Source: Cambridge News – By Ella Walker
Pop star, singer, baker, TV talent show personality and mother; Cleo Higgins is quite a character. ELLA WALKER chats to the lead vocalist before Thriller Live tears up Cambridge Corn Exchange
Interviewing popstars from the 90s is just amazing.
Not only does it make you imagine for 15 minutes or so that you’re actually working at Top of the Pops Magazine or Smash Hits! (rest in peace, you crazy, sticker-covered glossies), but as a general rule, they’ve had absolutely no media training, or if they have, they couldn’t give a toss about using it.
This was the case with Cleo Higgins, one of the chattiest, bubbliest, frankest interviewees you could possibly hope to snag.
Not sure you know who Cleo Higgins is?
Oh, you do, you really do. Cleo Higgins is Cleo, lead singer of manufactured Comin’ Atcha! singing girl group Cleopatra, who, alongside her sisters Yonah and Zainam ruled the charts in the late nineties with seriously catchy pop, colourful outfits and ropes of impressive braids.
Now 31, Cleo’s Top of the Pops days are over, but recently she’s back performing having completed a stint on The Voice (Will.i.am got her to the semi-finals), and is currently coming to Cambridge as one of the vocal leads in Thriller Live, a show dedicated to all things Michael Jackson. It’s basically a two hour Michael Jackson concert, just without the man himself.
Which fits: Cleo is absolutely obsessed with Michael Jackson.
“I am a ridiculous Michael Jackson fan, I was born into Michael Jackson music,” she buzzes giddily in the midst of rehearsals. “For me to be a part of his legacy – I listen to his music, I’ve imitated his music – to be able to release records and then live the same kind of lifestyle in the sense that we grew up from being children in the music industry, into adults, I always felt there was a closeness to myself and him.
“I literally learned everything that I do mainly from Michael.”
Even before Thriller Live came along, Jackson kept sneaking into Cleo’s repertoire, from covering I Want You Back in Cleopatra, to performing Leave Me Alone on The Voice: “I felt like yay! I’m a little bit in there again! For me it was a representation of who I really looked up to, and the fact that he’s not around to have seen that is quite sad.”
So how does a former popstar go from post-Cleopatra obscurity (the band disappeared after their second album, Steppin’ Out), to The Voice and a massive touring show, complete with an up and coming turn in the West End?
“I couldn’t believe it when I got the role as female lead singer, WOOOO!” she yells down the phone with a cackle. “My dreams of being a singer and a musician have never really stopped, so I’m always doing something, whether I’m writing songs for other people or writing for myself; it’s always been there in the background.”
But, she admits, she did take a rather surprising side-step in between having her two children and braving The Voice auditions.
“I thought, do you know what? Just in case, I’m going to open my own shop.”
So she began studying and qualified as a pastry chef. Saladly, or not-so sadly depending on your perspective, The Voice scuppered those plans.
“But I’ve got the quallies for it and I’ve got the skill, the know-how, so you never know, I might still have Mama Cleo’s Bakery or patisserie open. I wanted to have one called Love Muffins – trust me it will happen!”
In fact it almost already did. Considering Cleo spent her teens touring the world, hanging out with Mariah Carey, (“She was one of the people that I looked up to the most, I wanted to be like Mariah and Michael. She came into the room and it was like I didn’t recognise her. It was like Oh! That’s ok, that’s Mariah Carey. Hahaha. It took me to meet her a second time to really let it sink in,”), signing albums for Lionel Ritchie and starring in adverts on Miami Beach for Cover Girl Makeup, you wouldn’t think she’d struggle with an audition for a TV talent show…
“I bottled it!” she screeches with a laugh. “I missed the audition in Manchester, I had to go to the audition in Birmingham because I was so scared hahaha! I said no! I’m not doing it and I decided against it, the whole time, I was like that’s it, I’m not doing it, I’ve decided now. Everyone was like Cleo! You’ve plucked up the courage to do it and then on the day of the audition I was like NOOO!”
Arguably the setting – a live audience, the backs of four red chairs that you’re desperate to see whirl round – is a tad different from touring in your own right. “It was strange, not necessarily to be on stage, but to be on stage so publicly. That was the one thing I was really apprehensive about,” Cleo admits.
“I don’t like the idea of being judged! Haha! That’s just not my cup of tea at all!”
Eventually she sorted her head out though, wowed Will.i.am and careened through to the semi-finals thanks to a booming, soulful voice (and a few hardcore Cleopatra fans, we’re assuming):
“I’m glad I did it in the end. It woke people up and reminded them that I’m here.”
So what’s Will.i.am really like? “Will.i.am is Will.i.am. The way he is, that’s him,” she promises. “On stage, off stage, that’s just who he is. He’s fun, he’s got a serious side to him, he’s got a strength that not many people see as well, and I really enjoyed working with him.”
Are they still in touch? “I do have his number, he’s got my number, he can call me,” she laughs. “You never know, he might have one of those off days and go CLEO! Come and help me! That’d be really interesting.”
For now though, she’s theatre-bound. “It’s not somewhere I’d have expected to go,” she tells me. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the theatre. Whenever I go I’m like an innocent child, like there you go, BANG! Watch this one, how about this one, BANG! I love it!”
Her plan is to stay with Thriller until July, but she’s frank about the fact there are a lot of factors she didn’t take into consideration when signing up.
“I’m a mum and I’m away from my children, so that’s the hardest thing,” she says, adding: “However, they seem to be dealing very well, they seem to be ok, they want me to do what I’m doing.”
Then there’s the strain of performing night after night: “I had to go on voice rest for a couple of weeks, I didn’t expect my voice to go! I’ve had issues where I might not be able to sing for a few hours but never for days on end. That’s never happened. I was like oh my god! I cried, I came to the rehearsal and I opened my mouth to sing and nothing came out, I was in floods of tears, I couldn’t believe it! I was devastated, I just wanted to get back to work.”
And when it comes to work, Cleo has big, big plans.
“I do want to be a recording artist, and I genuinely want to be able to put my album out there and see what comes back,” she says directly. “The Voice has opened up a lot of doors for people to know who I am and who want to know me as a solo artist – which is brilliant – so I hope, I really hope, the fans I’ve made myself and the fans of Cleopatra will come together and buy my record when it comes out.”
Fingers crossed… at least there’s always Mama Cleo’s Bakery to fall back on.
Thriller Live, Cambridge Corn Exchange, Friday, November 29 – Saturday, November 30 at 7.30pm. Tickets £25.50 – £32.50 from (01223) 357851 / cornex.co.uk