happy 40th birthday victoria beckham!
From pop phenomenon to renowned fashion designer, Victoria Beckham has acted, married, established the Pob (Posh Bob) and had four children. On her 40th birthday we look back to her debut i-D cover feature exactly 10 years ago, for The Secret Issue...
Victoria Beckham by Ellen von Unwerth
Victoria swings open the door. Victoria is in a short kimono and hot lipgloss. Her tiny frame is almost buckling under the weight of her diamonds. Victoria embraces you with the words, "Look at me! I look like Margot friggin' Leadbetter," alluding to the long-forgotten sitcom snob. And then Victoria begins to talk, livid with excitement, about the events that have occurred during the last three years that she has remained silent to the press. Not that the press has remained silent about her, like. But that's another matter entirely.
It transpires that the diamonds are something of a ruse for a business meeting that was due to happen, but didn't. There's been a lot of meetings lately in Victoria-land, on the thorny issue of her music career. Is she a bona fide pop sensation, as once she was, or merely a footballer's wife and tabloid ingénue? Victoria likes to go in on a strong footing to these meetings. A power suit and a truck-load of ice usually does the trick. If there's one thing you could never accuse Victoria of, it's not knowing how to make her visual point.
Today's appointment was at Telstar, the record company that Victoria signed with after her ignominious solo term at Virgin flagged, largely free of event. The musical predicament is thus: at the end of 2002, Victoria signed her contract with Telstar and was dutifully dispatched to record some perfectly acceptable pop disco fodder with advised producers to see where it would take her. "I started off recording for Telstar just after I'd had Romeo. I was a bit up in the air and I wasn't sure which direction I wanted to go in musically. I thought to myself that I wasn't going to do anything until I actually knew what direction I wanted it to take. But I did it anyway. I was in limbo and my emotions were all over the place. I started to record some dance music with producers I was put with."
Then, earlier this year, Victoria Beckham had her life scooped 180 degrees on its head by a lunatically cheery New Yorker with a brilliant business brain. Introduced to one another by Naomi Campbell at a dinner hosted by American Vogue chief whip Anna Wintour - how Dynasty can this story possibly get? - Damon Dash and Victoria clicked instantly. Dash is the rapper Jay-Z's business wing. He has a phenomenally successful hip hop label, Roc-A-Fella, a clothing line, Roc-A-Wear, and a film production company amongst his business interests. He hangs with Puffy, Gisele and Naomi on the New York party circuit. He was dating Aaliyah at the moment of her untimely death. So far, so bling. Yet his tabloid profile, bolstered by the omnipresence of his new working partner, is a one dimensional reading of an astute, erudite and very modern kind of entrepreneur. And Victoria? Well, don't pretend you don't know who she is.
I don't put up with shit, basically. At the end of the day I won't be walked over. You have to bear in mind that in Britain good businessmen are seen as good businessmen, while good businesswomen are seen as bitches. But I don't boss David around. He's a strong person and we're very good for each other
Dash said to Beckham: "Give me five days and I'll give you five records." The papers deliberately misread this as "Give me five days and I'll give you America." Victoria confirms: "He never, ever said that. But we did record almost an album's worth of material in a fortnight."
The material - indeed, the whole experience - was exactly to Victoria's taste. It widened her perspective of where contemporary pop music is and taught her that instinct rather than demographic is the only key to a good record, a lesson she had taught herself whilst a world-conquering Spice Girl. She recorded in Quad Studios, Manhattan, the site of a Tupac Shakur shooting. The irony of this is not beyond her and she now sees Dash's technique of throwing her in at the deep end as a form of examination. To see if she could cope.
"He was testing me, but at the time I didn't realise it. The studio was rough, rough, rough. Just off Times Square. You go through a metal detector to get in there. He told me nothing about it. I'm just there in my high heels and I walk in and there's all these rapper guys sitting around. It was a bit, 'Oh my God.' Put it this way, there weren't any other Spice Girls in the room. But it was fine. He introduced me to MOP and left us to it for a couple of hours. They were drinking whisky and milk. Smoke everywhere. Guys sitting around playing cards. Everyone had their heads down. I'd never been anywhere like that in my life before. I thought, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em' and MOP went and got me a bottle of Cristal. I laid the whole MOP track down half cut. It really surprised Damon. I think he imagined that I'd lose my nerve and want to get out. And I didn't. Because - I have to be honest here - it was a world that absolutely intrigued me."
Victoria took several shades of tabloid battering about her so-called career-swerve before anyone had heard the material. But people clued up to the astronomical musical success of Jennifer Lopez would surely agree that a more urban sound is a neat fit for a woman who is the very definition of British ghetto fabulous. In hindsight it's perfectly permissible that what Dash first saw in Victoria Beckham was a European variant of Lopez because, in many ways, well, she is.
Victoria knows her place in all this. "I'm not Ashanti or anything. I'm not trying to be. And I'm definitely not trying to be hip hop. I think from the stories that have been written, some people think I'm going to start rapping or something, which is just... ridiculous! This just sounds like great pop music to me. It's the sort of thing that I'd want to listen to."
There is a track she threw down with stalwart Wu-Tang jailbird Ol' Dirty Bastard. She borrows a breakdown from Jay-Z's The Blueprint on a soaring hip hopera called That Dude. And the intended single, Don't Disturb This Groove, by all accounts comes locked down with streetsoul savvy, a walloping bass line and killer hook. A heavily re-edited version of her MOP hook-up, It's That Simple, was aired to mostly positive reaction on Tim Westwood's hip hop connoisseur show on Radio One last summer. She fronted a Roc-A-Wear campaign with Naomi Campbell ("Which is sort of ridiculous because I am so not a model. I'm about three foot shorter than her, for a start"). And then everything went a little quiet.
Victoria is delighted with the material; genuinely, giddily excitable. "People think I'm obsessed with the idea of having number one records. They think I lose sleep over it. I don't. I lose sleep worrying about whether my kids are alright. When it comes to music, you know, I just wanted to make something that was good. I've done it before with the Spice Girls. And I wanted to do it again. I don't care whether it goes to number one or does nothing. Just so long as I like it. Pop music is just not the same as it was when the Spice Girls were around. I do think that pop music has deteriorated since that time. There's a lot of not particularly nice stuff out there. We took a chance on pop when it was not being played. But it's different now. I can see that."
Selling Victoria Beckham should not be a difficult task. She is one of the most famous women in the world and international photographers follow wherever she is (witness the hysteria in both the Far East and Spain over the last six months). She sells newspapers on a daily basis. She sells celebrity gossip magazines on a weekly basis, even though she has neither posed nor interviewed for them in the last three years. She has inspired at least one fictional TV series (Footballer's Wives) and thousands of hours of documentary airtime. She is one of the most fundamentally intriguing characters that modern fame has thrown our way. She is - and she knows this as much as anyone - both loved and loathed in equal measure.
Yet clearly there has been some friction in how to negotiate her actual career as a pop starlet. She is speculated on every single day by hard-faced columnists who have nothing better to do with their time than wonder whether she is keeping hubbie happy. Her recent move to Madrid to follow David's footballing career was the cause of so much widespread panic amongst the tabloid media that every single red-top positioned a journalist in their new home city under the auspicious title 'Beckham correspondent'. Victoria and her husband are a fully-fledged phenomena. They are the benchmark by which modern British celebrity is measured. A couple has not been so obsessed over and ruminated on since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. As such, they are the trifle of the kind of rumour that shifts minute by minute.
The assumption since Victoria met Damon and he impacted so strongly on her career direction is, of course, that she is sleeping with him.
So is there an affair we should know of?
Me and Damon? Oh my God! I mean, that is ridiculous. I couldn't even begin to think of him in that way. Me and David are good friends with Damon. Working with him has been inspiring. This talk of an affair is just rubbish and everyone knows it's rubbish.
Is David jealous of him?
No, of course not.
Have they met?
Yes, loads of times. We spent a couple of weeks together in LA when we were over there. He's been to the house over here and played pool with David. Of course they get on. David loves hip hop and, through David, Damon is coming to love football. He's going to go over to Madrid soon to see him because they've been talking about hooking up. They get on really well - but of course that's not as interesting for people to read about in the papers. If David wasn't happy for me to be working with Damon, I wouldn't do it. David said to me that I've got to go with my gut instinct and what I like, and that's the most important thing. He thinks Damon's great at what he does and that he's a great businessman. Damon and David went clubbing together in New York. He's as fascinated as me by the whole culture around Damon and Damon took him to hip hop clubs in New York because David, as everyone knows, loves hip hop. At the end of the day, one great businessman is going to respect another. Damon has a lot of respect for David. When I first met Damon, he had no idea what my profile was like in England. He had no idea. He spotted something in me. He's been a real eye opener.
Are you aware of people thinking of you as being the Lady Macbeth figure in your relationship with David?
Yeah, I'm not blind. I don't put up with shit, basically. That's it. At the end of the day I won't be walked over and you have to bear in mind that in Britain good businessmen are seen as good businessmen and good businesswomen are seen as bitches. I don't boss David around. He's a strong person.
How hurtful has the recent press got?
Yeah, it can be hurtful. I don't read all of it. I look at the pictures and notice what the outfit looks like. That's it. The inaccuracy hurts me. Because you won't necessarily get the opportunity to put the truth across.
Do you think the undercurrent of what the British press want to say about you is that you're not good enough for him?
Yes, I do. I think that, at the end of the day, there's a lot of women out there that would like to be married to David. Which I can understand. But that's two way. We are very, very good for each other. When we first met, I was at the highest high and there were people who implied that he wasn't good enough for me. We do lead quite private lives. I never have anybody in my house. Nobody knows what our relationship is really like apart from me and him. From the minute I met him I knew he was the one. He's my best friend and soul mate and I think we're very lucky to have met each other. We want to grow old and wrinkly together. We've got to the point now where we do take legal action against the papers because it's starting to impact on the kids and our families. When it's about us, fine. You know? Say what you want. But not about the kids and our families. We have to be able to protect them.
Why do the press resent you so much?
Somebody's got something in for me. I don't know who it is and why it is, but it's true. Me not wanting to move to Spain. Me and Alex Ferguson. Marital problems with me and David. Me trying to control David. I'm not quite sure where it has come from. He's my husband and I love him. If David said to me that he wanted to go and live in Japan and it was genuinely what was best for his career, then I'd go. That's how much I love him. I love him more than anything. Whatever happens, I have a husband and two kids who are the most important things in my life. And that's returned from him. He worships the ground that me and the kids walk on. I couldn't ask for anyone to be so supportive.
Is there any love lost between you and Alex Ferguson?
I've never really spoken up about the thing with Alex. I said a little on Parkinson that got me into trouble, but then my personality sometimes does get me into trouble. There's never been a problem between us. We're on 'hello' terms: I say 'hello' and he says 'hello' back. That's it. He's a tough man and a good businessman and there's a reason he gets so much respect and I'd be foolish not to respect that. Certain things have happened with him and David but we're living a real life, you know? Certain things happen all over the place. That's fine. We deal with it. I respect people who get results. I don't know anything about football or the politics of it, but he gets results. Good on him. Success is not easy to gain. That's what people forget. I'm under no illusions about the way people think about me and music - but I know I've got good stuff. It's just that people have to hear it.
Does it make you nervous that there are loads of women out there who want to be married to your husband?
Look, David comes across as extremely confident but he has insecurities just like we all do. Of course sometimes I think 'Goodness, he's really really good looking!' But I know that when we read stuff that implies that either of us are messing about, it hurts both of us as much as the other. You have to trust each other. Having kids really does change your perspective. You see them, tiny and beautiful, and it makes you aware of your own ageing process. Good looks don't last forever. A good relationship should do.
Madrid is the new problem, isn't it? They want you to be by his side all the time. Haven't you always spent quite a lot of time apart anyway?
Ever since I first met David I was travelling round the world. We used to snatch a weekend in Paris or go to Ireland just so we could be together. That did cause a few problems between David and Alex Ferguson, but yeah, travelling has always been part of what we've done. Even when I first had Brooklyn I was always travelling back and forth to Manchester, but because I was in England people could see me and that was fine. For the first few weeks after David had gone to Madrid there was this onslaught about me not moving over there - and of course nobody's printing that David isn't there either because he's over in China doing pre-season training. I mean, what would you rather do? Stay in London with your family or travel out to Spain and sit in a hotel room with your kids with 500 paparazzi outside the front door and your husband away in China? I always try and time whatever I'm doing with what David's doing. It's not that easy for us. I'm not gonna complain about the paparazzi because some cynical bitch will read this and say 'Look at her moaning again' and there'll be a whole new set of criticisms to deal with. But it's been so, so intense since the move. We're very happy in our new home. These things are tricky. I'm juggling spending time as a family, Brooklyn's school, my work, David's schedule, finding a house. You know? None of these things are small. They all take a lot of time and energy. We're renting a house at the moment and one of the papers - I think it was the Daily Mail, who we call the Daily Hate Mail - said 'Well, at last she's moved into a house. But it's only rented.' It's like, what can I do? Everything I do is wrong. We haven't found a house that's available to buy so we're renting. So what? All our furniture from Manchester's been moved out there; that's where I spend a good deal of my time. That is my home. I love spending time out there. Who wouldn't like it? Much as I love my work, my priority is my family being together. Me and David are like glue. When we're not together we're on the phone. We've come to the conclusion that it's better to let them say what they're gonna say. The day that all that stuff broke about David messing about with some girl and then they realise it's actually a friend of mine and that she works with us, that was the day we said 'enough'. Let them get on with it. Then the whole Damon thing happened. Of course I'm going to spend time with him. He's my producer. You have to say 'whatever'. It's fine. Let them say it. The next thing I'll get is them saying about the music. Do you know how many people have heard this music that have written it off? None. Everyone thinks I live in this palace and I've got my head rammed up my arse, and I've actually been really grounded about this.
There wasn't really a precedent for David, was there? There hasn't ever been a man so iconicised for his looks.
It is acknowledged that David is more than a footballer, yeah. It's to do with a lot more than that. We both feel responsible for each other.
Do you think that people see you as the hard one?
I think that people think I'm a miserable bitch. But that's people that don't know me.
Today the miserable bitch has everything to be miserable about. A new record with everyone ready to pounce. A shrewish media presence desperate for her to fuck it all up. Ulrika Jonsson, of all people, implying that she's a bad mother. But Victoria is taking it all on the chin. A little known fact about Victoria Beckham? She's rather funny. I ask her if it's strange living in a country in which she can't understand what people are saying. "Sometimes that's for the best. Besides, I've started learning Spanish. I can say 'Donde Gucci?' and 'Donde Dolce e Gabbana?' and 'Donde my bloody Bentley?' And someone taught me how to say 'puta', which means 'ho', so I can speak hip hop Spanish."
Sometimes she can be more Footballer's Wives than her fictional counterparts. And sometimes she can be a classy little dame safe in the knowledge that she's flogged 40 million records and fully aware that the end is far from near. "As far as my music career goes," she says wistfully, "I have nothing to lose." One of the many things she has learned from her assignation with Damon Dash is that to come from nothing and prove yourself to be something is nothing to be ashamed of. "I think it was Richard Branson that said to me if you get a Rolls Royce in America, they pat you on the back. If you get one in Britain, they scratch a key down the side of it." In many ways Victoria Beckham and her husband are the living embodiment of the American Dream, albeit with a home counties twist. "I like the way that it's cool to come from nothing and get somewhere. I mean, what exactly is wrong with that? And, to some extent, that is me and David. That's what we've done. I love England. I love London. It's great to see the way other cultures operate, though. And that enthusiasm and ambition that you see all over America? You know, that is me."
Before the tape peters out to its exhausted end, it seems only fair to keep the tabloids happy with something for their newsbench. I ask where David's hair is headed next. "It just seems to be getting longer and longer. I was talking to my mum before and she said, 'you know the only person who's had that haircut other than David?' and I said 'who?' And she said 'Jesus'."
She contemplates for a moment.
And on that note...?
And turns the tape off.
Text Paul Flynn
Photography Ellen von Unwerth
Fashion Director Edward Enninful
Styling Mark Morrison