Any mother of five who is still sane after two-and-a-half months of lockdown will surely have some survival tips for the rest of us. And Sophie Ellis-Bextor does indeed have advice.
Come Friday night, when the textbooks have been flung in a corner and you’ve finished screeching at the kids, you should dig out your heels and put on your sparkliest hot pants, she says.
‘If you don’t own a sequined one-piece, you should get one,’ the singer insists. ‘They make you feel like a disco superhero!’
She would also recommend a glitterball to hang in the kitchen. It will distract from the dirty dishes, she says.
Sophie-Ellis Bextor (pictured) has donned her glad rags every Friday night for ten weeks and, via the magic of social media, invited us all to a disco round at hers
Tidying the kitchen is optional, though: ‘I do try to but if there’s the odd dish in the sink, who cares?’
When the history of the great British lockdown is written, there will be villains (take a bow, Dominic Cummings) and heroes.
And Sophie Ellis-Bextor will surely be in line for a medal, for services to the national dancefloor (kitchen disco division).
Every Friday night for ten weeks she has donned her own glad rags and, via the magic of social media, invited us all to a disco round at hers.
She has been in charge of the mic, singing her own hits (with tweaks) and cover versions of some of her other favourites (speaking of favourite things, she even does a mean Julie Andrews).
Each week she has changed the lyrics of one of her biggest hits, Take Me Home, to the lockdown-friendly Stay At Home. We cheered. We heeded. ‘Well, most people did,’ she says.
Lots of entertainers have been doing their stuff in lockdown. Few of them have done so with five children in tow, though, and with such pizzazz.
You’d never guess it from the size of her waist but 41-year-old Sophie — whose mother is former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis — has five sons, aged from 16 down to 16 months. Her family life has never really been a part of her work.
But at the start of lockdown, something changed and she decided to stop being so precious about the work/home life divide.
Sophie, 41, whose mother is former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis, has five sons, aged from 16 down to 16 months. But her family life has never really been a part of her work until keeping it private felt ‘totally irrelevant. Pictured during her ‘Kitchen Disco’ with baby Mickey
‘I’ve always been quite private, never showing the kids’ faces, that sort of thing,’ she says.
‘But suddenly it all felt totally irrelevant. I just had this desire to sort of connect with people, to have fun and do something that just distracted us all — and for me, as an entertainer, that meant getting up and putting on a show.
‘If it was going to be a show in my own house, the kids had to be involved as we’re all locked down together. That overwhelmed any other emotion, really.
‘I said to them, ‘We’re going to have a party. Do you want to come? What do you want to wear?’
‘We pulled out all manner of sequined things we already had. They got out costumes, hats, whatever. There were no rules. They could be in their pyjamas if they wanted, because they often are.
‘At the end of the first one, I remember making a joke like, ‘This could be the end of my career.’ ‘
In another time, it could have been. What too-cool-for-school singer sashays around the Lego, for goodness’ sake? And what pop star hoicks a baby onto her hip, limbos around the lightsabers or attempts some sexy strutting when there is a pint-sized Superman in the way?
‘It has been quite surreal, hasn’t it?’ she says with a laugh. ‘But this whole situation is surreal, so I guess it has been fitting.
‘We’ve had all sorts — the kids joining in, or sitting there bored with it all as I dance around them. We’ve had the baby crawling across the floor, trying to pull the plug out of the router. It’s not stuff you normally have to contend with when you go on stage.’
And the performances have been all the more magical for it, I suggest. Her kitchen discos have been in keeping with the national mood, which lurches between delirium and despair and involves much trying to get on with the day job, with the kids at our feet.
The singer advises people to dig out your heels and put on your sparkliest hot pants every Friday night during lockdown. Sophie is pictured singing with Ray (left) and Kit
All our kids are represented in hers, too. There is Sonny, 16 and a typical teenager, who mostly rolls his eyes at the idea of being in his mum’s disco ‘but actually he’s invaluable because he helps with the baby so I can relax’.
Kit, 11, has ‘kind of dipped in and out of the discos. He has missed a few. Sometimes he’d just rather do something else’.
Ray, eight, and Jesse, four, are generally game for anything — but if the children all join in at the same time, while wearing masks, the potential for chaos is high.
Last is baby Mickey, who likes to reach for bright lights. And cables. And sparkly shoes.
‘I think what has kept some people tuning in is the music, but others are only watching to see if any of my kids injure themselves,’ Sophie says.
People may also be tuning in to see her game attempts at making the most inappropriate songs kid-friendly. Her new repertoire includes the highly suggestive Prince song Gett Off. If the kids ask, it’s a song about getting off the climbing frame, she explains.
When we speak, Sophie is preparing for — sob! — the last lockdown disco. Kitchen Disco No 10 will finish with a rousing rendition of the Madness hit Our House, which contains the lines ‘Our house it has a crowd/ There’s always something happening/ And it’s usually quite loud’.
How apt. That sums up family life in all its messy glory.
It will be the end of a very weird chapter for Sophie.
‘We could keep going but I’m getting the feeling that lockdown is being eased. There is a different feel, so it’s time to stop. Although I’m bad at saying ‘never again’.’
It has been a blast — and Sophie admits she has benefited herself.
‘The discos have done my soul and my spirit the world of good. I’ve always turned to music anyway when anything has been happening in my life, good or bad, but I don’t know what shape the past few months would have taken without this outlet.
‘I’ve been doing cover versions of songs and they have all basically been like love letters to people I can’t see any more.’
Each week the singer has changed the lyrics of one of her biggest hits, Take Me Home, to the lockdown-friendly Stay At Home. Pictured introducing her seventh Kitchen Disco
Lockdown came earlier for this household than for most of us. One of the children showed symptoms even before the schools closed, so they all isolated early.
That Sophie’s stepfather — Janet’s husband, John Leach — was having chemotherapy as part of his cancer treatment made the situation even more serious.
They are a close family. Janet, who lives only a few streets away in West London, is used to popping in and out, and provides childcare once a week. Any contact at all between them stopped overnight, as it did for so many families.
‘I haven’t hugged my mum since I don’t remember when,’ Sophie says. ‘They couldn’t leave their house at all at the beginning, so it was a case of leaving some groceries on the doorstep. My stepfather has Stage Four lung cancer and was in the middle of chemo, which had to stop.
‘Now, thankfully, it has restarted but it has been a terrible time — devastating, really. For so many families the world has just tilted.’ The older children understand why they can’t see their grandparents, the little ones less so.
This is a united family (Sophie’s mum split from her father, film and television producer Robin Bextor, but they are all on good terms), yet not necessarily one that ever did things by the rulebook.
Many will recall the furore when Janet — then the nation’s darling, as many Blue Peter presenters were — fell pregnant with Sophie’s brother Jackson. She was unmarried at the time and it was a national scandal.
It sounds as if Janet was the sort of mother Sophie has become — old-fashioned about some things (table manners, eating together) but more relaxed about others. And Mum having a slightly crazy day job was par for the course.
Lockdown came earlier for Sophie’s household than for most households. One of the children showed symptoms even before the schools closed, so they all isolated early. She is pictured with her husband Richard Jones, who plays his Star Wars Millennium Falcon guitar
‘I remember going with her when she did a skydive. She was in the Guinness Book of Records at one point for the highest-altitude jump for a female. At the time it was just normal.’
Janet didn’t mind when Sophie decided she would not go to university because she wanted to join a band. ‘Many parents would have said, ‘No, we have paid for this private education. You will go,’ but they never did. They were completely supportive.’
And of course, it worked out. Sophie started to get attention in the industry in the Nineties with indie band Theaudience — but in 2000 her career went mainstream thanks to a feature spot on the song Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) by Spiller.
Further hits followed. Then, in 2013, she went even more mainstream, signing up for Strictly Come Dancing. Her Charleston was a thing of wonder but she lost in the final to Abbey Clancy.
She knew her husband, The Feeling bassist Richard Jones, for a year before they started dating. When they did, it was something of a whirlwind and she discovered she was pregnant within weeks.
‘Sonny was premature, so he was actually born eight months after we got together. Weird maths.’
Then, finding that it was rather fun, they kept having children. ‘In a way I think it sort of set the tone, having Sonny so early. We’ve never really known what it is to be just the two of us.’
Juggling a pop career with five children can’t have been easy, but her laid-back approach must help.
Some aspects of her parenting style have come in handy in lockdown, she says. ‘I try to get up and dressed myself, but I’m not bothered if they want to stay in their pyjamas,’ she admits.
Other aspects of lockdown have been hard. She admits she is not a natural home schooler.
The family have all been clapping on their doorstep every Thursday, aware of the debt they owe the NHS. Sophie’s life was saved by doctors when she suffered from complications during her first two pregnancies and gave birth prematurely both times
‘With five, it has been really difficult keeping up with the school stuff. I think their teachers do a brilliant job and I can’t compare.
‘At the start I did try hard, but to be honest I was feeling a lot of pressure to be running the home and making them emotionally happy. I quit quite early, realising it was making me really tense and really unhappy.
‘We’ve kept the eldest two doing more formal work (Sonny is in his GCSE year, she explains) but with the little ones it’s more about projects they can do.’
She says it isn’t practical — or even desirable — to turn their home into a school. ‘I’m hoping that home is where they learn to interact with each other, where they learn how to be happy, how to be kind.’
They have all been clapping on the doorstep on a Thursday night, too, aware of the debt they owe the NHS.
Sophie’s life was saved by doctors when she suffered from complications during her first two pregnancies and gave birth prematurely both times. Kit weighed just 2 lb 6 oz.
‘Anyone who has ever had a loved one’s life in the hands of hospital staff knows what it is to feel that gratitude,’ Sophie says.
‘If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here and neither would my first two.
‘I’ll never forget their faces, the doctors and nurses who treated us in the neonatal unit. You don’t, because you owe them everything.’
To be a singer in this climate is perhaps to feel a little superfluous, but Sophie says the only things she can do are sing and dance. The reaction from the wider world to her ‘little discos’ has been heartwarming.
‘If you can make people smile and laugh at how daft it all is, then you make a connection that is actually quite special.’
We are getting all wistful now, when I suggest that her sons will grow up knowing they were a part of something magical. She laughs.
‘They are more likely to roll their eyes at their crazy mum dancing around and tell me to keep the noise down!’