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Mockney ascent 

Ska-pop threat Lily Allen slums her way to the top

You can't take Lily Allen at face value.

Called everything from the new Lady Sovereign to the female Streets to 2006's MIA by the UK press, the reigning princess of streetwise Britpop has amassed a devoted following of fans and critics -- and a number of haters. Her half-spoken, half-sung sunshiny dance-pop tunes can leave you off guard for the swaggering Mockney trash talk buried in her ska-jerked hooks.

But like Eminem, Allen succeeds in harnessing the allure of cleverly spun myth in the guise of "autobiography" to create a seductive musical persona.

"I think I'm a very honest person," sighs Allen, who's squeezing promo in hasty 10-minute chunks between dates with her friends, prepping for her upcoming debut on North American soil and updating her MySpace blog, a hilariously blunt journal that's generated almost as much buzz (60,000 devotees and counting) as her album.

"My blog is an extension of my songs," she says. "My honesty comes across in both -- I just haven't got the ability to hold back. I can't prevent myself from indulging in my love of chit-chat."

Though we in the colonies might not pick up on it, Allen's accent betrays her privileged upbringing. On her Alright, Still (Regal/EMI) debut, she may spit barbed narratives couched in a lower-class idiom and fantastic stories suggesting a hardscrabble life of public housing and teen pregnancy, but in truth she's the daughter of a famous Brit comic and spent her teens getting kicked out of private schools and running away to Ibiza to sell ecstasy.

To be fair, there were some rough years after Allen's dad took off and left her struggling film-producer mom with little Lily and her loved-and-hated siblings (including her younger brother Alfie, whose pot habit Allen castigates on Alright, Still's jaunty closing track). But the girl's familiar enough with creature comforts that she's not worried about, say, whether her current pop star success will last.

"I definitely feel that Americans judge themselves much more by how successful they are," she says breezily, asked whether she's nervous about the imminent release of her disc across the pond. "Everyone keeps asking, 'Aren't you worried you're not going to be as successful in the U.S. as you are at home?' I couldn't care less."

Aside from the fact that she clearly finds interviewers tiresome, Allen's actually got a wicked, brash sense of humor that transforms even the most archetypally little-girl-lost tracks on Alright, Still into brazen ball-busters.

Allen laughs at being dumped while her cheating ex bawls in breakup track "Smile," paints the London cityscape in po-faced portraits of kids mugging old ladies with Tesco bags in "LDN", then attacks a(nother?) douchebag boyfriend's manhood in the appropriately titled "Not Big."

You can't help but wonder whether expressing profound emotions in the form of humor is a trait the 21-year-old upstart inherited from her comedian dad.

"Uh, no. I think it has to do with self-confidence issues and a lack of self-esteem. I have a need to please people, and making them laugh is an easy way to do that."

Her candour takes me aback. That self-awareness, Allen explains, comes from the same place as her apparent complete lack of stage fright: four years of therapy.

"I've never had a bad show," she snorts. "There's not much to worry about -- I'm not dancing around, so I won't fall over and embarrass myself, and I don't have much between-song banter, so I'm not gonna tell a joke that won't go over well and then feel stupid. I won't even show up to the club and find it empty: all the shows are sold out.

"But I'm not arrogant!" she adds. "The only thing I'd be scared of is people not liking me, and what I realize now is that I just have to worry about liking myself. When I was barfing out writing for this album, I had very low self-esteem and I used to look to other people to make me feel better. I don't do that any more."

Allen claims she's not even scared of becoming a historical footnote if the novelty of her caustic pop tart act wears off sooner than later. Of course, it's hard to tell if she's serious.

"I don't feel like I've arrived, like this is my final destination in life and I can relax. The most important thing for me is to save enough money to buy a house and find a husband, have kids, grow flowers and make dinner. There. You have your answer."

This story originally appeared in Now Magazine, Toronto.

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