Sam Bailey: 'I really can't get my head around celebrity world'
Singer and mum-of-three Sam Bailey hit the big time when she won The X Factor in 2013, and is currently wowing audiences as Matron 'Mama' Morton in Chicago, which is playing Dublin and arrives in Belfast later this year.
It may have been a sunny day when I arrived at the seaside town of Torquay in Devon, but once inside the Princess Theatre on the strand, I was immediately transported to sultry, Prohibition-era Chicago. Based on a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Chicago, the 1975 musical, is a satire on corruption in the administration of criminal justice. It explores the concept of the 'celebrity criminal', in a tale of the press and legal system turning a blind eye to murder in 1920s Chicago, simply because the killer has a pretty face.
I was there to watch the popular show ahead of its arrival in Dublin and Belfast, and was already impressed at the cast list. The story follows beautiful 1920s nightclub singer Roxie Hart, played by Hayley Tamaddon, the former Coronation Street actress (Andrea Beckett) and 2010 Dancing on Ice champion, who is guilty of murdering her lover. Roxie is fighting to avoid a death row sentence with the help of smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn, played with aplomb by EastEnders star John Partridge (Christian Clarke), who finished sixth in Celebrity Big Brother in February.
Sam Bailey, winner of The X Factor 2013, makes her musical theatre debut in this show playing the corrupt Matron 'Mama' Morton, and she was in fine singing voice throughout, with When You're Good to Mama being a particular highlight. As it happens, Sam was a prison guard at HM Prison Gartree in Leicestershire before winning the reality talent show, so she has first-hand experience of life on the inside. She enjoyed the job, she says, even though it was challenging, and it gave her a great empathy for people.
Embarking on The X Factor, the 38-year-old Londoner was an outsider in the 'over 25' category and was mentored by Sharon Osbourne. Her performances were very strong and viewers warmed to her likeable, grounded personality. It was later revealed that she received the most public votes seven weeks out of 10.
"I couldn't believe I actually won," she says. "It was tough and I missed my family, but everyone has to make sacrifices in life and mine paid off."
Unlike most of the young contestants, Sam was married with two children, which meant spending a lot of time away from home during the show.
She married Craig Pearson in Las Vegas in 2003, and they now have three adored children, Brooke (10), Tommy (6), and Miley Beau, who turns two in September. Miley's very famous godmother is Sharon Osbourne, who flew to the UK for the christening.
Sam loves being a mum and finds touring and being away from the family difficult, but she does it to secure her children's future.
FaceTime helps and the family are coming over to Dublin for a long weekend during the run to see her. Craig takes care of the children at home full-time, which works very well for the family at present. He used to be a builder and Sam thinks he may go back to that line of work one day, "so that he doesn't feel that he has lost his masculinity, if you will".
While she grafted for years on the amateur singing circuit, Sam believes that achieving success relatively later in life was an advantage. She had more confidence in herself and, crucially, had her priorities straight.
"I think some of the younger ones think, 'I've got loads of money, so let's party,' but I'm thinking ahead because I have to look after my family," she says. "I'm too old to go out partying now anyway. I like chilling out with a cup of tea and a scone. I'm really enjoying the work and am grateful for the opportunities I've been given."
Life is difficult for any musician, even when you have won a giant reality show, and Sam was dropped by Simon Cowell's Syco label after 14 months. She isn't the slightest bit bitter over it, and says that some things the record label wanted differed from her vision. She doesn't view herself as a star, and likes just being an ordinary mum.
"I try to lead a very normal life, but when you're with a label, you get put on a pedestal and that doesn't happen," she says.
"I'm quite happy driving myself around and dipping into the celebrity world on one hand, and then being a normal mum who came from a council estate going to the shop for a loaf of bread on the other. I find it a bit weird when I go out and people get excited to meet me and want to touch my shoulder. I did a gig recently and performed to 20,000 people, and they were all screaming and wanting to meet me, but I still can't get my head around that side of it."
The audience reaction has been great so far for Chicago, and it's a wonderful, energetic production. With the orchestra on stage as a permanent backdrop, the musical numbers are electric, including All That Jazz and, a particular stand-out, We Both Reached for the Gun, which was great fun. The dancers and choreography are also excellent, and all the singing is fabulous.
One of the things that surprised Sam initially about entering the celebrity world was how normal and nice most of the people she encountered there were. They weren't "up themselves" as she might have previously imagined, she admits.
"Take Katie Price," she says of the oft-maligned glamour model. "She is just gorgeous inside and out and is an absolute gem. We're not that different, me and her, except she is stunningly beautiful and I just look like a mum in a hoody and a pair of jeans every day."
Sam is excited at the upcoming arrival of her single, Sing My Heart Out, and an album of the same name in the autumn. Tickets have just gone on sale for a major solo tour of the UK starting in March 2017.
She also hopes to take on more musical theatre roles as she's loving being Mama Morton - despite the fact that she had no acting experience and found learning lines challenging initially.
"Taking acting lessons is something I'd like to pursue. I like to think I have my fingers in a lot of pies, rather than putting all my eggs in one basket. I just like to graft away and earn money so I can provide for my family."
Chicago continues at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre until May 21 (tickets from ticketmaster.ie) and is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from September 5 to 10. To book tel 028 9024 1919 or go to goh.co.uk.