Charlotte Church sips lemonade, sings barefoot and shields her mouth with her hand when she chews. She says what she feels, and eats what she wants - but not fish, because she doesn't like the smell. She smokes, swears and trips sometimes in high heels when she's had too much to drink. She has sung for the Pope and Nelson Mandela. She has the voice of an angel, and for most of her adolescence she has been stalked and pilloried whenever she has not behaved like one.
Last year she confronted the now sacked Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan in his office about his newspaper's treatment of her. For a picture of Charlotte smoking a cigarette, thousands could change hands. For the "exclusive" story of her first kiss and even her newly surrendered virginity, that figure would be multiplied tenfold. She has grown up in the crossfire of relentless long-lens interrogation.
"Every time I said something to him like 'Did you not appreciate the fact that I was, like, 13 or 14 at the time - didn't that matter to you?', he was like, 'Oh, stop moaning, for God's sake. All you celebrities do is moan.'" She wasn't moaning, she was challenging and, for once, Morgan appeared to be squirming. What parent - Morgan among them - would want their child's every misstep or embarrassment exaggerated and witnessed by millions? He seemed at a loss to explain why a 13-year-old girl should be fair game for his newshounds.
In the tabloid world, Church's voice and music were marketed and thus ordained as angelic seven years ago, and therefore their owner, the pretty, clean-cut, working-class little-girl-with-a-gift had a duty to portray the character traits of an angel. Now, as a sexy, sassy 18-year-old, the owner of that image is policed around the clock, without parole, allowed neither teenage angst nor hormones, nor, especially, a T-shirt that reads: "My Barbie is a crack whore".
It was inevitable that when Charlotte found a boyfriend, lost her virginity, got tipsy, swore, showed cleavage, the angel's fall from grace would fire brimstone from the tabloid's pulpits.
Maybe because she's sold 10m albums. Possibly because she's met the Queen twice, sung for George W Bush and the Pope. But mostly because Charlotte Church is "a good story". She's made millions from a name and a voice, and when she jumps headfirst off the pedestal of fame into an everyday teenage existence, it makes great headlines.
It reached its climax this summer. Church had a holiday in Ibiza with friends and, like almost every other 18-year-old girl, she had fun. It earned her the Daily Mail headline "The Vices of an Angel".
The Mail "revealed" that she drank alcohol with her friends, smoked, danced, partied and - horror of all horrors - ate mostly chicken and chips. Like any other young woman growing up, she is experimenting with independence, yet in those constant and ever-present reprimands may lie her successful transition. For the Mail is doing her a favour. Church's career is going through a difficult metamorphosis, from angel to Madonna, a would-be international pop star. In defining her behaviour with such parental opprobrium, the tabloids are introducing her to her peers and "customers" as "one of us". Their attempts at demonising her are in fact humanising her; the "vice of an angel" may be seen as the "voice of a generation".
On her 18th birthday earlier this year, Charlotte Church would have been forgiven for wilting under the relentless pressures of celebrity, schedules, flashbulbs and betrayals. She could have locked herself away. Instead, she went out on the town with friends - defiant of the paparazzi. "It goes with the turf," she says, with the aplomb of a seasoned and fearless heroine in the front line of celebrity.
She laughs easily and has a coruscating sense of humour. On weekends she sleeps late and cleans her house. Her best friend, Naomi, whom she sees every day, says: "How many millionaires do you know who get down on their hands and knees and mop their own floor?" Only when she's had a fight with her mum at the same time that she's in a fight with her boyfriend, Kyle, does she appear to be upset. She has close friends from her childhood, the support of her family, a maturity beyond her years, and a stoicism unusual in one so young; she is a fighter, and she has a bigger battle than with the tabloids on her hands. She's not preoccupied with what she's been through but focused on where she goes from here.
For the past two years, a constant feature in the short life of Charlotte Church has been the question of transition; a transition that so many before have failed. Can she survive the leap from child star to adult performer, and can she navigate safe passage from adolescence in tandem with, or in spite of, success or failure?
She has a different kind of fame. She is not just another cute adolescent celebrity with shiny hair and flawless skin. She has, and has had since the age of 11, a remarkable talent. A voice that has catapulted her into a rarefied and dangerous area of fame: the archetype of the child wunderkind.
Such prodigies have been seen to falter when they've dared to grow up. A fall from grace does not take much: a drunken tumble, a night out with the wrong man, an inadvertent outburst, a struggle with dependency. Will Church cross both thresholds and thrive?
"Pineapple salsa - hmm. Not sure I like the sound of that." She gazes down at the menu at a gastropub in Primrose Hill and wrinkles her nose. "Lamb chump?" She looks up, wide-eyed. "What's a lamb chump?" One of the most striking features about her, other than the enormous, twinkling blue-green eyes, is her total lack of pretence. "Baby chicken - nope! Can't see its little legs. Can't do it," she says, shuddering.
We have just come from the recording studio, where Church was finishing work on a song for the pop album she has in gestation. The album is due out next year. Half an hour earlier, she was standing on the other side of the round glass porthole, shoes off, giant headphones hugging her ears, singing the chorus for Unfaithful, a song she has written. She clears her throat. "Does it sound bland?" she asks. The producer, Guy Chambers, best known for his work with Robbie Williams, leans forward over the mixing board, shaking his head. He suggests she try it again, slower. It's nearing 6pm, and she's been singing for four hours. She tries again. A few takes later, she nails it, emerges and sits down in the swivel chair next to Chambers as he plays it back. She puts on her hot-pink hoodie, zips up and lights a cigarette. Her voice is rich and full. He mentions that she was too close to the mike before. "No wonder I loved it," she jokes, exhaling a long, sibilant line of smoke. "I could hear more of me!"
On the walk from the recording studio to the pub, she strolls slowly, holding hands with her boyfriend, Kyle Johnson. A Cardiff hotel worker, Johnson is sweet-natured, low-key and not quite used to all the attention. Unlike Church's last boyfriend, he doesn't court publicity.
Now, over dinner, Johnson sits at a separate table out on the patio with Church's manager and her publicist. She glances over in his direction, worried he'll be all right. She is used to being photographed and watched; it is an everyday part of her life. But it is now an everyday part of his life too. Though he handles it well, she is mindful of the fact that he didn't ask for it.
"It was funny," she says cheerfully. "The other day, my Hoover broke. So I went round to my mum's house to borrow hers. They got a picture of me carrying the Hoover. I went to Tesco to do my shopping. They have a picture of me coming out of Tesco. I mean, really, what is the interest?"
Church only vaguely remembers what it was like not being famous. "I was very young - I was 11." And though she was always driven to sing, it was, to an 11-year-old girl, the opportunity that excited her, not the celebrity. The fame wasn't something she hungered for.
"I didn't have enough time to want it. I mean, when you're a teenager, if you're a singer, you really want it with every inch of your being. If I'd got to 16, 17, 18 and I wasn't famous I would've really wanted it. I would've had more drive to do what I do. Now, I'm kind of free-and-easy about everything. It's healthy but it's not normal in the industry I'm in. You've got to be driven to have the No 1 single, the No 1 album."
But now she has something to prove. She has written all the songs on her new album, and they're personal. For instance, Confessional Song: "I'm gonna be hypnotised/To stop me from smoking/Everyone keeps telling me/It's bad for my voice/I'm gonna stay home tonight/So I don't get hungover/Get myself a takeaway/And watch MTV."
It would have been easy for Church to absorb someone else's vision of who she should be and what she should sing. Instead she's gone for her own music, exposing her own raw emotions. "It's make or break with this album, because if it doesn't do well, I'll be too disheartened to make another album. I'm a fighter by nature and I would do it, but I'm really hoping it will do well because I like it - but," she says, stubbing out her cigarette, "I have no expectations."
The waitress arrives to take our order. Church turns to me. "If you have a starter I'll have a starter," she says. She orders the rib-eye steak, well done, without the onion marmalade.
For the past few years, her image has been changing, and Church has been defined by her personal relationships and her actions more than by her music. A main focus of the attention has been on her wealth. "I just don't get it at all. I know that I've got that much, but it doesn't matter to me. I love being able to spend it; I love knowing I can do whatever I want for the rest of my life. But I don't really care about it.
"I think of myself as a lucky, rich young girl. Which I've worked for. I mean, I have earned it." She is not embarrassed by the money, nor does she act as though she's entitled to it, and she is acutely aware of the delicate position it's put her in. "It's a ridiculous amount to have earned, whereas my friends all work five days a week."
When Church turned 18 in February, she came into her fortune, which has been estimated at £16m. "It's £5.5m. That's the accurate figure. More like ?£6m now. Because interest rates have gone up." She laughs."I keep track. I do. I know where my bills are going. I never used to be on top of it, but when I was 17 I got a bit more interested and every three or four months I had a meeting with my trustee."
Now she meets with her trustee every month. By her own choice, she's kept the money locked away and given herself an allowance. "I've got, like, £300 a week in my bank account to spend - just to pay bills and everything. And I've got a credit card with a £1,500 limit every month."
When it's suggested that her self-appointed allowance is quite restrained for an 18-year-old with millions, she takes a sip of lemonade and nods. "It's just because I know I need no more than that. So why bother having it? I like being reasonable about it because it keeps me normal and it doesn't separate me as much from my friends. If I had 10 grand a month on my credit card, it would be imbalanced." Balance is very important to Church. She remains unspoilt, and though she can get to more of the money, she rarely does.
"I bought my mum a diamond cross for her birthday. I said to her on her birthday, 'You can have this £80 that I have now to go and buy yourself clothes or whatever you want, or you can wait for my birthday when I get my money and I'll buy you a fabulous diamond thing.'"
She acknowledges the role reversal. "It is odd. But we deal with it quite well. We're much more like sisters. But she can discipline me. I do listen to her after a screaming match. But yeah, like sisters, I borrow her clothes, she borrows mine. We share make-up. I can have a laugh with her about men. Stuff like that."
Charlotte Church was born on February 21, 1986, in Llandaff, Cardiff, and her biological father, whom she has never met, left when she was a little over a year old. She grew up the only child of two local council workers; her mother, Maria, who was only 20 when Charlotte was born, and her stepfather. She was always surrounded by music and singing, and at nine years old, Charlotte dialled Richard and Judy's "talented kids" phone line. She sang Pie Jesu over the line, captivated the nation, and was officially discovered. A year later she was awarded a scholarship to the Cathedral school, for academically advanced pupils, then after two years switched to a girls' school. At the same time, her singing career was gaining momentum. While introducing her aunt Caroline, a professional cabaret singer, on Jonathan Ross's Big, Big Talent Show, she caught the interest of Jonathan Shalit, who became her manager.
She was 12 in 1998 when her debut album, Voice of an Angel, was released. She was 14 when she was sued by Shalit, whose services she dispensed with. When the dust settled, Maria Church was vilified as a greedy, domineering mother. She saw it as protecting her daughter. "My mum is one of the most courageous women I know. She's so strong. She's so emotional and passionate about everything in her life. Sometimes we hate each other and then other times we love each other so much it's ridiculous."
What keeps Church in line is her family. She worries about their reactions. Their values are never far behind. The magazine FHM has asked her many times to do revealing photo shoots and she has declined, concerned it would upset her family. "I'd love to see myself all airbrushed, with my body perfect, but then I imagine some of the men that are gonna be droolin' over me - imagine some of the girlfriends who are gonna be really pissed off that their men are looking at me... I imagine my nan seeing it."
"We're not normal, how close we are," she chirps between mouthfuls of steak. "When I'm home, I see my mum, my dad, my nan, my grandfather, my auntie and my cousins every day. Every day. There's nothing that makes me feel more calm - no matter what's going on in my life - than going to my nan's house for a cup of tea."
Contrary to what many think, Church claims her mum didn't want her involved in show business. "But I knew that me being so little, with such a big voice, I knew it had to work. I knew at 11 that I had a huge operatic voice. So I thought, okay, I'll do it. I've always been grown up. Now, I think I'm much less mature. I can't really explain it."
Why is she less confident now? "I got older, a little bit wiser, and men came into the equation." She admits that her biggest insecurity is with boys. "For me it's about when I'm in a relationship, it's about feeling completely adored. In my last relationship, I didn't feel that. At the start I did and it just went downhill. I was never cynical before him."
The boundaries of marketing her new grown-up self are fuzzy. She admires the way Dido has pulled it off. "She's got a nice image - her talent's the main thing, but she's still quite sexy." But mainly, Church is cautious not to let her image become the main focus. She's willing to vamp it up and show a bit more of her sexy side for the album, but she defers to her family when it comes to where to draw the line.
"I never really know what the boundary is. I get my mother to judge things like that because, you know, she dresses quite feminine - she has a bit of cleavage and things like that, and she doesn't mind me doing that either, but then she'll say, 'No! Now that's too much. That's not classy any more; that's not dignified.' If I went up to her in a tiny little dress with my arse cheeks hanging out, she'd say, 'You look a f***ing mess. Get home and change!'
"I don't really care if people don't see me as classy and dignified - if I do the whole tits-and-arse thing, it won't be the end of the world, but I want my nan to be able to look at my videos without squirming. It's all about my family - it really is. I don't really care what a record-company man says.
"Let's say I made a really sexy video, like Beyoncé. My nan would be like [she wrinkles her nose], 'That's disgustin'. What about all the strange 50-year-old men havin' a perv on you?'" They're in this as well, so I can't be too selfish."
Church was brought up a Catholic. She went to church every Sunday until she was 12 and the career kicked off. But religion isn't her barometer. "I still like to think of myself as a Catholic - though I'm not really practising. I do believe in God. I love reading about other religions, and that's just me, really. If I ever have children, which I hope I do, I'll bring them up Catholic. I think it's important to have something to believe in. You gotta be passionate about something."
She pops a chip in her mouth and asks: "What does 'neurotic' mean?" After it's explained, she sighs. "Oh, okay then, I'm neurotic, I think. I'd be so neurotic about my child. So as soon as I do have a child, my whole life will be taken up with that child - I'd worry 24 hours a day. I don't want that stress on my head right now. Even though I have the financial security. No way. I think 26, 27 will be a good age."
Maria Church has a mind of her own when it comes to publicity. She has been criticised for her behaviour, painted as everything from a pushy stage mother to the Welsh Dragon, but all she's doing is defending her daughter. Their closeness is unique. They need each other, rely on each other and, whatever their differences, they always end up in each other's arms.
Maria is a feisty, ferociously protective mother.When she speaks publicly she is trying to put things right. Either you can speak out or you can say nothing - but on this issue, as on numerous others, she and her daughter disagree.
Church has denied access to her mum and addresses the subject now with characteristic candour: "Me and my mum are very vocal and very honest about things," she says slowly, choosing her words carefully. "There are certain things we disagree on - which she'd be quite happy to tell you about." She pauses. "And I just don't want you to know."
It is late afternoon and we are seated at a table near the window in the empty dining room at the St David's hotel in Cardiff. We have met for a drink and a chat before dinner at a local restaurant with some of her mates. Church rolls her eyes and laughs off a recent tabloid story. She orders herself a lemonade and a ham sandwich.
It must be difficult for Maria Church to accept that she is no longer in control. She was working with Charlotte on the road for five years, because Charlotte didn't want a chaperone who would let her do what she wanted, because they both knew she'd manage to manipulate them. "With her there, I was much more disciplined," Church says.
"My mum's just as honest as me. She wouldn't sit here and agree. She'd tell you straight exactly what she thinks. It's just that it's nobody else's business. She doesn't speak for me - she speaks about how she sees the situation as it is."
"She only talks 'cause she knows I say so many stupid things that she'd quite like to rectify. She thinks she can say it for me in a better way. She's my mum. And I don't want her to be public property like I am.
"It's like, that's my family, that's mine. You can't have that now. Have as much of me as you like. Not them. Especially people like my nan. I just go off if they get to her."
For Maria, Charlotte's fame is an opening. She wants the best for her daughter, and would prefer she lived in London. "My mum would like me to hang out with celebrities or people who were as rich as me," Charlotte says. Charlotte explains that it's her mum wanting her to be able to take advantage of opportunity.
"She thinks I should be in London, where everything is happening. She'd die if I ever left - but she's being unselfish saying, 'I'd think it would be better for you.' I could have all the glamorous stuff that I've worked for - which I have worked for since I was 12. But I know if I went down that route I wouldn't be as normal as I am now. I think I'd get big-headed. I can't imagine mixing with the London crowd frequently.
"My mum thinks there'd be more opportunity for me there, that's all, and that I'd have more fun. Down in Cardiff, you're with the same people all the time. She just wants me to spread my wings." At this point she rolls her eyes. "Ha! Spread my wings. How corny."
Her sandwich arrives and, using her fingers, she picks the fat off the ham. "I know we're going out to dinner soon, but I'm starving." "I can't ever imagine me living anywhere but Cardiff. It's somewhere that's familiar. Everyone that I need to see or speak to is close by. Every time I go up to London it is surreal to me. Because when I'm going out and stuff like that, it's crazy."
Despite photographers hounding her here, she feels safer than she would in London. "There are always places I can go here that they don't know about." She smiles mischievously.
Church has chosen Mamma Mia, a local Cardiff restaurant, for dinner and called ahead to reserve a table for eight. She could have used her name to get the reservation but didn't. Her manager, Mark, drives us there as Church sits in the back seat pleasantly chatting about the latest Harry Potter movie ("it's lush") and learning to drive. Soon she will take her driving test and she's decided on the car she will buy for herself: a blue convertible Mini.
To appreciate who Church is, is to witness the relationship she has with her friends. More than anything else, aside from her family, this is what grounds her. She has known Naomi and Abi since she was 12. "I love my girls. They're my chicks."
For the past 21/2 years the three of them have got together every night. Even when Church is with a boyfriend, they will come over before or after. It is a consistency that remains unaffected by her celebrity. Abi, who works for the Welsh Assembly, keeps tabs on what's written about Church and gives daily updates on what the tabloids are saying, and Naomi, who works at a jewellery shop, are both unfailingly loyal and fiercely protective. For instance, when asked what the most difficult part of being friends with Charlotte Church is, they talk about encounters they've had with other girls who are jealous.
As Church settles in at the table, she is neither striving to be the centre of attention nor attempting to deflect it. She is completely at ease. "No need to get a bottle unless everyone wants some," she says when ordering drinks. When the talk turns to how she met Janine from EastEnders in the loo at the Ivor Novello awards, she giggles, telling Naomi the story as an excited fan. If other patrons in the restaurant notice who she is, they do not acknowledge it. It is easy to see how, living here, she can maintain what's most important to her: a grip on normality.
Dinner is over. Church, Johnson and her friends will hang out a bit longer, finishing the bottle of wine. They might go to the cinema, if it's not too late. She gets up and hugs me goodbye, and for someone who has every detail of her life written about and dissected in an attempt to devour who she is and where she's going, it's clear that it's what she doesn't care about that explains her the most.