Ahead of her Belfast gig, the former Pussycat Doll tells Maureen Coleman about love, hate mail and why she’s a big fan of Snow Patrol
She was the Pussycat that got the cream — a high-profile new role on the American X Factor, a successful start to her solo career and a pin-up boyfriend in the form of Lewis Hamilton.
But the last year has been a rollercoaster ride for pop-star Nicole Scherzinger. As well as coping with the reality of being an X Factor judge – it's been alleged she received death threats over one of her decisions – the 33-year-old beauty was devastated when her relationship with Hamilton came to an end. Then, just days after this interview was conducted, news broke that Scherzinger was quitting the show after just one season, along with Welsh host Steve Jones and possibly fellow judge Paula Abdul. Some reports suggest she left of her own accord, others claim she was axed. But the former Pussycat Doll did hint during our transatlantic telephone chat that a return was not on the cards.
Speaking from her Los Angeles home, she tells me that after a well-deserved break in Mexico, she is gearing up to embark on her first ever solo tour. And she says that 2012 will be all about the music.
“I'm so excited about this tour,” she purrs, in a rather hypnotising voice. “I'm in the process of getting ready for it, doing a lot of research. I know that it's a theatre tour so I want to make sure the show is well rounded and that I draw up the proper set list.
“There'll be a little bit of everything in there, singing and dancing, a Pussycat Dolls set, a stripped back acoustic set, my own songs.
“It'll be a bit weird not having the rest of the girls with me but I'll be bringing their energy onto the stage. And I have a brilliant live band and some beautiful dancers.
“I'm training a lot at the moment too, doing loads of cardio to make sure I'm in the best possible shape and that I'm able to give a good full hour and a half to the fans. I want to give them a brilliant night out.”
Her perfectly toned physique and stunning good looks are all part of the Nicole Scherzinger package, but she insists there's so much more to her than meets the eye.
“I don't want it to be about sex appeal,” she said. “I want it to be about my music.” Nevertheless, as the lead singer of the globe-trotting, chart-topping Pussycat Dolls, Nicole and the rest of the girls often came under fire for the overtly sexual nature of some of their songs, their skimpy outfits and their raunchy dance routines. These days, admittedly, Nicole's image is tamer — she claims she never really felt comfortable wearing next to nothing as a Pussycat Doll and that her current look is more ‘boho-rock'. So does she think she's a good role model for the millions of young women who aspire to be like her?
“Absolutely,” she replies. “But I feel I am a role model through my performance, through my music and also through the way I live my life. My mum raised me well and I live a good life. That's what makes a good role model.”
Nicole was born in Honolulu into a devout Catholic family. At the age of six, she moved with her mother, sister Keala and German American stepfather to Louisville, Kentucky.
It was also around this time she was bought a Whitney Houston album by her parents and decided, there and then, that she too wanted to be a performer. In 2001 Scherzinger took part in US talent show Popstars, winning herself a place in the all-girl group Eden's Crush.
Two years later Nicole joined the burlesque troupe The Pussycat Dolls, who were being re-cast as recording artists. Chart domination followed, with singles such as Don't Cha, When I Grow Up and I Hate This Part, but Nicole was also recording duets with a number of male artists and simultaneously working on her debut solo album.
One track planned for her solo project was a heart-felt ballad penned by Bangor-born Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody.
Nicole says: “Oh my God, I am a huge fan of Snow Patrol, who isn't? Gary Lightbody is a great singer songwriter and it was an honour to work with him and to be able to record a song that he had written.”
Then she reveals: “It's such a deep and emotional song. It’s my sister's favourite song and I sang it for her at her wedding last year.”
However Nicole felt the world wasn't ready for her debut yet and in 2009 the album was shelved. Snow Patrol reworked the single Just Say Yes and went on to have a hit with it themselves.
“Of course I love Snow Patrol's version,” Nicole says. “Their songs are so honest and have such a depth of emotion to them.”
2009 also saw the re-release of the Pussycat Doll's second album Doll Domination, reissued in several different forms. To further promote the album the Dolls kicked off their second headline tour on January 18, 2009, which included a stop-off in Belfast. The opening act was a certain Lady Gaga.
Nicole recalls: “I'll tell you what I remember about the Irish fans, they are electrifying. They really blew me away.
“I remember looking out into the sea of faces and seeing all these young girls going mad. I felt like one of the Beatles. Honestly, they really blew me away.”
In 2010 Nicole announced that she had left the Pussycat Dolls to focus on her own career. The offers flooded in. She was signed up to take part in the US hit show, Dancing With The Stars, partnered with Season Seven champion (and Cheryl Cole's ex) Derek Hough. The pair went on to win. Then Simon Cowell snapped up her as a guest judge on the X Factor, to replace Dannii Minogue, who had gone on maternity leave. Nicole proved so popular with the public and the panel alike, she was asked back when Cheryl Cole was struck down with malaria and was unable to film the ‘bootcamp' stages of the contest. Nicole made her presence felt. She persuaded the producers to change the ages of the judging categories and was instrumental in putting together boyband One Direction. Cowell was impressed and hired her as one of two co-hosts for the first series of the US X Factor, alongside Steve Jones. But when Cheryl Cole was sacked a few weeks in, amid reports she didn't suit the role and was unhappy in the States, Nicole stepped into her shoes.
But she had no idea what she was letting herself in for, she now admits.
“Doing the X Factor meant I had to commit all of my time to the show, because I wanted to be a good judge and mentor,” she tells me. “But I was not prepared for such a time consuming role. And I was certainly not prepared for how intense and difficult the elimination process turned out to be. I am an artist first and foremost, so my heart really went out to them.”
Nicole soon found herself at the centre of X Factor controversy. On December 8, 13-year-old Rachel Crow, a final favourite, found herself in the bottom two with Marcus Canty. Nicole had the deciding vote but sent it to deadlock to let the public choose.
Marcus had been in the bottom two for three weeks in a row and Nicole believed he would go. But Rachel received fewer votes and was sent home instead.
In distressing scenes, the young girl collapsed onstage, sobbing inconsolably. When addressed by Steve Jones, Nicole, who was also in tears, was unable to speak. She was booed by the audience and later, received hate messages and even death threats on social networking site Twitter.
Even now, a few months on, Nicole finds it difficult to talk about.
“I was so surprised by the backlash,” she said quietly. “Rachel Crow, you know, it just broke my heart. I let it go to the American vote and they sent Rachel home. But the statistics ... I didn't think she'd go.
“I have a soft spot for Rachel and spent a lot of time with her. It really broke my heart to see her so upset. But I know she is a little star, a bright shining star. Nothing could have prepared me for all that. I am an artist, I wear my heart on my sleeve, I know what it feels like to be up there.”
When asked if she was returning for another series, Nicole replies: “Honestly, I've no idea if I'm going back.” But then she adds, perhaps hinting of what was to
come: “Right now I want to focus on my music and my first solo tour.”
As well as her X Factor duties, Nicole finally got round to releasing her debut solo — Killer Love — in the UK last year. The album went straight into the top 10 and spawned a number of singles, including the chart-topper Don't Hold Your Breath. She is currently re-working the tracklisting for the American release.
“I don't do anything by halves,” she says. “Because I was so committed to the X Factor, I didn't get to release the album in America. But I'm in the studio, wrapping it up now.
“I am so ecstatic with the response to the album in the UK. I'm very grateful. I did the music that I connect with and I hope and pray fans connect with it too.”
Nicole said the album, produced by RedOne, is about “relationships, love, heartache, coming through heartache.”
“But you know, it's uplifting and very relatable,” she says.
This seems an opportune time to ask her about her own recent heartache. Last October, after dating for four years, Nicole split from Formula One star Lewis Hamilton. The couple cited incompatible work schedules as the reason for the break-up. However it's been reported they saw in the New Year together at the start of 2012. So what is the real story?
Nicole hesitates before replying: “Sorry, I don't want to talk about my personal life. It's just the media make things up all the time.” She then adds cryptically: “All I will say is that I am very happy in my personal life right now.”
She is more forthright about rumours that she is being lined up as Alesha Dixon's replacement on the UK show Strictly Come Dancing.
Nicole says: “It's all hearsay. No-one has approached me about Strictly Come Dancing.
“I was invited to be a judge on the X Factor because I am a singer and a musician. Yes I won Dancing With The Stars, but I had a wonderful partner. It's his area of expertise, not mine. I'd be a rubbish judge.”
Nicole concedes she found it less nerve-wracking performing on the X Factor than sitting in a judge's seat.
“It's really not easy being a judge. I am much more comfortable on stage. It was more difficult for me to sit there and critique, it's just more natural for me to perform.
“I was really excited about performing on the UK X Factor, but I was a bit nervous too. When I was a mentor, I was hands on, telling them ‘do this, do that, connect with the audience, tell a story'. So it was like ‘oh, ok then, you've opened your big mouth, now it's your turn'. But I gave an honest and truthful performance and I was happy with it. I think the judges liked it too,” she laughs.
Nicole gives the thumbs up to the new X Factor line-up — Kelly Rowland, Tulisa Contostavlos, Gary Barlow and Louis Walsh — but singles out the Irish judge for extra praise.
“Kelly's my friend, so obviously I'm going to say she was good,” she says. “They all did a great job. But Louis is my favourite, definitely. He showed me the ropes. Simon threw me into the lion's den, whereas Louis was always on hand to support me.”
Whether Nicole's recent departure from the US X Factor was her own decision or Mr Cowell's is anyone's guess. She says she wants to concentrate on her upcoming tour and the American album release. But with hindsight her parting words may have been a message for Simon Cowell.
“When I see how well One Direction are doing, I could not be more proud. They have grown up so much in such little time. They look wonderful, they sound wonderful, they've really gelled.
“You see, that's why Simon brought me on board the X Factor and that's why he was so lucky to have me,” she says.
a life in the fast lane
Nicole Scherzinger plays the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on February 15. For tickets go to www.tickets.waterfront.co.uk