Interview: Fame and ordinary life in harmony for Isabel

This Christmas a star is born. Or so we're led to believe by the major TV advertising campaign for The Choirgirl Isabel, the debut album by 12-year old York Minster chorister Isabel Suckling.

Earlier this year Isabel became the youngest solo classical artist to sign an album deal with Decca. When The Choirgirl Isabel was released it went straight to number three in the classical charts. She is also being mentored by Aled Jones and tipped to emulate another former classical-singing child star Charlotte Church.

For mum Catherine, 52, the challenge is to keep Isabel's feet on the ground amid all the media attention.

"On the whole it's been great fun. But I'm excited and wary at the same time," she says. "I'm wary of the effect it may have on Isabel. I hope the trappings of fame are not going to change her, but you never know. Then there's the lack of anonymity. The whole world of celebrity is a bit scary. There are weirdos out there, and it does seem very weird that my daughter has a fanclub on Facebook."

Isabel and her brother Jack, 16, live with their mother in a four-bedroom Georgian terraced house not far from York Minster. They moved to Yorkshire six years ago, after her parents divorced.

Catherine has put her own career – finding student teachers for ex-pat families – on the back-burner to be by her daughter's side during this hectic time.

"Isabel needs somebody around her she can really trust. We've always been very close and I couldn't bear to hand her over to the record label or something. She needs someone to live through this with her, to ensure there's balance in her life, and to keep her grounded."

Isabel has already had to deal with a lot in her short life so far, including her parents' divorce, the loss of her maternal grandparents from cancer and her mother's own battle with the disease. She's also had some experience of celebrity. She is a descendant of naval legend Lord Nelson, and her father James Suckling, 52, is an American wine and cigar critic, with homes in Los Angeles and Tuscany and mates who are A-list movie stars. Isabel's godfather is Hollywood actor Matt Dillon.

"I went to visit Matt when he was filming You, Me and Dupree, and he was cool," says Isabel. "I was about eight and he let me sit on a chair with his name on the back."

Isabel was less than two months old when she moved with her parents and brother to Italy because of James's job, which also entailed lots of travelling, so his marriage to Catherine suffered.

Fortunately, there were good times ahead. Inspired by a piano teacher they'd had in Italy, Jack won a music scholarship to Ampleforth (though he moved to Winchester College) and Isabel won a choral scholarship to The Minster School. Shortly before her 12th birthday in March this year, Isabel became the youngest ever solo classical artist to sign for a leading label.

"Isabel had been getting a lot of solos at York Minster, but I didn't know it could go further than that," says Catherine.

It took Isabel just two auditions to beat off competition from hundreds of female choristers to land the deal, and only six days to record her debut album.

"I can't believe this is happening to my little girl. We're delighted people think so highly of her voice.

"Presumably they were looking for a complete package – somebody who could cope under pressure and have a certain stage presence as well as a good voice. Isabel is quite robust psychologically and a natural performer. She learnt to read exceptionally early. Isabel has always been easy, sunny and self-contained. She's never been prone to tantrums. She's a very together little girl. If I get overwrought about things she'll often make me see sense."

As for Isabel, in many ways she is like any other 12-year- old flitting between a crush on Justin Bieber and actor Robert Pattinson and walking the family pets.

"I'm afraid my poster of Justin is now in the bin," she says. "I have two signed pictures of Robert Pattinson, which is slightly embarrassing. When the first Twilight film came out my friends encouraged me to write a letter to him asking for a signed picture, which is so embarrassing. He sent me two back and I was ever so happy."

As for boyfriends, she says she finds boys her age immature.

"At the moment the only boys in my life are friends. My mum is always, like 'You can't have a boyfriend 'til you're 16'. She's not actually that strict, but she's very embarrassing."

Isabel seems to be taking fame and television appearances in her stride.

"I'm not really thinking about how many it (The Choirgirl Isabel) sells. Mum is always looking at the Amazon charts and saying things like 'Oh it's gone up a place' or whatever. I don't care." Although she admits to enjoying being asked for her autograph.

"I was coming out of a concert in Liverpool and a fan was waiting for me outside. That was so odd because I'm usually the fan waiting outside for people."

As with most record deals, whether further albums are ever made depends on the success of the first one.

"Isabel could still be tied into this contract as an adult. But she's quite aware it might be just a flash-in-the-pan. Even if it's all over by Christmas she'll have great memories of the last few months."

Those memories include performing in front of The Queen and the Prime Minister at the Festival Of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, and TV appearances on The Alan Titchmarsh Show and BBC Breakfast.

"After the first rehearsal for the Festival Of Remembrance Isabel was in floods of tears. She'd been watching the powerful footage of coffins coming back from Afghanistan and found that very emotional. I was also in tears, proud to see my little girl up there on a huge stage in front of 5,000 people including the Queen, and eight million TV viewers at home.

"Isabel gets a lot of requests to do this, that and the other, and I'll always ask her what she wants to do before making a decision. I try not to agree anything unless I've cleared it with her.

"We have two totally different lives now. We go down to London and we are met by smart cars and taken here and there. Then Isabel comes back to York and she's trudging off to school through the snow. I think it's good that she has a completely normal life back here."

The Sucklings have a three -year old Norfolk Terrier named Bertie, and Catherine confides: "Isabel loves animals. I've promised her two kittens in February and she's more excited about those than she is about the album."

"She does like playing classical on piano or cello but it's not the first thing she puts on her iPod. The moment she's at home she listens to Taylor Swift and that kind of thing. If this all leads to a career, it'd be fantastic because Isabel loves singing. Aled (Jones) has told her 'Just enjoy the singing – the day you stop enjoying it is the day you should give up'."

Even if Isabel becomes a big name herself, her mother thinks she's unlikely to get big-headed.

"I'm proud of how Isabel has handled all of this. She has been incredibly modest about it. I'm much more prone to boasting about it," says Caroline although she

stresses that she is not a

pushy parent.

Tomorrow Isabel will be appearing on the Chris Evans' BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show which is being broadcast live from the kitchen of the Archbishop of York.

She will be joined by other guests including the Manic Street Preachers.

"A very curious collection of people," laughes Catherine.