious, but she does have a routine that she follows every night before curtain-up. 'I tend to have a particular order of doing things and without fail on my dressing room table you'll find a small clock and the lace mat that was my grandmother's.'

Elaine chooses her characters carefully. She certainly knows the roles she wants to play.
'I adore playing strong women. They are so much more fun and interesting to play than the wimps. Girlie girls are so boring. In fact most of my leading ladies have had a similar thread linking them: they are all strong, feisty characters. I enjoy these types of women the best.'
When she was younger, Elaine wanted to be a tennis player and is still a keen amateur. She has played charity matches with the likes of Cliff Richard and Virginia Wade.
'I really like playing tennis. But, I am actually really rather useless! I was awarded Woman of the Match, of all things, at a Cliff Richard Tennis Foundation charity game a while back. I played alongside Virginia Wade - which was slightly awesome. I am useless, so I decided that buffoonery was the only way to get by and it was great fun. I just caused a bit of a laugh and entertained them, I suppose. I didn't know what else to do.'

And although Elaine's schedule is busy and often exhausting, she loves keeping up with her friends. 'An ideal day off would be meeting up with some of my pals and going out to the theatre or the cinema and then heading off for supper somewhere,' she says.

'I love eating out. My favourite haunts are The Ivy or La Caprice. Another favourite is Rules - one of the oldest restaurants in London. The food is fantastic and beautifully presented. Their sticky toffee pudding is glorious.'

In addition to the touring, recording and performing, Elaine has also become a hugely popular radio presenter. Since September 2005 she has presented the Elaine Paige On Sunday show which boasts more than 1.7 million listeners. As well as playing all her favourite music, she has had the chance to interview celebrities such as Sir Elton John, Angela Lansbury and Liza Minnelli. And she loves it.
'I have no regrets. I love my work and am proud of my career. I am very lucky,' she concludes.

With a great new book, a new album, a national tour and a radio show, it is clear that this lady is as busy as ever.

READ ALL ABOUT IT
Memories by Elaine Paige is published by Oberon Books. Her latest CD, Elaine Paige - Sweet Memories, is released by Demon Music Group. The concert Elaine Paige - Celebrating Forty Years On The Stage will be touring the UK in February - March 2009.

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