She’s the biggest thing to come out of Britain since The Spice Girls. But will the wine, the man and the attitude be enough for Amy Winehouse?
There is nothing conventional about Amy Winehouse. She seems to have sprung fully formed from a subterranean music dungeon – a creature of extravagant plumage, big hair, black mascara trowelled on, red lips like slices of juicy plums. She is a kind of cross between a member of The Ronettes and a Goth Dusty Springfield.
Scantily dressed to kill, tattooed to the max and with more attitude than a street-walking cheetah, Winehouse, 23, is an archetype and might have tilted into the caricature of a bad-girl rock-chick were it not for her music.
She is not just a bad girl bellowing male-oriented rock songs or playing the riot-girl game. She is a strange, elliptical, jazz balladeer, composing complex confessional songs that expose the underbelly of her addictions, her lovers, her personality.
Onstage she is barely coherent, slugging back glassfuls of wine or some form of alcohol to keep her machinery oiled. She is part panto bad sister, part street-smart guttersnipe. She is the diabolical Ms Hyde to the wimpish Jekylls represented by Joss Stone, Dido and Norah Jones.
The weirdest thing is that Winehouse looks and, to a certain extent, sounds like Tennessee trailer trash. She is the kind of woman you’d expect to meet slinging hash in a hick-town diner who’s just got out of jail for taking an axe to her boyfriend’s mistress.
She’s got danger written all over her almost literally in the fact that her tattoos depict pneumatic women with impressive figures. She has the cartoon character Betty Boop tattooed on her back. She has the name of her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, etched on her left breast plus a horseshoe, a lightning bolt and an anchor on her midriff emblazoned with the words “Hello Sailor”. She got her first tattoo at “about 15” and now has around a dozen.
Talking of her parents’ reaction to her first “ink”, she says: “My parents pretty much realised I would do whatever I wanted and that was it, really.”
Unlike Pete Doherty, whose disgraces just make him seem pathetic, Winehouse is relentlessly endearing. This in spite of any number of bad habits.
She drinks too much, swears too much, mutilates herself, suffers from anorexia and bulimia, smokes cannabis, beats up her boyfriends and misbehaves in an epic manner. Not so much a role model for the nation’s young women, more a distillation of all the evils with which they are often associated. And yet she is adored.
Of all the Winehouse gossip keeping the tabloids busy, the most constant staple has been her on-off affair with the man who has now become her husband. But, aside from his association with Winehouse, little is known about Fielder-Civil, 25, except that next month he will appear in court on a grievous bodily harm charge after a landlord was injured in a pub brawl in London’s East End.
Has music’s bad girl wed a bad boy?
“I used to go out clubbing with Blake,” says a friend, who did not wish to be named.
“He’s kind of a charming bad boy. He’s the sort of bloke who’s got all the chat – who’s got a little twinkle in his eye. He’ll go out and misbehave and do who knows what, but he’d never let a woman go through a door second.
“He’s always called a music video assistant, or a gopher.”
To all observers of the pair, commitment seemed the last thing on their mind when they suddenly wed. They had only recently been reunited after a short split. So it was out of the blue when Fielder-Civil, after an inevitable night on the tiles in May, asked Winehouse to marry him. A day later, Winehouse said yes. Cue another celebration. The event was that rarest of things in the celebrity universe – spontaneous. There was no publicity campaign, no deal with Hello! magazine. Just a $140 ceremony and a 48-hour hotel room lock-in.
The ceremony itself was pure rock ’n’ roll. Winehouse arrived at the marriage bureau in Florida clad in a short halter-neck floral-print dress. Fielder-Civil was sporting a ’50s-style grey suit and trilby. There were no guests and the couple moved on to the Big Pink Diner in Miami where they toasted their union with a breakfast of burgers and fries.
Winehouse’s mother, Janis, was distraught at being left out. So Winehouse has agreed to hold “a large family bash” in London, to appease her mother, although she says her taxi driver father, Mitchell, is “going to kick my head in – he’s still got to pay for the proper wedding”.
The wedded couple appear to be as happy as puppies. At a recent gig she spent most of the evening mouthing “I love you” at her husband (who, for good measure, has a new tattoo reading “AMY” behind his ear).
She told the crowd: “I don’t know if you heard, but I just got married to the best man in the world.”
If it had been Britney, or Paris or Lindsay, we would all be asking for the sick-bag. But there is something deliciously unpremeditated about the continuing saga that is Amy Winehouse. Elton John says he worships at her feet. Lily Allen wishes she were more like her. Even Jo Brand is a self-confessed fan.
The famous fans, the musical accolades and tabloid escapades are all a far cry from Winehouse’s middle-class, Jewish background in Southgate, North London. Amy Jade Winehouse was born on September 14, 1983, four years after brother Alex, to Mitchell, a taxi driver, and Janice, now a pharmacist. Music runs in her family.
Her mother and father brought her up on a diet of Sinatra, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, setting the tone for her future career. Her uncles are also professional jazz musicians and her grandmother once went out with Ronnie Scott.
“With my schoolfriends I listened to hip-hop and Missy Elliott, “ she reveals. “But jazz was my private thing. From the age of 11 I was listening to Ella. I loved her.” \
At 10, Winehouse and best friend Juliette Ashby formed a rap duo called Sweet-N-Sour, modelled on the duo Salt-N-Pepa. At 12, she won a scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School but was expelled for “not applying herself” and for piercing her nose.
Her parents had separated when Amy was nine and, while they remain a close family, it is possible the split marked the beginning of her self-destructive streak.
“My childhood was really good,” she says. “We lived in a semi-detached house down the road from my gran. My dad left when I was nine. They sat us down and said ‘We’re separating’. It was all very open. I think it hit my brother worse.
“All I knew was that it meant I could wear make-up, short skirts and swear at my mum. I didn’t mind Dad going because I thought it would be fun and I knew he wouldn’t disappear, he’d always be there.”
Success beckoned after she joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. After her then boyfriend passed her demo to a record-company man, she signed to Island and a management contract with 19, the company founded by Simon Fuller, the man behind the Spice Girls.
Her debut album Frank went platinum and Winehouse won an Ivor Novello award aged just 21. Frank Jones, who helped co-write songs on the album, said she was “unlike anything that had ever come through my radar” and her two albums have received the kind of critical acclaim artists twice her age would die for.
In common with many catapulted into the limelight at an early age, Winehouse embraced the excesses of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle with a recklessness bordering on the suicidal. Although her father claims she is not an alcoholic because she does not drink every day, one feels he is being overprotective or plain disingenuous.
Many of her appearances on stage or on television have been marred by her inability to perform properly due to her drunkenness. An attempt to duet with Charlotte Church on the latter’s chat show was toe-curlingly embarrassing. She smashed her foot into a glass table and slurred her way through Michael Jackson’s Beat It. The worst scenes were edited out but Winehouse defended herself by saying: “I was drunk. Charlotte invited me on the show so she must know I’m a bit of a liability.”
She also famously turned up at a recent awards ceremony several hours late.
Reports suggest her new husband is unable to control his wife’s drunken rages and has been beaten up by her.
“I’m either a really good drunk or I’m an out-and-out s***, horrible, violent, abusive, emotional drunk,” she admits.
Her capacity for self-harm seems to be growing exponentially with self-inflicted cuts on her left forearm. Then there’s her strange behaviour while briefly split from Fielder-Civil to date musician and chef Alex Claire.
On one occasion in Camden’s Dublin Castle, the disgruntled chef says he was with Winehouse when she started selling kisses to punters for shots of tequila.
Claire, who sold his story to News of the World under the headline “Bondage Crazed Amy Just Can’t Beehive in Bed”, claimed she would be seen out with him one night and with Fielder-Civil the next. And despite her promises to Claire, Winehouse could not bring herself to remove the tattoo above her left breast that reads “Blake’s pocket”.
Her ex-suitor concludes Winehouse has “cut out my heart, bit a chunk out of it, threw it on the floor and stomped all over it”.
“She’s scared to be happy. I hope she finds happiness one day,” he says.
But happiness is not a cut-and-dried term when applied to the Winehouse and Fielder-Civil union.
“There’s always been a kind of Fatal Attraction element to their relationship – it’s like they can’t live without each other,” one friend says.
Says another: “We hoped the pair would calm down now they’re married, but the problems are as bad as ever for both of them. It’s incredibly worrying.”
So what’s next for Winehouse and her husband, whom she calls Baby.
“There is a definite trajectory to these things,” says PR consultant Mark Borkowski, “where someone like Amy Winehouse enjoys a honeymoon period. That’s happening now.
“Festivals are about to start, she’s just got married. The question is, how long can it go on?”
But Winehouse is not somebody who exists purely as a celebrity. She made her name because of her extraordinary voice and, to a certain extent, her extraordinary style. So she does not need the publicity in the same way that someone like Paris Hilton does. But there will come a time, says Borkowski, when her liberal attitude to the media comes back to bite her.
“Like many people of her generation, she’s very comfortable with all the attention,” he says. “There’s a sense in which that whole circle – Pete Doherty, Kate Moss et al – are anaesthetised to it. But there is a value to keeping yourself out of the press. Because at some point, you may wish it to stop.
“That’s going to be difficult for Amy Winehouse. She and her husband have sent out signals that they don’t want to be left alone, and further down the line, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw her hand in the lens of some paparazzo.”
But while indulgent Brits and Aussies are prepared to shrug off this kind of behaviour, the Americans might not be so generous. US audiences who have been won over by her musical talent have been shocked to discover that a singer they assumed was a fortysomething American black woman is a 23-year-old white Jewish Londoner.
In the case of excessive bad behaviour, Americans like their stars to be penitent in public. But Winehouse, whose most famous single Rehab tells of how she refused to go into a care unit, is unlikely to start wearing sackcloth and ashes any time soon.
Her route from being a nice, plump, shy, anxious, middle-class Jewish kid to an extreme panto bad girl of skinnily cartoonish proportions leads to the obvious conclusion that her demons are not being exorcised through her music. No amount of confessional songs and brilliant performances will substitute for the time in rehab she so evidently needs.
Her end goal skips that step. She says what she really wants to do in 10 years’ time is to settle down and be a good Jewish mum.
“I love parties and rock ’n’ roll,” she confesses, “but secretly I’m never happier than when I’m cleaning. In 10 years’ time I’m gonna be looking after my husband and our seven kids. I’d really like to get everyone in one place and sit down and eat a meal together.
“I would like to uphold certain things, but not the religious side of things, just the nice family things to do. At the end of the day, I’m a Jewish girl.”