Interview - Ultra Girls: Ultra big break for the girls with ambition
The next big thing. The band that everyone's going to be talking about. The biggest girl group since The Spice Girls.
No, it's not a collection of quotes from the hyperbole- infected judges' panel of The X Factor, but a source that's equally excitable – a record company's PR outfit.
When launching a new artist or band, record companies seem to stop short only of describing their acts as the biggest thing since The Beatles. For some reason the Scouse band is sacrosanct – all other comparisons appear to be fair game. So when a PR company gets in touch to say that Leeds band The Ultra Girls are set to be the biggest girl band since the Spice Girls, it raises barely an eyebrow. It's not so much a case of "heard it before" as "hear it every single day about every other band". But a few days later when it is announced that Kylie Minogue is to take a support act on her UK stadium tour for the first time in seven years, eyebrows are raised.
Kylie, global pop superstar, has hand-picked The Ultra Girls as her support act, to play London's O2 Arena and arenas around the country.
Today the Ultra Girls are playing to significantly fewer than the thousands they will with Kylie, as they undertake a schools tour of the country.
We're at Cockburn College of Arts in south Leeds and the Ultra Girls – Amy, Lauren, Lucy and Laura – are signing autographs for young fans when we arrive. The girls are performing short sets in front of schoolkids who, while they might end up being their biggest supporters, are also a hard audience to win over.
The girls are sitting at a table patiently acceeding to every autograph request put to them by a bunch of excitable 10 and 11 year olds. Autographs signed, everyone happy, the girls disappear backstage, the schoolkids are shepherded out and another group of around 200 youngsters are brought in.
Zoe Smith looks on like a proud mother. She and business partner Nick Whitehouse set up Neon Star record company specifically to work with the Ultra Girls.
Record industry executives are generally deeply cynical, Zoe is sweetness personified and appears genuinely excited about discovering the next big thing in the world of the girl band. "When you meet them you'll see that they just win you over with their energy and they're just so honest and such a lovely group of girls to work with," she says.
If the calibre of people they have attracted is anything to go by, there is substance to this claim.
The Ultra Family, as the management team behind the band has been christened, includes executive producer Steve Anderson (who has worked with Kylie, Westlife, Britney), stylist Kenny Ho (Spice Girls and Girls Aloud), songwriter and musical director Sarah deCourcy (Christophe Willem, Kylie and Mel C), and choreographer Aaron Sillis (Kylie and Cheryl Cole).
The lights go down and the girls bounce on to the stage. Their voices aren't going to set the world on fire – although Laura does have impressive vocals in the live performance – but they have stage presence and a slickness that gives away the fact that they met as cheerleaders for Leeds Rhinos rugby league team.
Backstage, following the performance, they bunch up together on a sofa and chat excitedly. They have just revealed to the youngsters of Cockburn that they are "beyond excited" to have been asked to perform with Kylie. Interviewing them – or attempting to (there is much giggling and joking, and towards the end Lucy, 21, decides to speak gibberish in a bid to make her band mates laugh) – it does feel like seeing the Spice Girls before they become enormously famous.
"We've got a real chemistry that is natural and that comes out on stage. It's not something we practise and we don't try to be something we're not," says Amy.
It was Amy and Laura who first came up with the idea of forming a band when they were driving to a Leeds Rhinos game – they seem to remember Lucy was asleep in the back.
Amy, 27, says: "Standing on the sidelines at the rugby we used to have a natter and we just started talking about it."
Laura, 22, says: "There were quite a few of the girls who talked about starting a group or something, but a lot of the others sort of fell away and it ended up just being us." Lauren, 23, interrupts: "I think we were the most determined."
In 2009 they applied as Project A to the X Factor, making it as far as the house of judge Louis, only to lose out to Irish twins Jedward. They returned to Leeds determined that they would not enter history as a footnote on the X Factor story. They rehearsed, recorded a CD and began meeting people – winning over Nick Whitehouse was a key moment. With his backing they became not just another girl band hoping to make it, but the Ultra Girls. And while today they are performing to a couple of hundred schoolkids, within a couple of months their debut single, Girls Will Be Girls, will be released and they'll be on tour with Kylie.
At the mention of this they are uncharacteristically quiet. I expected more shrieking. "I know," say Laura and Amy in unison before Lucy adds: "We can't quite believe it. It's going to be amazing. It hasn't really sunk in."
"It's a real privilege that Kylie has said yes – she had the final say personally – and it cements the belief that our team has in us," says Amy.
It must be strange to imagine playing as Kylie's support when you're just a group of girls from Leeds, I suggest. Lucy bursts the Kylie bubble that seems to have enveloped the room and says the unsayable: "Yeah, but The Beatles were just a group of boys from Liverpool."
The next big thing, these girls.
A history of the girl band
Girl groups were not invented, despite popular opinion, by the Spice Girls.
The Andrews Sisters, who formed in the 1930s, had a string of hits for over two decades. Motown brought us The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas and in the 1980s Bananarama, The Bangles, and Sister Sledge all had top 10 hits, but things went quiet for the girl band until the 1990s and the arrival of the Spice Girls, who became the biggest girl group in history. They also led to a revival of girl groups and were followed by Sugababes, Girls Aloud, Atomic Kitten and in the US The Pussycat Dolls.