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The Trials Of Anastacia

Her recovery from breast cancer gives hope to Kylie. But the disease hasn't been the only trauma in the life of the sassy singer Anastacia. Tony Barrell reports.

As the September sun sets behind Brooklyn, New York, the popular 32-year-old American singer known as Anastacia is preparing to be taken to her padded cell.

Her recovery from breast cancer gives hope to Kylie. But the disease hasn't been the only trauma in the life of the sassy singer Anastacia. Tony Barrell reports. Before any of her fans start shrieking — and, take my word for it, the shriek capacity of the Anastacia fan base is staggering — let me explain that this is only a video shoot; a glossy promo for one of the songs on her forthcoming album. It's a greatest-hits collection, but as is the way of things in the music business, riding on the back of the CD will be some new songs. One of them is the title track, Pieces of a Dream, and in this video interpretation, the star is marshalling her acting talents to play a woman who loses the plot. Leaves for the funny farm. Goes doolally — apparently as a consequence of unrequited love.

It's a powerful song — with music, as with everything else, Anastacia doesn't do limp, weedy or half-hearted — and as it is replayed endlessly during the long day's shoot, it begins to sound like a 21st-century Total Eclipse of the Heart.

For the role, the singer is being given a mad makeover in the best traditions of Hollywood. Stylists have frizzed out her long blonde hair and found her a weird white dress resembling a straitjacket, and now she is perched in a trailer having ragged, "bitten" extensions attached to her fingernails. "I'm telling you," she announces, "this'll look really like I've lost it. Like I really am in an insane asylum." Her dark brown eyes widen on her catlike face. "I think we should all end up in an insane asylum. I think everybody should." Her preeners, factotums and nail-extension operative all laugh. Anastacia is truly getting into character.

Insanity might be the next logical step for this resilient performer, whose life story contains as many hurdles as an Olympic hurdling event. Born Anastacia Newkirk in Chicago in 1973, she was brought up by her mother after her parents separated when she was a small child. She and her elder sister, Shawn, and her autistic brother, Brian, ended up with their mother, Diane, in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Diane was an actress and, as Anastacia recalls today, "At times we had a lot of money and at times we had nothing." The future pop idol wore glasses to correct her terrible eyesight from the age of seven, and as a teenager began to suffer from Crohn's disease, a vicious intestinal condition that she still has to keep in check.

She started out as a dancer, but ultimately her voice became her saving grace. An appearance on a 1998 MTV talent show led to a record deal, which led to a single in 2000, I'm Outta Love — a song that became a karaoke-bar classic as well as a European chart hit. Anastacia CDs started falling off the shelves (she has now shifted more than 20m worldwide) and fans — particularly women — started flocking to concert halls to watch this 5ft 3in amazon with the trademark dark glasses and bare midriff, and the voice of a black R&B singer. In fact, that avaricious consumer of soul music Sir Elton John, who became a fan and is now a great friend, was convinced she was Afro-American when he first heard her records. Then, just as everything is going swimmingly for her, here comes another hurdle, the big one. In early 2003, suffering from back trouble, the rather buxom Anastacia decides to have breast-reduction surgery. She has a routine pre-op mammogram, and something shows up. She has cancer.

In a way, she was fortunate: as with Kylie, it had been caught early. She had surgery and a course of radiotherapy — neither chemotherapy nor a mastectomy was deemed necessary. The experience was, of course, still a wrenching one for her, physically and emotionally. But in an interview the day before the video production, in a limo travelling from Manhattan to Brooklyn and the site of the photo shoot for this feature, she brings up the subject unbidden and talks at length about it. She knowledgably discusses the different stages of breast cancer, up to stage four — the point at which cancer is detectable in other organs of the body.

"I'm an early-detected breast-cancer survivor: it had not hit my lymph nodes yet, so I was one of the lucky ones. But had I had stage four, I don't know where I'd be right now." Back in March, when she played to a packed Wembley Arena Pavilion, she talked about the "health stuff" she had been through, and sang her moving ballad Heavy on My Heart while wearing a "Survivor Chick" T-shirt. By selling shirts like this, she says she raises money for her Anastacia Fund, which aims to heighten awareness of breast cancer. "And I don't have 10m people working for me: it's just me and my sister, Shawn. We've raised almost $1m just in T-shirts alone — so, you know, that's not bad, for two little chicks from Chicago!" She is a rapid talker, an impulsive conversationalist whose words threaten to collide when they come tumbling out of her; often she will start a sentence, abandon it and approach it from another angle, all within a few seconds; sometimes you are left with an impressionistic tapestry of words that doesn't work brilliantly on paper, but whose meaning is crystal-clear.

Now she gives a long speech, basically addressed to the healthy young women of the world. Here's an edited version. "The point I try to get across to women is, you need to see the statistics that are out there. We were brought up believing that this is a genetic disease, that this is hereditary. But it's not majority hereditary any more. It's something in the environment — whatever we're eating, breathing, emotions, stress . . . You can't stop life, but you can prevent being stage-four if you have early detection. So, as long as you are taking care of yourself and getting those mammograms, it will really save your life."

Before she became a singer, says Anastacia, she had an ambition to join the caring professions, to be "a psychologist/social worker for disabled children". She is now effectively an ambassador for cancer awareness, and, given time, has the potential to become a kind of oncological Bob Geldof or Bono. "In 2006 I will put a very wonderful fundraiser together — I don't know where, I don't know how. But I have a number of people that are very open and willing to help me put that together."

This Xena: Warrior Princess of music, uncompromising in her pursuit of self-belief, seems to take whatever life throws at her and turn it into a positive thing. This isn't always ideal in an interview. Angling for a colourful description of her impecunious upbringing in Manhattan, I get this: "I never felt less than happy or less than a child or less than satisfied in my growing-up. Money didn't really matter. I mean, we had to pay bills, I'm sure, as a family, but it didn't matter to me in my happiness at all. That wasn't how my mother brought us up: she didn't teach us that money made the world go round and made you smile, at all. We didn't know designers from a hole in the wall. We were just kids, and we had a really loving mother and we had a good relationship with each otherÉ" She still has a profound love for her tight little family. "I love them with all my heart. I admire my mom and my sister as women. I respect their values, their morals, their spirits, their beautiful energies."

Strangely, though Anastacia is famous across much of the world, the LA-based singer is not very well known in her home country. Once again she has a positive explanation: it is all part of the big plan. "They don't know me here because I don't choose for them to know me," she says, adding that only the second of her first three albums, Freak of Nature, was released Stateside — and that was only because people started buying it expensively on import and she felt guilty. "And then I was thinking of releasing the third album here, but I never really was able to find the time; and now I don't know that I want to release it at all. I don't know that I want to open up more doors here. For my career, it's not something that I have to have. My record company are happy with the numbers I'm doing. And I'm not into wanting to take another million moments out of the day I don't have and give it to America." The marketing strategy has evidently changed since 2002, when she guested on US TV shows such as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to promote the Freak of Nature release. But then time is more of an issue for her since the illness. "I've learned to take care of the 'me' time that I always used last. I always wanted to take care of everybody else, make everybody happy, and make sure the record company got their promos and the fans got their autographs and duh-duh-duh-duh-duhÉ and I was last on the list for recharging the batteries. Well, not any more, because I'm no good to anybody if I'm run down into the ground, and that's not a fair way to live."

She spends a lot of her spare time watching DVD sets of her favourite TV shows: thrillers like CSI: Miami, Alias and 24, and comedies like Will & Grace. She enjoys reading autobiographies: she just finished Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and says she is in the middle of My Life So Far, by Jane Fonda. "But I'm not a big-time reader. I think, because my brain works so hard and I'm so involved in what I do, I'll start reading and then all of a sudden my mind will start thinking about something in my life and I'll go two pages and I'll be like, 'Okay, what did I just read?' I was thinking about my photo shoot for tomorrow and my this and my that . . . "Astonishingly, she says she doesn't listen to music at home. "I prefer silence. My head is thinking other things and I like to be able to concentrate on the things I'm doing." Her own music has evolved over the past six years as she has worked to achieve a signature style, with the help of talented collaborators such as Glen Ballard (who co-wrote and produced Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill album) and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. She describes the sound she finally found as "sprock" — an amalgam of soulful vocals, poppy melodies and rock guitars — and draws the analogy that, as a young New Yorker, she would customise her own perfumes. "I bought all these oils and mixed them up, 'cause I never liked one solid fragrance. Same as my music."

She is in this business, she says, purely for "the connection between my music and my fans". But many women from her Wembley crowd seemed hungry for the whole visual package, lining up to buy flimsy copies of her sparkly cowboy hats from unauthorised vendors outside the Pavilion ("Getcher Anastaysher 'ats 'ere, only £5!"). Even before her illness, the fans adored her as a symbol of feminine strength. Now the Anastacia sisterhood — the feisty young housewives and secretaries with flyaway hair, crop tops and high heels who shriek and sigh at her concerts — worship her as a quasi-immortal goddess. She speaks with pride of her rapport with them. "My crowd, as you noticed, areÉ You could drop a pin and hear everything, because what they want to do is hear me sing. As much as they want to sing with me — and I let them sing with me — most of the time they want to hear me sing. Sometimes the silence in the room is completely because they're waiting with bated breath for the next note.

And they want to hear everything: they want to hear the breath. The silence is so respectful." She loves audience participation too: at Wembley she had a few fans brought up on stage to sing with her, and showed films of others singing her tunes a cappella outside the concert hall.

On her latest tour, fans started giving her big photograph albums containing pictures they had taken at the concerts, and letters and e-mails expressing their love for her. "I have tons of these albums in my house, and my mom is able to look through them and feel like she saw every show — 'This is when you were in FrankfurtÉ' — and it's really lovely."

Anyone poring over those photo albums would see Anastacia in countless different stage outfits, most of them extremely ostentatious and many of them revealing her famous navel. While the Wembley show had an air of Las Vegas about it, with its immaculately choreographed dancers and Anastacia's appeals for the crowd to wave their hands from side to side — "These are called the love hands!" — her costumes were more reminiscent of a Saturday-night hen party in Romford. I suggest diplomatically that her taste in clothes is, ahem, interesting. "Well, that's on stage. When you see me on stage, that's the on-stage Anastacia. You've got to be a little bigger than life up there. I love fashion. I think I'm pretty normal when I'm just hanging out: I put on a pair of jeans and some high heels." But she does seem very fond of sequinsÉ "Well, on stage, yes! You must get out of the show you saw," she chides. "You have to look at the whole package instead of judging someone from when they're only on stage."

But she also has a large tattoo, which of course remains on her lower back when she is off stage. It is an ancient Egyptian Ankh symbol, representing "eternal life", and was a Christmas gift from her family several years ago. Since it appeared on the cover of her first single, it has inadvertently become a kind of personal insignia. "All of a sudden, that tattoo seemed to be the recognisable symbol of who I was: when people see it they think of me. And now people get the tattoo on their bodies." When she was starting out as a singer, it was suggested that she ditch the dark glasses, which for some people give her a Nana Mouskouri quality, but she needed them as aids for vision. Recently, though, she has conquered another physical problem: she has had laser treatment on her eyes, and though she still occasionally wears her flashy coloured spectacles — "I still love glasses; I enjoy them" — she doesn't need to. "It's become an interesting freedom." It must have been amazing to suddenly see properly for the first time. Did she have a "Hello, birds; hello, trees; hello, sky" moment? "You know what?" she replies. " It doesn't feel any different. I just look different to myself, because I can see myself without any glasses in a mirror. I find it exciting to be able to put make-up on, and to enjoy seeing the make-up and seeing my eyes. It's as if I'm getting a second shot at growing up."

It's easy to see how Anastacia would get on well with Sir Elton, a famous spectacle-wearer who dresses outrageously on stage and has fought and won his own life battles. What else do they have in common? "We have tons in common, but that's for us to know." The two of them shared an intimate public moment when he invited her to duet with him at Madison Square Garden five years ago. "I'd finished singing on stage with him, and he came over and instead of kissing my hand, he came down and kissed my navel. And I was like, 'Whoa! Yuuuummy!' It was in front of 30,000 people, so it was a little bit like, 'Should I kiss his navel? What should I do?' 'Cause he's a 'Sir'."

If there are any heterosexual men kissing her belly button on a regular basis, she isn't letting on. She recently split up with a German TV presenter, and says she dislikes negative attitudes towards the state of being single. In fact, she celebrated that very state on her previous album, with the song Sexy Single. She is raucously amused that, when she played a charity event for Prince Albert of Monaco, a press report linked them as a couple. "I did his Red Cross ball and we happened to be nice to each other and suddenly it's, 'Do they have a relationship going on?' And everyone's like, 'What's happening with you guys?' And I'm like, 'What is happening with us? 'Cause I would love to find out. I'm the last one to know what's happening in my love life."

The pressures on a recording artist in the spotlight are enough to drive anyone mad. And the next day, as she makes crazy faces for a video camera in Brooklyn, we might begin to worry about Anastacia. But her name means "she who will rise up again" in ancient Greek. This redoubtable woman has succeeded in regaining her health, reclaiming her life and repairing her eyesight. She will surely be able to get her marbles back.

The new album, Pieces of a Dream, is released on November 7

The Sunday Times