Betty Boo: ‘The BBC said my hot pants were too short for Top of the Pops’

'It's an unnatural thing to be a pop star': Alison Clarkson, aka Betty Boo
'It's an unnatural thing to be a pop star': Alison Clarkson, aka Betty Boo

Betty Boo is at home in rural Wiltshire, recalling the time Madonna tried to sign her. “It was a great opportunity,” she begins, as she chops up a lunchtime roast chicken, of the offer to join Madge’s label Maverick. It was 1994 and the 24-year-old West Londoner born Alison Clarkson had already enjoyed huge UK chart success with three Top 10 singles – Hey DJ/I Can't Dance (To That Music You're Playing), with The Beatmasters and solo hits Doin’ The Do and Where Are You Baby? – and platinum-selling debut album, 1990’s Boomania.

Another effervescent pop-rap hit, Let Me Take You There, followed in summer 1992, although her second album, GRRR! It's Betty Boo, was considerably less successful. That, though, didn’t deter Madonna. She wanted Clarkson to be part of a label roster that was also about to include the soon-to-be-enormous Alanis Morissette.

“Madonna would have had some involvement,” Clarkson continues. “I remember her telling me she had ideas for my music and my style, maybe change them a little bit... But I was quite stuck in my own ways, and I didn't like being told what to do.”

Still, she was impressed enough by Madonna to give her the coat off her back: the Material Girl had coveted the leopard-print, faux fur Versace jacket Clarkson was wearing. Clarkson recalls being in Madonna’s Mercedes, driving to her apartment in Central Park, the “tiny… like a packet of crisps!” Madonna being slung from side to side in the back of the car as it cornered. Then, as Madonna exited, Clarkson threw her the jacket.

“It's so funny because she loved it. I said, ‘it's got a skirt that goes with it, but it's really naff to have matchy-matchy.' And she said, ‘yeah, it's naff!’” says Clarkson, putting on Madonna putting on a London accent. “She took the mickey out of me for being so English. But I have to say, to know that she really loved what I did, I'll always be proud of that.”

But circumstance would also conspire against Betty Boo’s American adventure. Around this time, her mother, then her auntie, then her grandmother died (her father had pre-deceased them all). Her world “crumbled”, to such an extent that she had to quit. “I had no choice. I had to leave the industry. It was the right choice because there was no way I was ever going to [continue working]. I grieved for a long, long time over my mum.”

Aged 25, Betty Boo left the music business. “It was a total tragedy,” she says of her serial bereavements. “And if I'm honest, I was in automatic mode and didn't deal with my own grief. I thought in the back of my mind, ‘yeah, I'll get back to making music.’ But I never did.”

As for the “what-if?” if she’d taken the Madonna dollar: “It's a really good question,” she muses. “I would have had to move to LA. I might have changed! I might have had loads of work! I might have listened to people who said: 'Hey, you know, I've got a great surgeon, girlfriend, his name's Saul,’” she says, now sounding like Ruby Wax. “’And look at me, I look fantastic!' That could have happened!" Clarkson laughs.

The plastic surgery didn’t happen, although the glancing observer – standing further away than, say, a breakfast bar’s width – might assume otherwise. At 52, Clarkson looks practically unaged from her early Nineties heyday. But her midlife youthfulness is entirely natural. Three decades out of the pop spotlight have clearly been very good for Alison Clarkson.

And for her music. Boomerang, her first album in 30 years, is a sparkling collection of gravity-defying pop belters. It opens with Get Me to The Weekend, which weaponises a sample of The Human League’s Love Action to thrilling, Peak Eighties effect, and features guest vocalists David Gray, Sophie Ellis-Bextor (one again “daaaahncing”) and Chuck D – an old friend ever since he invited Clarkson’s teenage rap crew She Rockers to support Public Enemy on an American tour.

Alison Clarkson, aka Betty Boo, in 2022
Alison Clarkson, aka Betty Boo, in 2022

Clarkson, who enrolled herself on an audio engineering course aged 19, made most of it in the marital bedroom of her gorgeous, barn conversion home. And, once an independent woman, always an independent woman: she's releasing Boomerang on her own label, Betty Boo Records.

As she serves up lunch, complete with tomatoes from she and her film producer husband’s garden, Clarkson acknowledges the role hitting 50 played in her long-awaited comeback. Both her parents were dead by that age: her Scottish mum at 49, her Malaysian dad at at 46. “So I just thought: ‘What am I waiting for? This is stupid.’”

To be fair, Clarkson kept working in the interim, either as a backroom songwriter for other artists. – Girls Aloud, Hear’Say – or hiding in a band: she was one third of WigWam, a brief 2006 project with Blur’s Alex James and producer Ben Hillier. The writing “for other people was OK,” she says without much enthusiasm.

“I kind of enjoyed it. It was a way of finding an outlet for my creativity. But I didn't find it that easy. You're under duress… I did a stint in LA with these big hitters, and they'd expect you to just come up with stuff. They'd be writing and producing it on the fly, so by five o'clock in the afternoon, you had a nearly-made record.”

Barely into her twenties, Clarkson was constantly busy. She was her own woman, the catsuits and bob very much her own creation, as were the songs – a fact lost on many (male) industry observers. But she had to work like the clappers, constantly.

“Nobody considered logistics either,” she says. “If you had to go to Germany and then be back in England to do something else, and then go back out to Italy, nobody thought about whether or not you're going to be exhausted.”

Betty Boo in 1990 - Getty
Betty Boo in 1990 - Getty

Things reached rock bottom during a live TV show in the Netherlands. Betty Boo’s exhaustion and stress manifested in a boil in a particularly unfortunate place.

“Have you ever had a boil on the bum? It's really painful! I had to go to hospital to get it lanced. It was awful,” she laughs. “But I didn't make much of a fuss, and then I went back and did the show. And then I let my bottom heal properly when I got back home. Yeah, it's an unnatural thing to be a pop star.”

In Mel C’s recent memoir, the former Spice Girl – a band recruited via an advert seeking “five Betty Boos” – writes of feeling exploited by the music business. But bum-boil be damned, Clarkson never felt that. “I was really lucky to be doing what I was doing, because it was against the odds: being a female, doing rap music, having control over my image, control over my music. Everyone else, the Kylies of this world, they were all puppets, really.

“Looking back, though, the BBC would have opinions about how you looked. I remember once my shorts were a bit too short for Top of the Pops. They were hot pants or something. And I was thinking: ‘Well, people get their baps out! It's no biggie to wear shorts.’ But things have changed a bit, haven't they?"

They certainly have. Has the sexualisation of pop gone too far? “No, because it’s about creativity. People should be able to express themselves. But because I'm a bit prudish, I find some of it a bit over-the-top and I'm not quite sure if I should be watching, But it's a great time to be a young female artist. And also, you've got artists who are [physically] larger than your average, and now they're being celebrated. Which is great.”

As a star-turned-hitmaker, Clarkson knows better than most the inner workings of the music industry. But her crucial role in the beginnings of the reality TV military-industrial complex evokes bittersweet memories. Clarkson originally co-wrote Pure and Simple, the huge 2001 hit that launched Hear’Say, the first winners of Pop Idol precursor Pop Stars, for Girl Thing. They were a short-lived girl band created by Simon Cowell as a rival to the Spice Girls. But their version of the song wasn’t even released in the UK.

“It was completely rejected. I remember my publisher hated it so much he excluded it from the contract I had with him, because he didn't want any part of it: ‘I don't want that s___ in my publishing company!’ And then he had to buy it back.”

That was at a significantly inflated price, after the song became a monster hit, selling over half a million physical copies in its first week of release. Still, Clarkson found the experience “cheap”, because no one bothered to tell her the song was being repurposed by Hear’Say.

“But it was a great surprise two years later. It shows that nothing's on the shelf... Then it won an Ivor Novello award, which made me think: wow, I probably wouldn't have won that for my own stuff.”

She had more experiences of the reality TV circus. In NME she said of her time with Girls Aloud, “post-pop star, it was like being an ex-footballer and working at a club – although not as well paid.” Was it that bad?

“It’s not necessarily just them,” she says now, diplomatically. “They were really professional, because it’s what they wanted to do. That made it easier. Sarah Harding, she was lovely. I remember her saying, 'I can try rap!' And she was really good at it.

“It was a new era of my life, but I was only in my early 30s. That's not old! But that's the other thing: thinking that you're over the hill. In our era, if you were a pop star at 25?” She blows a dismissive raspberry. “Think about getting another job. There were artists out there that got dropped when they were that age.”

Pop’s tyranny of youth is inarguably now even fiercer. But at least modern music is a many-faceted, multi-generational playground. “Vintage artists, or 'modern heritage artists', can get out there and do stuff,” agrees Clarkson. “Watching Bananarama, Rick Astley, Kim Wilde, all those artists that are just that little bit older than me, and the fact that they're carrying on, is great.”

None of those, though, have crafted a comeback album as top-to-bottom brilliant as Clarkson’s. Is the title Boomerang a nod to the fact that Betty Boo is flying back into view?

“Yeah, I think so,” she agrees. The title track itself, a beat-heavy singalong (“I'll be bouncing back like a boomerang… a boom, a boom, a boom, a boomerang”) came to her almost entirely as she drove back to Wiltshire from Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre (“it’s not far”).

“I came straight home, programmed the beat and put the bassline in, rapped the first verse of the rap, just to get that little template going. I thought: ‘Oh my God, where'd that come from? That's like me being 18 again!’

“So, yeah, I am bouncing back. Although somebody said to me yesterday, ‘yeah, but boomerangs don't bounce...’ I said, ‘well, they do ricochet. So if they ricochet, they bounce.’ It's a boomerang, and it does bounce back in my world.”

Boomerang (Betty Boo Records) is released on October 14