Viv Hardwick chats to rising US country star Jessica Clemmons about finding a route to success after a major health setback and opting out of a pop solo career

THE size of success means a little more to Jessica Clemmons than most performers. The Country singer, from Houston, Texas, has changed continents and singing styles while coping for a decade with the serious hormone condition Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).

As she prepares to tour to the North-East, the performer admits that her inability to lose weight with exercise and diet was a real challenge for someone seeking a career in an industry where you’re judged by appearance.

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“I was supposed to look a certain way and being diagnosed was quite a relief. Everyone was blaming me for not having a cookie cutter image, but I have news, ‘It’s not my fault’,” says Clemmons.

PCOS is a condition suffered by around one in five women, including Victoria Beckham and Jools Oliver, and is often undetected, but leaves the sufferer battling with weight gain, excessive body hair, acne and reproductive problems where ovaries are prone to cysts.

“It’s taken a lot of years to get to a point of acceptance. Sometimes you feel like you’re fighting against your own body and your body is like, ‘You can keep fighting, you’re not going to win’. I had to learn how to work with my body and I know now the chances of me ever being a size two or four are slim to none, no pun intended,” says Clemmons. “I’ve finally realised that we’re all made differently and the main thing I focus on is how well I perform in the gym, how good I am at boxing and the goodness of what I eat. I’m doing all the things that I’m supposed to do and I know if I put on weight for no apparent reason I’m still doing all I can to stay healthy. I know plenty of people who have great figures, but can’t walk for ten minutes without getting winded,” she adds.

Clemmons switched from solo pop to country while touring the UK in 2014, recruited a UK band and saw Jess and the Bandit’s 2015 debut, album, Here We Go Again, reach No 6 in the Country Chart. Two years on, the band are on tour to Sage Gateshead, set to launch album two, Smoke and Mirrors, on September 15 and Clemmons has a wedding – to photographer Chris Peavey – set for December.

“I have everything moving in the right direction. I came home (to Houston) because I may be away for some time with the tour and I had to plan a wedding in two weeks. I don’t think it’s planned that well, but it’s really exciting, but I can’t really complain can I?” says Clemmons.

It was four years ago that she saw a gap in the UK market which could make use of her Nashville and gospel music roots.

“I was doing pop music in the UK and my decision was a bit risky because there was no The Shires or Ward Thomas, but I thought I’d get a band together because I felt the timing was right. There was a sudden new interest in US country music over here, but there weren’t a lot of US artists touring. There was a void that needed to be filled. I think it was a great move on our part. I got lucky in finding the musicians, because I wasn’t going to be singing to music tracks any more.

“I think in this industry you have to take chances and if you ever get too comfortable that’s usually when things can go wrong. I learned very early to be flexible. But pop music didn’t feel right. I felt I was trying to please other people and, thankfully, I’m make my own decisions after going back to what I love doing. I think I’d tried to fight the stereotype of being a girl from Texas who sings country music. I decided, ‘Forget it, I’ll give in’ and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made,” says Clemmons.

She confesses that the band were under real pressure regarding their second album. “I think that’s why we spent a good year-and-a-half putting it together. We also knew that we couldn’t put out Here We Go Again Part Two because there are a lot of bands who put out something where you love the songs, but people say, ‘It sounds an awful like the first one, where’s the growth?’ So, we wanted something new and to expand our fan-base. In some ways you know some people say, ‘Oh I don’t like country music’ and you kind of trick them into liking it. We decided to give it a go because the UK seems on the verge of wanting more gospel music and we’ve included a gospel choir on four tracks. There are still tracks for Jess and the Bandits fans but we’re hoping that the risks we are taking will pay off.”

The singer, as much as she would like hits in her own country, admits: “Our songs are nothing new in the US or different to what thousands of other people are trying to do. The competition is huge.

“I’d love to do a Texas tour next year because I know there are a lot of people who never leave the state because they do so well. At the moment it makes sense to throw all our efforts into the UK.”

Clemmons’ future also holds the knowledge that her PCOS is likely to reduce when she moves beyond child-bearing age.

“Then you run into a whole new world of challenge called the menopause,” she jokes. “My chances of ovarian cancer is higher and now I’m thinking about children down the line and, ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to have problems?’ It’s a scary thing, but Chris and I have had the discussion because it’s important we are a partnership and decide these things together.”

And for those who still feel that size matters, then the singer can point to her brand ambassador contract with high street fashion store Evans, who previously recruited Chaka Khan and Beth Ditto.

“It has allowed me to reach a different audience of women, who have no clue about the music. Then they learn about what I do and the music then becomes important.”

Jess and the Bandits, Sage Gateshead 2, Wednesday, September 13. Box Office: 0191-443-4661 or sagegateshead.com