Tulisa was punished for the company that she keeps.
Yesterday Tulisa walked free from a drug trial that had the potential to destroy her career. It was collapsed by a judge who deemed that the reporter who led the sting had lied at a pre-trial hearing. There was always something trap like about it - a cynical show orchestrated to drag a successful woman through the dirt. Declaring herself The Female Boss (the name of her album, fragrance, and a tattoo across her arm), Tulisa had got too uppity. She had accumulated too much success and independent wealth. She had to be taken down.
It started with a sting from the Sun Newspaper. Journalist Mazher Mahmood, previously an undercover reporter for the Sunday Times and the News of the World, gained her trust over a number of weeks. He took his time to get to know her. During the trial, the court heard how Mahmood, pretending to be a big time film producer, promised Tulisa a role in a Hollywood film alongside Leonardo DiCaprio. While he built her trust, he recorded every phone call and filmed every conversation.
During one of these conversations Tulisa confirmed that she had an ex-boyfriend that dealt cocaine. She boasted that she could get hold of some for Mahmood, if he wanted. In her statement outside court after the case had been thrown out, Tulisa provided some context: “Mahmood got me and my team completely intoxicated and persuaded me to act the part of a bad, rough, ghetto girl. They recorded this and produced it as evidence, when I thought it was an audition”. The transaction never took place. The words alone were enough to incriminate her in the eyes of the journalist- soon after, The Sun on Sunday ran a five page spread on “Tulisa’s Cocaine Deal Shame”.
With a stint as an X Factor judge, Tulisa’s fame had the elements it takes to make public treasure status. But her version of femininity fell outside of the strict white middle class boundaries of how to be a respectable woman. Tulisa’s band NDubz grew their immense success off of the back of the UK grime scene, and built an audience from Channel U (now Channel AKA) a satellite TV channel that showcased young, underground talent. Channel U gave rise to artists like Lethal B, Lady Sovereign and JME. The music was brilliant but the aesthetic – hoodies, underpasses, brick walls – instilled panic in those who weren’t part of it. Eight years ago, as NDubz were rising to fame, postcode wars and gang violence consumed TV news. A newly elected Conservative Party leader David Cameron was encouraging middle England to hug a hoodie, while describing hoodies ‘uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters’. This was a new slant on an old prejudice directed at a view of an uncontrollable black masculinity. Among other things, Channel U was a politically black movement, and NDubz were part of this.
A few years on, and NDubz were one of the few artists to make their popularity on Channel U a mainstream commercial success. Like another breakthrough success from the channel, Lady Sovereign, who tried (and failed) to crack the US, their success was in part due to white privilege. This was the same music young black people were making, but fronted by a white face, which made careers more palatable to wealthy investors. In the meantime, black grime stars toned down the anti-authoritarian slant of their songs, transitioning from MCing about police injustice to making mindless party music for Freshers students.
And so Tulisa rose to fame as NDubz were embraced and legitimised. Her crunchy moussed curls and tiny Nike backpack were replaced by flowing blonde hair and flawless make up. But association always tainted her. That she was targeted by The Sun embodies intersections of race, class and gender. Tulisa isn’t black, she’s mixed- Greek and Irish. But the roots of her fame are enough to have her ascent monitored by a suspicious eye. Blackness, in a country still stained by institutional racism, is associated with a contagious criminality that taints the respectable. And, despite a few alterations to her image, Tulisa has never quite gained the badge of respectability.