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Date : 16 February 2003


 LOUISE SCORES AGAIN

 She rocketed to pop stardom in her teems, became a lad-mag babe, married a footballer... but then was unceremoniously dumped by her record label. So what now for Louise Redknapp? A comeback, of course, with a new album and as the face of fashion label Jesir�

 Louise Redknapp is a sexy woman. We know this because the readers of men's magazines have bestowed upon her such titles as Britain's Sexiest Woman and - the ultimate accolade, this - The Woman I'd Most Like to Take to a Footy Match.

 But Louise is also smart. The first lesson of fame, she says, is never believe your own hype, which is why her big blue eyes are scrutinising the photos laid out before us with forensic intensity.

 'I'm not a model. I can't just perform in front of the camera,' she says. 'And, you know, I haven't done a shoot in ages. I'd forgotten what I look like with all that make-up on,'

 Louise is, of course, first and foremost a pop goddess - she belonged to the hugely successful girl band Eternal and later enjoyed considerable success as a solo artist. And as one half of Britain's second most famous singer-soccer duo (her husband is the England and Tottenham midfielder Jamie Redknapp), she is rarely out of the limelight. So it seems strange, at first, to hear a hint of apprehension in her voice as she talks about her 'comeback'. In fact, it is more than two and a half years since she last released an album and a year since she performed live. 'I think it is important in this industry to take time out. I've never wanted to be one of those stars who is just there, without people knowing what you are there for,' she says.

 This year, however, Louise is going to be highly visible once more for two reasons. The first is a new album, as yet untitled, which she is halfway through recording. The second is her appointment as the face of fashion label Jesir�. On a short list that included Natalie Imbruglia, Cat Deeley and Keira Knightley, Louise stood out as having just the right mix of 'femininity, sexiness and attention to detail', says managing director Martyn Vines. And despite Louise's initial self-doubts, the results of the Jesir� shoot endorse Vine's instinct. 'The other thing about Louise - and I don't know any other way of putting this,' he says, 'is that she is not too young.'

 In her combat trouser and trainers, Louise may still appear to be a waif-like popette, but, she says, 'I'm 28 now and for the first time I'm strong enough to know what I want out of a career, but also want the really important things in life are.'

 Has Louise ever been in a not-very-nice-place? As someone who enjoyed the spin-offs of fame since the early 90s, you would think not. But stardom, she points out, can have its drawbacks.

 Louise (nee Nurding) is the daughter of a 'big burly skinhead' builder and a mum who worked as an administrator at Gatwick airport. She and her two younger brothers grew up in South London, and for as far back as she can remember she wanted to sing and dance. Although her parents could never have afforded the fees, Louise auditioned for the Italia Conti stage school, and on her 11th birthday a letter arrived telling her she had won a scholarship.

 Four years later, the music impresario Dennis Ingoldsby spotted her dancing in a nightclub, told her he was setting up a new group and invited her to his studios for some rehearsals. Louise asked is her best friend Kelle Bryan could come along, too. They met up with sisters Easter and Vernie Bennett, formed Eternal and were signed by EMI within the year. Their first single, 'Stay', was a massive hit, while their debut album Always and Forever went platinum, selling 1.5 million copies. 'Sometimes, I read that so and so has sold so many records and I think, "We did that in Eternal." We had no idea at the time what a big deal it was,' she says. 'We performed alongside Sting at an anti-apartheid concert in South Africa in front of 150,000 people. Now, that seems amazing, but at the time it was just another gig. We were four young London girls taking our success in our stride. I think if we had wanted it too badly, it wouldn't have worked. But looking back, I wish I had savoured those moments a little more.'

 Louise and Kelle were several years younger than Easter and Vernie, and in Louise's case, it was a case of too much too soon. 'Before Eternal, the furthest I had been away from home was to stay at a friend's house down the road. And even then, my mum would pop over to check I was all right. All of a sudden I was having to go away for weeks at a time. We'd be in Asia for seven weeks, followed by three weeks in the States, and then, just as I was counting the hours until the tour was over, we would be told that we had to go back to Asia because the record was doing well there. When you are working that hard, it pulls something out of you - all the happiness disappears.'

 In 1995, while Eternal were appearing with Take That in Milan, Robbie Williams introduced her to his footballer friend Jamie Redknapp. They clicked instantly, although, she says, 'we were just friends for a long time. Everyone thought we must be going out together, but we were just having such a laugh, we were almost reluctant to cross that line.'

 Certainly, Jamie helped restore some of the fun to Louise's life. They married on impulse three years later while on holiday in Bermuda. 'He asked, I said "Yes," and then phoned Mum to ask her what she was doing the next Friday. We arranged tickets for her and Dad to be left at the airport, and for Nan and Granddad, too, and by the end of the week we were husband and wife.' She was 23, Jamie was 24. It sounds young, but we had both seen a lot more of life than, say, someone who had just left university. We didn't have the money worried and we both knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, so there seemed little point waiting.'

 By then, Louise was no longer part of Eternal. She had walked out after five years and six top-ten hits amid rumours of a major fallout. 'I can't deny that we didn't get on,' she say now. 'We were four girls travelling the world together and there was no way we were not going to argue. But those arguments were always resolved. Today, we're good friends. The real reason I couldn't go on was because of the tiredness and the homesickness.'

 The problem with being a manufactured pop phenomenon, Louise reflects, is that beneath the packaging, you are scared rigid. 'It's a confidence thing. You are out of your depth because you don't know how the business works. Someone tells you to be here, wear this, release this record first, and you do it because you know no better.'

 After leaving Eternal, she was relaunched by EMI as a soloist. Although more savvy by that time, she was still content to let others take charge of her image as she metamorphosed from tracksuited soulster to scantily clad babe. In polls to determine the world's sexiest woman, she found herself ahead of Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston. 'It was bizarre. There would be Cindy Crawford at number 30 and me at number one. I had to laugh because it was all down to airbrushing. I don't regret it; I never did anything too risqu�.'

 So who exactly is the real Louise? The truth is that it has taken a taste of failure for her to find out. After two successful solo albums, her third, Elbow Beach bombed. Two years ago, as Jamie struggled to overcome a series of injuries that were threatening his career, EMI dumped her. 'It's at hard times like that that you have to stick together. We were living a nightmare, but we had to get it into perspective - no one was losing their life.' While Jamie went to America for surgery and persevered with months of physiotherapy, Louise pulled together with a fresh team of songwriters and producers, signed with a new record company, Metrophonic, and set to work in a different direction. 'I'm still a pop artist - that is not going to change. But maybe my new stuff is more edgy,' she says.

 'It is so easy to play safe. Record companies hate change; they hate anything experimental, and three years ago if someone said to me that a song wasn't working, I would question my judgement rather than theirs. But I've got an inner confidence now. I like what I am doing - it is the sort of stuff that I would actually buy for myself.'

 Last year, after more than a decade with Liverpool, Jamie transferred to Tottenham and he and Louise bought a house in Hertfordshire. 'It is the first time since we have been married that we have had a proper home together,' says Louise. 'We had a place in Liverpool and one in London, but they never felt like homes unless we were both there. Now we go home to the same house. It's good to have that stability.'

 Louise is a fair-weather football supporter who would much rather go shopping than attend regular matches (she mixes the Jesir� range with Marc Jacobs and pieces that she finds in the boutiques of London's Notting Hill). Jamie does not pretend to be a music expert. 'I can ask him his opinion, but beyond that, we're hardly a rock-'n'-roll couple.'

 Their near neighbours the Beckhams are not part of their social circle ('we just know them to say hello to'). But they do mix with her old school friends and his football contemporaries ('we're very sociable - we like having people over'). They also share their home with two bulldogs, Winston and Bella, and 'yes, of course we'd like children, when the time is right'. Meanwhile, there is no retinue of staff - just Louise's mum Lynne who, twice a week, comes up from her home is Sussex to help with the cleaning. 'We do it together. Sometimes my nan will come, too, for a cup of tea and a biscuit. Jamie loves it because they both fuss over him. I'm so lucky to have such a normal family life.'

 The difference between the Redknapps and most other couples, of course, is that they are financially secure enough for Louise to never have to work again. 'I know I could just sit back and enjoy it,' she sighs. 'But actually, having a stable home life has the reverse effect on me. I'll never back to the sorts of schedules that I worked with Eternal, but Jamie does give me that extra push, that extra belief in myself.

 'I tend to get on with things rather than shout about them, so maybe people have underestimated my ambition. Having got this far, I'm damned if I am going to let it go.'

 Jesir�'s flagship shop is at 28 James Street London WC2, for stockist enquiries tel: 020 7420 4450