Yes the Military Wives topped the charts, but that wasn"t our greatest achievement

Yes the Military Wives topped the charts, but that wasn't our greatest achievement

In a deeply moving interview, the soloist who entranced Britain reveals how the choir transformed her life


Sam Stevenson, pictured with daughter Elliv, two, said: '2011 was one of the best and worst years of my life!'

Sam Stevenson, pictured with daughter Elliv, two, said: '2011 was one of the best and worst years of my life!'

Military wife Sam Stevenson lost almost 4 st last year and her tiny frame is so diminished that even her smallest dresses swamp her. Size 18 to ten in just 12 months, and still the weight is falling away. How did she do it

‘Oh man, 2011 was one of the best and worst years of my life!’ she cries.

‘My husband went to Afghanistan on his first tour of duty; my mum was involved in the most horrible accident; I sang a solo in front of the Royal Family, and we had a Christmas number one. It’s been a roller-coaster. So stressful, so exciting, so exhausting. I lost weight without really trying.’

Sam has been on the emotional switch-back diet: small wonder the pounds have slipped off so effortlessly.

As
a nation, we have shared the exhilaration of her success. When TV
choirmaster Gareth Malone picked heavily tattooed Sam to be lead soprano
in his Military Wives’ Choir during the BBC 2 series, we watched her
transformation from shy, self-effacing mum to confident, assured
performer.

Then, when she
sang, solo, the first crystalline cadence of Wherever You Are at the
Royal Albert Hall’s Remembrance Day Concert, the whole country, it
seems, suppressed a collective sob. And the tragedy behind her moving
performance, in front of the Royal Family and several million television
viewers, only added to our admiration for her courage.

For
Sam’s beloved mum, Tracey, was severely brain damaged in an accident
last October, just a month before her daughter’s Albert Hall
performance. She is still unaware of the extent of her only child’s
success.

‘Mum was walking
along the road when she was hit by a car,’ says Sam, 28. ‘It’s nothing
short of a miracle that she survived. She fractured her skull and
suffered severe brain damage. She is still in hospital; still very
confused.

‘It was a horrible accident and mum was in an induced coma, in intensive care, for a week. It will be a long, slow recovery.

‘I’ve just started to play back recordings of The Choir programmes to her, but I’m not sure how much she is taking in.

‘I’m not sure if she realises we reached Number One in the charts at Christmas.’

The Military Wives’ single, Wherever You Are — a poignant love song, the lyrics of which are stitched together from letters exchanged between the choir and their husbands during their tours of duty — not only went to the top of the charts, but also outsold the rest of the top 12 combined.

Sam knows her mum will be thrilled by her success, and this conviction persuaded her to continue in her soloist’s role after Tracey’s accident.

‘Mum lives in Newcastle and she’s in hospital there, so I was back and forth visiting, which meant I missed quite a bit of rehearsal time,’ explains Sam, who lives with her husband, Lance Corporal John Stevenson of 24 Commando, Royal Marines, and their children Brodie, eight, and Elliv, two, at the Royal Marines’ base in Chivenor, Devon.

Singing sensation: The Military Wives single, Wherever You Are, not only went to the top of the charts, but also outsold the rest of the top 12 combined

Singing sensation: The Military Wives' single, Wherever You Are, not
only went to the top of the charts, but also outsold the rest of the top
12 combined

‘I wasn’t sure whether I should even audition to be a soloist. I felt guilty about doing something for my own enjoyment when Mum was so ill. But I knew she’d be so pleased if I succeeded. That convinced me to carry on.

‘She has been able to say she loves me, and once she understands everything I’ve done, she’ll be the proudest mum ever.’

Indeed, had events gone to plan, 47-year-old Tracey, a former sales rep who is divorced from Sam’s dad, Graham, had intended to look after her grandchildren while John went to the Albert Hall to watch Sam’s solo performance with the choir.

‘But, of course, Mum couldn’t come down to babysit the children, so John stayed at home with them. After the performance, we all went back to the dressing room and everyone’s husband was there congratulating them. I wished John was there to give me a big hug, too.

While other husbands have been filmed and photographed during such high-points, John has been conspicuously absent. ‘He’s just a very quiet, low-key person,’ says Sam. ‘Neither of us is soppy or gushing, and we don’t like public displays of emotion. I put all my emotion into my singing, instead.’

Indeed, when John returned from Afghanistan, he and Sam chose to make their reunion a private one.

Emotional performance: Samantha was singing for her mother who was knocked over by a car in October leaving her severely brain damaged

Emotional performance: Samantha was singing for her mother who was knocked over by a car in October leaving her severely brain damaged

‘I didn’t go to meet John, because I get quite embarrassed about kissing and hugging in public,’ she confesses. ‘I’d just rather he walked through the door into our home, and I hugged him there. It feels much more natural and comfortable.’

Despite the new confidence her singing has imbued, Sam declines to have her photograph taken in her garden; she hates the idea that her neighbours might think she is drawing attention to herself. John opts not to be pictured with her, at all. His reticence, it seems, surpasses even hers, and he declines to talk about her success.

When I suggest that this could lead people to assume that he is unsupportive, or even that their marriage is going through difficulties, she is horrified. ‘Why would anyone think that’ she asks.

‘We’ve just got through the worst — the six months he was in Afghanistan. That was hell. I thought: “If I could last that, I could do anything.”

‘We’re stronger as a couple. I’m stronger as a person.’

Sam and John, 28, have been together for 11 years. They met in their native Scotland when he was a trainee hairdresser and she was a customer. He joined the Army six years ago and the six months he spent in Afghanistan were their first protracted period of separation.

‘When he was leaving, I was
absolutely distraught,’ she recalls. ‘It was just horrendous, that
knowledge that you could be saying your last goodbye to the man you
love.

‘So I just said: “I
love you. Come home safe”, and he said he loved me back. How else can
you sum it up I remember my heart was pounding. I spent the whole day
crying.

‘And then, when I got a phone call from John to tell me he was safe, I was so relieved I cried with happiness.

‘But you have to be strong. You have to keep everything as normal as possible for the children.

‘It can be so lonely, and the loneliest time is when the children are in bed and your thoughts run away with themselves. I’d think of John out there facing who-knows-what dangers. I missed not having him beside me in bed. I’m not the only wife who’d say she didn’t sleep well when her husband was away.

‘You think: “What if I get that knock at the door” You have to pull yourself back and engross yourself in something else.

‘I’d watch DVDs until 2am, until I was so exhausted I had to sleep, then I’d be up with the children four hours later. It’s a hard situation and you’re playing mum and dad at the same time.

‘And for some families, dads and husbands don’t come back. That goes with the job — we all know that.’

And this is why, for Sam, the choir was a godsend. ‘The more I enjoyed it, the more time sped up and the more I was distracted from my worries,’ she says.

‘At the start, I didn’t want anyone to hear my voice. I wanted to cower in the background. I love singing, but I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to be noticed. I don’t know why . . .

‘Well, I didn’t have any self-belief. I’m awful with compliments. I almost put up this barrier and I don’t know why it is, but I don’t want people to praise or notice me.’

While Sam has never felt the need to conform to a chorister stereotype, her refusal to submit to a conventional image caused her to be side-lined by successive choirs, despite her obvious musical talent

While Sam has never felt the need to conform to a chorister stereotype, her refusal to submit to a conventional image caused her to be side-lined by successive choirs, despite her obvious musical talent

Sam was endlessly apologetic. Her catchphrase became ‘I’m sorry’.

‘Yes,’
she concedes, smiling. ‘I’d even apologise for saying sorry.’ Her face
creases into the half-smile, half-grimace that has become her trademark.

So why was she — indeed, why is she still — so bereft of self-belief, when her talent shines like a beacon

Sam casts around for explanations, and eventually hits on one.

She grew up in Perth, Scotland, the only child of loving and kind parents. But at her school, Perth Academy, she was bullied horrendously. It is easy to see how the relentless sniping ate away at her self-esteem.

‘I got pushed around, taunted,’ she remembers. ‘It was stupid stuff, but by the end I hated school something rotten.

‘I had a couple of pals, but not many friends. When I had a lesson I hated, I’d go and hide in a field for an hour. /01/16/article-0-0EEEA7CC00000578-387_634x499.jpg” width=”634″ height=”499″ alt=”Samantha said: Mum was hit by a car. Its a miracle she survived… I felt guilty doing something for my own enjoyment” class=”blkBorder” />

Samantha said: Mum was hit by a car. Its a miracle she survived… I felt guilty doing something for my own enjoyment

It was the charismatic Gareth Malone who slowly changed her self-perception.

‘He encouraged me to come out of my shell. He kept telling me: “You have this amazing voice”.

‘Then, when I watched the recording of myself at the Royal Albert Hall, I thought: “That’s actually me. Maybe I can sing.”’

Malone never gave up on Sam. He kept assuring her she was a natural performer; a born singer.

‘He just has a magic way,’ she says, her face crimping into a smile. ‘He is one of the best, nicest people; so passionate and enthusiastic. He deserves a knighthood.

‘If you’d told me last January I’d have done all this — the Albert Hall, the number one, singing in front of the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street — I’d have said it could never happen. But Gareth really believed in me. He wanted me to succeed.’

Sam, despite her burgeoning self-belief, is still a modest person, sweetly dismissive of her singing gift. Success, however, has given her a glow of well-being, and celebrity has brought her recognition.

‘I’ve had lots of lovely letters talking about my transformation from a shy woman into this confident person who sang at the Albert Hall. Or they say: “You’ve inspired me to join a choir.” It’s all been lovely, beautiful stuff.

‘But what I’ve loved most was the singing. It’s such a passion, and now it’s back in my life I don’t ever want to let it go.

‘It’s my time to shine now. And I think I appreciate it all the more, because I’ve waited for it for so long.’

Proceeds from the single Wherever You Are are being donated to the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association.