'I never really had a big plan,' explains one of the UK's biggest and most recognisable voices. 'I just knew I wanted to sing.'
And that's precisely what Heather Small did, selling several million records, winning two Brit Awards and the Mercury Music Prize, performing across the globe (most recently for Oprah's massive TV audience) and recording a track that has become an unofficial national anthem - international anthem even. She's now a gay icon, a black icon, an icon for sportsmen and women everywhere and a bit of a Forces' sweetheart after her appearance at the VE Day celebrations. Not bad for a woman supposedly taking time out to look after her nine-year-old son.
Born to a bus conductor dad and a waitress mum in Ladbroke Grove in 1965, Heather grew up on a musical diet of everything from calypso to the Clash. Always a natural dancer, she toyed with the idea of pursuing it, but after narrowly avoiding an audition in front of West End diva Arlene Philips ('My dance teacher said, "You've got a natural ability to dance, I want you to go along," but I was too shy!' remembers Heather), she set her sights firmly on singing.
So, while most teenagers were spending their free time as far away from school as possible, Heather was busy in the school library digging out copies of Melody Maker and poring over the Singers Wanted pages. 'My friends used to laugh,' she remembers. 'They'd say, "You're not going to reply to any of those ads," but I'd just say, 'When I see the right ad, I'll know".'
Heather finally 'knew' when she saw an advert for a group name-checking her childhood heroes Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin. She was invited for her first ever audition, won the rest of the band over as soon as she opened her mouth, and became the lead singer in Hot House.
And although Hot House only had a short lifespan, her powerful vocals brought her to the attention of Mike Pickering, a DJ at Manchester's legendary Haçienda nightclub. The pair bonded so well that an initial lunch meeting turned into a lunch, dinner, then on-to-a-nightclub meeting, with Heather then heading over to Mike's studio to listen to the songs he'd written with her in mind. It was there that she met Paul Heard and M People was born.
'I don't know the figures of how many records we sold; I'm not interested,' shrugs Heather (it's over 10 million worldwide, by the way). 'What's important to me, when I look back, is did I enjoy it? Did I do the best I could? And I did.'
With hits such as 'Moving On Up', 'One Night In Heaven' and 'Search For The Hero' and albums like Elegant Slumming, Bizarre Fruit and Fresco achieving massive worldwide success, Heather became one of the seminal British voices of the 1990s, with the band winning the Best British Dance Act Award at the Brits in 1994 and 1995, as well as the Mercury Music Prize for Elegant Slumming. Then, after taking a well-earned break, Heather decided to take a chance and try going down the solo route.
'The decision to make a solo album was a creative one, a challenge that gave me the chance to be more involved in the writing process,' she explains. 'I wanted to show that I was not just a voice, that there was another side to me.' One of the first songs to emerge from Heather's new-found creative freedom was 'Proud', co-written with Peter Vetesse.
It was to become the lead track from her debut solo album of the same name - and the song that was to catapult her career into a whole new realm.
'It just came out!' is how Heather describes the creative process behind 'Proud', accompanied by one of her deeply infectious belly-laughs. 'I've always been interested in the human condition and what makes people get out of bed each morning. It's about a sense of self and a sense of pride, what you do that makes you feel good about yourself.'
And it's that uplifting, life-affirming theme that has made the public take 'Proud' to their collective hearts and has seen it become the soundtrack to a whole host of very special events. When Britain won the Olympic bid, Heather was there singing 'Proud', as she was at the 60th anniversary of VE Day in Trafalgar Square, the launch of Queen Mary 2 and the celebrations following England's victory at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
And when Oprah Winfrey was looking for a song to sum up the work she'd been striving to achieve over her twenty-year career, she got in touch with Heather, who somehow managed to squeeze in a trip across the Atlantic to perform on the show slap bang in the middle of her last UK tour with M People ('If Oprah calls, you go!' she laughs, adding that the first lady of chat was 'very sweet to me').
But never one to get complacent, Heather's been busy pushing herself in all sorts of creative directions. With the Proud album well and truly proving that she could cut the mustard on her own, she embarked on solo tours around the UK, showcasing her own material and a selection of her favourite jazz and soul standards, and has also performed all over the world, everywhere from Dubai to Down Under.
One of the highlights of Heather's time as a solo artist has been 2005's Tsunami Relief Concert at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium, where she performed alongside the likes of Eric Clapton, the Manic Street Preachers and Charlotte Church, helping to raise £1.25 million. 'An incredible experience,' is how Heather describes it. 'Definitely a very special memory for me.'
Throw in a single with the legendary Tom Jones (the duet 'You Need Love Like I Do', which features on his Reload album), a performance of 'Set Them Free' with Sting at the Brits, an acclaimed gig at Ronnie Scott's (another experience that ranks high in Heather's top ten), an appearance in Queenmania, even a star turn in the Vagina Monologues on the West End stage, and it all adds up to a rather busy few years - never mind that she's also raising a beautiful nine-year-old son.
And it doesn't look like the pace will be slowing down anytime soon. Her second solo album will be released in the UK on 24th July 2006, with a new UK tour planned for the autumn. But Heather's got more pressing concerns on her mind at the moment - planning an outfit for the Gay Games in Chicago this summer, which she's thrilled to be officially opening after gay Americans took her to their heart for her rendition of 'Proud' on Oprah, a performance so amazing, the song has since been chosen as the first single from the soundtrack to US movie Akeela and the Bee.
'I'm thinking the frock is going to have to be something pretty spectacular', she chuckles, adding that she's yet to actually see a Heather Small drag queen, although there are obviously a fair few out there, probably still rocking the big M People hair Heather was famous for back in the day. 'And no, I'm afraid I won't be doing the big hair for the Gay Games!' she laughs.
So what gives her the impetus to keep moving forward, to keep challenging herself, trying new things and generally not resting on her laurels? 'If you got the feeling I do when I sing', she smiles, 'You'd understand'. by Simon Gage