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Lady Sovereign, Britain's out lesbian rapper

Bratty rapper Lady Sovereign was better known in the USA than her home country, until she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in 2010. During her brief stint on the show she came out publicly. She talks to Jane Czyzselska about the pressures of fame, her mother’s tragic recent death and pulling straight girls.

Thu, 14 Apr 2011 17:35:06 GMT | Updated 5 years today

Lady Sovereign is sitting sculpture still in Soho's fashionable Profile bar while make-artist Nikki paints her eyelids coal black. 'You know what?  Do what you want,' Sov tells Nikki. Sov's best mate and hairstylist, Sean Nolan, who's been especially requested by Sov for the cover shoot, remarks that in the past she's been a bit of a madam with hair and makeup artists. Today she's sweetness itself and as we chat before the shoot, she comes across as measured, funny and candid. Not at all the trouble-maker I'm expecting, although as she warms up she admits to stealing an ex girlfriend's car a few years ago after a painful break-up that she sings about on her second album, Jigsaw. (She assures me she eventually returned it.) Then there's the night she spent in a police cell after a fight with a transvestite in a gay club in Brisbane, Australia. I can't picture the five foot one waif wreaking much havoc although she does admit to spitting on one of the security guards. 'I was being proper manhandled but they made like I was the wildest animal going,' she explains.
We get a taste of her cheeky side when she has a hissy fit about wearing a tribal jump-suit we've selected. She harrumphs off upstairs for a calming ciggie, muttering under her breath, 'No wonder people won't work with me'. When she returns she apologises and jokes about dry-humping the Tatty Devine accessories displayed on a table. Has she deliberately cultivated her bad girl image? 'No, I'm really not. Unless I've got about six Sambuccas inside me. I've kind of cleaned up my act a little but I used to be a bit boisterous. I still am a bit but I'm not as wreckless as I used to be. It's time to focus on myself and be a bit more sensible rather than make money, sit on my arse, spend it and start again. I've made that mistake a few times.'

First Lady of Grime at 20
At just 20 years old Sov was signed to Jay-Z's Def Jam label. The launch of her debut album was heralded by a 60 foot Times Square billboard. As the first British - and white -  female star to be signed to the legendary record label, the young rap star from north London seemed poised for stardom. For the launch of her first single, Love Me Or Hate Me - a gently self-deprecating soliloquy about her apparently 'unladylike' ways - the rap puppet-master suspended Sov from a giant crane over Times Square. The track was hugely successful in the US and with it she kick-started her career. Jay-Z dubbed her Mighty Mouse and the music press hailed her as a major newcomer on the hip-hop and grime scenes. Touring and creating new material in her adopted homeland in the constant glare of media, far from friends and family, Sov seemed to thrive on the challenge of life as a high roller and the manifold accolades from her growing fanbase. One San Francisco fan even raised $10,000 so he could take her out on a date on a yacht. Something about the mouthy, maverick singer was grabbing America by the nasties. On tour, she became friendly with Gwen Stefani, recorded sessions with Pharrell and the Beastie Boys. She even performed on the high-profile David Letterman TV show. It wasn't long before she had shifted over a million units of Love Me Or Hate Me. In short; the girl was hot.

From High Roller to Hamster Wheel
Hot-headed, some would say, and as the hard slog of life as a high roller began to take its toll, Sov started to crack. The biog on her website poignantly tells her story: 'I would storm out of things, I would refuse, pull sickies, I'd just lock myself in a hotel at the end of the day, not want to go out. Not want to see anyone. Just sit there and cry. It was horrible. Just bad. I was falling apart. I really was. I had suicidal thoughts. I was somewhere else. I was really frustrated with how things were going and I was really bored. It sounds a bit ungrateful but it was just the same old routine. I almost feel sorry for some big stars because I'm sure they have to do what they're told to, whether they like to admit it or not, because that's the way it was for me for a while. I'm not going to work my socks off for other people I'll do it for myself so if I start getting burnt out I'll stop and that's the bottom line really.'

Why did you separate from Def Jam? Did they drop you?
I stopped doing stuff and they just got frustrated with me because I wasn't really working as hard as other artists normally do, so it was kinda like done. I kind of hid away from it all, said I couldn't do it any more and broke down and they didn't hear from me for a bit.
Do you think your breakdown was anything to do with having to hide your sexuality?
No, I don't think it was anything to do with that. I was just overworked a little bit for what I could handle at the time. Oh, well. It happens

Somewhat inevitably Sov hit up some therapists and after shutting herself away from pretty much everyone apart from a counsellor, she was back in the studio within months. Released in 2009 on her own label, Midget Records, her second album Jigsaw was panned by critics who simply didn't 'get' her. Rolling Stone described her clever track Food Sex, in which she lampoons sexist Hagen Dazs ads, as 'inexplicable'. Peaking at 45 in the UK charts, worldwide sales of Jigsaw were 50,000 compared to 28 and 320,000 for her first album, Public Warning.

Celebrity Big Brother
More successful in America than in Britain, she considerably raised her UK profile during her time in the Celebrity Big Brother house in January of this year where she finally decided to come out. It was a brave move, especially considering that few hip-hop household names are open about their sexuality. 'I didn't tell anyone straight up but the first person to [mention it] was Nic she said, 'So, are you gay?' and I'm like, 'Er, yeaaaaaahh', but I didn't just want to be, like, yeah. You know what I mean? It was a little bit awkward because I felt like people would think I was using it to my advantage but it didn't really get me far anyway. They should have thrown me in something to play with though, like a chick. I feel good about it though. I get a lot more attention now from the ladies.'
Sov has no regrets about coming out on CBB despite being vilified as a lazy brat by fellow housemates Vinnie Jones and Stephanie Beacham, of which she says: 'The coverage was fair but they didn't show the whole story, they'd have a go at me for eating an egg or corned beef and I was like, 'Are you serious?' I probably ate the least out of everyone. Alex (Reid) stole my chicken, so I didn't even get chicken for dinner. They never showed that.' Another thing they didn't show, much to her chagrin, was footage of her hoovering up in a bikini top and jeans. 'I wanted to show off my assets!' Did she fancy Katia? 'No, but she fancied me though.' Seriously? 'Well, you know. I know she did for a bit but Katia is a funny girl. I don't think she can help herself half the time but no she's not my type.' Her type, in case you were wondering, is usually straight - 'A lot of girls I've been with are straight and then its, you know, conversion. I've obviously been with gay girls but it's more of a challenge when they're straight, innit? They don't know what they're doing, so it's fun.'
She likes brunettes and redheads; 'Someone who is passionate about their life, someone who has their head screwed on. I like funny people who you can tease and end up having a laugh about it. I met a Russian barmaid the other day. Yeah, she's alright.'

Have you got any crushes?
Oh, don't! My latest crush is Kim Kardashian. There's just something about her; she's cute, bless her. She's probably got a really dry personality. I've got weird crushes.
Stephanie Beacham?
Yeah right, yeah, she's a hag.
I quite liked her at the start but she did seem to have a mean streak, didn't she?
I just think she's got problems, to be honest. I dunno what's wrong with her. The last day of Big Brother, there was so much tension between certain people, specially Stephanie and Ivana, and they wouldn't come near me at all because I think they knew what they'd said in there and they were scared, or just felt like dicks. 
Are you seeing someone at the moment?
No; I'm waiting to see someone. Someone gets back in a few weeks. But I can't see that working out. [And] I've met so many people since. I just met someone recently a few days ago. Maybe I should just mingle a bit but I've been trying to stop myself. I've been waiting for my ex to get back. She's been on a job for five months.

Sov - born Louise Harman - first realised she was gay in her mid-teens. Although she'd had her fair share of boyfriends by the time she was 16, her older sister Chloe started asking her questions when Sov began to bring girls back to the family home in north London. 'She used to be horrible to me but everyone's fine about it now.' Coming out to her friends first, she admits she usually ended up fancying them. 'It was really bad. So in order to have a chance of even like getting there, you have to say something, and I always used to convert a lot straight girls - I still do.'
Until now Sov has kept quiet about her sexuality, out of fear rather than a desire for privacy. 'Magazines would always ask about it but [questions about my sexuality] would get stopped by my publicists. It was my choice, too, because I was a bit worried about it but now I don't really give a shit. You can't hide away forever. It's just stupid and now I've come out I feel a lot more comfortable with myself. But it was a bit scary back then because some people do have horrible opinions.'

If you were to bump into Jay-Z would you feel you could be open about your sexuality now?
I'd ask him to go and tell Rhianna, if she wants to have a go… No, I'm kidding. I'm fine with it but I haven't been to America for a while. I haven't seen people but I kinda keep myself to myself. A lot of my friends are, like, they're not famous.

I ask her if she can explain why she's been more successful in the US than in her native England and she seems unsure of the reason. She reckons it might be because of the chavvy look she rocked when she started out. I wonder if she's a square peg in a round hole. Most successful women in hip-hop - actually let's make that popular music, period - tend to dress and present as conventionally feminine. Even though many of the top names in the business are rumoured to be lesbian, they dress like, ahem, ladies. Sov, by contrast, looks like your typical andro-hipster dyke in her skinny jeans, hi-top sneakers, baggy tee, Shane do, baseball cap and thick-rimmed geek specs. Not a look that's favoured by the mostly male music business svengalis. Music critics might not rate her 'difficult' second album but it's chock full of catchy tunes, wry observation and moving heartbreak, set to a soundtrack that spans the genres from hip-hop to grime and ska. Its gritty and humorous - two emotional tones that are not considered particularly 'feminine'. What's more, I've heard a lot worse that's risen higher in the charts thanks to whopping great marketing budgets, the like of which I imagine Midget doesn't quite have yet.

Growing up, fighting back
It's two weeks since Sov's 43-year-old mum Nicola died - on Mother's Day - from a brain tumour and Sov is clearly devastated. How is she coping since she passed? 'I cope OK until I think about her laying in the ground and then that's when its not nice. I didn't expect her to go so soon. Do you know what I mean? It's kind of not a shock but it's just like, I don't even know, I wish there was something I could have done about it.'

But there's nothing you could have done
No. Everyone has their time she ain't suffering no more and that's the one thing that keeps my mind kinda cool.
And you have a good bunch of mates around you now?
You got a lot of your musical inspiration from her, didn't you?
Yeah, 'cause she listened to pretty much everything. I got into lots of genres because of her, because of what she used to play and since she passed away I've thought about it even more. She was such a creative, strong person and I'm like that. I've had my weak points and I've broken down before but I know I'm a strong, creative person. You know? I realise that now.

It's testament to her self-belief and fighting spirit that Sov is here with us today - our shoot was rescheduled to take place after her mum's funeral. The self-proclaimed 'biggest midget in the game' has seen good times and bad times but she's quietly optimistic about the future. 'There [was] a gap between the first and second album, and a couple of years [since then], so I've grown up a bit. I need to start doing something now. Fuck knows what this album is going to sound like. I never know what direction I'm going in. I've done a couple of songs but what's happened recently has got me a bit down. Once I pick myself up, though, I know the album will be interesting.'


You ask the questions

Do you go to lesbian clubs much? Jenny, London
Ha, yeah! My men friends hate it cause there's no men for them there. I go anywhere really. I went to a good club called Curves the other week, which a friend of mine runs. There were five of us - all my company were males. Women everywhere. It was weird.

Where are your typical hangout places? Beau, Manchester
I've only been to Curves once. Soho or East London.

Do you get recognised a lot now? Oriel, Hove
I get recognised and get a little bit of attention but I don't like pulling people when I'm out.

Have you never used GaydarGirls? Hannah, Kettering
What's that? No. A lot of girls (I meet) are straight to be honest and then you know;  conversion. I've obviously gone with gay girls but its more of a challenge when they're straight and they don't know what they're doing so it's fun.

What kind of girls are you into? Jasmine Branca
Cheryl Cole is alright. No one would say no to her but I don't really have crushes. I don't have a type. They vary. I like them not too tall because it just doesn't work. Kissing and the rest of it. I'm five foot one and a tiny bit.

Where do you get your clothes from? Kim Driver, Lewes
Lazyoaf, Kid Robot, Adidas, Year Zero.

Do you like gingers? Hildi, Devon
I used to think gingers were mingers but as the years go on I've seen the beauty of them.

How do you feel about being a role-model for young gay girls? Chrissie, London
I dunno. I'm just not perfect, that's all. If I'm someone's role model, I am, but I'm not setting out to be.

Have you got any female icons? Lara, Bradford
I dunno. Myself. I don't have icons.

When will we hear new material from you? Gail, Crawley
Maybe this year. At some point hopefully, probably.


Has the Big Brother house changed you in any way? Jo Inglis-Lyons
I've got a bit more confident just cause people have seen me on the telly every day for two weeks, so when someone approaches me I feel they know a little bit more what to expect.
Why didn't you make it clearer you were queer on BB, as in saying, 'actually I'm GAY!' or similar? Ms Gillespie
I did, they just didn't show it and they showed a tapping on the surface. I said to Nicola or Katia: 'I'm gay, I like girls', but they didn't show it.
You must have fancied Katia (though not really girlf. material). Do you wish now you had made more of an effort to convert her to the pink triangle, even if it was just for better TV ratings? Ms Gilliespie
No, not really. We're really good friends and I'm glad it stayed that way, plus she and Jonas were knocking around a lot in the house. But she did stare at me in the house. I did pick up on it.

Did she say anything to you? DIVA
Maybe. Outside.

Did you care what we thought of you after your time in the CBB house? Henri, Salford
Not really. Do you know what they didn't show? I'm really surprised they didn't and I'm sure if someone else had done it they would've shown it but they knew I was getting camera-time, so they didn't want to show it. I started hoovering up in my jeans and a bikini top and that's it. I'm disappointed they didn't. I wanted to show my assets.

Watching Big Brother it seemed that Vinnie decided who he didn't like and set off a bullying campaign against them with the other housemates and, lo and behold, they ended up getting evicted. Did you get this feeling when you were in house? Morgan, Barry, South Wales
Oh yeah, of course, and they were all intimidated by him. Not me, though.


Photography and Art Direction
Matthew Miles and Konrad Wyrebek
Make-up Nikki Wolff at Naked artists
Hair Sean Nolan
Photography assistant Magda Bondos
Location Profile Bar/Diner, 84-86 Wardour Street, London W1F
visit for gay speed-dating events




This article first appeared DIVA magazine, June 2010

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