Tulisa was eleven years old when she formed N-Dubz with her older cousin Dappy and their mate Fazer. She was living in a council flat in Camden at the time, caring for her mum at home who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, while also being badly bullied at school. By her own admission, she was a “lost and unhappy young girl”, but the band gave her a renewed sense of purpose and, from then on, she became fixated upon the idea that she would one day make it. In her words, “Whatever happened prior to [N-Dubz] felt like the dark phase of the movie. I spent the whole time constantly praying, ‘Please let music be my way out, please let it turn my life around.’ I just knew there had to be more.”
In the early 2000s, around the same time N-Dubz formed, mainstream “urban” music from the UK was going through a dry patch. UK Garage was being tainted by police shutdowns and on the cusp of decline, the first seeds of grime had yet to flower properly, and major labels were under the impression that urban acts from the UK simply didn’t sell. Once artists like So Solid Crew and Craig David had fizzled out, there were very few examples of UK urban music making commercial traction, so the music that was being made began to flourish away from the charts, and in the underground instead. Over the next few years, grime made its stamp via sweaty basement clashes, pirate radio stations, and Channel U. And soon enough, the melodic, ferocious hip-hop that N-Dubz was creating found its place off the back of that London scene, and mainstream success bloomed soon after.
Over a decade later, I’m sat facing Tulisa in a room in her PR’s office, which is tucked away down a quiet street in Soho. After the difficult past few years that she’s had – and more on that later – I had expected her to be press-trained within an inch of her life, cagey even, but instead she greets me by planting a firm kiss on both cheeks. “Let’s sit with our chairs closer together,” she says, smiling and dragging a heavy leather chair across the room to face me, our feet almost touching. She smells like perfume and shampoo, there’s a bowler hat perched on her head, and she has the bright-eyed, calm look of a person who has slept well.
“I felt like I had achieved my dream, and it just gave me a whole new lease of life, like I had a reason to be here,” she tells me, recalling the positive impact that N-Dubz had on her life back then. “After tons of record label meetings and disappointments and people bullshitting us, it finally happened for us. We were like a theatre show through music, because we’d tell stories and we’d be arguing with each other in our records. We reached out to people, we spoke the truth, we spoke from our hearts – people could relate to that. They could listen to an N-Dubz record and it would be speaking their mind. There had been nothing like us out there since So Solid, who our generation had grown up listening to.”
Tulisa’s right: there was nothing like N-Dubz at the time, and they were genuinely brilliant. Instead of toning down their working class roots to appease the masses, they made music that articulated actual London; like a fight overheard on a Wood Green bus, or what you’d spit at an ex-boyfriend after he’d cheated on you, or the bleak reality of seeing someone’s Nokia phone after their death. In all honesty, there is still no song that epitomises growing up in London in the mid-2000s more authentically than “N-Dubz Vs NAA”, an early track with a young Big Narstie rapping “Shut up, stop talkin', waste man, a brush man, I swear, blud, I'll brush man black” – and therein lied their undeniable appeal.
But at the same time as they were being embraced by young Brits for their relatability, a classist resentment began to simmer in certain corners of the media. As Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote for Noisey in 2014, “The music was brilliant, but the aesthetic – hoodies, underpasses, brick walls – instilled panic in those who weren’t part of it. As N-Dubz were rising to fame, postcode wars and gang violence consumed TV news. A newly elected Conservative Party leader David Cameron was encouraging middle England to hug a hoodie, while describing hoodies as a ‘uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters.’ This was a new slant on an old prejudice directed at a view of an uncontrollable black masculinity, and N-Dubz were part of this.”
Tulisa was well aware of this toxicity, and although she went on to achieve three successful albums as part of N-Dubz, she began to think her talent was being overlooked, and as such, her music wasn’t getting the airtime it deserved. “I’d look at other female artists who were getting tons more press attention, and their pictures were in the papers, and I didn’t ever get that. I was thinking, ‘Am I being swept under the carpet as a female because of my urban image? Is nobody taking any notice?’.”
But in 2011, when she was just 22, a second big break came in the form of a two-year stint as a judge on the X Factor during a time when it was still the most popular show in the UK. “I remember sitting back watching X Factor on TV and seeing Cheryl Cole and I actually said, ‘One day, I’m going to have that job, and I’m going to be the urban version of Cheryl Cole’.” Six months later, she received a phone call out of the blue. “They said, ‘Just come and audition.’ And I was like, ‘What? As a presenter on the Xtra Factor?’ And they were like ‘No! As a judge!’ I thought ‘how did I do this? How did I do this?!’”
As a judge on the X Factor, Tulisa was great. She was searingly honest, genuinely funny, and her critiques felt like a breath of fresh air next to the tired old lines thrown out by Louis Walsh and a decomposing Gary Barlow. She went on to win with girl group Little Mix, and at the same time, scored a number one hit with her first solo single “Young”. It felt like Tulisa was a sparkling example of a self-made young woman in the limelight, one who had refused to tone down her background or personality, but had become successful regardless. It was commendable, but what followed was a dark and venomous campaign to drag her down.
“They were openly calling me a ‘chav’ from the day I got the X Factor job,” Tulisa says, casting her mind back to the tabloid backlash. “I think the opening line on an article the next morning was something like, ‘It’s 4am and down the backstreets of Ibiza, a drunken chavvy girl covered in tattoos with big hoop earrings is staggering with a kebab in her hand. She turns around and ladies and gentleman, this is your new X Factor judge.’ It’s like, so fucking what if I had a kebab and I’ve got tattoos and go to Ibiza?! It would be alright if a posh girl did it, but as soon as it’s me, it becomes a problem. It was as if they thought I’d gotten too big for my boots. It hadn’t been seen before – such an “urban” female becoming so famous – and I guess they wanted to take me down a peg or two.”
And take her down a peg or two they did. A shitty ex-boyfriend swiftly leaked a sex tape, and in 2013, Tulisa was the victim of a notorious set-up by the Sun on Sunday, in which undercover journalist Mazher Mahmood told her she could have a £3.5 million part in a Hollywood film alongside her childhood crush Leonardo DiCaprio. After sending her on first class trips to Vegas, engaging her in almost a year of negotiations, and getting her to play up her “ghetto credentials” for the part, Mahmood got her drunk and asked her for some cocaine. Tulisa wasn’t into drugs, but in order to appease the man who had promised her she could win Oscars, she gave him the number of someone who might have some coke. And that was it: she was snared and shamed by the Sun, swiftly arrested and charged, and told she’d probably go to prison.
Luckily, the case was thrown out of court due to lies that Mahmood had told under oath, but the damage was done. In the weeks following the sting, it felt as if Tulisa was having to apologise for a crime she hadn’t even committed. In an interview with Good Morning Britain, she was asked “What do you want to say about who Tulisa is now?” as if she had been a nightmare beforehand, and needed to learn a lesson. She hesitated and looked confused for a second, before replying, “I was never much of a bad girl in the first place…” Even now, three years after the sting, media appearances are shaped around the notion that she should feel guilty for something intangible, and she's still getting interrogated by the likes of Piers Morgan for what he calls her "hall of shame”. It’s an age-old tale of classism and misogyny: Tulisa is punished for simply being an outspoken woman with ambition, while both her ex-boyfriend who leaked the sextape, and Mahmood himself, get out relatively unquestioned and unscathed.
It’s also hard to deny the hypocrisy that was smattered across the whole ordeal. It doesn’t take a genius to know the music industry is full to the brim with casual cocaine use, but Tulisa was one of the few artists who had never been into Class As. The most she’d done was smoke a bit of weed as a teenager, but still she was made to feel as if she’d done something unforgivable. “There have been pictures in recent years of top celebrity females who are falling out of nightclubs with cocaine up their nose, or on the floor, and it gets spun into this ‘posh chick cool thing’. Whereas I just have an association with it, and then it gets proved that I didn’t do it, and yet I get absolutely fucking dragged through the mud.”
Does she think her treatment was related to class prejudice? “You’d have to be blind not to notice it’s a class thing,” she says. “Just look at other celebrities out there, and see the difference in how they treat them compared to how they treat me. This is no disrespect to Nigella – I absolutely love Nigella, she’s amazing – but if you see the way her situation was portrayed, it was like, ‘She’s amazing and she’s overcome everything.’ But she openly admitted to doing cocaine, whereas I was arguing against even being involved in some being sold, and I was absolutely ripped to shreds regardless.”
Tulisa has always retained a fiercely entrepreneurial streak, and the day she found out she’d been charged, she began writing everything down. “I physically wrote a book, no ghost writer or anything,” she tells me, her eyes gleaming. “I’d been blacklisted from everywhere, I couldn’t fucking do music, I just had to ride it out. But I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing, so I thought I’ll use this time to write, and then even if I go to prison, I can still make money out of a book. So I’m in this predicament thinking, ‘I’m going to find a way to pay the mortgage – give me a pen and paper!” She laughs, throwing her head back before adding, “It was an achievement, honestly! I’ve always wanted to write a book but I never thought I’d get round to doing it, especially not a 260-fucking-thousand word novel.” What is the novel about? “The ups and downs, the sitting in court, how I’m feeling behind the dock, to the moment I find out that the case has been bust, to me sitting and waiting to get a call from the label,” Tulisa tells me. “It’s kind of like Sex in the City on a drugs charge.”
These days, her outlook on what it means to be “famous” has shifted, and she says she often views it as a “double-edged sword”. “I’m very emotional when it comes to fame, and I do struggle with it,” she explains, looking me in the eye. “Sometimes, I’ll be on a red carpet, and people will be taking my picture, and I’m just cracking a smile and thinking ‘This is fucking bullshit. It’s not important, it’s all a façade.’ We’re made to think that we don’t have any purpose or relevance unless we have fame. But I’m on the right path; my heart’s good, my intentions are good, so as long as I’m aware of the bullshit that surrounds fame, then it’s okay to give myself a break sometimes. And it does have it’s perks obviously; no one’s going to deny that.”
Tulisa tells me she has recorded around two albums worth of music during the past couple of years, and from now on, she will be putting her energy into that. Her latest single – an Ibiza-style dance track that samples the old skool garage classic “Sweet Like Chocolate” – is a throwback to the music she grew up on, and it suits her. “The first CD I ever bought back in the day was Pure Garage Volume 1,” she tells me. “It was the music on that CD that got me into that sound; that transition. It’s an amazing feeling to still be here, to still be releasing records at the age of 28, after starting when I was 11, especially after what I’ve gone through. The fact I’m back with a song that inspired me back when I started on this journey feels very ‘meant-to-be’.”
As our interview draws to a close, she starts telling me about her favourite TV programmes. She loves The Walking Dead, she says, but she also loves trashier stuff like Ex on the Beach and Big Brother. At one point, her PR walks in to interrupt, but Tulisa tells him we’re just having a “quick natter” and will be five mins.
“So I’ve got a real interest in ancient history, and I mean ancient, ancient history,” she continues, leaning in, lowering her voice, and checking behind her. “Going as far back as the Sumerians, which were one of the first intelligent civilisations on the planet known to man. This guy called Zecharia Sitch found these tablets and translated them. I don’t like to go into it because it’s very controversial – even though it’s been scientifically proven – there are still some weird theories surrounding it. You know, I could just sit back, crack open a bottle of wine, and talk about Sumerian tablets until the sun comes up.” She stops suddenly, sits up and laughs. “I’ve become a bit of a geek, to be honest.”
It’s hard not to admire Tulisa. Through a twisted series of events that were no fault of her own, she has been largely defined by her struggles, rather than her artistic talents, or her headstrong character, both of which she has built her own success from. But to her credit, she has spent nearly two decades refusing to pander to the classism and straight-up misogyny that has threatened to topple her career, and instead has emerged with her head held high, still writing and releasing music, still here, still Tulisa – and from now on, the future will take precedence over the past. “I’m like a fucking cockroach,” she says, raising an eyebrow and showing me her new manicure as we both walk out the door, “or Cher. I ain’t going anywhere.”
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You can buy Tulisa's new single “Sweet Like Chocolate” here.