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Petula Clark reveals how she overcame shyness and found confidence in performing

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“I’ve never been a raving beauty,” says Petula Clark, with the stunning modesty of a life-long performer who has never taken herself too seriously. “I look in the mirror each morning and think: ‘What can we do about this?’ Ten minutes later, I’m looking more presentable. When I’m touring, I’ll spend 20 minutes getting ready but, after that, you’re gilding the lily.”

The singer turns 84 next month and is still as beguiling and warm as she was at the height of her fame in the 1960s, when the song Downtown propelled her to the top of the charts. Clark became the first female UK artist to earn a Grammy. The song’s 1964 music video shows her looking stylish and sparkly-eyed, confidently singing and smiling into the camera. Despite her apparent assurance, Clark says she has always been reserved. “I was a very smiley kind of girl, but basically shy,” she says.

Many artists, she adds, find confidence through performing. That was the case for Clark, who fought her shyness and later depression, but always shone in her music and on stage. “In general, performers are dealing with their timidity, and their art can help them get past that.”

“It’ll be fun for me – it’s important for me to be excited about going on stage.”

Downtown became an international hit and was later covered by Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton. More hits followed for Clark, who began singing age seven, made her radio debut at nine, appeared at the Royal Albert Hall at 11, and went on to sell 70 million records – including I Know a Place, Don’t Sleep in the Subway and a second number one, My Love. The star also appeared in 30 movies and danced with Fred Astaire in the 1968 film Finian’s Rainbow.

“I have a small talent,” Clark says, with the same ruthless humility she has about her looks. “The journey is learning how to use that talent, how to make it into something worthwhile that gives other people, and yourself, pleasure.”

Pleasure for Clark, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, is much the same as it has always been – spending time with her grown-up children whenever she can; playing the piano and writing new music; being in nature – she hopes to visit the Lake District while she is in the UK. “More and more I love animals and nature and being part of the big picture.” And she’s not averse to indulging herself a little. “I had a hamburger, a glass of wine and an ice-cream sundae last night, can you believe it?” she laughs.

Clark entered the limelight by entertaining the troops during the Second World War. “I was learning how to do it [sing and make music] for a long time before I made it big, whereas a lot of these kids have to learn how to do it after they’ve become a name. That must be difficult.” Clark adds that there is so much emphasis on the glamour of the music business but “very little is said about the work, and there is work, believe me”.

That work ethic has led to a new album, From Now On, and a UK tour, “I’m not in competition with Beyoncé, let’s face it. On my tour, I’m not going to be taking off my clothes or any of that.”

She laughs at the very thought of it. So what can her audiences expect? “I’ll sing the great old songs that people know, but there will also be a lot of new music from the latest album. I’ll be playing the piano as well. It’ll be fun for me, and it’s important for me to be excited about going on stage.”

The 11-track album includes covers of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, Peggy Lee’s Fever and Steve Winwood’s When You See a Chance, as well as original tracks recorded over the course of a month, in a “very secluded way”, in a small studio at the bottom of the producer’s garden.

Clark doesn’t sit around listening to music of the younger generation, because, she says, she doesn’t “want to be influenced by it”. And she doesn’t engage with social media. “You see people glued to their phones all the time. As an artist, you need to live your life and be in touch with it, and that means talking to people, watching people, being part of what’s going on. If people are glued to their phones, they’re not looking at anything.”

Unexpectedly, Clark courted controversy when she became an unwitting trailblazer for civil rights at the height of the movement in America in the 1960s, after performing a duet on her anti-war song On the Path of Glory with the black singer Harry Belafonte, and putting her hand on his arm. It was 1968, and the first time a white woman had touched a black man on US television.

“I didn’t understand [the furore],” she says. “For me, it was a perfectly natural moment. We’d been rehearsing together for three weeks before we got to the taping, we liked each other and we’d had fun. It was perfectly normal for me to put my arms around him. The person who made the fuss was the sponsor. We were in the studio and didn’t know what was going on. When I realised, I said it had to go out like that or not at all. It was a moment in American history.”

Does Clark think much has changed for race relations in the US over the past 50 years? “There’s a black president and there are many successful black people, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

We discuss the Black Lives Matter campaign, launched in response to the deaths of black people by law enforcement officers in America. “Sometimes you look at the world and think what the hell can I do about all this – it’s just too big, too difficult. And nobody is listening anyway. My daughter Kate and I have long conversations and she tells me the world is getting better. People have had enough and want change. I hope she’s right.”

How will she feel if Donald Trump gets elected in the US presidential election? “Don’t go there! I prefer Hillary [Clinton] to Trump. It’s interesting to see what’s happening with Trump. He’s a multi-millionaire who’s getting all the workers’ votes. I just don’t understand it.”

Back in the UK, Clark is cautious about endorsing our new prime minister, Theresa May, on the basis of gender. “The main thing is she does a good job. Look at Thatcher. It must be very hard as a politician to stay true and not let your ideas, your ideals, become corrupted.”

Clark firmly believes that when it comes to success, women cannot have it all. “I had to compromise with my family, compromise with my career, that’s for sure.” Being a good wife and mother is a full-time job, she says, and the same is true for a successful career. “I tried it. Saying you can have it all is absolutely not true. Not if you want to do either well.”

She admits to feeling bad that she wasn’t always around for her children. “I have this guilt thing. But they say they had a great time. Children accept their childhood – that’s the way it is.”

What’s the most important lesson she’s learnt over her lifetime? “Kindness,” she says, simply. “It’s very uncool to be kind. But it’s more and more important in a world where there’s so much hate. Everything you say and do has a ripple effect somewhere along the line. It’s up to us to let kindness shine through.”

From Now On is out now. Petula Clark’s tour includes Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 11 Oct, Leeds Town Hall, 19 Oct, and Bridlington Spa Centre, 20 Oct

In the charts

Sally Olwen Clark born on November 15, 1932 – her father soon began calling her Petula

She performed more than 200 shows for the forces during the Second World War before age nine

Made her first movie in 1944, Medal for the General, age 11

Recorded her first song Music, Music, Music in 1949

Married Frenchman Claude Wolff in 1961 and went on to have three children

Recorded Downtown in 1964, which went to number one in the UK charts

The same year, 1964, she became the first female artist to earn a Grammy – for Downtown

I Know A Place went to number three in 1965 and earned Clark a second Grammy

She starred in two Hollywood musicals during the 1960s (Finian’s Rainbow and Goodbye Mr Chips) opposite Fred Astaire and Peter O’Toole

In 1969 she was part of the chorus when John Lennon recorded the song Give Peace a Chance in Montreal, Canada

Made her Broadway debut in the 1990s, in Blood Brothers

Was presented with a CBE from the Queen for services to music, in 1998

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