Along with homeschooling and lockdown anxiety, 2021 saw Billie Piper enjoy critical acclaim for her BAFTA-nominated series I Hate Suzie and directorial debut Rare Beasts. Even for a woman who’s been famous since she was 15, it made for an emotional time, she tells Rosamund Dean
Photographer: Simon Emmett
Billie Piper knows a thing or two about how to party, so who better to front Grazia’s Christmas party issue? Frankly, we all need help re-learning how to have fun this year.
‘It’s hard to know where 2020 ended and 2021 began because, with lockdowns, there was no natural end to the year that felt in any way joyous,’ she recalls. This year will be different. Billie loves Christmas so much that her tree is up and festive songs are on from November. ‘My daughter’s nearly three so I get to relive the hysteria through her, because my sons have… worked it out, let’s say!’
She lives in north London with her partner, musician Johnny Lloyd, their daughter Tallulah and Billie’s sons – Winston, 13, and Eugene, nine – whose father is ex-husband Laurence Fox. We meet on Zoom after the Grazia shoot, where Billie loved getting dressed up, having been in a tracksuit for the last two years. ‘Although, I’m wearing one again this morning,’ she says, gesturing to her actually-very-stylish Young Double sweater, bearing a sketch of ET and the words ‘be good’.
Drinking tea from a giant mug with a broken handle (the result of her sons emptying the dishwasher), she has a lot to celebrate. This year saw the release of her directorial debut, Rare Beasts, and three BAFTA nominations for I Hate Suzie, the Sky drama she co-wrote with her friend Lucy Prebble. Both projects are brutally funny tales of the messy reality of being a woman, which Billie describes as ‘punchy and divisive’, so the reception felt emotional ‘because it makes you feel less lonely in your own madness’.
She’s astute, articulate and self-deprecating, so it’s shocking to remember just how young she was when she started out. At 15, she became the youngest artist ever to debut at number one, having been plucked from theatre school at 13. ‘I was in year eight, the year my son [Winston] is in now,’ she says with incredulity. ‘So I’m thinking a lot about that time. There are mixed emotions and, honestly, it’s all a bit confused. I’ve forgotten a lot of it because I’ve never worked harder in my life than at that age. It makes sense to me that there’s not a great deal I can remember.’
She says the recent Britney Spears news also threw up a lot to process. ‘I could relate to loads of it, not only because of my time as a musician, but also being a woman and dealing with issues around control and misrepresentation. I’m sure a lot of women can relate on a level that isn’t about being one of the most famous people in the world.’
Now 39, Billie has enough therapy under her belt to look back at her pop career in a different way. ‘For many years, I couldn’t watch myself as a child in a music video, or even hear my songs,’ she says. ‘But I can now, and I’m reflecting on it more fondly than I ever have done.’ She laughs when I say her purple suit in the video for 1998’s Because We Want To could be something that Dua Lipa might wear today. She’s embracing the return of ’90s style and loves vintage shopping with her eldest, whose friends dress like ‘one huge ’90s flashback, it’s so cute!’
Like every parent, she had a tough start to the year. ‘That time was incredibly stressful with homeschooling and the anxiety of things never getting back to normal,’ she says. ‘The fallout of that was greater than we imagined it would be, emotionally. Seeing my kids back at school, in a social environment, was a really big moment.’
She’s keenly aware that, throughout that time, she was lucky to have a safe, loving home. One of the side effects of the pandemic has been a spike in cases of domestic abuse, and seeing the statistics in the press compelled Billie to start working with the charity Refuge. ‘The protection of women and children feels so important to me,’ she explains, ‘and Refuge do so much more than being on the ground in refuge centres.’ Billie is looking long-term at not only protecting those who need help now, but also educating the next generation. ‘It’s critical in terms of raising boys – and girls – to know what is and isn’t appropriate,’ she says. ‘You hope that education is carried out at home because, sadly, the most effective thing in a child’s life is how they see their parents behaving. So it’s not just the education of the kids, it’s the education of the parents.’
She acknowledges that online misogyny is a huge problem, and something that was addressed in I Hate Suzie with its storyline about online abuse. She will continue to work on things that align with her values in that way, and talks enthusiastically about filming Catherine, Called Birdy, a forthcoming medieval coming-of-age film directed by Lena Dunham. ‘I hope it will be the beginning of me working with Lena for years to come,’ she says. ‘We get on so well and she’s utterly magnificent. She’s done way more than she even realises for female-driven stories.’
There will also be a new series of I Hate Suzie and another project that, frustratingly, she can’t talk about yet. Although she does reveal that she’s recording a song this week. A pop comeback? ‘No! It’s for a role. But it’s my first time in a recording studio in so long – I am terrified.’
One of the most important things she’s learned in her thirties, thanks to ‘a shit tonne of therapy’, is to embrace vulnerability. ‘That means being able to say “I’m sad” or “I don’t understand”. I used to scoff at that, but it’s actually a powerful tool,’ she says. ‘I see it with my kids: being afraid to ask questions in case it makes you seem stupid. I reassure them: it’s a strength to ask a question, not a weakness. That was something I had to teach myself first.’
Understandably, she won’t talk about her sons’ father, actor-turned-‘anti-woke’ campaigner Laurence Fox. They split in 2016 after eight years of marriage and she admits a blended family Christmas, initially at least, ‘isn’t easy’. This year the plan is to keep it small on Christmas Day at home, and do something with extended family on Boxing Day. ‘It’s a weirdly emotional time of year anyway, so throw in any logistics or difficulties and it’s just… the first couple of years are tricky and I have a lot of compassion for people who are going through it. I’m quite far into that arrangement now, and you find your way with it. The upside for the kids is that you celebrate with a lot more people.’
As for what makes a great Christmas party? ‘Spontaneity,’ she says immediately, admitting, ‘I’m really noncommittal with dates, which drives my girlfriends mad. I just like the freedom of a party emerging at any time, rather than something planned.’ So what’s the best party she’s ever been to? She pauses for a long time. ‘We had a really good Christmas party in 2019,’ she says eventually. ‘It was my first proper, invites out, organised house party. It was so good because, for the first time ever, I didn’t cut corners. I got someone in to do the bar so I didn’t have to worry about drinks, and I recruited my partner’s friends to help: one did the food, and another is an artist so he decorated the party. It was brilliant.’
But… that’s the opposite of spontaneity? ‘Oh god,’ she shrieks. ‘What the fuck am I talking about? I don’t know myself! It turns out the best party is the most organised.’
It’s reassuring to know that, like the rest of us, Billie is still learning about herself, and we’re here for that honesty. Plus, we want an invite to her next Christmas party.
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Stylist: Michelle Duguid, Stylist Assistant: Jack O’Neill, Hair: John Macpherson using Oribe, Make-up: Heidi North at The Wall Group using Charlotte Tilbury, Nails: Pria Bahamra, Digital Technician/1st Assistant: Tom Frimley, Digital Technician: Claudia Gschwend, DOP: Martin Roach.