'Those pop years were the best time of my life'
She found fame as a judge on Pop Idol and Popstars, and worked with music stars from Take That and Spice Girls to Kylie Minogue. Nicki Chapman tells Gabrielle Fagan how she 'saved' Will Young from Simon Cowell, and coping with the 'unpredictable' world of showbiz
A conversation with Nicki Chapman is like a canter through a musical hall of fame, interspersed with star-studded anecdotes.
They range from her rescuing Strictly Come Dancing competitor Will Young from talent show oblivion and dining with Simon Cowell, to working with Victoria Beckham and being chums with Gary Barlow.
Far from a masterclass in name dropping, it's an entertaining insight into the world of a music mogul-turned-TV presenter, who first found fame as the only female judge on Pop Idol and Popstars.
While the shows, 15 years ago, were precursors to Britain's Got Talent and X Factor, and Chapman's role was the equivalent to that played by today's female judges Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon, Nicole Scherzinger and Sharon Osbourne, Chapman's experience was vastly different.
"I was a record company executive in the day and would turn up for filming wearing my favourite denim jacket, glasses and my hair in a ponytail. I'd rush to the loo, dab on blusher and then walk on," says Chapman, who currently presents property programmes Escape To The Country, Wanted Down Under and The RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
"In those days, it didn't matter a jot what I wore, because it wasn't about the judges, it was about the talent on stage. It's amazing to see the difference now, where the judges are glamorous stars in themselves. The judging may seem a lot harsher than in my day, but that's probably because we're living in a harsher world," adds Chapman, who turned 50 in January.
Although she remembers it as an era of less crushing judgments, Cowell's characteristically blunt verdicts were already evident when she shared a judging panel with him on Pop Idol, and she recalls aspiring singer, Will Young, appearing before them.
"I remember the audition where Simon really savaged Will, who'd just sung Light My Fire, dismissively telling him he was only an 'average' performer. He'd have got rid of him if I hadn't stepped in," says Chapman.
"Will just stood there silent and looking like a startled rabbit, until I said, 'Please stand up for yourself and say something.' Suddenly he came out of his shell, retorted that he was 'distinctly not average' and could imagine his father saying [to his mother], 'Annabel, get the shotgun.'
"It was so quick-witted, really put Simon down and they never got on after that, and Simon was a big supporter of Gareth Gates. I often think if I hadn't given Will that push, he might have disappeared without trace."
She tips Young, who's had six top-five albums since winning the show in 2001, as a potential Strictly winner. "Although music's his first love, he's a gifted dancer. He might come across as loveable and laid-back, but underneath, he's hugely competitive and a true performer, it's in his blood."
While their views may have differed on occasions, she's a huge fan of Cowell. "He's great fun, with a fantastic sense of humour and the charismatic guy you want to sit next to at a dinner party," says Chapman, who's married to Dave Shackleton, co-manager of rock band Iron Maiden, who she first met back in the early Nineties.
"Simon's always first of the blocks when people are talking about an idea, which he'll grab and use. He's so good at knowing what the public wants and becoming a parent's made him, I think; he looks so content as a family man."
Chapman's own career launched when she became a promotions assistant at MCA Records at the age of 21, and rose to become head of promotions. She went on to form a PR company managing a host of leading bands and artists, including Spice Girls, Take That, Kylie, David Bowie, Phil Collins and Amy Winehouse. "Those pop years were the most exciting of my life. When I was in South Africa with the Spice Girls meeting Nelson Mandela, I looked up at the sky and reminded myself I was being paid for doing a job which gave me those wonderful experiences," she recalls.
"Reuniting with the Spice Girls to promote their 2007 tour was great, and Victoria, the least confident at the outset, was exactly the same lovely girl I remember. She's got a great deal of humility which people don't see, and is an absolute joy to work with," says Chapman, 50, who also toured the world with Take That.
"The Take That boys just wanted to have fun and meet loads of girls, and they had this magic mix of being normal lads but oozing talent. Gary Barlow's a truly lovely guy and still a friend. He's had huge highs and lows in his career but has always bounced back, and is now going from strength to strength."
Variety is the spice of life for Chapman, who adores her role on TV property programmes ("Just call me nosey Nicki - I love checking out people's homes"), and she still enjoys her passion - popular music - as a regular stand-in for Vanessa Feltz on Radio 2.
Her other, less widely known interest is horse riding. She came second out of 12 celebrities in the BBC's Sport Relief show jumping challenge, Only Fools On Horses, in 2006, and relishes her regular role as presenter for the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. She hosts its UK tour in November, which will mark its 450th anniversary and showcase Lipizzan horses.
"The riders don't even have stirrups but manage to stay on those horses while they leap in the air and pirouette, which is incredible. I can sort of equate that to my life, as I've managed to survive all those times in the music business coping with the unpredictable, especially some of the stars, and leaping from challenge to challenge," says Chapman.
"I've also navigated my way through the precarious life of being a presenter, because you never know when you'll fall out of favour.
"All in all, it's not bad for a girl who left school at 16 and didn't have a clue what she wanted to do. I just believe in working hard, not taking anything for granted, and taking every opportunity."
Nicki Chapman is a British dressage ambassador and will be hosting shows for The Spanish Riding School of Vienna tour this November. Tickets are available for November 11-13 at The SEE Arena Wembley, and November 18-20 at Barclaycard Arena Birmingham. Visit www.livenation.co.uk, www.spanishridingschoollive.com and www.ticketmaster.co.uk