Noticing how young policemen are suddenly looking is a sure sign that you're getting on a bit. But a whole royal protection squad of fluffy-chinned baby bobbies couldn't
compare with being left alone in a room for half an hour with the hotter-than-hot British teen pop trio Sugababes.
Far from this being an opportunity for me to indulge in some mild Leslie Phillips-style twinkling - "Hel-leau" - it turns out I'm the one who needs a chaperone.
Tongue-tied doesn't come into it: my mouth muscles are in a state of advanced paralysis. The final straw is when one of the band tells me I remind her of Les Dennis. This
is fast becoming a bad dream. Despite an age gap - chasm might be a better word - that means I'm old enough to be the Sugababes' dad (or even, on a certain kind of sink
estate, their grandfather), it swiftly becomes clear that I am easily the least mature person in the room. The three young women on the sofa opposite me signed a record
deal with the same label as All Saints when they were just 13, and now look set to be one of the bigger pop acts of 2001.
Keisha Buchanan, Siobhan Donaghy and Mutya Buena hit the headlines in September with the release of their single, Overload, a track whose close harmonies, cool,
pulsating rhythms and been-there-seen-it-done-it lyrics suggested a British TLC. Cowritten with Neneh Cherry's husband, Cameron McVey, the song went straight into the
charts at No 6 and has stayed in the Top 40 ever since. And such is the quality of their forthcoming debut album, One Touch, that predictions of stateside success don't
These girls are going places. Limousines, stylists, designer labels, autograph-hunters and opening nights are to be their yardsticks. No teenage humiliations for them -
beauticians will magic away their spots, love will be requited. And the irritating thing is that these north-London schoolgirls have the world at their feet, but seem supremely
nonchalant about it.
In conversation, the trio sound less like wide-eyed kids who have just taken possession of the keys to the candy store than old hands who mastered the art of PR
stonewalling years ago, albeit ones who are still capable of giggling fits. Thus, when I ask if they ever fall victim to the old three's-a-crowd problem as a result of spending so
much time together, Buchanan can answer with a Miss World-worthy, "We may be three, but because we sing together we're in close harmony", then roll her eyes at the
cheesiness of it all.
It is a contradiction that cuts to the heart of the Sugababes phenomenon: young shoulders, old heads; utterly artless, faintly contrived; GCSE-taking teens, snake-hipped,
"We still feel young," says Donaghy, verbally the most measured and cautious of the three. "Even if we're going through things that young people don't all go through, we
don't feel cut off from it."
Her reaction to the band's reception at the recent Mobo awards is almost doleful. "It would have been easy to get a bit big-headed, but then you go to school the next day,
and that brings you down to earth."
Buchanan is the only one who comes close to letting this mask of studied insouciance slip. Her memory of the awards is of "arriving in a limousine and everyone taking
pictures and shouting, 'Look, it's Sugababes!'" When I ask her why she's so hungry to go to America, she confesses to more than just a desire to conquer the world's
biggest record market. "There's another reason, actually," she says, eyes rolling again. "Sisqo [the black singer whose most memorable hit to date was the lubricious Thong
Song]. I like his music and, um ... [long pause, exchanges of glances, some anxious, some complicit] ... you know, him."
The history of pop is littered with young hopefuls propelled at a stroke out of mundane adolescence into a world of red-carpeted unreality and premature adulthood. And
littered, too, with instances of the compromises that have been necessary to achieve this. Britney Spears may be holding onto her virginity until she's got someone's ring on
her finger, but this hasn't stopped her from pouting and preening in schoolgirl outfits to get her message across.
Sugababes make much of their desire to avoid this particular road to riches, drawing a distinction between the overdrilled dance routines of most conveyor-belt pop and their
own looser, consciously slapdash approach. "We tried not to make it the obvious girl-group thing," Buena says of the video for Overload. "We didn't want to get labelled."
Admittedly, the video - an animated, set-to-music United Colours of Benetton ad that reflects the commercially advantageous ethnic bases that Sugababes cover - is indeed
free of the regimented, gymnastically challenging gyrations most girl bands favour.
Yet, in the windswept, bee-stung-lipped suggestiveness of the girls' camera-hogging, the distinction between Sugababes and other pop teens becomes more blurred.
In fairness, it should be said that if Sugababes are merely playing the game, they are doing so with a lot more humour and a lot less cynicism than most. Missing out on
their teens doesn't seem to bother them, so why should it bother us? If they have to pout at a camera once in a while, what's the fuss?
Still, a doubt remains. These three girls can sing like angels and write sweet, sassy soul music, and are going to sell a lot of records. Yet there's something disconcerting
about their cool detachment. Are they level-headed, remarkably wise adolescents who are simply taking each day as it comes? Or are they career professionals, even now
betraying signs of a blank-faced, hard-nosed calculation? Neither alternative is comforting.
Immature as I am, I'd feel happier if they were a bit more teenage. I want them to gush breathily about meeting their heroes and being inundated with designer clothes. But I
suppose it's better to leave them to it. You're only young once and all that. And what do I know about it, anyway?
In the meantime, has anyone got Amanda Holden's phone number?