Pepsi & Shirlie: ‘When I think back to that shoot, I just remember a feeling of freedom’ | Family

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Caption: Pepsi (on right) & Shirlie in 1987 and 2021. Later photograph: Pål Hansen/The Guardian. Styling: Andie Redman. Hair and makeup: Neusa Neves at Terri Manduca using Nars, Blisse Beauty Lashes and Innersense haircare

Bastions of 80s pop jubilance, Pepsi & Shirlie travelled the world as dancers and backing singers for Wham!. George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley enlisted their school friend Shirlie Holliman, before Helen “Pepsi” DeMacque joined for Wham!’s short but wildly successful career from 1982 to 1986. As a duo, Pepsi & Shirlie had hits with Heartache and Goodbye Stranger. Now living in St Lucia with her husband, Pepsi has performed in musicals such as Hair, while Shirlie, who lives in Hertfordshire and has two children, Harley Moon and Roman, has released a swing album and a book with husband Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet. Their book, Pepsi & Shirlie: It’s All in Black and White, is out now.

Shirlie

This was our first shoot as a duo. In the 80s it was important to create a “look”; we wanted something a bit theatrical, a nod to my days as a punk. Our stylist grabbed stuff from vintage shops; I’m wearing a riding jacket and men’s shoes. I loved the drama of it all.

Mine and Pepsi’s friendship began in 1982. We were looking for a new girl to join Wham! and one day George said: “OK! There’s this girl called Pepsi!” My first thought was: “She’s called Pepsi? Well, she’s got to be fun.”

When I arrived at Finsbury Park station to collect her, I was secretly pleased she wasn’t glamorous or girly. We got into my car and I asked what her voice was like. She handed me a cassette tape. “You sound like Shirley Bassey!” I said. She replied: “I’m such a big Bassey fan!” Any tension immediately melted away.

Mine and Pepsi’s upbringing was very similar. I grew up in a big family, six of us in a tiny council house. I shared a bed with my two sisters, I loved being tucked in the middle. But school was awful. Looking back, I had a learning disability, I couldn’t do maths, and we were handed these educational cards and expected to teach ourselves. When I was five, a teacher hit me around the face so hard it made me throw up.

I left with no qualifications and knew I’d never work in an office. So when Wham! started to take off, I was never nervous. School was the most frightening place I’d ever been, anything else pales in comparison. Plus I had the best job in the world, dancing with my friends. It was the perfect environment for me to shine.

Wham! was based on two boys messing around, having fun. They weren’t going to be teenagers for ever, and everyone knew George was going to have a huge solo career. But we enjoyed it while it lasted. Making the Last Christmas video was hysterical. We spent the shoot eating and drinking in a cabin in Switzerland. At one point, someone chucked a snowball at George’s head and his hair got soaked; the hairdresser was going: “Oh God! Hold on!” The director must have been thinking: I am never going to get control over this. It was chaos.

When Wham! came to an end, I said to Pepsi: “We’ll be a double act.” But I couldn’t adjust to all the travelling. I’d met Martin, and I would have to fly off to wherever Spandau Ballet were playing so we could spend time together. I was exhausted.

After I got pregnant with Harley, I thought: “I can’t do this any more.” It would have been great if I’d stuck with it and earned more money, but it wouldn’t have been a substitute for a happy childhood.

Mine wasn’t great: my dad was this huge, Zeus-like guy, and when he was at home it was like thunder. Him and my mum would argue and scream, and I’d listen at the top of the stairs. It gave me bad anxiety. I wanted to create a nice, easy environment for my children.

When I told Pepsi I couldn’t do it any more, she knew it was coming, and I had to be honest with her. Honesty is the most important thing in a friendship; we have always been ruthless with each other. If she is getting on my nerves, I’ll happily tell her. It’s why our relationship works.

Although Pepsi lives far away, our friendship is the same as always. When I think back to the day of this shoot, I just remember a feeling of freedom: “Pepsi, we’re doing our own thing! This is us. This is our time.”

Pepsi

When Shirlie and I started as a duo, we had a really strong idea of how we wanted to present ourselves. I wanted us to have a tomboy element, and there’s an energy to our poses which reflects how we felt: wow! We are here!

I’d prepared to meet Shirlie for the first time as if it was an audition. I felt calm. Ready. Once I got out of the tube station and into the car, it was just chat, chat, chat. We went back to George’s house, and I was trying to remain very professional, but I desperately wanted to be part of their gang. Also George had this white carpet. I grew up in a home where some of the rooms didn’t even have carpet, so it was mind-blowing. How did he keep it so clean?

Before Wham! I was a bit lost. I’d had lots of jobs, delivering meals on wheels, working at a travel agency, a stint at the Natural History Museum gift shop. I loved it there, but I was constantly dreaming, thinking: “Is this it?”

I was brought up in a West Indian family; there was always bickering, laughter, music, aunties, uncles. My mother wanted to make sure we were content and happy. But I used to dread Friday night when I’d hear my dad coming home from the pub and my mum screaming. It’s taken me a while to get over that. Alcoholism is inherent in our family, but I don’t have an addictive nature. I like to feel good. That’s the connection Shirlie and I have. We love cosiness. We love a good party, but at the end of the day it’s about feeling wholesome: waking up in the morning with the bright sunshine in your eyes and appreciating it.

I was a session singer when someone sent my music to Simon Napier-Bell, who managed Wham! I’ve no idea who it was, but I am glad they did. Being in Wham! was incredible. Our first performance together was at Capital Radio: we were mucking around, then the next thing I know we are on stage dancing to Club Tropicana. The brief was to dance like we were encouraging a girl from the audience to join in; make it look easy and have fun. Being on the stage is such a force. I’ll never forget those screaming fans. The decibels! Girls dropping to their knees.

Shirlie had to persuade me we could make it as a duo. She said we should grab the opportunity. And she was right. Our first single was kept off the top spot by George’s duet with Aretha Franklin. But he made us feel like we were No 1; he felt really bad and took us out to dinner at the Ivy.

I moved to New Zealand after we broke up, and while I wrote to her often, Shirlie and I weren’t as connected. She had a family and I had met the love of my life. I never took it personally.

When George died, Shirlie couldn’t make the call to me as she was too upset, so Harley did. It was a hard, hard time for all of us. I came back to the UK for his tribute at the Brits a few months later. At first it was really emotional to see Shirlie again, then you start having a little bicker and soon enough it creates a lightness that softens the load.

To this day, I still tell her to shut up when she’s being bossy, but it’s all done with total affection. Besides, I love seeing her do her thing, always busy, meddling, huffing and puffing. She will always be a sister to me.

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