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Shirlie Kemp: Playing her song

PUBLISHED: 15:18 13 January 2010 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013

Shirlie Kemp

Shirlie Kemp

Singer and songwriter Shirlie Kemp talks to Beatrix Clark about her family, life after Wham! and her and husband Martin's charity work

SHIRLIE Kemp knows a thing or two about publicity and generally tries to avoid it. Married for almost 20 years to Spandau Ballet and EastEnders star Martin Kemp, she prefers these days to keep her personal life private. In fact the Hertfordshire lass who was once a singer with Wham! and one half of the successful 80s pop duo, Pepsi and Shirlie, says she's never much liked the limelight.

'I remember going shopping in Watford on the day of my first TV appearance with George Michael. People were pointing at me - it wasn't a nice feeling,' she recalls
We're chatting in The Grove, one of Shirlie's favourite haunts, and for someone who's spent much of her life hanging out with musicians and movie stars she's surprisingly down to earth. Blonde, pretty and casually dressed she says her music career 'just happened'. As a girl she loved to sing and dance but, growing up in a working class family in Bushey with four siblings, was never able to have the ballet lessons she craved because 'the class was too far away and my mum didn't drive'. Turning to her second passion, horses, she trained to be a riding instructor but developed horrendous hayfever - she's suffering from it when we meet - and found herself at a loose end career wise. A chance meeting in a local pub with Andrew Ridgeley, who later introduced her to his best friend, George Michael, changed her life.

'I went shopping in Watford on the day of my first TV appearance with George Michael. People were pointing at me - it wasn't a nice feeling'

'We all got on brilliantly - they became my world,' she explains. 'We'd go dancing together and make up routines which we performed in nightclubs. Someone from the BBC spotted us at Stringfellows and invited us onto Saturday Superstore - we thought, why not? It escalated from there.'

So what was it like being part of one of the most successful bands of the 80s? 'Great fun, but next to George I felt a bit like a spare part. His talent overawed me - it still does,' she admits.

Though she may at times have doubted her own talent, the duo that Shirlie formed with fellow backing vocalist, Pepsi DeMacque when Wham! split in 1986 achieved instant success. They released two albums and several hit singles but the urge to start a family with her new husband proved greater than Shirlie's desire to be a musician.

'I got pregnant on my wedding day. I'm not sure Martin felt ready to have kids but I did,' she recalls laughing.
They'd met six years earlier and Shirlie was overwhelmed by his charming, caring nature. 'I'm very intuitive about people. I instantly felt this was a man I'd be safe with.' Following the birth of their daughter Harley and son Roman she put her career on hold and threw all her energy into her family - a decision she's never regretted. Hesitantly I ask about her husband's two brain tumours, diagnosed when Roman was a year old, and her response is both honest and emotional.

'The outlook was bleak,' she says. 'I couldn't bear the thought of my children being without a father. After surgery he'd have seizures which I didn't know were a side effect. They put a metal plate in his head. I was in a daze - only when I look back do I realise how much it all affected me.'
Passionate about the need for more information about the condition - 'no-one tells you the side effects of having a brain tumour removed' - Shirlie is proud that whilst he was recovering Martin wrote an autobiography which has since given reassurance to many, and pleased that he's patron of the Enchephalitis Society, a charity dedicated to helping sufferers and their families. She brightens as she speaks of his recovery and the offer of a leading role in EastEnders. 'I was so happy for him after everything he'd endured. It was like emerging from the darkness into the light.'

It was their desire to be close to BBC's Elstree Studios for Martin's work, and the abundance of good schools in the area, that prompted the Kemps to move back to Hertfordshire after spending several years living in LA and Highgate. At first, Shirlie admits, she thought she'd made a mistake, missing her friends and the proximity to Central London, but she's now a big fan, particularly of The Grove where she loves to dine or work out, and the shops and restaurants of St Albans.

'I love the villagey atmosphere and the square with its Whistles, Carluccios and LK Bennett. There's a spiritual, crystal shop called ISIS I like - St Albans definitely ticks all the boxes,' she enthuses.

The former pop-star is an avid supporter of local causes and recently took part in a 14-mile sponsored walk that raised almost 200,000 for the Watford Peace Hospice. 'It's a wonderful place. They put so much care into looking after people who are dying - you need places like that.' Another passion is Shihtzu Rescue in Abbots Langley, a centre for dogs that have been neglected or mistreated. She's less complimentary about Watford General Hospital, which she's experienced first-hand and says is in 'dire need of a makeover.'

Creative as well as caring, Shirlie spends much of her time making things - bags, frames and lampshade covers from velvet and lace, or anything that takes her fancy. In recent years, with her children getting older, she's also gone back to writing pop songs and ballads and is in the process of putting together a collection. Her greatest ambition, she tells me, is to be a successful songwriter and her songwriting, like her creativity and much else she's done in her life, has to be spontaneous. 'I do it because it's inside me. We're all given various gifts - life's about being in tune with yourself and letting them in.'

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