It’s easy to forget that Billie Piper was a pop sensation before bursting onto our screens as an award-winning writer, director and actor.
At 15, her debut single Because We Want To went straight to number one, making her the youngest ever female artist to achieve such a feat.
Now, promoting her directorial debut, Rare Beasts, she tells The Big Issue in a whirlwind Letter To My Younger Self about starting out at theatre school, getting signed by Hugh Goldsmith and the moment she found out she had the role as Rose in Doctor Who.
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In my early teens I was already at a theatre school in London, Sylvia Young, with the intention of becoming an actor. I became the face of the Smash Hits relaunch in the mid-90s, and I had a series of commercials running in tandem. Hugh Goldsmith [managing director of Innocent Records, who launched his Virgin-affiliate label with Billie’s Because We Want To], asked me to make a demo, which went well because I loved singing. I didn’t think I was a great singer but I could definitely hold a tune. Then, I don’t know how long after that – it felt like overnight, I have no concept of timeframe around those years of my life – he signed me. And I started just doing live shows.
By the time I was 16 I had left Swindon and was living in London, on my own. I was in a hotel in Maida Vale at first, then I got together with this guy who had a flat in Kilburn, and I wanted to move in with him because I was lonely. I was working every day for up to 18 hours a day, living on a diet of garage food and takeaways. I was obsessed with music so I was living for MTV or The Box, they were constantly on a loop on my TV. I wasn’t fully reclusive by that stage, I still had energy and a desire to be part of the world. I’d been working for two solid years, but I was still in a slightly more positive place than I’d been two years later. I think, in my own small person head, I felt equipped to live that life at 16. And maybe I was practically. But not emotionally.
I had a single that didn’t chart well and I remember thinking that it was the biggest failure ever
Those teenage years are a period of my life that I’m reflecting on now for the first time in my adult life. And there’s a lot of missing pieces to be honest, which I think speaks for itself. Those first few years were totally thrilling, and I just felt like I was living a dream of mine. But I was often in very strange, very adult situations that I wouldn’t subject my own kids to at 16. Actually, my real take-away from my 16th year is just how exhausted I was, because I was a teenager going through everything a teenager goes through but very publicly. With a schedule which would rival a high-flying businessperson. It must have looked peculiar from the outside, but I was having fun at that point, so I couldn’t feel what that really meant. And I certainly normalised it very quickly.
It wasn’t too long before that pop star life just stopped sitting well. I was absolutely burnt out and my love of performing was non-existent. I wanted to have a normal life. And I missed acting. There were a few things happening. One of the things I’d got so used to was having number one records and a high level of success. Then I had a single that didn’t chart well and I remember thinking that it was the biggest failure ever. And at the same time I was sort of personally unravelling. That combination led me to think I needed some time off to re-evaluate what I wanted to do. I was so sick of doing what people wanted me to do. All of this thinking was subconscious, I’m not sure how aware of those moods I was, but that’s what I ended up doing. Thank god.
I got into a meaningful relationship at that difficult time, where there was encouragement to prioritise myself for a while. So that was very helpful. Yes, my time with Chris Evans was partly parties and pubs, but it was also another education in many ways. It felt like my uni years, in the sense that I was meeting all these different people. I was living my life without a schedule, and I was learning a lot from it. Also, I was with someone who was incredibly optimistic and wilful, and definitely operating in a way that was very aspirational. Someone who knew what he wanted. And that felt very new to me, to be honest. I’d always seen people working for other people. He seemed to be working for himself, on his own path, with big intentions. That was quite inspiring.
Always in my head, the whole time throughout the singing career, was my hope to be an actor. In fact that’s why I decided to go with the singing career, because I felt like it would open doors for me in the future. And also I got to perform, which I loved. So the acting ambition was always there, it was just a question of when there would be confidence to rebuild. I had to go and do lots of lessons and training again. And then it was just a case of getting an agent and going to castings and being horribly rejected over and over. Having to prove myself twice as hard because people felt like they already knew everything about me as a person. And I think at that point I had quite a reckless reputation. So there was a lot of fucking legwork.
I felt really, really emotional when I got the job as Rose in Doctor Who. I took my nan out for high tea in London, and I told her, and then it felt really real. Because we had a very close relationship and she knew I had this passion for acting. So, yeah, it was super-thrilling, really exciting, and very moving for me because I wasn’t sure about which way my life would go. I didn’t know if I was going to go back to normal life after my singing career, a life where I wasn’t pursuing the things I wanted to pursue.
If I’m at a convention they often show Doomsday [the Doctor Who episode which saw the final parting between Rose and the Doctor] before they introduce me on stage, and I find it so upsetting. I remember what it meant to me. It all felt very big. On a personal level I had become very close to David [Tennant] and we’d been through something very big together. I was sad about losing a sort of everyday friendship. Also, I think Russell [T Davies] writes in such a way that you can’t help but be moved by his writing. There’s this sort of ‘life will out’ spirit coursing through all of his work which is very moving. That episode marks me choosing to walk away from something that had been really significant and integral in my life and I was quite nervous about that. And as well as leaving the show, I was moving back to London into my own flat, Chris and I had separated – what was I going to do next?
I would love to go back to my former self and say, none of this matters. You’re amazing, you’re going to do just fine. Therapy has been crucial to my getting better, so I’d tell my young self to get a therapist. I just don’t know how young kids cope anymore, I really don’t. I think everyone’s super-anxious, or at least that’s how it feels to me. If you can get your kids any sort of mental health support or family therapy, just get it. There’s no shame in it whatsoever. When I think of characters like Suzie and Mandy [from TV show I Hate Suzie, and the Piper-directed film Rare Beasts], they might have had quite different lives if they’d had therapy.
If I could go back and have one more conversation in my younger days, I think I’d go back to pre-fame years with my mum and dad. Because I think everyone’s relationship really took a hit during those years, and it would be nice to go back and reflect on that, in a way that was much more focused. We had little contact and a strange sort of arm’s-length relationship which is fine now, but if I could I would go back and prepare us all more for that.
If I could go back and re-live any time in my life, I would go back to my very, very early teens, just out of year seven, going into year eight, when I had full anonymity. No paranoia about everyone knowing who you are. I’d just hold on to those moments with my mates, driving around in boy racer cars, Oasis or The Prodigy playing on the radio. Smoking fags. Kissing everyone. Those feelings of freedom and abundance. Living a life full of things that are so inconsequential. That is my idea of heaven.
Billie Piper writes, directs and stars in Rare Beasts, which is released on May 21