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Louise Redknapp: ‘Strictly put the fire back in my belly but it didn’t break up my relationship’

The night before I meet Louise Redknapp, I go to see her in her latest West End show, 9 to 5 The Musical. She plays Violet, the character made famous by Lili Tomlin in the classic 1980 film, and in many ways the most obviously feminist character in the story. Redknapp herself is very enjoyable to watch, stomping around the stage, furiously pointing out that men get promotions for laughing at the boss’s jokes while she is not even thanked for making the coffee. But, not long ago, this casting would have seemed bizarre.

Redknapp has been in the public eye for a quarter of a century, but she has never exactly been associated with feminism. After studying at the Italia Conti stage school, Louise Nurding, as she was then known, shot to fame at the age of 18 in the early 90s girl group Eternal, and then cemented her celebrity status by achieving that ultimate 90s ambition, marrying a footballer – Jamie Redknapp, the son of manager Harry. Their telegenic union – the pretty pop star and equally pretty sports star – predated the Beckhams, but the Redknapps were a less flashy proposition. When their first child was born, in 2004, she quit her by then solo music career to live in what she frequently described as domestic bliss. Redknapp came across as sweet, unthreatening and a bit bland, and seemed destined for a contented life as a Surrey housewife with her two sons, Charley, now 14, and Beau, 10, living among the footballing dynasty. But then, in 2017, Redknapp did something that no one expected: she walked out of her marriage.

I meet Redknapp, 44, in a room in the Savoy hotel in London, just above the theatre where she is appearing in 9 to 5. As well as performing tonight, she will spend the afternoon finishing work on her upcoming album, Heavy Love, her first in 18 years, which will be released in October. Whatever emotional toll her divorce – which was finalised in December 2017 – has exacted on her, it has certainly motivated, or freed, her professionally.

Redknapp as Violet Newstead (centre) with Natalie McQueen and Amber Davies in 9 to 5 The Musical. Photograph: Simon Turtle

In tight black trousers, ankle boots and a loose dark top, her hair long and highlighted in various shades of gold and auburn, she looks almost identical to how she did in her pop heyday. She embraces me with the easy warmth of one who is very practised in the art of making strangers like her.

“Did you see the show last night? Did you like it? It’s fun, right? Oh good, I’m so glad. You liked it, right?” she says with more nervousness than I had expected: she was the one, after all, who chose a new storyline, and walked away.

We talk about the show, and Redknapp eagerly brings up how timely its revival is, off the back of the #MeToo movement. She insists she never experienced any sexual harassment when she was working as a 90s pop star and appearing in men’s magazines: “Maybe because I was so young,” she suggests, which isn’t the most credible reason. “Or maybe because [Eternal] were so successful so quickly, so the record company cocooned us,” she adds, which seems more plausible.

And yet she does feel a personal connection to 9 to 5: “You know, it’s about female empowerment and I think I’m at a stage of my life when I really need that, to stand up and be strong,” she says.

Although Redknapp makes frequent references during our conversation to her “gang of girlfriends”, seeing her onstage the night before was the first time I had seen her surrounded by women since her Eternal days. For the past 20 years, whenever she was photographed she was invariably with her husband. I tell her it always surprised me that she was never part of the group of high-profile wives and girlfriends of other footballers, given how ready-made she seemed for that role. But she was never photographed out having a laugh with Colleen Rooney and Cheryl Cole. “I think Jamie, being that slightly bit more old school, didn’t want any of that. His sport is what comes first, no circus around it. So I just kept to myself,” she says.

When Redknapp confirmed, in September 2017, that her seemingly perfect marriage was over, the circus around the two of them could hardly have been more hysterical. While the British public is very used to footballers leaving their wives, no one seemed to know what to make of the narrative being reversed.

“It was more mutual than that but, yes, I moved out,” she says, carefully, when I ask if she initiated the divorce. She was followed by battalions of paparazzi every night and the celebrity press tutted at her “late nights on the town” (to the theatre, where, at the time, she was starring in Cabaret).

With Jamie Redknapp in 2010, seven years before they split up. Photograph: Paul Grover/Rex/Shutterstock

At around the same time, Wayne Rooney was accused, again, of infidelity when he was caught drink driving with a young woman who was not his wife. But whereas Rooney’s actions were treated with a benign just-Wayne-being-Wayne shrug by the public, Redknapp was nationally castigated for having “a midlife crisis” and abandoning her children. Did she notice the disparity between the coverage of the two stories?

“I did. I felt it. And I felt really, really bullied. It made me want to scream. Just because I went back to work and my marriage wasn’t working out doesn’t mean I wasn’t with my kids,” she says with a rod of fury in her voice. “And, yeah, when I was in Cabaret I wasn’t putting them to bed every night, but it’s no different to a man in the City working late.”

Or Jamie doing late-night football commentary? “Yeah, on A League of Their Own. Jamie would then take the kids on holiday and the papers would say: ‘Oh, what an amazing dad.’ And he is an amazing dad; I cannot say a bad word about Jamie when it comes to being a dad. But no one patted me on the back when I’d taken the kids on Easter holiday on my own for the past 10 years. Jamie had to work doing the football, it was school holidays, so I’d take them on holiday and never once did anyone say: ‘What a great mum.’ It was really tough sitting back and not speaking up.”

There was such widespread bafflement at Redknapp’s decision to leave her marriage that there was inevitable speculation about why. Many cited Strictly Come Dancing, on which Redknapp had appeared the previous year, and its record of ending relationships. “Strictly put the fire back in my belly, but it didn’t break up my relationship. After 20 years of marriage, it takes a lot more than that,” scoffs Redknapp.

It was also suggested that Redknapp was having an affair with the model Daisy Lowe, who had appeared on Strictly with her. Redknapp reels back against the sofa when I mention this.

“I really think the double standards were coming into play there,” she says. Because people were adamant there had to be a specific reason for you leaving your husband? She nods: “Yeah, and Daisy and I only went out together four times or something. So the idea [that I left my husband for Lowe] … I remember my kids saying: ‘Mum, are you going out with Daisy Lowe?’ And I had to say: ‘Guys, no.’ I became people’s morning entertainment while they read their paper on the train and ate their croissant. I tried to laugh it off, but the damage these stories were doing to me and those around me was huge.”

Redknapp – or Louise Nurding as she was then – with her Eternal bandmates in 1994. Photograph: Tony Larkin/Rex/Shutterstock

In order to understand the end of a marriage it is necessary to understand its beginnings and, for all the lurid speculation, the path that led the Redknapps to divorce was all too prosaic. When they married in 1998, she was at least as big a star as him, but she happily gave up her music career to be a wife and mother: “It took me so long to get pregnant the first time – four years – so I was just so in love with my little boy,” she says. “And, for the first seven or eight years, it was quite nice to not have to worry about where your record’s going, or if people like you. But as time went on, I’d drop the kids off at school, go home, walk the dogs and then go home and think: ‘I have five hours until school pick-up.’ That’s a long day. It was fine when they were young, because I’d pick them up at 12. Then it changed; they’re at school and doing sport, Jamie was doing his thing, and there was pure panic. I was lonely and I felt like I had nothing to say.”

Redknapp and her ex-husband have been careful in speaking only positively of one another throughout their divorce, but hints of other narratives shine through the cracks. She refers to him as “a family man” and their marriage as “traditional”, and while he grew up in a close, old-fashioned family, she was the daughter of a “very independent working mum”, and, yes, “maybe subconsciously”, she agrees, that might have created some problems between them. She was not a football fan (“No, never,” she says, firmly and proudly), so I ask if it was ever a tiny bit dull being ensconced with the Redknapps, given that her then husband, father-in-law and husband’s cousin, Frank Lampard, are all football royalty. “I think I just got used to it,” she says with a winning smile.

Redknapp’s explanation about the split is that she had low self-esteem and didn’t feel able to say she wanted to start working again, and in no way was that her ex-husband’s fault. “I wish I’d spoken up and said how I felt, but I thought everyone would think I was nuts and say: ‘Why are you low? Look at you, you’re so lucky.’”

But if you had spoken up, would Jamie have been OK with you going back on the stage and in the studio? She pauses: “I don’t know. But at least I’d have known I tried,” she says.

So it was easier to leave than to say anything? Her voice drops: “Maybe. We women don’t make it easy for ourselves.”

Given Strictly’s record of ending relationships, I ask if she agreed to be on the show because she saw it as a way out of her marriage. “You know, I like to think no. I like to think not at all. I think I just went into Strictly looking for something to do.”

These days, Jamie still lives in the Surrey family home and Redknapp is a few minutes away and they share custody of their children. It is clear that she feels liberated by her divorce, so I ask if she plans to revert to her maiden name. She looks poleaxed by the suggestion. “Ummm no. It’s such a mum thing, but the thought of not having the same name as my kids, I could cry thinking about it. But maybe if Jamie gets married I’d have to change it … I don’t know how that works,” she says with an anxious giggle.

This leads us to talking about dating, and whereas Jamie has been photographed with several women, Redknapp has remained single. “It’s really hard for women. I’m beginning to think I’m never going to meet anyone … I’ve not been out for a meal, just me and a guy in a restaurant, in two years. That makes me sound really sad, doesn’t it?”

It takes a while to get over a 19-year marriage. “Yeah, I think it’s easier for men,” she says.

With her dance partner Kevin Clifton on Strictly Come Dancing in 2016. Photograph: PA/Guy Levy/BBC

It doesn’t upset her when she sees her ex-husband out with other women (“But, yes, of course, it’s hard for the boys. I tell them, ‘Dad’s a single man and he’s doing nothing wrong,’” she says). Sometimes, though, it is a bit strange. The day before we meet, he was photographed with the British model Lizzie Bowden, who was widely described in the press as a “Louise Redknapp lookalike”. “It is kinda weird! And then I start looking at them thinking, ‘Do they look like me?’ But he’s got his taste,” she says with a shrug.

I like Redknapp. Yes, she has that tendency, common to graduates of stage school, of affecting immediate intimacy, but there is an emotional honesty to her that is almost certainly born from the ordeal of the past two years. It is impossible not to cheer for a woman who for so long was defined in relation to others – first a pop group, then a husband – taking the risk to strike out on her own. And although many were surprised when she left her high-profile marriage, there has long been a more independent streak in her than her hotter-than-average girl-next-door image suggested. She did, after all, leave Eternal in 1995 after their hugely successful debut album to launch her solo career.

“I’d just had enough,” she says. “We were very different and had different directions. We weren’t harmonised. Girl bands are tough.”

Does she mean they were fighting? “Not fighting, just, um, different,” she says, diplomatically.

She talks excitedly about her plans for the next decade: more albums, more musicals, “and, of course, bringing up two teenagers”.

“But what I’d really like to do is buy the rights to a movie and produce a stage show from it,” she says.

Any in particular? “Thelma and Louise,” she replies, and smiles.

• Louise Redknapp’s new single, Stretch, is out now. She appears in 9 to 5 The Musical until 29 June

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