Elaine Paige: Evita, Cats and Chess star talks ahead of her one-night-only performance
'I find myself at a crossroads in my life and I'm not sure what path to take, I need to wait to be inspired'
Elaine Paige is well known for the smoky chuckle she breaks into sometimes on her popular Radio 2 show on Sunday afternoons. But I didn't realise how infectious it is, until I heard it first hand, down the line from her London penthouse.
A cross between one of the laughing babies from the Cow & Gate TV advert and Carry On star Sid James, it has a slightly demented ring to it, and it's impossible not to laugh with her once she gets going.
"Somebody put me up on YouTube and then somebody sent me it and I plonked it on - it was quite funny listening to it," she giggles.
"I remember that time - it was a clip from the radio when I started laughing on air and couldn't stop - you know what it's like. Somebody made a joke about Dick Van Dyke or something and I went into fits. It was terrible."
Anyone attending the Belfast Odeon and the Omniplex Dundonald tomorrow night should hear plenty of that gurgling chortle, when the tiny first lady of the West End will light up the screen in a special farewell, one-night-only performance from the Albert Hall, to mark the end of her 50-year live touring career.
Featuring her much-loved signature tunes from Evita, Cats and Chess among others, the 94-minute performance is followed by an interview - filmed live - by the mischievous Richard E Grant, most recently seen in Downton Abbey and on his Sky TV series on luxurious hotels.
"I've known Richard for a while - he has a good sense of humour," she says cheerily. "He does that hotel programme and I saw him presenting one from that wonderful Ballyfin Hotel in Ireland, so I'm going there later in the year for a week's break.
"I've been to Belfast, too, but it was during the Troubles when you had to go through checkpoints, like at the airport. I forget the name of the hotel - my memory isn't my strongest point."
The passing reference to her "memory" has mine filling up with her beautifully rich and warm delivery of the eponymous song from Cats, also a huge hit for Barbra Streisand. It's odd to think of that distinctive, expressive voice no longer being heard from the stage - Elaine Paige has been singing in iconic musicals since her 1964 debut, at 16, as a Chinese urchin in The Roar of the Greasepaint; The Smell of the Crowd.
She had originally wanted to become a professional tennis player - tennis remains one of her passions - until her headmistress pointed out "they'd never see you over the net" (she's only 4ft 11ins tall). She was encouraged to sing by a music teacher at the primary school in her home town of Barnet, north London, while her father, Eric Bickerstaff, an estate agent and amateur drummer, suggested she attend drama school - after which she changed her surname, at random, to Paige.
As my mother has been a long-time customer of a Glenavy grocer called Sammy Bickerstaff, a member of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, I wondered if she had any connection with these shores?
"Ooooh, I must find out - I thought it was from north Lancashire," she enthuses. "I had a great, great, great - don't know how many greats - grandfather, who helped to build Blackpool Tower and when I sang there, I went to explore it and found a plaque with his name on it in the entrance there. But who knows - maybe I have some Irish blood."
This aside makes an ice-breaker - although I've been warned she hasn't spoken about her private life since her 11-year affair with lyricist Tim Rice which spanned the 1980s (she's been with the tall, burly marketing executive and fellow tennis enthusiast, Justin Mallinson, since 2010). I was expecting a more brittle interviewee, given the star's reputation as someone who can be "difficult". A newspaper commentator once wrote, "Paige is not exactly known for her humility," and she once told a male interviewer that she was going to stop giving interviews to female reporters because she didn't "trust other women in these situations. They establish a sisterhood with you and then betray it every time".
She has also noted that it is a common misconception that she's confident and very serious. From what I can glean, the cold tag is undeserved. She comes across as friendly and down-to-earth, even a little vulnerable. As a child she lacked confidence, until the Aida Foster Stage School brought her out of herself - but to this day, she says, she is not a born exhibitionist.
"It's not a natural thing for me to stand in front of people and perform - it takes a great deal of energy and courage," she asserts.
"The build-up to it is very intense, because I want it to the best I can and I strive for it, and that takes it out of me. And I'm very self-critical - I don't watch myself very often. I don't particularly enjoy it - I'm thinking, 'I could have done that better', or 'Why didn't I look over there?' I find faults and look at myself very objectively and it's not very enjoyable."
The chuckles abate and her voice lowers when she speaks, hesitantly, of her retirement from live performance touring.
"It's quite an emotional thing for me, to take that decision. I'm heading towards the end of my career rather than starting out, and that is quite emotional - to say it out loud. I'm hanging my touring shoes up," she says.
"Singing itself is tiring, especially when it's an entire concert, and I do get very tired travelling. I normally have bundles of energy and I pack a lot into my day - I'm not one for sitting around relaxing, doing nothing. It's a case of the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
"It can be a bit too taxing to be enjoyable. I want to enjoy what time there is to come."
Eric Bickerstaff and his wife Irene, a former teacher, lived into their 80s. Elaine's longevity was threatened when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985. Although she went on to make a full recovery, she doesn't take her health for granted.
A few years before the illness, she became depressed and hit an all-time low while playing the challenging title role in Piaf, on the life of the legendary French songstress Edith, and had to quit the run early due to exhaustion.
Did she consider a link between the stress she endured then, and her cancer diagnosis three years later?
"Yes - continual stress is not a healthy thing, you pay for it," she says. "It's hard to say there was a definite connection but I do think there's something to it. That's another reason for stepping back a bit while I feel reasonably well.
"I'm at a place now - I'm at a crossroads and I'm not quite sure what path to take. I think I need time to think and wait to be inspired. I'm going to relax and see friends and lead a normal life and recharge the batteries."
I tell her she looks great - the picture of health, and ask her what she puts on her youthful sunny face. "Oh, I've inherited my skin from my mum and she always looked at least 20 years younger than she was. Dad looked younger, too," she says. "I use face cream from Japan made from plant extracts, Censai. You can only get it in Harrods and in France, but it lasts."
So, no Botox or fillers, then?
"To be honest, I do get a bit of Botox when I'm feeling I look tired, but it's subtle - I don't want to look all tight-faced. I tell the doctor just to cheer me up a bit - I get it around my eyes and across my forehead. I don't want it to look like a mask - as an artist you need your expressions."
Never having been married, EP - as she refers to herself on radio - has said that she wanted to have children, but "it's a wonderful life I have, so I'm very fulfilled in other ways". Her home overlooks the Thames in London, and she has a holiday house in France, where, she admits, to never having mastered the language. An animal lover, she used to have a pet dog, until the demands of touring forced her to give him up.
"I had cats and a rabbit when I was a child, and then when I was doing Anything Goes, I bought a Westland Terrier and called him Tugger - I don't think he appreciated that," she laughs.
"When he saw a cat, he went mad running after it. He was gorgeous - I had him until he was 14 but I was so busy away on tour I had to give him to my parents to look after. It wasn't fair - he needed company and didn't like to be alone. I love animals but I haven't had one since."
She plans to spend some of her newly free time painting landscapes - "I just throw the paint around on the canvas and hope for the best" - and is considering recording an album of her favourite songs.
"I'm making endless lists of them. I used to love Dusty Springfield's big dramatic ballads. That one - I forget what you call it (You Don't have to Say You Love Me) - was one of the first songs I learned. That and an Everly Brothers one. Dusty was unique. I felt drawn to her."
Something she likely won't be doing is appearing as a judge on one of her friend Andrew Lloyd Webber's talent shows.
"I've been asked to before but I didn't feel it was for me, and probably won't ever," she says. "I'm not crazy about those shows, to be honest - I think they've had their day. I worry about taking those young people and coaching them in 16 weeks to head out and take the leading role in a musical. It took me 14 years to learn.
"And I'm glad it did - I learned my craft properly and I learned to act and how to sustain eight shows a week as the lead performer. I can't imagine doing all that in 16 weeks. There have been mishaps in that regard.
"There are pressures and stresses attached and to take that on and to push people too fast - that's not the way to do it. To succeed you have to pay your dues and take care of yourself along the way."
Before her manager hauls her off the phone, which, to her credit, she seems in no hurry to hang up, she says she's also considering writing the memoir she has been asked to do at several junctures throughout her 50-year career.
"I'm making lots of notes but I think I've a bit more living to do yet," she says. "As the subtitle of my farewell thing is, I'm Still Here, tee-hee-hee-tee."
Don't miss her on Radio 2 on Sunday afternoons - she'll make your day.
- Live screenings tomorrow at Belfast Odeon, tickets £15/£12.50 concession, and Omniplex Dundonald, tickets £12 adult, £9 student/pensioner and £8 for a child. Both start at 7.15pm
The cat that got the cream
- She has starred in more smash hit West End and Broadway musicals than anyone else of her generation, including Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Billy, Evita, Cats, Chess, Anything Goes, Piaf, Sunset Boulevard, The King & I, Sweeney Todd, The Drowsy Chaperone and, most recently, Follies
- Elaine has recorded 21 solo albums and earned eight consecutive gold and four multi-platinum discs and has achieved chart-topping hits including Memory, Don't Cry For Me Argentina and I Know Him So Well which have become her signatures
- Her BBC Radio 2, Elaine Paige On Sunday, is now in its 11th year and regularly attracts over two million listeners each week.
- Her 50 years in showbiz have brought her countless accolades.
- She claims to have 'singer's neck', and is considering cosmetic surgery to rectify it