How loving Fame Academy’s Alex Parks made me unembarrassable | Music

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I always had violent passions, incapable of liking something moderately. I wished I could grow a tail and swim with the Little Mermaid. My Spice Girls obsession lasted until the bitter end, lights off, party over. When I eventually moved on, there was Avril Lavigne, punctually deployed by the record industry to scoop disaffected preteens on a pop comedown into her sweatband-clad arms.

Fandom for me was nearly always solitary. Friends who liked the same music never liked it quite as intensely, as needily. I didn’t really care. I supercharged the intimacy. I wanted my obsessions to be reciprocated and felt certain that they would be if I could just meet their subjects in person. Growing up in Cornwall, there was little chance. Nobody toured there. The only celebrity I had ever met was the actor who played Melody in CBBC drama The Queen’s Nose, signing autographs outside Tesco to promote the panto.

The author in her teenage bedroom (and best friend’s clothes).
The author in her teenage bedroom (and best friend’s clothes). Photograph: Laura Snapes

Then, suddenly, there was a pop star in our midst. The local papers reported that 18-year-old Alex Parkshad got into Fame Academy, the BBC’s wholesome equivalent to Pop Idol. She grew up in the next village along from where my grandparents lived. I had to walk past her brother’s house when I got the bus. I’m sure that kind of rare proximity would have made me root for anyone, but she had a distinct allure. She had short spiked hair and wore baggy clothes and skate shoes. She was shy and pretty. A national paper splashed on her sexuality before the show started. Like Lavigne, she arrived right on time.

At 14, I became more consumed than ever. I had a Saturday job, which allowed me to save up for her clothes – thick brown corduroy trousers, pre-weathered Mickey Mouse T-shirts – sourced on the messageboard where I posted intensively as alexparksrocks. (Typing that now, for the first time in probably 17 years, the muscle memory fizzes.) I got caught with a picture of her stuffed up my sleeve on a mum-supervised trip to the hairdresser; after an argument about not being allowed short hair, I was allowed a half-measures pixie cut. I spent lunchtimes in the IT room printing out every picture of her online, until I had about 300, from penny-size to poster, plastered across my bedroom. Musically, at that stage, she was just a collection of covers – B-52s, Soft Cell, Blondie – becoming something different week by week. (Her subsequent solo material was suitably filled with longing.)

When Radio 1 held a competition for one lucky winner to go to the Fame Academy, I had to enter. Why they asked hopefuls to write an original rap about the show, I will never know. I confess that my dad wrote mine. I got on the show. I rapped live on Radio 1 to Colin and Edith, in for Chris Moyles. I got through to the final. I rapped again, this time over the beat to Get Ur Freak On. It was hard to hear it over the phone. I lost to another girl, and resented Missy Elliott furiously for a while.

The experience had the strange effect of making me unembarrassable, especially as I noticed which sides of my obsession were cheered by adults and which made them uncomfortable. After Parks won Fame Academy, I wrote to a local radio station to ask if I could interview her, reckoning that this would produce a better conversation than simply trying to get noticed as a fan (though I did that whenever possible). They agreed. This was encouraged: it was professional, good, grown up.

Alex Parks: Maybe That’s What It Takes – video

In German, we were learning how to discuss likes and dislikes. I didn’t yet understand that you couldn’t say “so-and-so is my favourite”: you had to prefix “favourite” – “Liebling” – to a noun to say “my favourite singer/actor/etc”. “Alex Parks ist mein Liebling,” I said when called on. The teacher stiffened. “No – that means, ‘Alex Parks is my darling.’” She seemed embarrassed, probably because she knew I had accidentally said exactly what I meant.

One day when I was off sick, our form teacher remarked to the class that we were “probably off gallivanting together”. I wasn’t humiliated, but angry that she would be so inappropriate. The next day, I confronted her and she apologised. Learning what was considered acceptable behaviour for a girl made me bristle against it, from the systemic to the superficial, in ways trenchant and moronic: for a while I routinely cut off my eyelashes.

Inevitably, I would leave Parks behind. I redecorated my room with pictures of the Libertines, Kings of Leon, Razorlight. (“Great,” said my mum. “From lesbians to drug addicts.”) Brazen, gleeful adoration was replaced by trying to prove my worth on indie messageboards. The strain of defence stripped some of the joy. I shrank for a while.

A few years into my career, an infamous troll circulated a link to my teenage interview with Parks to embarrass me. I shared the link myself, reasoning that it was less embarrassing to try something when you’re young and inexperienced than it is for a grown man to mock those attempts. If I was embarrassed about anything, it’s that I would probably never again be so audaciously myself as I was then. That 14-year-old pretty much wanted to be who I am now. But I could always do with more of her.



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