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A Life Less Ordinary

23 February 2016, 09:00
Words by Lauren Franklin
Original Photography by Wunmi Onibudo

Vanessa White steps out of The Saturdays and into the bright light of doing it alone. She tells Lauren Franklin about the journey so far.

Vanessa White isn’t like other pop stars. She’s a mass of contradictions, yet each one is as genuine as the last.

As a seasoned pro of nine years, she’s in the habit of choosing some of her answers carefully, but as she strives for authenticity in her solo work and life, it’s impossible for her not to give the whole truth. She’s funny, blunt, sensitive and sincere, and manages to be completely effervescent yet contained at the same time - perhaps only the way someone thrown into such mature and disciplined situations at such a young age can be.

Despite being very clearly grateful for every opportunity that has come her way, the 26-year-old hasn’t had an easy ride, battling with identity, insecurity and feelings of inadequacy when she joined The Saturdays at just 17, but she admits that without the “dark times”, she wouldn’t be who she is now. Which all evidence points to being a new, exciting, well-rounded solo artist.

This week sees releases the release of her debut EP, Chapter One, and it really has been back to the drawing board for White. The result is pitch-perfect, addictive R&B.

We meet at brand new restaurant and bar 100 Wardour St in the heart of Soho. It’s dark, noisy, undeniably cool, and the perfect setting for us to talk about our mutual raison d'être - food - alongside White's life from chapter one, all the way up to Chapter One.

Starter: Crispy squid with chilli and lime, Roasted sweet peppers with garlic and anchovy, Crab and smoke bulgur salad, Quinoa salad with dried cranberries and hazelnuts

“Food is everything in my life”, Vanessa tells me without a hint of exaggeration, as we take a moment to admire the four starters we’ve ordered. “My day is always based around what I’m going to eat for lunch… then what I’m having next. It’s always been a big thing in my life. I grew up on my mum’s Filipino food, which was all very meat-based. She’d only been living in England a short while before she had me, so at the time it was all she could cook. Thank god, because she’s awful - seriously terrible at making any British food!

“You know, as a kid, I didn’t realise how lucky I was, I’d always go to friends’ houses and eat chicken nuggets and chips, which I thought was so weird, but I loved it. I’d then go home and complain to my poor mum that that’s what I wanted her to make.”

Well, you can’t knock the beauty of the simple nugget. How are you at cooking?

“I love cooking, I’m really into it. Although I stopped eating meat nine months ago, so I haven’t exactly found my new speciality yet.”

Why would you do a thing like that?

“This is really silly, I have nothing against meat and I always say that if I want to eat it, I will. I have had a few nights when I’m like ‘Sod it, I’m going to eat it.’ My boyfriend [menswear stylist Gary Salter] and I live together, and he loves animals and watched a documentary that convinced him to become vegetarian. I initially cut down because I’m the cook, but the more I didn’t eat it the more I didn’t want it. I never thought in a million years that I would be that person, because I loved meat so much.”

Is there anything you miss?

Chicken. At the weekend I made a roast for some family and I couldn’t make them eat nut roast, so I got some chicken and really seasoned it. When I took it out the oven, I was like, ‘Shit, it’s falling off the bone, it looks insane.’”

Vanessa White by Wunmi Onibudo

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

“I don’t believe on depriving myself of anything I love, but I’ve changed the way I feel about food, and I like to find healthier ways to eat ‘bad’ things. There are these amazing chocolate truffles called Booja-Booja which are dairy and gluten free, and honestly they’ve changed my life! Then there’s mac and cheese… If that’s in front of me then there might as well be no one else in the room.”

“I’m so much more involved than I ever have been, but I love it because everything is coming from me, it’s all fitting in with what artist I want to be.”

White's parents met when her father was in the Philippines. “He was on holiday, it was bizarre. They’re not together anymore,” is all she says on the matter, and her mother soon moved to the UK to live in Yeovil, Somerset.

“I was born there, but we didn’t stay there for long, it was isolating for my mum, very isolating. She had friends in East London, so we moved to Plaistow shortly after I started infant school.”

I wonder if even at such a young age whether Vanessa noticed a contrast between Yeovil and the East End, and she laughs. “I was the only brown person in Somerset which was really weird. When I started infant school I had really, really curly brown hair and I remember asking, ‘Why is everyone’s hair straight?’ And then I came to East London and I was like, ‘Yeah cool, this is right!’ But it was a very strange change to go through at that age.”

Do you get to visit the Philippines often?

“I’ve actually just got back, I went for a month over Christmas and New Year. Honestly – I’m so pro-Philippines, so I’m not just saying this, but in a few years, it’s not gonna be the same. I know it. I can see it. It’s going to be so commercialised and it’s really breaking my heart. They’re building an international airport on one of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever seen, called El Nido, so people are going to be able to fly right in. At the moment it’s difficult because the Philippines are made up of over 7,000 islands which can be hard to travel between. But in the next two years you will be able to get a plane from the UK straight to El Nido, which I know will just change the place. Honestly, it’s breath-taking, but now they’ve built all these hotels along the beach and they’re extending the land, so I’m happy that I’ve seen it all before it became so touristy. Despite that, I had the absolute best holiday, and the food – you can’t compete with it, it’s so fresh and natural.”

Was it difficult to eat there seeing as you’re a newly-initiated veggie?

“I was a bit nervous before we left, as I was taking Gary with me too, but so many of their speciality dishes are fish, so we were absolutely fine. I went with my mum to see all our family, and they cooked something that was honestly, one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. It looked like barbecued lamb or pork, but it was tuna barbecued to that colour, I didn’t believe it was fish. It was tuna like I can’t even explain, and I don’t even know what it was, just it was amazing.”

When I ask White if her Filipino family get excited about being related to a pop star, she slightly diverts answering. “They’re so cute, I’ve got such a huge family, I’m literally related to so many people there, I don’t even know all of them, my mum is like one of thirteen, I’m not joking, I’ll be in her village and she’ll be like, ‘Oh that’s your cousin, and that’s your second cousin!’”

Trying again, I ask if they know who The Saturdays are. She cracks and gives me a quick answer, before turning the subject back to her family. “They do! They love it – they love a photo! But they’re so sweet. I spent a lot of time with my younger cousins and honestly we had the best time. My boyfriend met all of my family and he loved it because he was the tallest one there! It was really amazing.”

And that’s something you soon notice about White: while she’s happy to talk about her work, her ambitions and passion for what she does, when it comes to speaking about her own fame, she becomes very modest, almost uncomfortable. But more on that later. Now back to London.

Vanessa White by Wunmi Onibudo

Main Course: Coal fired, garlic chicken, seared cod, artichoke, tomato and lemon

At 13-years-old White was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School “There’s no way my parents could have afforded it otherwise. I was always obsessed with singing. I had this obsession with Celine Dion. I loved her so much that my little sister is called Celine because of me, and I was so proud that I’d named her.”

Despite stage school sounding like it’s all dancing down corridors that echo with the joyous noise of musical theatre numbers, it wasn’t an easy way of life for the teen: “I went to primary school in Plaistow and had the best time there, but when I started at Sylvia Young it all changed. I was doing the commute across London every day, I look back and think, ‘Wow, that’s such a long way to go’ and the first couple of times I got lost and had a huge panic, but soon after I went from not knowing anything about the tube, to knowing every stop on every line. I became independent very quickly.”

"I was the shortest one, I had frizzy hair, I just didn’t fit in. Everyone was tall and slim, I was just very ordinary.'

What was it like a Sylvia Young?

“I had a good time, I’m still friends with a handful of people I went there with. You make friends for life, but there were only a few who I really gelled with. It was filled with really annoying stage school children.”

Was it very jazz hands-y? You don’t strike me as a jazz hands person.

“No! I wasn’t that person! So I clashed a lot with people who were like that. I was really bad at school though, I was constantly getting into trouble. I was a chatterbox, so I’d get sent out for talking too much, then I’d have a row with someone because it was so strict. On vocational days you had to wear black trainers, and you couldn’t have any white bits on them, but I had the Reebok Workouts with light reflectors up the side, and I remember Sylvia chasing me up the stairs, so I had to change my shoes. I get it now, but as a child I just didn’t.

“It was a strange environment, like an old church and there were only 150 people in the whole school, everyone knew everyone in every year, everyone knew everything about everyone, it was weird. Even all the parents knew everything. But I loved it at the same time. I knew I wanted to go there from such a young age, and it was such a big thing.”

Did you work while you were there?

“Sylvia’s is predominantly musical theatre, and when I first started I played the young Nala in Lion King. I used to get to skip school sometimes to perform in the shows.”

Did you get paid for that?

“Yeah! So basically I ended up having quite a lot of money at 13 and I remember just spunking it on stuff like phone credit and buying random things for my friends. I was best mates with the guy who played Simba and he did exactly the same thing, we laugh about it now. One day I would like get back into theatre, I love the acting element of it.”

Vanessa White by Wunmi Onibudo

Were the school lunches impressive?

“Oh god no, it was awful. Awful! I don’t even understand. I used to eat cheese and bean toasties most days. That’s gross. After school at Marylebone station we’d go to the bagel shop or Burger King, then I’d go home and I’d have dinner on top of that. I genuinely don’t know why I wasn’t obese as a child. It must have been because we were dancing for eight hours every Thursday and Friday. It’s changed massively now, it’s like Glee there now, I went back there a couple of years ago and it was a completely different place.”

By the time she was 16, White’s days at theatre school were over. While it was a natural progression for her classmates to move on to dance or acting college, White had no interest in continuing to study. “All I wanted was a record deal.” So she worked tirelessly, auditioning at all the major labels for that elusive deal, and although her ambition was unrelenting, she was starkly aware of the realities of the business, which meant when The Saturdays audition came up, she was hardly practicing her autograph.

“The labels were quite familiar with me already, especially Polydor, but when I was asked to do an audition for The Sats and I was going on my first holiday with my friends. The casting agent was like, ‘You have to cancel your holiday’, but I was doing auditions all of the time, so absolutely refused to cancel a holiday for an audition I probably wasn’t even gonna get. To be honest, by that point I’d done so many that I thought it would probably never happen. So I sent in a video audition instead, and somehow got called back for the next stage after the holiday, and suddenly there were just seven of us, and then five. I don’t know how I did it, but I skipped the whole process of thousands of people.”

Was there any part of you that wished you were going solo when you got in the band?

“I was just happy to be performing. I had the best time.”

Did you get taken out for a fancy meal when you got signed?

“No! They didn’t do anything! I think we got a really shit end of the deal! No one took us anywhere, I would love to sit here and say that they did. I may have forgotten but I’m 100% certain they didn’t take us out.”

The label must have treated you do some nice meals over the years though?

“When we got our first number one and we went to Zuma and had a private room, it was so memorable and special because it was just us and everyone who had worked with us. That was definitely my favourite restaurant experience with the girls and everyone.”

Scott Mills once told me that he met you and the band for dinner and David Hasselhoff gate-crashed…

“That was a really weird time. We were at a sushi restaurant in LA, and yeah, Scott was there and suddenly David Hasselhoff appeared with the vest tops for each of us that had his face on and ‘Don’t Hassle The Hoff’ in Swarovski crystals. To be honest, I was just bobbing along with everything, I didn’t really know what was going on. But he just sat there blabbing on at us, and then when the bill came he got up and left, so our manager had to pay his bill. We were so confused.”

That’s quite possibly my favourite story. Have you ever had any other odd celeb restaurant experiences?

“I was in LA and I flew my mum out for her birthday. We were in Katana on Sunset Blvd, when Bruno Mars walked in and sat on the table next to us. And I couldn’t even tell my mum that Bruno Mars was sat there, as I knew she would have 100% gone up to him and asked for a photo. I would’ve been so embarrassed. I just couldn’t go and see him, I was just watching him the whole time. I’d have died if my mum went over to him.”

You know, I can’t imagine being 17 and living that life.

“It was weird. I had no idea who I was at 17, I was trying to be like all these different people and at one point I felt like I was trying to fit in with the girls and I just didn’t feel like I fitted in for such a long time. I was the shortest one, I had frizzy hair, I just didn’t fit in. Everyone was tall and slim, I was just very ordinary.”

When I tell White that she’s very far from being ordinary, there seems to be a huge side of her that actually really craves to be so. “I just feel like no matter what I do, I am ordinary. I don’t see why it should be any different anyway, I just feel like – I hate to say this because it sounds so clichéd, ‘but I’m normal’ not that anyone else isn’t, but I don’t know how to word it. But I always felt like I am.”

I mean, there are a lot of dickheads in the industry, you’re certainly not one of those, so I suppose you’re ‘normal’ in that respect…

“I’m always conscious of that. I’ve seen so much arrogance. And you can’t survive being like that in this industry, so I’d never want to fall into that trap. I felt normal, that’s how I felt when I was in there. But sometimes being the normal person is the best thing you can be.”

“I’m an old soul and that comes from going to stage school and travelling on my own.”

It sounds like you had some tough times in The Saturdays.

“Don’t get me wrong, I loved being in the band. We had brilliant times, and so many fantastic opportunities, but I think it was because I was so much younger and trying to find my own way, I did struggle. I had no idea who I was.

“In the beginning there wasn’t Twitter or anything like that, and when it came out I totally backed off because I was at a place in my life where I wasn’t happy with who I was, so I wasn’t happy in general. I was so unhappy with my image, that it was quite dark at one stage, it really was. I feel like I’ve been to that dark place, and I feel like a lot of it was because I was so young and I was still trying to learn things about myself.

“It was weird, I missed home... I can’t even describe it, it was just a weird time, but I’m so happy and so grateful that it happened as I know without it I wouldn’t be this person now. I feel like I’m in such a good place and I feel so much more like [pauses]. People have to go through that to be the person they’re meant to be.”

Did the other girls know you felt insecure?

“I don’t know. I’m the youngest, but there are people in there who aren’t that much older than me, so I never felt like I was the baby. I’m an old soul and that comes from going to stage school and travelling on my own.”

Are you happy it happened at a young age?

“Well I don’t know any other way. I guess I am because I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now. It could have been different. So you have to accept it.”

This may sound like White is resentful of her time, or not on good terms with her band mates, but this couldn’t be further from the truth, and from the anecdotes she shares, it’s clear that their bond is from a very genuine place.

“Right now it’s so weird as I was so used to being with all of them for the longest period of time and honestly, I could go to each and every one of them with any different problem. Our favourite thing to do when we were travelling was just being in the car together, we loved it. It would just be us and our tour manager, and no one else. We would have these conversations that would just go on and on and on… and that’s when anything and everything would get aired out, and we’d always be in hysterics, saying, ‘Can you imagine if someone heard what we were speaking about?!’”

I’ve always felt that line was always the mark of true friendship.

Vanessa White by Wunmi Onibudo

Dessert: Chocolate ganache, crunch, milk ice cream, Izu’s French toast, tonka bean ice cream

After nine years The Saturdays are on a break to pursue separate projects, while the others are moving away from music, White has kept her feet firmly in the studio. She’s just released her first EP, aptly titled Chapter One, which takes her away from the pop-by-numbers of her girl band and back to her R&B roots. Channelling key players such as Janet Jackson and Brandy, her solo material seamlessly sounds credibly nostalgic, yet bang up-to-date. It’s like the music she should always have been making, “I feel it’s been a lifetime coming,” she tells me. “It’s the music I listened to growing up. Although if you’d told me last year I’d be here now, I never would have believed you.”

The new music sounds completely different from The Saturdays, but still incredibly authentic.

“That’s so important to me, because sometimes people stray from a sound that’s not natural to them and it’s so see-through. This whole project I’ve been very wary, because as much as I love R&B, I still want it to sound British. I want to keep that British fullness to it and be real, because people know when it’s not. I can see through an artist and feel like it’s not real when they’re trying to do something else, so it’s so important that I make songs that I 100% like.”

That’s a really refreshing approach. Do you feel like you’ve established your identity as a solo artist?

“I really do. I feel so comfortable, I’m the most comfortable I’ve ever been. It’s so weird, I feel like it’s all just come together nicely so far. It’s going the way it needs to go.”

Your new, more stripped-back look is making tabloid headlines…

“It’s a weird thing. I’m so used to being around the other girls and having so much makeup on. I was always that person who wanted more, more, more, because when you’re young that’s what you think. But then it got to the point when I wasn’t doing that and I had a free year and actually I didn’t need to wear that much makeup. I was just getting on the tube to the studio and I didn’t need those big lashes, it’s a lot of effort to do as well. It’s nice not to have to do that.”

There can often be a battle between the artist and the label over image, how much control do you have?

All the control. I recently moved management, I just felt I needed a clean slate and to start again and have new eyes. I’m so much more involved than I ever have been, but I love it because everything is coming from me, it’s all fitting in with what artist I want to be.”

Sid you ever wish you could make more of a stamp creatively or have more of a say in The Saturdays ?

“There were moments of that, we did have a say in certain things and we did get more involved towards the end, but I wasn’t involved like I am now.”

Was that frustrating?

“Yes and no, because as much as I loved performing, the music wasn’t me, it was The Sats, and you have to embrace that and realise there are other people in the group. I was happy to be there. When you’re in a group there are four other people to consider and the direction you’re heading in. It wasn’t all our individual tastes, because we all were completely different and liked completely different things, but it was what worked and I liked it for that aspect. But now it’s a completely different thing...just being in the studio all the time and meeting new people all the time.”

Are there things you didn’t anticipate?

“Being so involved. It’s not about anyone else apart from me, which sounds a bit selfish!”

It doesn’t! Talk me through the songs

“'Nostalgia' is about when I used to live on my own five years ago before I met Gary. I really enjoyed the alone time. I just used to sit there and play my music, open a bottle of wine and reminisce about whatever. I think a lot of women do that, I hope they do.

“And 'Don’t Wanna Be Your Lover' is… I kinda laugh at all the titles actually. For instance, 'Relationship Goals' was inspired by the fact that people always put that on my timeline when they see pictures of me and Gary.”

“I’m so much more involved than I ever have been, but I love it because everything is coming from me, it’s all fitting in with what artist I want to be.”

I’m curious to know whether Gary inspires a lot of her songs, but White just creases up. Just like the kid who was not about the jazz hands, she’s not the adult who can easily do sentimentality. After erupting into laughter, she finally tells me: “Sorry that really makes me laugh, as I’m really not that kind of person, so I just find it funny! I’m just weird! I die a bit. I’m just not that girl. I’m really not. I can’t even help it, I’m so weird.”

OK, you can’t do the corny stuff, but there are some artists who say they can only create when they’re going through, or have recently experienced pain. You’re really happy right now – is that a bit of an annoyance?!

“Right. Because I feel like I’m in happy place, sometimes I do think it is harder because I can’t relate to it for the ‘right now’, but I’ve been through dark times in the past, so I can always pull from that. And you can still relate to things, I mean, Don’t Wanna Be Your Lover, isn’t my song, but it’s still my words, I relate to it so much.”

Can you only sing the songs if they feel like they’re your words?

“Yeah, because even if it’s not my song, I have to connect with it in a certain way. I have to portray the emotion, because if I don’t fall in love with a song, then I can’t do it. It can still totally define me. And that’s what I love about "Don’t Wanna Be Your Lover" because that’s where I was in my life. I was single for two years and at the time I did not care. I genuinely did not care whether I found anyone or not, and I think that’s why I found someone. I say that to all my friends. You just can’t search you just have to enjoy it. I think people are drawn to people who are happy and comfortable with their lives. People can smell desperation a mile away and it’s not attractive!”

Will there be a Chapter Two?

“There will be a Chapter Two next, and then hopefully an album. But it’s hard to say, I’m taking one step at a time.”

As we get up to leave, she shows me the Whatsapp group chat The Saturdays have, named “The Sats”, obvs.

“Hang on, let me show you the bants from the conversation the other day: What changed from 2008 from 2009? This was our first photoshoot in 2008...”

It’s a harshly lit picture of five awkward, slightly shiny faced girls, who don’t know how to pose. I refuse to believe it’s them.

“Fuck my life, I know, worst thing ever in the world. Now look at 2009…”

The image is flawless, I’m speechless. “We don’t know what happened!”

Seriously, what did happen?

“I don’t know! Oh, actually… I think Rankin did the second photoshoot. Yeah, that’s what happened He shot our calendar. That’s the difference. I should have said that.”

Oh Vanessa, never change.

The Chapter One EP is out now. Vanessa White plays her first headline show at Cargo on 16 March.
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