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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
You got a lot of your musical inspiration from her, didn't
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
You ask the questions
Do you go to lesbian clubs much? Jenny,
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,
I've only been to Curves once. Soho or East London.
Do you get recognised a lot now? Oriel,
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,
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
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,
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,
I dunno. Myself. I don't have icons.
When will we hear new material from you? Gail,
Maybe this year. At some point hopefully, probably.
Has the Big Brother house changed you in any way? Jo
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
Did she say anything to you? DIVA
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,
Oh yeah, of course, and they were all intimidated by him. Not me,
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 profilesoho.com for gay speed-dating events
This article first appeared DIVA magazine, June