“Nicole Scherzinger and I are bonding – over gravy.
The glossy singer, dancer and TV presenter, who became a household name as part of the Pussycat Dolls before a three-season stint as a judge on The X Factor, is firmly in my camp when it comes to portion sizes, too.
‘People would ask me: “Would you like some Sunday roast with that gravy?”’ she laughs of her time spent in London, which she recalls as an exotic epicurean adventure.
‘Gravy is probably one of my favourite smells in the world,’ she says dreamily, before rattling off a list of her other beloved British treats: fish and chips, sticky toffee pudding, banoffee pie… ‘Y’all have a lot of good pies,’ she enthuses.
It wasn’t merely our pastry-based cuisine with which the Hawaii-born, Kentucky-raised star found an affinity, though.
‘I felt the British people got me,’ she says. ‘I felt all the preconceived notions they might have had of me before in the Pussycat Dolls were gone.’
A Doll but not a diva, Nicole both charmed and disarmed the X Factor audience, her fellow judges and her pop protégées with her openness, along with her idiosyncratic catchphrases: ‘Schamazing’ and ‘Schamazeballs’.
‘People don’t realise how relatable I really am,’ she says.
Indeed, 37-year-old Nicole is eminently capable of disarming. The day we speak, she is in bucolic Asheville, North Carolina, in the throes of rehearsals for Dirty Dancing, a US television-movie remake of the 1980s blockbuster that made a star of Patrick Swayze and simmered with sexual tension.
Nicole plays Penny, a dancer at Kellerman’s summer camp who gets pregnant after a fling with a womanising waiter. But Nicole tells me she very nearly didn’t take the part – because Penny elects to have an abortion.
‘I come from a very religious family who don’t believe in abortion,’ explains Nicole, herself a practising Catholic.
‘My family is everything and their opinion is everything, so I needed their approval or else I wouldn’t have done it.’
Initially, her family was against her taking the part, until her grandfather, who is a preacher, prayed on the subject and concluded that it was ‘what she was meant to do’.
‘We decided that maybe I could be a voice, that I could shed some light on the subject without being preachy,’ she says.
Nicole is very committed to using her voice to help others. She is speaking to me to highlight an appeal she made recently in Kenya on behalf of the children’s charity Unicef, which will be broadcast during Soccer Aid, a fundraising celebrity football match, next Sunday on ITV.
Travelling to the slums of Nairobi last November, Nicole befriended children who sleep on the streets and spend their days in rubbish dumps, scratching a living by collecting bottles and cans, which they sell for recycling, and risking disease, violence and exploitation in the process.
‘These kids have no one in their lives to take care of them. They start – at the age of two, three, four – fending for themselves on the streets,’ says Nicole.
She is honest enough to admit having initial feelings of trepidation and horror on arrival in Dagoretti, western Nairobi.
‘They dropped me off outside a slum and I was, like, “Wait, I have to get out of the van? And go into that?”’ she recalls. ‘Are you serious?’
But Sam, a social worker at the Unicef-supported Amref children’s centre – where children aged from seven to 18 can receive hot meals and access basic education and healthcare – became her guide, and introduced her to some of the young people he works with.
The resulting film focuses on George, a 12-year-old boy who sleeps on the cold concrete floor of the local market each night, waking up at 5am to start collecting plastic and scrap metal from rubbish dumps to sell, making around 30p a day.
I ask Nicole how she managed not only to gain the trust of children who are likely to be wary of outsiders, but to persuade them to take part in a film.
‘All you can do is try to be respectful and giving, kind and loving; make them feel valued and not force yourself on them. They’ll come to you if they want,’ she shrugs.
‘With George, I was just myself. I wasn’t fake and it wasn’t about cameras – it was about connecting with him on a human level.’
She has previously travelled to the Philippines and Guyana with Unicef.
‘It’s our job, it’s our purpose in life, to be a voice,’ she says.
Which is not to say that she didn’t struggle with what she witnessed in the Nairobi slums.
‘This trip was unlike any other for me,’ she admits. ‘One night I was so traumatised by what I’d seen that I couldn’t sleep.
‘I asked one of the girls from Unicef, who I’d just met that day, to come and stay in my room with me.
‘I thought, “If I’m frightened here, in this warm, safe hotel, then how must these kids feel out on the street?”’
The slums and rubbish dumps of Nairobi couldn’t be more of a departure from the lavish glitz of Monaco, where Nicole was a regular visitor during her seven-year relationship with British Formula One racing champion Lewis Hamilton, who has made his home there.
After several break-ups and reunions – and a rumoured engagement, which the pair always denied – they split for good in February last year.
Though she has never publicly spoken about the issue, Nicole is said to have wanted marriage and children, while Lewis, six years her junior, would not commit.
Two demanding, high-profile careers and the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship can surely not have helped either.
But she has seemingly not been put off top-flight sports stars – or younger men. Nicole is now reportedly dating the 24-year-old Bulgarian tennis player Grigor Dimitrov.
Today, however, she will not comment on her love life.
‘That’s too personal,’ she says politely when I broach the subject. She has no qualms, however, about discussing her desire to be a mother.
‘Oh, I’ll have kids. Definitely. Of course,’ she says firmly. ‘I base it all on my faith and when it’s the right time, it’ll happen.’
In the meantime, she’s busy being ‘the best aunt’ – which involves a lot of watersports and karaoke – to her sister’s three daughters, six-year-old twins and an eight-year-old, who live in Tennessee.
‘While I’m here in Asheville they are only a couple of hours away, so they are coming to see me every weekend,’ she beams.
‘I have them around me as often as I can because they just make everything better.’
Nicole was born in Honolulu to a Hawaiian-Ukrainian mother, who was just 17 when she had her.
Her Filipino father walked out when she was two. The family was always strapped for cash when she was growing up.
‘My clothes came from the thrift shop and we would eat pancake mix and noodles because they were the cheapest things to buy,’ Nicole has said.
Aged six, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, with her mother, stepfather Gary Scherzinger and younger sister Keala.
She has spoken about growing up mixed race in a family that was white, as ‘the brownie who stood out’, and as the sole performer – from the age of five or six she recalls knowing music was her path, entering local teenage talent contests and signing all of her school yearbooks: ‘Remember me when I’m famous’.
She enrolled to study musical theatre at Wright State University in Ohio, but dropped out to sing backing vocals for a band called Days of the New before appearing on the US X Factor forerunner Popstars.
Her experience on the show – she sang her idol Whitney Houston’s version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ – was, she believes, part of what made her so empathetic on the ITV show years later.
‘I come from a small town, from humble beginnings. I didn’t know how I would get to somewhere like Los Angeles,’ she says.
‘I drove to Chicago after work one night and waited in line from 5am until they saw me.’
Her dedication paid off: she was selected to join the girl band Eden’s Crush but, a year later, their record company went bust and the band split up.
In 2003, however, Nicole’s fortunes changed when she was cast as the lead singer in the Pussycat Dolls.
And although the fivesome would go on to become one of the most successful girl groups of all time, selling more than 50 million records worldwide, Nicole does not remember those years fondly.
She spent a decade, until her late 20s, struggling with bulimia, which she only opened up about many years later, calling it a ‘horrible, paralysing disease’.
In recent years, she has released solo albums, but also returned to what she calls her ‘first love’, musical theatre, winning rave reviews and an Olivier award nomination for her West End turn as Grizabella in Cats.
Its creator Andrew Lloyd Webber called her ‘the real deal’ and ‘the most exciting musical theatre artist I have worked with in very, very many years’.
There were hopes that she might reprise the role when the show transfers to Broadway this summer, but on the day we speak Nicole is giving nothing away.
‘They’ve asked me to do it, but we’re still in negotiations to see if we can work it out,’ she demurs.
That morning, the news has also broken that Cheryl has quit as a judge on The X Factor, and fresh rumours abound that Nicole – and her highly emotional human connections – might make a return to our Saturday-night screens in her place.
‘Never say never, but I’d have to think long and hard about it,’ Nicole says.
‘I miss Britain, but if I put my energy into The X Factor, I put in a hundred million per cent.
‘I don’t know if I’m at a place where I can do that. Or if I need to start focusing more on building my own legacy, building something that I can really be remembered for.’
Weeks later, it is reported that she has, in fact, dropped out of Cats on Broadway to rejoin The X Factor, leaving Lloyd-Webber fuming.
She is confirmed, however, as a guest at two shows with Andrea Bocelli (with whom she recorded ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ in Spanish for his latest studio album) in London and Dublin this autumn. Certainly, no one could ever accuse Nicole of not having range.
Home these days is, at least nominally, Los Angeles, where she has recently bought a house. How much time does she spend there?
‘Maybe a quarter of the year,’ she estimates.
She admits that she has become used to the itinerant life.
‘When you’re on the road, you want to be home in one place,’ she says. ‘Then when you get home, after a few weeks, you think, “OK, I’m ready to get back out there, let’s go.”’
In the past, she has admitted to a punishing level of perfectionism.
‘I always wanted to control everything… “I have to have the greatest album. I have to win a Grammy by the time I’m 22,”’ she has said.
Has she learnt to become less demanding of herself?
‘Yeah, that’s probably one of the biggest differences in my whole life,’ she says. ‘Through experience, through maturity, I’m definitely kinder to myself.
‘That’s probably one of the biggest pieces of advice I would give to younger women,’ she continues. ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself, learn to love yourself more.’
It’s a noble sentiment, but one Nicole probably still needs to repeat to herself on occasion, too. When I ask about social media, she shrieks in horror.
‘It makes me anxious. I’m not good at it and I get upset with myself,’ she laments. (This, from a woman who has 2.4 million followers on Instagram.)
‘You can’t do enough – it’s never-ending,’ she continues, warming to her Luddite theme.
‘What do you post? How are people going to perceive it? What filter does it need to have?’ She sighs.
‘I wish I were better at it, but I love human connection – that’s where I am at my best.’