Eight million album sales and being chatted up by Brad Pitt haven't made Shirley Manson happy. Would you be if you couldn't find the fork drawer and journalists said you had a big forehead? "I'm charming and sweet and lovely," she warns Tom Doyle, "but I have a short fuse."
"Beautiful… beautiful… beautiful… fucking disgusting…"
Shirley Manson glares down at the front page of the media section of USA Today, scanning the photographs accompanying an article highlighting the unprecedented flood of female nominees for Grammys this season, prodding each with a delicate fingernail and voicing instant verdicts in order: Lauryn Hill, Shania Twain, Madonna and Shirley Manson.
The modesty is not for our benefit. A black cloud of low self-esteem, apparent to anyone who spends more than a few minutes in her company, seems to shadow the Garbage frontwoman's every step. "Still, it's USA Today," she ruminates, brightening. "That's big news."
Five years ago, Shirley Manson was miserable and on the dole in Edinburgh. Five years on, she's still periodically miserable, but immensely famous. Since the release of their self-titled debut album three years ago, followed by Version 2.0 in 1998, Garbage have chalked up close to eight million global sales of their stylish electronic rock creations and their singer has become a short-skirted, big-booted icon from Atlanta to Auchtermuchty and further still.
In amidst the blur of the last half decade, she has experienced the following unpredicted stellar collisions: having the "very beautiful" Brad Pitt wander up to her and confess his complete admiration for her band; becoming so tight with Courtney Love that she finds the very notion of Nick Broomfield's Kurt & Courtney film "sick-inducing"; being gently tickled by daft Internet tattle that had her rumbled as Marilyn Manson's long-lost spouse; enduring the offputting sight of Kiss's Gene Simmons parked in the front row at a US show, lasciviously waggling his disgusting tongue at her throughout Stupid Girl.
Right here and now, in her dressing room backstage at Belfast's King's Hall, where Garbage are in full-production rehearsal on the eve of a European tour, Shirley Manson raisesa grin at the gurning photogrpah of her three bandmates staring out at her frp, the top of her flight-cased wardrobe (their 3D counterparts - Butch Vig, Steve Marker, Duke Erikson, equally possessed of cripplingly dry humour and an admirable capacity for beer and Seabreezes - sit next door in their shared locker). Then, brow knotted in concentration, she tries to remember the precise moment when she was struck with the realisation that, in terms of her own fame, she'd finally "arrived".
"Really recently," she finally decides, "when I got invited to sit on the couch with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. I think that was the moment I thought, This is big time. I remember I blushed and I very rarely blush. I was quite overtaken by that moment. It really caught me by surprise.
"Madonna coming to one of our shows in New York was a big moment," she continues, "even though I didn't get to meet her. It blew me away. And devastated me, because it was a terrible show."
Shirley Manson is still struggling to get her head around most of this.
"It's really peculiar," she insists, rolling her Celtic "r"s. "It's like somebody dear to you has set up a Beadle's About scenario and you're just about to get busted. It's like, Something's not quite right here. Somebody's gonna suddenly burst out and tell me that I'm being filmed by Candid Camera."
Eight days earlier, we're in Edinburgh - a city so storm-lashed that, according to BBC local news, a pensioner on Princes Street was yesterday blown off his feet and slammed into the side of a bus shelter. Shirley Manson breezes through the door of The Doric wine bar in pigtails, deluxe knee-length green parka and blue combats, eyeing familiar surroundings with an inscrutable grin. This dark-wooded establishment (Billie Holiday on the stereo) was a regular haunt of Manson's during the pre-Garbage days and certan memories, she admits, are flooding back.
"I once fucked a guy in that toilet," she announces offhandedly.
Shirley Manson has a mouth on her like a brickie. She "does" sexual intimidation and unleashes a mean Sif James cackle/leg slap combo. Within seconds, she can switch between coy and steelily intransigent, heading off some unwelcome line of questioning with a smile, a volley of "nuh-uh"s and an empathetic shake of the head. After eyeing the wine blackboard and plumping for a full-bodied rioja (the oaky over the fruity), she states that she can only have one glass since she's going to a birthday party tonight (in the end, she has three).
Back home properly, for the first time in eight months of touring, to her sculptor/puppet-maker husband of two years, Eddie Farrell, Manson rolls her eyes and confesses that only now has she discovered the exact location of the cutlery drawer in the house that they share. On average, she'll make it back to Edinburgh "three times a year max" and likens the sharp decompression she suffers as "like coming out of the army - nobody really understands what you've been through and the things you've done and seen."
Last Christmas, she admits, there was a telling moment when one of her sisters caught Shirley in the kitchen, up to her elbows in dishwater, and became helpless with laughter at this suddenly-domesticated vision. On the darker side, she suffered a panic attack when shopping in Edinburgh on Christmas Eve.
"I got dropped off, and as I stepped out the car," she shivers, "I thought to myself, I haven't been out by myself, unaccompanied, for eight months. Literally my heart was thrashing, I was having palpitations. I was thinking, Oh my God, I have to do this. Two minutes later, it had subsided."
Some things that you notice about Shirley Manson: the way she fiddles with her pigtails, the spiky silver enormo-ring on her wedding finger that could easily double as a knuckle-duster ("All my jewellry is chosen for those purposes"), the cartoonish contortions of her features every time she laughs, the mild suspicion that occasionally flickers in her Bette Davis eyes. "I warn you," she warns you, "I'm not easily dismantled."
Born 32 years ago in the relatively boho Stockbridge area of Edinburgh, the daughter of thwarted singer-turned-housewife mother ("I can't hold a candle to my mum's voice") and a geneticist father whose faculty was involved in the creation of Dolly The Sheep, Shirley Manson suffered terrible insecurities as a youth, believing herself - the middle sister of three - to be the pug ugly runt of the litter.
You've described your childhood as "fucking horrible" and yourself as a "fucking horrible child". Why is that?
This has been a source of great angst for my parents. They get really distressed by the fact that I've said I was unhappy as a child. But it's no reflection on them. Between the ages of 11 and 15, I had a really bad temper, I was really angry for no apparent reason. I was really jealous of my little sister, I was really violent. I stopped going to school and I got into boys and drink and drugs. You name it, I was doing it.
In the past, you've hinted about an enormous lie you told everyone when you were 15 years old that ritually embarrassed you and temporarily ruined your existence.
Yep. But I'm not telling. Honestly, I'm not at that place yet. I swear to God, I'm not being funny. I've probably processed absolutely everything else in my life, but that, I haven't. Everybody that I know thinks I should go to therapy for it, but I refuse to. It's just better left alone. You're capable of unbelievable deeds at 15 years old. Maybe that's why I'm brutally honest now.
You say you've had a lot of problems with your looks, but you became a model for teenage magazines, didn't you?
Well I wasn't really a "model" and, actually, I've never spoken about this. At the time - and again I use this phrase loosely and in inverted commas - I had a "unique look" (laughs). I got spied by somebody at DC Thompson who ran Jackie magazine and the money was really really good. I mean, as I recall, we got a hundred quid an hour and that was ten years ago. A lot of money, so of course I did it.
You never seriously considered modelling as a career then?
Never. I didn't have the body, I didn't have the looks, I didn't have the teeth, I didn't have the skin… I just didn't have it. And I hated it. Anybody that knows me knows full well that I can't stand being told what to do. I hated being put into what I considered geeky clothes because I felt that it totally ate away at my identity.
You spent five years working at Miss Selfridge in Edinburgh. A living hell?
Oh yeah. I actually think I probably did it for longer, but I've blocked it out of my memory. I was demoted because I got so bolshie with the customers. I swear if I was ever close to murder, it was in those years. I'm lucky that I got out of there without actually assaulting somebody because I was restrained on numerous occasions. The public at large are just pigs. They treat you like shit. I'm charming and sweet and lovely, but I have short fuse. I actually saw one of my customers outside work hours, if you get my drift, and that was the end of it. I was horsed upstairs to the stock room where I had to open up boxes of three thousand T-shirts and individually tag them. It was mind-numbingly boring. But I had a few great partners in crime and we hada great shop-lifting ring going on. Massive.
What was the scam?
Well, as far as I can recall, we were always wearing long, flouncy skirts, so it was really easy to strap things to your thighs. Or if you fancied a new pair of knickers that day, you just shoved them on. The amount of thieving we got up to… big time. I've still got stuff in my house from thieving in Miss Selfridge. Still, I don't look back on those days with any amount of nostalgia.
You got some good knickers out of it though…
Damn straight I did, baby.
By the time Shirley Manson was spotted on MTV with her burnt-out group Angelfish by the three fortysomething producers who man the musical boiler-room of Garbage, she was already a road veteran of more than ten years with troubled Scottish troupe Goodbye Mr MacKenzie, in whom she played keyboards and sang backing vocals. As a measure of how far she has travelled since, Goodbye Mr MacKenzie's singer and Manson's ex, Martin Metcalfe, was recently "tricked" by the Scottish edition of The Sun into fronting scurrilous "Now She Treats Me Like Garbage" kiss-and-tell. "Of course, since then he's been remarkably apologetic and very uncomfortable about that," she notes. "There's been various kiss and tells, but they're all absolute rubbish."
No "I Shagged Her In Pub Toilet" revelations then?
"Well, he's still to sell his story. Och, I'll just give him another blowjob. He'll keep quiet."
The Scots can me savage when one of their own strays into the arena of rock star wankery. Manson remembers the reception afforded Sheena Easton - pelted with eggs onstage in Glasgow in the '80s - and winces. Easton's crime? Adopting a California accent…
Have you ever found yourself slipping into American?
You tell me. Do I sound American?
Not at all
See? I don't affect an American accent. Even though there's a couple of things that've infiltrated in my day-to-day language, just in order for me to be understood. So I'll say, Can you pop the trunk? Or Where's the restroom? But I'd like to think that I don't sound American. I'm very conscious of it. It's something I really despise in people when they go over and allow their identity to be sucked up by something they consider to be bigger than them. I don't see it that way. I'm as big as they are.
You've said that you initially got into music "for the sex".
Well, there's very few musicians out there who'd argue with that statement. Being an active musician is a powerful aphrodisiac to most men and women.
So you did it to seduce loads of lads?
No, it was to fuck lots of big men.
That's no longer the main driving force, obviously. You're a married woman.
But sometimes that's part of the pleasure, isn't it? It's the age-old torture and that can be way more enticing at times than the actual meat and two veg splayed up on a plate for you to consume. What might not be is so much more appealing at times than what might be. But anyway, I actually have no opportunity to do it, simply because nobody really gets near me any more.
Is all your correspondence now screened for potential nutters?
We do have a system set up so that if anything weird does come by, we have a profile done on it. An investigation kind of goes on behind the scenes. By we've not had anything too unnecessarily weird. I mean, you get the odd crank. But usually when their profile is run, you learn that the same person has written letters to Sheryl Crow or Courtney or whoever. Still, y'know, I know normal people that've been harrassed and stalked by their next door neighbours. It's just your bad luck.
Do you have a million in the bank yet?
I couldn't tell you. I literally couldn't tell you. I haven't had a day to look at my bank account and I'm not being funny.
So when was the last time you had a look at your statement?
Probably… in May. I just remember being disappointed because there wasn't that much in it! I keep thinking maybe one day I'll look at it and it'll be a million but, trust me, it was way way far off the million mark.
Are you tight?
Yeah. I'm not a one or two pencer, but I tend to be careful about spending money. I mean, I'm not tight in the areas that I feel are important to us as a band or me as a person. But bands swan around in limousines and we find it embarrassing. The first time our record company sent round a limousine, we were sitting in it and just felt… sad. We'd rather spend the money making sure our sound is amazing rather than shamble onstage, sound like shite and ride around in a limousine.
Is it true that you refuse to fly first class?
(Smirks strangely) Who told you that? Well it's not that I refuse to. I like to fly business class because I feel that first class is a ludicrous waste of money… I think the airlines are ripping us off. But I feel business class is worth it, as those who've spent a flight from London to Japan in economy will attest. Literally, I nearly murdered somebody and so now I fly business class.
(Suddenly annoyed) I know that I should just go the whole hog and fly first class and treat everybody like shite and act like a superstand and then everybody will be a little more comfortable around me… but I'm not a nutter. I'm one of the sanest people I know (terrifying cackle).
Back in Belfast, Shirley Manson - hair now scraped back in a ponytail - is waiting to have her make-up done. She is embarrassed by having Q see her eyebrowless. "If any of your readers are wondering why I don't feel great about myself, just tell them how I look right now," she goads. For the record, she looks like Shirley Manson without eyebrows.
Perhaps the best known fact about Manson is that she once defecated in a boyfriend's bowl of cornflakes - a remarkable thing to do when you think about it. Today, she ominously declares "I've done a lot worse than shit on my boyfriend's cornflakes" but refuses to offer specifics. Somehow you believe her anyway. Manson's fertile relationship with the media has much to do with this outstanding quotability - saucy stuff is her stock-in-trade - but you feel it's not all affection. Later in the day, she trills "Yoo-hoo" and flashes her left nipple at Q.
Manson favoured a dominatrix-edged public persona in the early days of Garbage, most memorably in the Queer video where she dragged a submissive male victim around the floor. Not, it seems, the word sticks in her throat.
Part of your onstage act with Goodbye Mr MacKenzie was beating the singer's arse with a whip. Was that the beginning of your dominatrix thing?
I can't remember that. You're talking rubbish… you've made me blush. (Pauses) Oh no, I know what it was. That was in a song called Strangle Your Animal. Yeah… I did… you're right. Guilty as charged, m'lud. Send me down.
Have you created this cartoon image of yourself and then tried to dismiss it?
No. I've not spent any of my time creating a cartoon image. I just think at times I'm cartoon-like. I've never dismissed it either. I've been bemused by people finding me... attractive in that sense. In a sexual sense. Look at me, I am not not and sexy and submissive.
But any woman who isn't portraying herself in the traditional submissive role is labeled a dominatrix. Men are slightly scared of me and I don't do that deliberately. People in general have found me difficult because I'm very strident and aggressive, but I wear lipstick and short skirts. I don't think they can marry the two. It's like a synapse is misfiring. But then, y'know, everybody knows that nasty girls are the best shags.
Why do you think it that you still suffer from - as you put it - "ugly syndrome"?
Well I'm so tired of defending that. It's people saying, Oh how can you think you're this or that when you've got all this? The point is, I suffer from it, I'm not going to make any more excuses for it. I don't think of myself as particularly attractive. I don't know why. If somebody out there can tell me why, please, I'm willing to listen. Or give me some pills and fix it. But if you can't give me a pill to fix it, then so be it. Leave it be.
It's just something I have to deal with and that's tough luck. It doesn't ruin my life. Occasionally it's wearing for people around me that they have to scoop me off the floor when I'm in a sobbing heap because I don't think my jeans look good on me. It's laughable, but so many women suffer from it.
So when you look at a photograph of yourself, what's the first thing you home in on? Do you think, Oh God, my forehead looks huge?
Are you saying I have a big forehead? See, now you've just completely hit on a nerve. No, I'm joking. But when I look ata photograph it can be everything from, Oh I've got stray frizzy-looking hairs coming out beside my ears. Or one of my eyebrows is brushed up the wrong way. Or my lips look squint. Or my eyes look droopy or I've got bags under them. It can be millions of different things. You name it, I can find it.
When was the last time you threw a rock star tantrum?
It was very recently. We played a big radio show in Minneapolis in this massive arena and I came offstage and I was in what I call my somnabulant trance where I'm so physically exhausted that I do't really know where I am. And I couldn't find the dressing room. I was pouring with sweat, bright red and I didn't know where I was. These security officers were grabbing these kids wanting autographs and carting them off and I was really distressed, saying, Where is the dressing room? I was literally spinning round and round and everybody was just like, Oh my God, she's crackers. Eventually Duke came down and pushed me through to the dressing room. At which point I fucking went off.
It was all my hang-ups - I felt embarrassed that people had seen me bright red and I felt horrible about these wee boys that had got pulled out of my way. I was distressed and my pride had taken a dent. I was horrible for about 5 minutes. Everybody stood there in silence as I ranted and ranted. Then of course, I exhaust myself and I just flop into a chair and I'm like (whimper) I'm really really sorry.
How have the band relationships changed as you've gone on? Do you fight and argue more or less?
Well the personal dynamic with me and Steve has improved, as has my relationship with Butch, I think. My relationship with Duke is probably the most ludicrous because we're really like brother and sister. One minute we'll be curled up in each other's laps and the next minute we're spitting at each other. Days will go by where we won't talk to each other.
The worst fight we've had was when we were making Version 2.0. I have a theory that Duke was depressed, but on top of that, I'd been a little out of order. Still, he went for two months without behaving in what I consider to be his normal manner towards me. I'll never forget, it was the day before my 31st birthday and I went fucking ballistic at him in front of everybody. Y'know, What the fuck is wrong with you? Why won't you look at me in the eyes when I'm talking to you? Deep down - and I hate to say it - I think subconsciously because it was my birthday the next day, I knew he'd have to be nice to me. And right enough, the following day, I came into the studio and there was a big parcel for me with flowers and a cake.
Theoretically, if you were absolutely forced - at gunpoint, say - to have a sexual relationship with one of your bandmates, which would you go for?
(Instantly)Steve. 'Cause I think he'd be good. Every now and again he gives me massages and I feel like I've taken ecstacy. Steve without a doubt. I'm very friendly with his wife and she'd totally be into it. Cindy would be all for it. She'd be cheering by the sidelines, going, Steve! Put on a better performance! (Filthy laugh).
In your mind, is there a plan to make hay while the sun shines and then just go back to being normal Shirley Manson, living in Edinburgh with her husband?
Yeah. I know that my shelf life is limited - everybody's is - and I want to be able to ensure that when it's all over and done, I can step back and slip into my normal life without it having been ravaged. I don't want to be one of those sad fucks sitting on her couch at forty, not cleaning her toilet or hoovering her stairs because once upon a time someone used to do that for her. I really don't want to be disabled by this experience.
The night after, onstage in the cavernous environs of The Point in Dublin, Shirley Manson has the 8,000-strong audience - particularly the legions of teens ecstatically zebedeeing at the front of the stage - thoroughly hypnotised, every inch the strong, cool, knowing female role model. Tonight, Garbage's sample-driven power is genuinly overwhelming.
Earlier, Butch Vig had noted: "There are times when I'll look out when we're playing in front of ten thousand people and every single one will be watching Shirley. I could come on and play drums nude and nobody would notice."
At the set's climax, Shirley Manson exits the stage, locks herself in the first available bathroom, throws up twice and then, 10 minutes later, steps out of her dressing room into a corridor, showered and powdered, to sweetly meet and greet a small group of teenage girls who gape at her in genuine awe as she scribbles her famous name on their scraps of paper.
"See?" she motions to Q, as if anyone had doubted her for a second. "I told you I was a rock star…"
"She was quite a lesson in feistiness at first. There were some really disgusting stories early on that would make a sailor blush. I realised she'd maybe had a bit of a different upbringing than we'd had. She definitely handles being on the road better than we do. I mean, she loves being on the road.
"She said she'd shag me if she had to? In your dreams, baby."
"When I first met her, I was terrified of her. She was pretty opinionated and vocal. She says that she was terrified too, but you would never have known it. She had confidence. I couldn't understand half of what she was saying. A lot of times, she would be singing in the studio and she'd say something and Duke, Steve and I would look at each other and it was (whispers) What did she say?
"Shirley can be really flippant and irrational as hell. But she has a really strong persona and I really can't imagine how Garbage would've worked with anyone else."
"It's very weird but when I first met Shirley, I felt that I had known her before. Of course I didn't tell her that. Three or four months later I told her and she said, Yeah, I felt the same way, it's very bizarre.
"She has very hard and fast opinions. I wasn't ready for that part. Initially it was hard to get through the accent. When we were first working together she would say something and I'd have to have her repeat it three times. By that time, she'd just say, Fuck off. I understood that."