I didn’t get off to a terribly good start with Adele.
We had first planned to meet back in August. I’d just made the four-hour journey to London to meet her at 10am when her publicist rang, saying Adele was sick, and couldn’t make it.
Hmm, I thought. Bloody teenagers (Adele had not long turned 20). Got a hangover, more like.
I heard she later cancelled a string of live performances in the US at the final hour. She won’t last in the music business. She doesn’t have what it takes: the drive, the work ethic, the single-minded ambition.
And then I do, finally, meet her, and I change my mind. The young women of the world don’t need another role model like Madonna: a hard-working harridan whose private life is in tatters. What they really need is someone deliciously self-centred, who puts personal freedom and happiness before success. Someone, in fact, just like Adele.
‘I’ve never had a problem with the way I look. I’d rather have lunch with my friends than go to a gym’
We meet in a house in South London, not far from Adele’s stamping ground of Brixton, where her favourite night out is a meal in a Malaysian restaurant (‘I went to the Ivy, I hate it, I think it’s s***. And Nobu. They [celebrity restaurants] are all rubbish’) followed by a film (she likes gangster movies: Scarface, The Godfather; she admits the last time she read a book she was six, and it was Roald Dahl’s Matilda) at the Ritzy.
Adele is in her uniform of black Marks & Spencer jeans, big chunky cardigan and flats. ‘I’m like Johnny Cash,’ she says. ‘I only wear black.’
She looks at my shoes – silver strappy platforms – and her great big green cat’s eyes widen. ‘I like looking nice, but I always put comfort over fashion,’ she says, tucking her legs up under her, doing that big-girl thing of first pulling her cardie down over her bottom, then pulling it across her chest. ‘I don’t find thin girls attractive; be happy and healthy. I’ve never had a problem with the way I look. I’d rather have lunch with my friends than go to a gym.’
I ask what size she is. ‘I’m 5ft 9in and a 14, 16.’ Is she under no pressure at all from the record company to go on a diet or exercise? I tell her that when I interviewed girl band All Saints at the start of their career, I snuck a look at their diary for the coming year, and every box had been filled in with dates, promo tours, interviews, photo shoots – and daily work-outs with a trainer in a gym.
Adele snorts, and does her great big hearty laugh, the best laugh in the music business. ‘You can’t go to America and be s***; you could have an amazing figure and they won’t buy it. I could wear a bin liner and they’d still like me.’
Last summer, around the time she cancelled our interview, she decided she wanted three months off: she told her record company, publicist and manager that she didn’t want any e-mails, phone calls, texts, nothing.
‘It had got to the stage where friends would call, and I’d be working in Norway or somewhere, and they’d ask me to come round and I’d get annoyed that they didn’t know I was abroad. So for three months I went to the pub, barbecues, saw my cousins.’
She cancelled that string of dates in the US the day before she was due to go. ‘I got in trouble for wasting people’s time but I was desperately unhappy.’
Wasn’t she terrified that she would be dropped, forgotten? The year for her was going so well: a Brit Critics’ Choice award, named the Sound of 2008 by a BBC poll, her first album, 19, at number one in the UK, number one on iTunes in the US.
‘I can’t be a product; no one can do that to me. I have all the say; I have power over everything I do. When I won the Brit award I thought, “I’m going to kill myself.”’
Why? Because it seemed too much like hard work? She nods. ‘If you play up to it, it is hard work. This week, I want three days off. I tell them not to call me.’
She hasn’t let success change her: ‘I’ve never been more normal than I am now.’
What if all this (I gesture at the people milling about for the photo shoot to accompany this interview, the clothes, the make-up artists) disappeared? ‘Recently, I did the New York show and I thought, you’re an idiot [to have cancelled the previous dates], you are throwing away everyone’s dream. But I needed time off, it’s good that I did that.’
I wonder where she gets her supreme, unshakable self-confidence. ‘I am from a huge family: there are 33 immediate family members on my mum’s side alone. I’m an only child but I have got a half brother. We are all really bolshie.
'I have never been insecure, ever, about how I look, about what I want to do with myself. My mum told me to only ever do things for myself, not for others.
'In a way, though, my success has been for her. Mum loves me being famous! She is so excited and proud, as she had me so young and couldn’t support me [there wasn’t a lot of money to go round], so I am living her dream, it’s sweeter for both of us. It’s her 40th birthday soon and I’m going to buy her 40 presents.’
Adele also bought her mother, Penny, a Stella Vine painting for several thousand pounds, the money going to a charity called Keep a Child Alive.
Her mum is, was, a sometime artist, furniture maker and masseuse, and is going to decorate Adele’s new flat. ‘It’s just a one-bedroom flat in Notting Hill above a shop. My dad [her stepdad; her parents split up when she was very young and her real father was never part of her life] works for Wickes, so I should be able to get cheap DIY stuff. I get lonely sometimes, but I love it.’
Born in Tottenham, North London, Adele Laurie Blue Adkins was the only white pupil at her primary school, which is partly why she grew up loving soul music. When she moved, at 11, to South London with her mum and stepfather, she went to a ‘crap comprehensive’ before winning a place at the Brit performing arts school in Croydon, the one that gave us Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis.
As part of her course as a songwriter she had to learn how to produce a demo tape. Her friend posted it on MySpace and the independent XL record label, home of the White Stripes, spotted it. They called her in. ‘I thought I’d be offered a job as an intern,’ she says. Instead, she signed her record deal at 18.
Tonight, Adele will be in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards, the Oscars of the music world. She has been nominated in a staggering four categories, including Best New Artist and Song of the Year (she is also in the running for three Brit Awards, which will be announced later this month).
‘I was told I was a long shot for the Grammys, so I forgot to tell Mum the night the nominations were being announced. I went online to see how many Leona Lewis got – I’m a big fan – and it was Adele, Adele, Adele, Adele… I never thought in my wildest dreams with my first record that I’d be included.
'I was quoted out of context saying I didn’t want a Grammy; I meant I didn’t think artists should be given them for their first record: it’s like winning an Oscar too soon, it puts a dampener on the rest of their career.’
What on earth will she wear? ‘Something by Michael Kors – I love him – or Donna Karan.’ I wonder whether she is fazed, being nominated for an award won by the likes of Michael Jackson, mixing with the stars (Beyoncé is a fan). She has met David Bowie – ‘I hate it when people come up to me and say, “How’s the music going?” I tell them to f*** off; David was lovely about it’ – and makes me laugh when she tells me what she did when she met Justin Timberlake. ‘I wanted to say, “I love you, let’s get married and have children,” but instead I just barked at him, woof. I always bark at boys when I fancy them.’
It turns out she has crushes all the time. ‘I fall in love every day with someone, really easily.’ (Her ideal men are Colin Firth and Michael Bublé.)
Is she with anyone now? ‘No. I had a relationship last summer that was rubbish, more of a fling. At least it will make a good record. I can’t write songs when I’m out being happy.’
She tells me the boy from the summer said he was going to try to sell his story. ‘I am like, what? Any story there is I have already told; read the lyrics.’
Her album 19 was all about one boy. He cheated on her. She dumped him. She won’t name him. ‘I got an album out of him. I used him more than he used me.’
I imagine she might find it hard now, meeting someone. They would either be put off by her honesty, or attracted to her fame and money. ‘I never date people I don’t know.’ She is confident of her own attractiveness to men. ‘If my husband called me fat, I’d murder him.’
‘I wanted to say to Justin Timberlake, “I love you, let’s get married and have children,” but instead I just barked at him, woof. I always bark at boys when I fancy them’
She is a strange mixture, though, Adele. One minute old beyond her years, the next like a child. One moment super confident, the next saying, ‘I puke before every gig.’ She doesn’t even believe she is that great a singer: ‘I can tell when my voice is s***, but I don’t have an opinion when it’s good.’
I ask what the worst aspect of the job is, apart from not being with her friends. ‘Drugs. Coke is everywhere. It would be so easy to fall into it. I am an addictive personality: if I start something I don’t stop. 'I smoke 30 cigarettes a day, I drank a lot in the past. I know I would go on to other things and I don’t want that. A close family member died from heroin so I’m frightened of it.’
And the best? ‘My nephews are so cute – they’re like, “You live in my TV!”’
I wager writing her second album will be much harder than the first. ‘I get annoyed when all singers write about is cars, limos, hotels, boring stuff like missing home, complaining. I have a real life to write about.’
Would she scupper a relationship in order to write better, more angst-ridden songs? ‘Not yet, maybe about ten records in. If something is only all right, I make it into a bad thing. I won’t if it’s really good.’