Last week I posted that I’d be interviewing Heather Small from the M People. To be honest, I loved the M People as a child (that’s my mum’s influence!), and I think her song Proud in anthemic, but other than that, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a truly inspirational woman – intelligent, funny, feisty, and yes, proud.
If you remember living through the 90s (and chance are, most of you do), then Heather Small is a bit of a legend. Singer of M People, she gave us some seriously catchy tunes, such as Moving on Up and Search for the Hero; she also performed on the Children in Need collaboration of Perfect Day, which found its way into many record collections.
By 2000, she was going solo, and this time, we had a new track to love – Proud. The upbeat anthem garnered instant popularity, and has since been used in the Olympics, as Oprah Winfrey’s soundtrack and most recently, as a comedic refrain on Miranda.
As well as balancing her many charity endeavours, in 2008, Heather competed in Strictly Come Dancing, last year saw an M People greatest hits tour and this summer Heather is headlining the Grassington Festival.
What was your reaction when you heard that Oprah wanted to use your song Proud as the theme tune to her show?
She was looking for a song that encapsulated her time in the business, and one of her aides suggested the song; she liked it. They asked me if I’d come over and sing it live. Everybody feels like they know her – she’s a legend. She does a lot of good works. To see someone that looked like me on TV, someone who took herself seriously, that was inspiring, but she’s much more playful in life than on screen; she’s got a really sexy vibe.
So you didn’t run around screaming, “Oh my God, it’s Oprah?”
[Laughs] That’s where we differ! Was I pleased? Of course I was. I was honoured. When you do something that other people find believable; when you’re able to translate something that was primarily for yourself but now relates to a third person, that’s amazing and humbling.
The Biggest Loser uses Proud in their show, but recently the format has gained controversy, in particular for the most recent winner – Rachel’s – incredibly dramatic weight loss. Do you think there’s too much pressure to conform to social norms about appearance?
Well, I was happy for them to use my song in the first place. It means different things to different people. I had a sneak peek of the show and it’s great to see other people achieving their goals. There’s no quick fix for anything; you just have to grit your teeth.
I can’t speak for anybody else, but there’s always going to be one person that is more vulnerable. Like anything, a pattern of behaviour can become addictive. Being overweight, it’s not just about the food, it’s about something deeper – psychological – so sometimes you get to place where you lose the weight, and then the attention you get, it’s like a high. So you constantly want that high. So you become obsessive.
There’s a pressure on females to look a certain way, and to a lesser extent, males – and that makes me laugh; I think, welcome to our world.
The thing is that the more images of variety of women that’s out there, the better. I come from a Caribbean background, so the thought that someone is not accepted for their weight is totally alien.
I only realised when I was 18 that you ‘have’ to be six foot and stick thin, but that would get no headway in my community.
Ultimately you have to look after yourself, and be good to yourself – if you like to wear something, and it feels a little tight, you know what to do. Treat yourself right, be happy within yourself and don’t accept anything less.
You’ve sung with some remarkable people in the past, including Tom Jones (what was he like?); but who’s still on your duet wish list?
I said once I wouldn’t mind working with Missy Elliot – and that was a loooong time ago but I still think she’s great. A female collaboration, something different to what I do would be great but I don’t have a victim in mind.
What are the greatest lyrics of all time?
Oh, that’s a hard one. ‘Young, gifted and black’ – when I was younger, I thought, ‘Are we allowed to say that?’ I grew up in 70s Britain and when I heard those lyrics, I thought, “Yeah, that empowers me”. Growing up, I didn’t feel that empowered.
What do you think of Bruce Forsyth’s recent announcement of his intention to leave Strictly Come Dancing?
He’s a phenomenon; that he can walk away while he’s still successful and on his own terms, well done. He’s done it right, he’s got the option to come back, and he’ll always be the King of Strictly.
Do you think there’s a difference between his departure, and that of Arlene Phillips?
I was disheartened when Arlene went; she was a really nice woman – feisty, opinionated, mature. We’ve got to celebrate mature in women; I wish that that was recognised in all walks of life, from entertainment to business to anything.
When you appeared on the show, you were in the bottom two on four occasions, how did you pick yourself up after?
Well, it’s not a matter of life and death, and I approached it far more light-heartedly than some of the others, who were in it to win it (and good for them). The whole experience was character building. I found I danced better without the cameras; I was nervous.
Nervous? Really? I think most people would be surprised to hear that.
Even with what I do I can get really nervous. Before I go on stage I stay on my own and try to keep calm with relaxation exercises, vocal warm ups, some ginger tea with manuka honey, candles burning – anything that will keep me calm!
Would you ever consider taking part in other celebrity ‘gameshows’?
No. I don’t think so. The thing with Strictly – my mother and sister were huge fans – and my sister was ill, and she wanted me to say yes. I’d turned them down so many times, but she made me ring them back up and say “yes”. And I got to meet Mark Foster and Brian Fortuna; I wouldn’t be without them. And I did have a laugh in that Strictly bubble.
What would be your ‘perfect day’?
Everybody knows I like to be with family and friends so it would definitely involve them: hanging, eating, talking, trying to put the world to rights (or not), I love to dance – so it’d end with dancing; and some voluntary work – I like that kind of thing, because I like to feel useful.
I did some local voluntary work yesterday at one of Mary Portas’ Living and Giving shops; I like Mary; it might not be a perfect solution but she tries and the money goes to Save the Children. I met some really lovely people; it broadens your horizons as you meet so many different types of people. I like the company of women, and a lot of voluntary services and charities have lots of women through the structure, from management to foot soldiers.
My own charity is Barnados; I only mention it to give a boost to them; if you get the information out there, then that’s a good thing.
You’ve sung and lent your voice to a number of great events, from Gay Pride to the Olympics, is playing a positive role in society important to you?
I think it’s one thing being a positive role model, but you’ve got to be true to yourself. Get involved in things that mean something to you. For me, that’s discrimination, and anything to do with women and children, then I can always be called upon.
As a society, we should try to exercise more tolerance and empathy; I think you can be far more calm and understanding if you can understand someone’s situation. I realise that sometimes I can be quite idealistic but it’s something to work towards.
You’re the headlining artist at this year’s Grassington Festival; is there anything in particular you’d like to do or see while you’re in the Yorkshire Dales?
My family’s from Leeds so I know that Yorkshire is very pretty. More than anything I’m looking forward to playing the festival itself; you bring yourself to people, and with the other artists on the bill, you get an eclectic mix; the crowd comes because they love live music, and there’s a sense of community. That’s what defines a society – it’s not our wars, it’s our music, our culture. You have to start with the very young so everyone feels like they have something to contribute, so you take pride in yourself and your community at large.
Plus, this is a charitable organisation, and on a local level, it’s good to support.
Finally, I have to ask, sorry, but what have you done today that makes you feel proud?
[Laughs for a very long time] Oh, you’re making me laugh, young Betsy. Earlier today I went to get my injections. I’m not a very ‘together’ person but I’m going to Rwanda in a few days to support The Blue Sky Village, and I’m proud that I’ve finally managed to get my injections and pulled it all together.
Quickfire Round! – Favourites:
Book – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Film – Mostly recently, 12 Years a Slave
Album – Blue for You by Nina Simone
Food – Chocolate; I have to have the dark stuff
Place – At the moment it’s Barbados; it’s where my family’s from originally so I just go and relax with family and friends; have a laugh and feel at home