Words: Jamie Tabberer; picture: Instagram/BMG
"I'm Michelle from Steps!" declares Michelle Visage over Zoom, as actual Steps cheer her on from their respective screens.
Yep, Faye Tozer, Ian 'H' Watkins, Claire Richards, Lee Latchford-Evans and Lisa Scott-Lee have recruited an extra member for new single 'Heartbreak In This City': a collab no one saw coming but which makes perfect, if somewhat surreal sense.
Michelle - currently gracing screens on the US and UK versions of RuPaul's Drag Race - has of course played the song to her work spouse. "Ru was like: 'Unbelievable, I love it, it's gonna be a smash!'" she says. "I also got a message from Louis Walsh: 'This is going to be huge.'"
"What does he know about music?" chimes in H, still cheeky 24 years later. (Yes, it's that long since '5, 6, 7, 8' came out in 1997. "Our fourth decade!" realises Claire with a shock).
Here, Michelle and the band reflect on showbiz longevity, H's recent break-up and dealing with online trolls...
Congratulations on the track! How did guys get Michelle on board?
Lee: We bribed her lots of money!
Claire: It was quite natural actually. Michelle interviewed us on Instagram Live and it came up in conversation. Our manager said: 'Let's get her on 'Heartbreak in This City'! He asked and she said yes straight away!
Michelle, have you always been a Steps fan?
I have. It's ABBA meets Ace of Base. '5, 6, 7, 8' is special to me. To be on a record with them? Somebody pinch me.
What was it like recording the song in a socially distanced age?
H: It's actually no different to the normal age! Everybody has this idea that the band stands around a microphone as five. You record separately.
Are there any planned TV appearances for the song?
Michelle: I'm not saying a word...
Lisa: It's difficult to say at the moment!
Michelle: We are so unsubtle!
Michelle, has dipping your toe into music made you want to record solo?
I've recorded stuff with Ru over the years, bits and bobs. This felt really good. When I was in my girl group [Seduction] it was very Svengali like. We didn't have a say in anything, we had the world's worst record deal - there was no freedom. So I didn't really enjoy the perks of being in a pop group. This has made me think, maybe I could do it on my own. But does anyone really need a 50-year-old pop star?
Faye: We do!
Lisa: There are some out there.
Michelle: There are, but they're already established. But there are no rules anymore. If I do it, and it's not Ariana Grande, that's OK too... So you never know, Jamie.
Kylie Minogue recently revealed she recorded a duet with Prince that was never released. Do any of you have similar stories?
Claire: Johnny Vaughan and Denise Van Outen did a charity cover of 'Especially For You' and we did backing vocals.
Lee: I don't think Johnny and Denise are quite along the lines of Prince...
H: Faye, you sang with Cyndi Lauper, didn't you?
Faye: I did, that was cool. I was 22. We were writing for the Buzz album and went off and did our own individual things with writers, producers. I did a week with Cyndi. I have demos with her doing backing vocals!
Michelle: That's amazing! I did a song with James Brown when I was in the group. There was a big rap band called Leaders of the New School; they put me in a song called 'Can't Get Any Harder': LOTNS and James Brown. When the song came out, they cut my verse! I have it at my house. I've been archiving my music and radio stuff in lockdown.
Lisa: Me and H worked with Gary from Take That. I actually recorded in his house. He gave me a tour on his golf buggy!
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Michelle - for drag queen names, what do you think of 'name of first pet, street you grew up on'?
Michelle: I mean, it's laypeople's drag names. But mine's actually really fabulous: Dede Fairmount. A rich woman with lots of faux furs!
H: Mine's Toby Castle.
Faye: That doesn't do it for me. Mine's Sadie Beecroft.
Michelle: She can hang with Dede!
H: The name I want is already taken. There's this amazing drag queen in Cardiff called Joanna Bumme! I'm single and I'm putting it out there.
Lisa: I'm open to suggestions for mine!
Claire: My first pet was an albino rabbit called Harvey, so Harvey Lees. Bit boring isn't it?
Lee: They're better as porn names. Mine's Tiger Seymore. And that was a hamster!
Given the theme of the song, what are your top tips for getting over heartbreak?
H: I've enough experience, Jesus Christ.
Lisa: Over to you, H!
H: Gin, tequila... and friends. Talking it out.
Claire: It's been a long time. It's got to involve your friends, wine and ice cream.
Lee: A punchbag in the gym.
Michelle: There's a lyric in 'Heartbreak in This City': "Hear your car at 3am." I thought it was: "Key your car at 3am!"
H: I'm going to do that. Fuck it.
I wanted to ask about longevity, as you've all enjoyed really long careers...
H: Michelle's had longer than us, she's really old.
Lisa: And it was going so well.
Michelle: Wait until H's mic gets cut off!
H: Don't key my car!
Michelle: The key to longevity, for me, is sticking around long enough to enjoy the dessert. Especially in business. In life, we don't really have control, but in business, we put these unrealistic expectations and deadlines on ourselves. If we don't reach this by this date, we're going to quit. It's good to have a few irons in the fire, but rolling with the punches and adapting can help you go further.
Faye: As a group we're lucky to have had so many chapters. But we've also been out and had our own experiences and grown as individuals.
Claire: A lot of it is down to our commitment to the band and how we treat it professionally. We're protective of the brand.
Lee: We just give the fans what they want, to be honest. We've grown. We know what works for Steps.
It helps that you all look exactly the same!
Claire: I wish!
Changing the tone a bit - another showbiz veteran would be Britney Spears, who Steps supported on tour in 1999. Have you guys seen the documentary, Framing Britney Spears?
Michelle: I have. I once interviewed her on the radio in New York and she was lovely. So sweet. The girl you knew then is the girl you know now. The documentary solidified what I thought all along - that the media wanted to make her something she wasn't. The media let her down.
Lee: She was lovely when we toured with her, I know that.
Lisa: We had each other for support. She's a solo artist, and that's a big part of it.
H: We spent a lot of time with Britney. I spent a lot of one-on-one time with her because I travelled with her a lot. She was such a friendly, warm, kind girl. It was clear watching the documentary that it was the people around her.
H: Having had just a taste of what she experienced... we had people back in the day who tried to control everything. The beauty of where we are now is we are our own bosses. I wish she was in the same position.
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The film has us all thinking about how the media and public treat public figures. We've come a long way... but, on the flipside, we haven't. Alan Carr's had anti-gay abuse this week; H, you had some horrible comments after Dancing On Ice last year. Has anything changed?
H: We know it hasn't. Sadly, it's the one-year anniversary of Caroline Flack's [death]. Gone way too soon. This online abuse has to stop, and the abuse by the papers. We are not commodities.
Michelle: Listen, you may not like the way I judge on TV, or that Alan Carr is gay, but at the end of the day, it doesn't affect you at all. So why take time out of your day to throw negative, hateful energy at someone you don't even know? What kind of person are you? Is your life that boring? That empty? It says so much about that person. We're strong enough to know it won't take us down. But there are a lot of kids out there who are not that strong.
Lee: Nobody should be ridiculed or put down these days, especially for mental health.
Claire: Or judged. There's a lot of judgement on social media. There's a generation growing up only knowing social media. We didn't grow up with it, so we can take it or leave it. It's worrying that our children are growing up under that type of microscope.
How can we get on top of this problem?
Michelle: Cancel culture, for one, needs to stop. I'm so over it. Everyone deserves a second chance. You need to take responsibility for the things you've done in that past that are not OK, and some people are unwilling to change and must suffer the consequences. But cancel culture is very dangerous.
Lisa: It's just really interesting listening to you [on this subject], Michelle. In Australia they're really taking action. It would be really great for the UK to do more within the laws, because at the minute it's a free-for-all. I said to my husband Johnny [Shentell] for years, I think it would be a good idea for us all to have internet passports, so your name is there, and you're not hiding behind a pseudonym. I think that would stop a lot of it.
Claire: It's amazing how quickly music is blocked, but all these horrible troll comments, you have to fight [to have them removed]. The algorithms are wrong. They're not concentrating on the right things.
H: You can hardly blame Meghan and Harry for buggering off, can you?
Michelle: Everyone has to look out for their own selves. If that's what works for them, so be it. I'm not defending them. But that's what they wanted and needed to do for themselves and their child. Life is fast, furious and short. We shouldn't be so concerned with other people's issues.
To finish, a silly question for the band. How does it feel to know you're always played at weddings?
Lee: What's weird is the song that's played the most is 'Tragedy'. That's not the right thing to be playing, is it?
Claire: Because the video was about weddings! I don't think I played any Steps at my wedding...
Lee: I didn't at mine. It's nice to see people dancing to your songs - but I do prefer sitting in the corner and watching!
Claire: When a song comes on, it's sometimes worse if you're like, I'm going to go to the loo, get a drink...
Lee: If you're caught on the spot, definitely embrace it!
H: A Steps song is part of everyone's life soundtrack in some way.
Lisa: And it's the same for us. We've grown up with Steps. Music connects people and takes you back to that moment in time.
Heartbreak In This City is out now.