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Michelle McManus on the cost of Pop Idol success, TV career, and friendship with Robbie Williams

© Jamie SimpsonMichelle McManus.
Michelle McManus.

When Michelle McManus was a kid, she thought her granny was a pop idol.

“My gran wasn’t famous but I thought she was,” she says. “I used to go and see her singing the psalm in the chapel and I thought everyone else had come there to see her singing too. I didn’t really understand the concept of mass when I was younger.

“I would turn up to St Maria Goretti’s chapel in Cranhill and I would be thinking my gran was doing a concert and that we were all here for her. She’d go up, kneel at the altar and sing the psalm and the hallelujah. My mum says she used to have to stop me from clapping.”

Helen Brady might not have topped the charts, but no-one stopped her from clapping when her granddaughter’s debut single topped out 20 years ago. And she wasn’t the only one.

“Seven million people voted for me to win Pop Idol,” says the singer, subject of a new BBC Scotland documentary, Michelle McManus: Talent Show Winners. “I wish I could go back and tell myself, ‘don’t listen to four or five journalists. Listen to the seven million people who picked up the phone’.”

Michelle’s story in the spotlight

The documentary features not only Michelle’s story, it also considers the experience and the fate of Scotland’s other talent show notables, including Britain’s Got Talent runner-up (turned global star) Susan Boyle and The Voice’s Stevie McCrorie. It also features interviews with Robbie Williams, who Michelle briefly became pals with on the back of her 2003 win, and Pop Idol presenter Kate Thornton.

While not being a warts-and-all expose about the recently flagged toxicity of the sing-for-your-supper TV format, (X Factor’s Katie Waissel and Rebecca Ferguson have recently been highly critical of treatment of participants) Michelle doesn’t shirk from the harsh reality once the end credits roll and the reality of life beyond the shiny floor kicks in.

“Had I had a shred of insight about what was going to happen I would never have put myself up for that show,” says the singer, speaking to P.S. from London during a promo tour to plug the programme and her new Christmas single. “It was savage.”

Michelle's first performance on Pop Idol, October 2003. © K Mckay/Thames Tv/Shutterstock
Michelle’s first performance on Pop Idol, October 2003.

She’s referring, of course, to the headlines and stories which railed at the notion that a young overweight woman could become a success.

For two decades, Michelle has not been able to talk about her career without discussing her weight. And while the world of singing was something she was prepared to face all comers in, the world of brickbats in the spotlight was not.

“I knew I was overweight. Up until I was on Pop Idol being overweight wasn’t a negative. I had somehow managed to get through my entire teenage years without people commenting on it,” says the 43 year old. “We never talked about weight in my family. I was the only one who was overweight. In school I never got bullied, I got parts in school shows.

“But it has actually been really triggering for me going through this process with the programme. I have cried a lot. It was brutal what happened.”

‘In the media I felt hated’

Michelle recalls how she didn’t read the press in the early days of her time on the show. With 20 years’ hindsight, she sees it clearly.

“Pete Waterman (record industry svengali and Pop Idol judge) was getting angry, and music company executives were biting their nails. Me and Will Young were the only ones who won on the public vote. Judges had no control over it in those days.

“It was so confusing. On one hand I had millions of people voting for me and on the other hand I would pick up a newspaper and it would feel like people hated me.

“I was fat. Ugly. And it became weirdly sexualised, too. I had male journalists in their 40s actually writing things like they didn’t want to sleep with me. I was 23. I definitely didn’t want to sleep with them either.”

Michelle McManus. © Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock
Michelle McManus.

Waterman famously stormed off the set when Ant and Dec announced that Michelle had won. She remembers gathering herself to deliver her winner’s performance wondering why.

But while some old wounds run deep, Michelle has gone beyond absolving Waterman for his lack of class.

“I was confused and upset with Pete Waterman for years,” she says. “But actually he was right. He could have said to me, ‘look, it’s not that I don’t think you’re a good singer, it’s that I think you’re going to get savaged in this industry’.

“He just didn’t have the capacity to talk to me like that. But in 2003 nobody could deal with the fact that I looked like me and was successful on national telly. I didn’t really stand a chance as a recording artist.”

I remind her that she scored a UK number one with her debut single, All This Time, the first female Scottish artist to do so, and that the album, The Meaning of Love – despite being given a critical hoofing – went top three behind Norah Jones and Katie Melua, one above Duran Duran.

“I’ve never been given another record deal, and I never got another chance as a recording artist,” she says.

The irony is, she’s arguably a better singer now than she was even then. She’s performed for The Pope in Glasgow, sung with Radio 2’s Big Band and released a single with Manran.

She’s appeared on stage with Rod Stewart at the Hydro to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Lisbon Lions and Lulu at Glasgow Green during the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She’s just staged her Winter Wonderland Show and released a festive single, Christmas Glow.

There’s a celebration of Robert Burns in 2024 and tentative plans to finally tour her album, something she never got the chance to do after Sony dropped her early.

Despite such calibre, the former hotel hospitality worker is still hesitant to describe herself as a singer.

“Most of my work has been in broadcasting since then,” she says, recalling STV’s daily magazine programme, The Hour, which she presented for three years. Last year she joined Radio Scotland’s Afternoon Show as a presenter and has also co-hosted with Clive Anderson on Radio 4. On Hogmanay, she’ll present Get The Tunes On, a pre-bells music show on BBC1.

Robbie Williams friendship

It was an interview with Robbie Williams for the Afternoon Show which rekindled their friendship and led to him appearing in the new documentary.

“After I won the show I was put up in a hotel called K West where loads of famous people stayed. I was there on my own, terrified,” she says. “Everyone was arguing about what they were going to do with me. Execs were actually arguing in front of me.

“I was doing promo every day and Lisa Armstrong (ex-wife of Ant McPartlin) was doing my make-up at her house. She eventually invited me to stay there rather than the hotel.

“For some reason Robbie Williams was there a lot, and he’d pull up a chair and have a cup of tea while I was getting my make-up done. He showed me kindness at a time when I really needed it. I knew him for a few weeks and then he disappeared out of my life.”

Cut to late 2022 and Michelle and her sisters were sitting backstage with Robbie after his gig in Glasgow. “I couldn’t believe he even remembered me. When he invited us to his house for the documentary, he spoke about how he connected with me in 2003 because he was getting battered in the press at the same time I was. He said he’d never seen someone take the battering I did.”

On a childhood holiday in Morecambe in the 1980s, a young girl from Glasgow was declared winner of a talent show contest. She was given a fiver, which her grandad kept. After he died, the fiver resurfaced, in a frame. Even as a child, the girl couldn’t understand why she was being given money for singing, something that came as naturally to her as putting one foot in front of the other.

The girl who won the fiver kept singing and won a lot more. She’ll keep singing, too.

“It wasn’t that anyone told me I could sing back then,” says Michelle after all this time. “It was that nobody told me not to. None of us who did these shows went off to live in Beverly Hills. We’ve probably all experienced a bit of shame about being on a big TV show then not ‘making it’. But what’s ‘making it’, anyway? Everyone who did it is in a better place as a result of their shows.

“And that feels really positive.”

‘I lost the weight for my boys’

Michelle says the will to live a long life for her sons compelled her to lose weight.

The singer has slimmed down remarkably in recent months, and is determined to keep going, motivated by the will to live a long, healthy life with her boys and husband Jeff.

She says: “My priorities changed. It’s always been challenging trying to lose weight and conform. Don’t forget I did lose a lot of weight before and it changed not a single thing in my life. It didn’t make me more successful or happier.

“When I did the TV show with Gillian McKeith I convinced myself that people would love me again. But it changed nothing. Zero.

“Now I don’t equate weight with happiness. It’s about the fact that I want to be healthy and I want to live for my kids. It’s not about happiness. We are in a much better place now.

“I’m 43 now, I have two beautiful boys, the light of my life and I want to be here for them. I took a look at myself earlier this year and decided. When you have kids, nothing will make you fear your own mortality more.”

She added: “I’ve done it the old fashioned way – calorie cutting and exercise. I feel a real sense of achievement. And it’s not over yet.”

Michelle McManus: Talent Show Winners. Friday, BBC Scotland, 10.30pm; Get The Tunes On, BBC1, Hogmanay, 10pm. Christmas Glow is available for download and streaming now.