Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Janet Ellis: ‘Having a famous mum was a high value currency when I was little’

Born in Hounslow, west London in 1979, Sophie Ellis-Bextor is the daughter of the broadcaster Janet Ellis and the director and producer Robin Bextor. The sunny face of children’s TV – notably Blue Peter – Janet spent most of her career on screen, until releasing The Butcher’s Hook, the first of two acclaimed novels, in 2016. Meanwhile Sophie’s artistic pursuits began as an indie darling in the band Theaudience, before the stratospheric summer hit Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) catapulted her into the mainstream in 2000. During the UK lockdown in 2020, her live-streamed kitchen discos saw her perform songs from her six solo albums. Haar memoir, Spinning Plates: Thoughts on Men, Music and Motherhood, is released on 7 Oktober. She lives in London with her husband and their five sons; Janet lives nearby.

From the age of five through to seven, before my brothers and sisters arrived, it was just Mum and me. She had just got the job on Blue Peter, and all my peers were watching it. I always hoped she’d bring home whatever they were making, which occasionally she did: there was one really cool Sindy doll bathroom, which even had tiny bars of soap, flannels and towels. I loved it. In the photograph, I am five; I can see the remnants of chickenpox still healing on my face. Weirdly, I can remember the top I’m wearing, the feel of it. That 80s fashion sowed a seed for my wardrobe. I would probably still bid on it if I saw it on eBay.

Having a famous mum was a high-value currency when I was little. People I’d just met would immediately want to be friends. It wasn’t always nice, wel. Sometimes they’d say: “Actually, you seem a bit big-headed and maybe you’re showing off about your mum.” I’d sell Blue Peter badges in the playground: 50p for a badge, and if you had £1 you could get a signed photograph, ook. I don’t think I actually ever got paid, wel; what six-year-old goes into school with spare change? There’s a few people out there who owe me 50p.

By the time I started secondary school, that was old news. I met a whole new group of mates at a private secondary my parents very generously enrolled me in. That was obviously to welcome me into the world of academia. But when I joined a band and said: “I’m not going to uni, I’m going on the NME Brat Bus tour,” they were surprisingly OK about it.

Being in Theaudience was a lightbulb moment for me: “Ah, singing! That’s the thing I want to do!” Of course, the press still brought up my mum a lot. It’s a nifty talking point and I understand why, but after a while I found it frustrating.

It was a blokey time in the media, dominated by men and ladette culture. It often felt as if the Blue Peter reference was used as a slight dig: “Don’t think you can walk in here and be mysterious or your own, credible person.” I remember going on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mum kept on coming up. Eers, you sit there go: “Ja, funny! Hah.” But the joke is they’re going to keep doing it until you break and storm out. Which is kind of bullying, really.

After Theaudience got dropped, I was the last one holding on. Someone in my team ended up telling me: “You’ve got to move on. It’s dead. No one cares. Do a year out, then go to uni.” I thought the biggest success of my career was over and I’d only just hit 20. It was quite scary.

My mum and I had lots of conversations; she kept an eye on how I was coping. But when Groovejet came along, I suddenly had something remarkable to cling on to. I never believed it would get me signed as a solo artist. I just thought: aren’t I lucky that I’m singing again? It was also a way of saying: “Screw you, NME. You can keep your little bitchy banter. I’m sodding off to Ibiza.”

On top of lockdown, we lost my stepdad, John, to cancer in 2020. Making the kitchen disco streams on YouTube was a coping mechanism. When I did the first one, I thought people would take the mickey. I was 41 and wearing a sequined catsuit. The kids were rolling around everywhere. But the reception was incredible. There’s such a vulnerability to it, and I’d often be crying by the last song.

My mum and I now live 10 minutes away from each other. She has a great relationship with all her five grandbabies. Our parenting style is virtually identical: Mum has always kept the conversation very open, but within the parameters of what is appropriate for whatever age I am. Which obviously means everything is fair game now.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have this kind of relationship with their mum. She’s my go-to for everything.

Sophie’s father and I were splitting up around the time this photo was taken. My main focus was making sure she was protected; that things in her world stayed as steady as they could – but not being daft. It wasn’t a question of sitting her down and saying: “Mummy and Daddy have decided …” She’s smart, she knew. It was about keeping things fluid.

I was 23 when I had Soph. None of my friends had had babies yet. I thought I was the cleverest person for getting pregnant. She wasn’t entirely planned; in werklikheid, when I first told the doctor, a funny old chap, that I was feeling a bit off, he went: “Oh! Typical gallstones!”

Obviously, I quickly realised what was happening. I had a pretty easy pregnancy and ate for approximately seven people. Eleven weeks after she was born, I went for an audition for the BBC children’s show Jigsaw. Fortunately, the writer adored babies; I think that’s why he hired me.

I’ve had periods of unemployment; there have been lean times in Sophie’s childhood. But I’ve always felt something would turn up, and luckily it has. I was not the first Blue Peter presenter to have a child when I joined, but you probably can’t name the others because it was not part of the narrative of the programme; our role was the big sister. I still got Sophie on screen, wel; she got the rough end of the deal, because she modelled snoods made of dishcloths and once dressed in repurposed bin liners.

When Sophie was eight, she became the target of a lot of older kids, who found her fascinating. But it was all for the wrong reasons. It was because her mum was on telly. I had to say: “Yes, they are lovely people, but let’s invite so-and-so to play instead.” I didn’t want to make her feel as if she’d done anything wrong, but I certainly didn’t want to encourage it.

I was broadly supportive when Sophie joined a band. If it didn’t work out I knew she would figure out the next thing. Op daardie stadium, people would comment that at least she was entering “a world you understand”, but that was not true. The music industry is so different from anything I’ve encountered. I wrote my first novel late and thought that publishers would laugh at me, but it’s a very welcoming world. Music’s not like that; it’s an industry where you are judged 50% on your looks and 50% on your talent. I never wanted to lecture her, but of course along the way there have been things we’ve had to put right. Misogyny shouldn’t be ignored. I’m always disappointed when women my age do this weird reverse thing of going: 'Wel, jy weet, I just dealt with it! Hy was wanking on the bus! You just had to laugh!” No, that was never fine. It wasn’t right then and it’s not right now.

Sophie and I definitely share a sense of humour, and we decorate our houses similarly. Neither of us could claim to be minimalists. My poor husband John, who died last year, had a single white wall in our house that I was never allowed to put anything on.

In Soph, I recognise a kindred spirit. I am categorically not her best friend, but I’m very proud to be her mother. We are always able to catch each other’s eye in a busy room and know exactly what’s going on.

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