Drama has never been far away from Tulisa Contostavlos. The disjointed, dysfunctional childhood, the self-harming and depression in her teens and the stormy relationships that have left her crushed and cynical; life hasn’t exactly been an easy ride.
“Yep, always drama,” she says. “You might think I’m a coconut for saying it, but I honestly believe the universe has set my life out like this because it wants me to be tested. God knows what else it’s going to throw at me, but I think I’ll be fighting until the day I retire.”
Indeed, just as we are about to go to press, Tulisa is caught up in a war of words with the ex girlfriend of her latest love interest Newcastle United star Danny Simpson, 25. Stephanie Ward, 25, the mother of his 17-month-old daughter, who says she’s expecting his second child, has hit out at their relationship, while Tulisa insists she has done nothing wrong.
It’s just the latest episode in a particularly eventful 12 months. There was the split from boyfriend and N-Dubz bandmate Fazer, 25, followed by the sex tape released by ex Justin Edwards, which really did knock her for six. Although not so much that she didn’t have the strength to pursue him through the courts, finally winning the case and an apology.
“There have been rough times in the past year where I wanted to scream: ‘F**k everyone, f**k the world, f**k anyone that has anything negative to say, I’ll smash everyone’s face in.’
“But you can’t go on like that because you’ll go insane. So I’ve let go of the past. Any more s**t gets thrown at me, I’m not going to let it affect me. And now everything bad that’s ever happened feels like a movie that I once filmed. I can literally look at it as if it’s in a glass box and I’m just staring at it. That girl is a different person. It’s as if I’ve got a shield around me to protect myself from getting hurt.
“That shield is so part of me, I’m 50 per cent titanium.”
It’s perhaps little wonder, given what Edwards put her through, not to mention the other men who have treated X Factor judge Tulisa, 24, appallingly (she details cheating, abuse and physical violence by different past boyfriends in her autobiography Honest: My Story So Far), that she’s embraced single life over the last few months.
After hopping from one relationship to the next, she’s taken some time out for herself since splitting with Skins actor Jack O’Connell, 22, in June after a three-month relationship.
“It’s the longest I’ve ever been on my own,” she says.
“Usually after a relationship it’d be a month – two months at the most – boom! Next relationship. Jump, jump, jump, that’s been the pattern. Since Jack it’s been six months of being fully single. Nothing. Just me and my Rabbit!”
And how has she found it?
“It was good. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t through choice at the beginning. I was like: ‘Oh my God, get me out of this situation! Where’s my next victim?!’
“But I couldn’t find anyone, so I just had to ride it out. And after a couple of months, all of a sudden I was fine.
“Something’s changed in me, it really has. I’m so OK with being on my own. I don’t need anyone and it’s made me feel more ready for something. Like, the next time I get into something, it will be proper because I’ve had this time out.”
As well as footballer Danny, she’s also been linked to 30-year-old Shameless star Jody Latham.
Whatever the truth about her relationships, it looks like Tulisa’s keeping her options open. She’s not even prepared to tell us whether her spell as a singleton has officially come to an end.
“That’s none of anyone’s business.” She smiles coyly.
“For me, it’s about testing the water and not throwing my heart in straight away. I’d say I’m at the point where I’m open to finding something in the early stages and just seeing how things go. I won’t go as deep as quickly as I have before.”
In her teens, Tulisa says, she sought affection and approval from men through sex, leaping into bed without thinking of the consequences.
“Eighty per cent of the guys I’ve been with were when I was between 14 and 17,” she says.
“I’ve been there and it’s not good for the soul or the heart, and I hope I can warn young girls to think about it before they do anything. If something doesn’t feel right, my experiences might just make them think.
“Now I’m 24 I act like the Virgin Mary. A lot of my friends might go out and meet a new guy every couple of months, or sleep with this person or that person, but I’m the complete opposite. They take the p**s and call me a born-again virgin. But sex to me now is a massive thing. I’m not getting into it unless I’m going to have a relationship with that person.”
It was only once she learned to equate sex with love that she started to enjoy it.
“Very much so. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, and the first time it actually meant something to me was a brilliant time in my life. I was like: ‘Oh, this is why people have sex! I get it now.’ I never understood it before. It was just something you had to do.”
Meet the boss
There are no airs and graces with Tulisa. No celebrity-style psycho waffle, no preciousness. Ask her a question, she’ll give you a straight answer. Whatever you think of her (and everyone on the shoot absolutely adores her), she’s easy to work with, is quite brilliant company one-to-one, and never pretends to be something she’s not. When she turns up at the studio an hour and a half late (fully expected – timekeeping isn’t Tulisa’s strong point), she makes no secret of the fact that she’s rolled straight out of bed.
And the second the photographer calls it a wrap, she kicks off the heels that have been crippling her all afternoon and makes a dash for the dressing room.
“Yessss!” she cries. “I can get back in my trackies.”
Which is exactly what she does, emerging a couple of minutes later in Ugg boots and a pale-blue velour Lipsy tracksuit. Tulisa might not exude the effortless glamour of fellow judge Nicole Scherzinger – the rather awkward six-inch-heeled trudge across the X Factor stage is a moment she dreads every week – but she’s all the more accessible for it.
“I’m still terrible at walking in high heels,” she laughs. “There was one week where I came out, and as I got on to the plastic flooring I really couldn’t walk. I thought I was going to fall so I grabbed Louis’ hand and luckily didn’t trip.
“I never worry about what’s in this season, or not wearing this label because of that. I don’t give a s**t about any of that.
“But I do give a s**t about looking good, being comfortable and wearing things that I like and that make me feel lovely. I enjoy walking out on X Factor and feeling all swivelley, like Cinderella.
“And so what if I get ripped for what I’m wearing? I’m going to rock it.”
She’s utterly defiant, a trait that has seen her through the darkest of times. Tulisa’s troubled background growing up in north London has been well-documented; the product of a broken home, an unreliable father and a mother diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Tulisa, who has made an award-winning documentary about her 52-year-old mum Anne’s illness, confides she herself is prone to bouts of depression, which creep up when she least expects it.
“I had one little patch for a couple of weeks about five months ago. It wasn’t like I could feel myself slipping or I was bothered about things going on in my life. It just came out of the blue, just hit me.
“It was the closest I’ve ever got to the depression that I had when I was a kid, and I was like: ‘Wow, where’s this come from?’ And it shocked me. I didn’t want to get out of bed, didn’t want to go to work.
“I snapped out of it and it’s gone now, but I expect I’m going to have little weeks here and there where I feel like that. Coming out of a depressing childhood and being around depression, there are going to be bouts. But it’s nothing I can’t handle myself.”
Tulisa says she has a tendency to suppress emotion, which she bottles up until she just about bursts.
“The only time I cry is when I’m drunk. I don’t remember the last time I cried sober. I’m talking when I get off my tits drunk… but I never do it in front of people.
“I’ll sit in my bedroom, lock everyone out, put my iPod on and cry myself to sleep. It feels good to have a good cry and let it out. And then I wake up in the morning singing to the bluebirds. Everything’s fine again.”
X Factor friendship
Tulisa can afford to feel happy as far as The X Factor goes after mentoring Little Mix to their win last year. This time around, she’s also struck up an unlikely friendship with Nicole Scherzinger, 34, despite initial reservations.
“People warned me about Nicole, like she was some super diva, and then I met her. She’s as nice as pie. I don’t know what perception she gave off to those people because I just don’t know how anyone could ever see Nicole as being anything other than lovely.”
Relations are a million miles better than they were with Nic’s predecessor, Kelly Rowland, who fell out with Tulisa over contestant Misha B. There’s an especially delicious anecdote in the book where Tulisa describes bumping into Kelly, 31, in an LA club a few months after the series ended.
Kelly greeted her with: “Oh hey, boo-boo, how are you?”, held up “a perfectly manicured finger” before adding: “Just give me one second.” Then she turned away, continued to chat to her friend and never gave Tulisa another glance. Ouch. That was the last Tulisa ever saw of her.
There’s little risk of that happening with Nicole.
“For one,” says Tulisa. “Nicole is too nice to ever have an argument with, it’s just not in her nature. If Nicole thought there was a problem between us, she wouldn’t like it and she’d want to sort it out immediately.”
And Kelly? She raises her eyes to the ceiling.
“I don’t care. I really don’t. She didn’t mean enough to me for me to be bothered whether she was in my life.”
It’s Gary Barlow that Tulisa’s got the beef with this series. A few weeks ago he, quite shockingly, accused her of having “fag ash breath” live on TV. Tulisa’s not doing a very good job of disguising the fact that today she’s still seething.
“I was p****d off at the time because I thought it was below the belt,” she says. “But he said sorry and I accepted his apology. I’ve got no qualms with him when I see him on a daily basis, but I will get him back in another way. I’m not a spiteful person, I don’t seek revenge. I believe everything happens for a reason and I like to let karma take its course. Karma will have its own way of getting him back in a way that I don’t need to involve myself with.”
“Well, it’s always worked for me in the past. Anyone that’s ever hurt me, whether it’s days, months or years later, somehow they’ve got their comeuppance.”
Gary – you have been warned.
“I’ve earned my stripes to be there and I hope people respect what I say,” she adds. “Last year I was just a little kid from N-Dubz and it was like: Why do you deserve to be here? And I feel I’ve proved that now.”
With all her experience, it’d be hard to question Tulisa’s credentials. She’s been in the business since the age of 11 when she formed N-Dubz with her cousin Dappy, 25, and his best mate Fazer. The band released three platinum-selling studio albums before calling a hiatus to pursue solo projects. Tulisa’s debut single earlier this year, Young, went straight to No.1. She releases album The Female Boss tomorrow along with new single Sight Of You, which she will perform on The X Factor tonight.
“It’s an amazing achievement to have your own album out,” she says. “Well, obviously it’s not going to be an amazing achievement if it flops, so I’ve just got to cross my fingers!
“The single is a ballad. This is really me as an artist and I just get to do what I do best: stand there and sing.”
Those who haven’t heard her sing are often surprised by the power of her live vocal. “This song really showcases my voice,” she says. “It’s another way of me proving something. I’m here for a reason. I can sing.”
It’s been over a year since N-Dubz performed together, but Tulisa promises a reunion is in the pipeline.
“We just don’t have a date for it. It won’t be until we’ve all done everything we wanted to. Let everyone do their thing, however long it takes, and the second everyone’s content and they’ve fulfilled their little solo dream, we’ll get back together. We took a break because we wanted to do other things.”
Wasn’t it more down to needing a break? Things could be explosive.
“Oh we did, yeah. You need time away to realise how much you love it.”
Meaning Dappy? She melts a little.
“I’ve always loved him, I just hated him as well. Whereas now I hate him less and I still love him just as much. But if we got back in the band, the hate will come straight back, trust me.”
She insists there’s no awkwardness with ex Fazer.
“Nah. Me and Fazer would argue for years while being in N-Dubz and have times when we weren’t talking to each other. We were seeing each other on and off from the age of 11, so we’ve had these issues all of our lives. It’s not a problem now.”
Besides, she’s a lot calmer nowadays. The Tulisa temper doesn’t flare up as often as it used to.
“I’m not as angry because I don’t feel as under threat. I’m not walking around thinking I’m going to get knocked out every five minutes.
“Mind, if someone got in my face and lamped me in a nightclub, they’d end up on the floor. But I’d never whack someone first and it actually takes a lot to wind me up now.”
The reaction to her autobiography has been positive, she says. She’s pleased the life story her late Uncle “B” Byron told her she one day had to tell is out there, warts and all.
“The reason kids look up to me is because I’m just like them. I don’t hide the fact that I like to go out and have a drink, I’m real and I say what I feel.
“I hate it when people call me a role model. I’m an inspirer – that’s my new word. I’m not trying to be a goody two shoes and I’m not sitting there saying: ‘Hey kids this is bad and that’s bad.’ I’m not preaching.
“I’m simply saying what I’ve done and how I’ve come away from it.”
What’s your greatest fear?
The thought of the world ending. It keeps me awake.
Throwing salt over my shoulder, and crossing myself every time I pass a church.
What’s your party trick?
I can squeeze beer out of my eyeballs. And I’m very double-jointed.
Christmas time at my grandparents’, finding a bauble when crawling on the floor.
When were you happiest?
On holiday in Ayia Napa with friends, aged 19.
I’d say “I told you so” to…
An ex who said I’d never make it.
Where is he now?
He didn’t make it!
● Tulisa’s single Sight Of You is out today. Her debut solo album The Female Boss is out tomorrow. Tell us what you think on Twitter #FabMagTulisa