Fame rolls into Belfast tonight
As Fame rolls into Belfast tonight, soul legend Sheila Ferguson talks to Maureen Coleman about her role in the musical, why she walked away from The Three Degrees and the reason she can’t stand The X Factor
At first glance it’s hard to see any similarities between soul legend Sheila Ferguson and the strict, old-fashioned school principal she plays in Fame: The Musical.
This Sheila sitting in front of me, regaling funny anecdotes from her past while munching a panini between interviews, is warm, open and deliciously candid — as well as looking remarkably young for 61. But she assures me she was perfect for the role of Miss Esther Sherman, the teacher in charge of the fictional High School for Performing Arts in New York.
“I’m actually a very strict mother who always made my twin daughters aware of the importance of education,” she says.
“This wasn’t the first time I was offered this role. I think it was clear that the real Sheila Ferguson is a mum first and foremost, and one who put my girls’ education above everything else. That’s the real me.”
However, that’s where the comparisons end, she tells me. Sheila’s Miss Sherman is somewhat sexier than she has been in previous outings.
“There was no way I was playing her frumpy, no way,” she laughs loudly. “Let’s just say I’ve updated her. She has her hair and nails done and wears black silk stockings and high heels. I refused to wear flats.
“To be honest, I never watched Fame, either on TV or the film, so it meant I was coming to this role fresh, with no preconceived ideas. I’m playing her exactly the way I’d like to see her played.”
Sheila is a woman who is used to getting her own way and given her iconic status as one third of the hugely successful Three Degrees — and a certain Prince’s favourite singer — it’s not surprising that her decisions are rarely challenged.
But she is also a consummate professional whose career has spanned five decades and she makes no apologies for her self-belief.
“I’m always being offered roles in musicals,” she says.
Sheila continues: “I guess it’s because I’m good at what I do and, let’s face it, I know how to command a stage.”
Long before the Spice Girls were championing Girl Power, or The Sugababes and Saturdays were notching up Top 10 singles, The Three Degrees were one of the world’s biggest and best loved female vocal groups.
Philadelphia-born Sheila began her career as a solo artist under the tutelage of doo wop legend Richard Barrett, who also happened to be looking after an up-and-coming band called The Three Degrees.
As a young solo artist on the rise, Sheila had a massive crush on Tamla Motown star Marvin Gaye. In fact, it’s rumoured that her infatuation with the soul singer influenced her own career choice.
Sheila throws her head back and lets out a hearty laugh.
“That is so true, you know,” she says.
“I adored him and then my first solo show was on the same bill as him at the Apollo. Can you imagine that?
“I was 14 at the time and I went along to his dressing room to see him, with knees knocking. I was so petrified.
“He was lovely. But my crush vanished there and then and we became good friends instead.”
While Sheila’s solo career continued to progress, she sometimes found herself standing in as a replacement when one of The Three Degrees took ill, or providing extra harmonies for them. So when an original member left in 1966, she was the obvious choice to join the group.
“Because I knew all the routines, I was asked to fill in. I did, and ended up staying 20 years,” she recalls.
“It was a lot of fun and it was nice not to be on my own. I had a great time with the other girls. When we got together, it was all about performing for people. The hit records were the icing on the cake.”
And there were plenty of hit records. While The Three Degrees went through many line-up changes over the years, Sheila was at the helm when they were at their peak. Songs like When Will I See You Again? and Take Good Care Of Yourself were chart-toppers in the mid-1970s, the former giving them their first UK number one and making them the first girl group to top the charts this side of the pond since The Supremes in 1964.
But it could all have been so different if a young, rather naive Sheila had got her own way at that stage of her career. During the 1970s, Philadelphia Soul (Philly Soul) — a more funked up version of Motown, characterised by strings and horns — was a massive music genre and two of its leading stalwarts were writer/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. An excited Kenny sat Sheila down at the piano one day and played her his latest composition, When Will I See You Again? But Sheila hated it.
“I threw a complete tantrum. I told him it was rubbish and that it was an insult to me to expect me to sing such a simple song that required no talent,” she says, shaking her head.
“Several million record sales later I realised it was that song’s simplicity that made it the classic that it is. I had to concede that Kenny had been right all along.”
On another occasion Sheila and the other two girls, Fayette Pinkney and Valerie Holiday, were heading off to the UK for the first time. Again, Kenny was at his piano.
“As I walked out the door, he shouted after me ‘Take good care of yourself, Sheila’. When I came back, he’d written that song for me.
“And do you know, I’ve never told anyone that,” she confides.
The songs have stood the test of the time because they are “pure soul”, she says.
“There was something in the water in Philadelphia back then,” she tells me. “Bands like The O’Jays, Sister Sledge, Stylistics, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, were all part of the Philly Sound.
“You can’t beat soul. It’s pure, rich music, from the soul, like soul food. You can’t techno-pop it, festival it, psychedelic it or whatever else. It is what it is.”
So what does she make of today’s talent, I ask her?
“I like Michael Buble, although I think Harry Connick Jnr has a better voice,” she replies.
“Beyonce, yes, she’s a star, but Whitney (Houston) has disappointed me, she’s really let me down. And I don’t rate Leona Lewis at all. The girl has no charisma and she’s controlled by Simon Cowell.”
Would she have considered going on a show like The X Factor if it had been around when she was young?
“No, I don’t think I would have,” she says.
“I don’t really watch The X Factor, but from what I’ve seen of it, I think it’s all about the big production now, which I’m not interested in.
“I just want to fast forward it to the singing. And the funny thing is, if I agree with any of the judges, it’s Simon Cowell.”
While Sheila’s not a fan of reality television talent shows, she did enjoy Big Brother. And, of course, she also appeared on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here in 2004, when she was the third person to be voted off.
“Who won Big Brother?” she asks me. “I didn’t get to see because we were in rehearsals for Fame and then doing the shows in Dublin.”
I tell her it was Josie Gibson.
“Oh, the big girl from Bristol,” she claps her hands. “I knew she’d win, she was the most down-to-earth. I liked her.
“I would never have been able to do Big Brother. We had to sign a contract for I’m A Celebrity to say it would be the only reality show that we’d take part in.
“But I’ll tell you something, that was tough going. And I’m one tough cookie.
“Every night the families would come down to the camp because we wouldn’t know who was going out, and I could hear my girls, Alicia and Alexandria. They were staying in the seven star Versace Hotel and I was in the abyss from hell.
“I decided to play quiet and boring so I could get out. I planned my exit and it worked.
“To be honest, I only did the show to shake off the ‘Sheila Ferguson of the Three Degrees’ tag or ‘Sheila Ferguson, Prince Charles’ favourite singer’. Now I’m ‘Sheila Ferguson, of I’m A Celebrity!’”
She does believe talent shows can turn out stars, though. Playing alongside her in Fame; The Musical are Ben Morris and Jessica Cervi, who beat thousands of hopefuls to play the roles of Nick Piazza and Serena Katz through an RTE1 show.
“I wasn’t privy to the RTE programme, but I have to say, Ben and Jessica are exceptional performers and I can see why they won,” she says.
“They are a delight to work with, they are both so professional. And we’ve been getting great reactions from the audiences in Dublin and Castlebar, standing ovations so far.”
A star of stage now, Sheila quit
The Three Degrees in 1986, to concentrate on being a mum. Her much-loved twin daughters are 29 and neither has followed in her footsteps.
“It was hard at the start when I left the group,” she says. “I remember the first solo show I did after I’d left. I stood back to take a bow, as we’d always done, and stretched out my two arms, as if to touch the other girls. But they weren’t there, of course.
“My musical director told me he felt my loss that night. But I got used to it. Anyway, my daughters needed me. I didn’t want them to be raised by nannies. They’re both great girls. Alicia lives in England and works for Christian Aid and Alexandria works in corporate events in Dubai.
“They saw the downside to this business too, the heartache, the rejection, the tears. I never hid it from them.”
These days Majorca is Sheila’s home. Five years ago she holidayed there and fell in love with Palma Nova, upping sticks and leaving the UK, where she had lived for many years. Her neighbours include tennis star Rafael Nadal, actress Claire Sweeney, singer Annie Lennox and the LLoyd Webbers.
“It’s a lovely lifestyle and I’m very happy there,” she says.
But she won’t see Palma Nova for a while yet. Fame: The Musical is keeping her busy and she has a few other West End projects up her sleeve, though she’s keeping them to herself for now.
So what of her friendship with Prince Charles?
At one stage there were even rumours that he was romantically interested in her. But that was a long time ago.
“I’m the ambassdor of the Prince’s Trust now,” she beams at me. “I haven’t seen him for a while though. I was hoping to see him at a clay pigeon shoot in Scotland in August, and was really looking forward to meeting Camilla for the first time.
“But I was just too busy with Fame. I’ve had to cancel all my summer plans.
“But I’m glad I did, I’m loving every minute of it.”
Fame: The Musical, Grand Opera House, Belfast, tonight until Sunday. For tickets, tel: 028 9024 1919