Betty Boo: ‘I think I’ve made the record I should have made when I was 25’

The 90s pop star on rapping with Public Enemy, her inspirational activist granny, and the joy of making music again in her 50s

Alison Clarkson, AKA Betty Boo, 52, grew up in west London with her Scottish mother, Malaysian father and brother. At 17, she ran away to New York with her rap trio, the She Rockers, and by 21 she had three Top 10 singles and a platinum debut album, Boomania. At 24, Madonna offered to sign her to her label, Maverick Records, but Clarkson quit performing instead. Later, she co-wrote Hear’Say’s Pure and Simple and worked with Girls Aloud, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Blur’s Alex James. Now living in Wiltshire with film producer husband, Paul Toogood, she has just released her first solo single in 29 years, Get Me to the Weekend. An album follows this summer.

The Boo is back. Why now?
It suddenly dawned on me a few years ago that I was going to be 50 and deep down I always wanted to make another Betty Boo record. Getting into middle age, you also start to feel invisible and I didn’t want that to happen. If it’s OK for Mick Jagger or Rick Astley to keep going, why not me?

So you started writing again?
Yes, in the supermarket car park in the first lockdown. My husband would do the shopping and I’d park facing a wall, playing tracks, so no one could see me singing along [laughs]. It was great to enjoy it again because I’ve had times when I didn’t even listen to music through the years. It made me too sad. Now I think I’ve made the record I should have made when I was 25.

What made you give up your pop career at the end of the 90s?
My mother got very ill, then she died, then my aunt died 10 months after my mum. My dad had died before that. To be a pop star, you have to be full-whack all the time and I just melted. I didn’t want to be that other person any more. I went into survival mode looking after my granny and family. But I didn’t feel like I’d missed out, because when I launched my solo career, I’d taken control of everything – written my music, produced it, had the freedom to look the way I wanted to look. A major label would have reined me in, told me what to do. Not me!

Is it different being a woman in pop now?
As an older woman, I find the first thing people say is “what does she look like now?”. A few years ago, I went to the premiere of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, as I helped the writer, Dan Gillespie Sells, on a rap section when it was in development. A photographer spotted me outside the 7/11 in Piccadilly and took a picture of me from below, up my nose, and that’s the one online the next day, with the writer saying: oh, she looks so different to how she used to. Of course I did, because that was 30 years ago! I talked to Bananarama about it – it drives us all mad.

The name Betty Boo was inspired not only by Betty Boop, but also by your grandmother, Betty Clarkson, a leftwing activist. Was politics around in your childhood?
Yes. I worked for the Fabian Society in the school and summer holidays and my granny dragged me along to all kinds of meetings. She also set up a drop-in centre for older people in White City and was always campaigning for people, such as a man wrongly accused of stabbing someone at the Notting Hill carnival; she campaigned to have him released from prison. She had amazing energy and was so well respected that she had her retirement party at the House of Lords. I remember meeting Arthur Scargill and a young Tony Blair – all the up-and-coming New Labour politicians were in awe of her. I have so much to thank her for.

To be a pop star you have to be full-whack all the time and I just melted

You broke through as a rapper with the Beatmasters in 1989, with your take on Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ I Can’t Dance to That Music You’re Playing. What drew you to rap?
It wasn’t just rap: it was all of hip-hop culture, the music, the creativity. Some musicians learn the Beatles songbook – I learned Big Daddy Kane’s raps. I loved playing with language and humour, changing my voice, recording myself with my microphone plugged into my hi-fi. It was accessible, like punk. Then I studied sound engineering after I left school – I wanted to be a vet, but the careers adviser said I should be a secretary. I made all these songs in my bedroom instead.

There’s a pre-fame clip online of you rapping with members of Public Enemy in the Shepherd’s Bush McDonald’s. How did that happen?
It was November 1987 – they’d just played this big Def Jam night at the Hammersmith Odeon with the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and Run-DMC. On our walk home, we saw them through the window of McDonald’s – we’d seen them on stage doing all these military kind of routines, with Uzis – how on earth we went up to them and weren’t scared, I don’t know. I had my hi-tops and my nan’s cardigan on as I had a cold, and they filmed us rapping. Then we got invited to New York and I didn’t tell my mum where I was going. It was really naughty. Then my brother heard a DJ on BBC Radio London talking about this girl he’d seen rapping in Harlem. “Mum! I know exactly where Alison is!”

Your retro space age look became a template for 1990s fashion. Indeed, when the Spice Girls were being put together, the original manager, Chris Herbert, put out an advert looking for “five Betty Boos”
I worked with Chris on his new band, Girl Thing, a few years later and he told me about the advert. At first I was, “Oh, thanks for nicking all my ideas!” But it’s amazing what they achieved. The look came from my love of glam rock and Ziggy Stardust as a tiny kid watching Top of the Pops, wanting to do fancy dress every day in silver pants and big boots.

Betty Boo in 1990.
Betty Boo in 1990. Photograph: DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy

One of your songs for Girl Thing, Pure and Simple, became a million-seller for Hear’Say, the first 21st-century ITV pop contest winners. How was that experience?
I only knew about Pure and Simple being used after Hear’Say had won. The presenter said: “If you want to hear Hear’Say’s debut single, call 0800-whatever, and here’s what it’s called” – and I thought, oh, and called the number. It had been out already on a Japanese export, so no one had heard it in this country, but Pete Waterman had produced it and loved it and obviously kept it in mind. I dipped in and out of songwriting. I often found it a bit soul-destroying. I’ve worked with some really big producers in LA who’d turn up at 10.30am and have a finished record by five o’clock. I found that too much pressure – and some would do four sessions a day, spreading stuff thinly. I prefer dipping in and out of things for fun.

Get Me to the Weekend samples Human League’s Love Action, a song that your dad loved. You obviously still love sampling.
I still love bringing together retro things and making them sound modern. It’s a continuation of where I began – Doin’ the Do sped up Reparata and the Delrons’ Captain of Your Ship, after all. I’ve also been doing more stuff with Sophie Ellis-Bextor, David Gray and an exciting rap legend who I can’t mention yet. I’m enjoying myself.

What does Doin’ the Do [the title of her 1990 hit] mean to you now?
It’s even more relevant to me now in my 50s than it was in my teens and 20s. It’s about taking control of your life again and fulfilling your ambitions in your own way. These days, you can generate your own fans and people can engage with you directly online and I love that. I’m not doing this for anyone else. I’m doing it for me and them!

Get Me to the Weekend is out now