An interview by Lorraine McBride which was published in the Money section of The Telegraph on Sunday 13th March 2016:
Singer Heather Small made her name with M People and enjoyed a string of hits, including Moving on Up and Search for the Hero. Since going solo, success has continued, notably with the anthem Proud. Heather, 51, lives in central London with her son, James, 18. Here she talks about holiday homes in Barbados and losing a deposit after Egypt’s Arab Spring.
What was your first job and how much did it pay?
I worked for a lovely Asian family in Shepherd’s Bush market on a shoe stall for £6 every Saturday when I was 13. When I asked my mother if she wanted any help with the household bills, she said: “No, save some and spend some.” It was the best advice I ever got. I opened up my Woolwich savings account. I was quite shy and work made me realise I had a knack for engaging with people. I told myself they were just like me, and didn’t have a lot of money, so they needed to spend it wisely. I worked every Saturday from 13 to 18 and was always a grafter.
How did your childhood influence your attitude to money?
I think coming from immigrant parents and living on a working-class council estate, you never take money for granted. My mother was a grafter and the money did what it had to do. My mum worked in staff restaurants for John Lewis, and my father was a conductor on the buses, who was paid to come over from Barbados by the British Government.
What did you spend your first record advance on?
We did buy some band equipment, so that was investment in our careers. My first advance came with my first band, Hot!House, in 1987. I didn’t treat myself thinking, “I’m a pop star!” because I wasn’t. I was very level-headed. You get signed and you’re happy, but that’s when the hard work begins.
You always think your first advance is huge, and at the time, it was more money than I’d ever been given. I saved some, but it wasn’t a life-changing amount, more like a life-starting amount. I bought a John Richmond well-cut trouser suit with a blue waistcoat, which would look at home today.
When the royalties started rolling in, how did your lifestyle change?
I bought a flat. I’ve always been quite sensible. Your parents work so hard and when they came from a different country, this whole thing about “lazy immigrants” is a fallacy. You learn you have to work hard because you start from a disadvantage.
You’re born and bred here, but your family wasn’t, so you’re starting history for yourself somewhere new, and I wanted my history to be very positive. I was very sensible, and in my mid-20s, I bought a one-bed apartment in Maida Vale, overlooking beautiful communal gardens. I bought it not outright, but almost, and it made me very happy.
When I was handed the keys, I thought, “Oh, my goodness!” I really felt like I’d achieved outward success that vindicated all my self-belief. I paid £95,000 in 1991 and I must have stayed for five years. You know London property: keep it for five years and you’ve made a profit. I think I made at least £80,000 when I sold.
Have you ever worried about paying the bills?
Of course, that goes with the territory. I left home at 18, so I was always a renter, paying somebody else’s mortgage. From the ages of 18 to 20, I had a nine-to-five job with Wandsworth council that makes me shudder thinking about it.
Your anthem Proud was the soundtrack for the Olympics. Was it your most lucrative hit?
Let’s just say it was a one-off. Not just in the financial sense but it’s given me inner confidence. That song was really how I feel about things, so for people to endorse the way I feel has been a revelation.
Do you get big royalties every time Oprah uses it on her chat show?
When it gets played, I get paid. But I wouldn’t say it’s made millions and zillions, that’s for sure.
When there’s a major television sports event and Search for a Hero or Proud blasts out over the Tannoy, do you think ker-ching?
No. I approach my vocals and touring like a sporting endeavour. I do training, so when there’s a big game and the stadium uses one of my songs, I feel honoured. If they use it to represent people who are superhuman, I can bask in their reflected glory. Coming from immigrant parents, it represents my all-over Britishness.
What are the best and worst financial moves you’ve ever made?
The best financial move you can make in this country and climate is property. It’s not like I have loads because I’m not that materialistic. I usually buy with my heart and not my head, but luckily my heart also made good sense in the long term.
One of the worst moves I ever made was putting down a deposit in Egypt which went into political meltdown. It was so sad, I’d been to Cairo and put down a deposit but thought better of it. I lost my deposit, but it wasn’t thousands and thousands. Listen, I don’t bite off more than I can chew.
What’s been your most indulgent purchase?
My Mercedes SL 250, which cost £26,000. It was a retro “JR Ewing” car in royal blue with cream leather interior. I’m not really a driver, but sometimes you’ve got to fulfil your heart and, for me, that meant buying my car.
I still own that car. People keep telling me they’d like to buy it, but I just can’t let it go. I bought it 15 years ago to celebrate a good financial run. Another indulgence is travel. I like to travel well, stay in nice places and, when I fly, I like to turn left on the plane.
What’s been the hardest lesson you’ve learnt about money?
Nobody is to be trusted. You’re a music-maker, and then there’s the music business, which are two very distinct things. I’ve been ripped off, but I don’t want to go into detail. You don’t get to 51 without someone trying to do the dirty on you. The truth is, it’s very short-sighted. If somebody does something like that once, they’ll never get a second chance.
Do you have a most-treasured possession?
Anything to do with my son is my most precious possessions. Through the years, James made little cards or drawings for me, and I got my sister to laminate some, which I put on my bedroom wall. If my house was burning down, I’d save those first because they’re irreplaceable. I’ve still got Christmas decorations made from egg cups with foil and they come out every year.
How do you pay: cash, debit card or credit card?
Credit card – the appeal is that I can shop anytime, anywhere and with anyone.
Do you invest in a pension?
I had a pension from the minute I joined M People. There’s always somebody in a band who’s good with money, and for us that was Paul Heard. He found us somebody reputable and a pension was the first investment I had – I don’t sound in the least bit rock’n’roll! I took it out in my mid-20s, thinking 55 sounded like a good age, but I won’t retire at 55 because I don’t know how long it has to last.
Do you have any property investments?
I don’t have a huge portfolio, but I have a little property in Barbados. In that sense, I’m more of a musician than a pop star. I come from a community that thinks music’s going to save the world, not the financial industry.
What’s your favourite charity?
I’m an ambassador for Barnardo’s and support Asthma UK, the Royal Variety Club and Water Aid. Anything to do with women and children always gets my vote. Barnardo’s just does such good work. It would be lovely if all children lived a utopian existence, but abuse has been going on for years – it addresses it and that’s why I think Barnardo’s is heroic.
I also volunteer at Mary Portas’ Living and Giving shops, though that’s another story! When I’m off tour, I’ll go back, but not to the branch I volunteered in. I don’t want to say anything negative, but as strong as I am, that environment was a little bit terrifying. The staff had no idea who I was. One woman asked me what I did and I told her I sang. She said, “And that’s all you do?” It was quite funny.
When they found out who I was, attitudes changed a lot and they were friendlier, but it was too late. I’ve never spoken about it, but it was a strange experience. Mary Portas does fantastic work. She rolls her sleeves up and it’s easy to criticise because she’s a doer. But sometimes when you delegate, you’ve got to keep an eye because your name’s on the tin.
Which singer/band would you most want to see and how much would you be willing to pay for a front-row seat?
They’ve both passed away, but either Ella Fitzgerald or Nina Simone. Since they’re now great musicians in the sky, my “payment” would have to be death, so that’s a big old payment.