I am so uncool, it's unbelievable.

by Victoria Segal

It's all gone supernova for Garbage. They're partying with Brad Pitt, Madonna's a fan and Shirley Manson is just loving it. But, amazingly, she still reckons she's a geek...

She is Shirley Manson, the fire-haired cyber-rock goddess who fronts the immensely popular rock band Garbage. He is Gene Simmons, star of Kiss, an older man with a wild taste for lipstick and Lycra, his long and flexible tongue still in perfect working order.

He sidles up to the singer after her band's show in glittering LA and sighs suggestively, "You're a very beautiful and dangerous lady." And she moves towards him, stares him in the eye and whispers, "And so are you."

Now safely backstage in Boston, far from the flickering reach of preposterous rock tongues. Shirley Manson doubles up with a filthy cackle. This is the kind of thing which has happened to Garbage a lot since they released their second album, 'Version 2.0'. Like a heavily veiled, heavily guarded Madonna turning up to their New York show, or finding themselves invited to the same parties as Brad Pitt, it's a level of fame which pitches them well clear of the Alternative Nation boundaries. And Shirley loves it...

"Even to resonate in Madonna's consciousness is pretty peculiar - suddenly to be part of her night out is too much to cope with," she shrieks. "Brad Pitt came over and introduced himself to me. A)How the fuck does Brad Pitt even know who I am? And B) This is BRAD PITT, whose stomach I swooned over in Thelma And Louise. By God he was divine."

She laughs lustfully. "I've been in rock bands my whole life, and this is totally the alternative for me. It's a whole rock fantasy sequence."

By the time the tour hits Boston, the showbiz vibe has calmed somewhat. Faster then anyone might have suspected. The band are staying in the city's hospital district, and their hotel differs from the usual hedonistic rock'n'roll palaces in that it caters mainly for the relatives of the sick.

In his quest for a coffee shop, tombstone-shaped Duke Erikson has come up with a Starbuck located in the foyer of the general hospital. Old women doze in their night-dresses. Old men roll slowly up and down in wheelchairs. Doctors stalk around like it's ER. Garbage's menfolk, all dressed in black, shades firmly in place, look like a team of auxiliary Grim Reapers come to do their work.

It's a mark of their new level of fame that even here, even while Shirley is back it her hotel room, 'The Boys' are recognised and asked for autographs by an eager fan. It's worth remembering when sneering that they look like they've come to collect Shirley after the show, when dismissing them as dullard backing musicians. Butch Vig is the dashingly-handsome alt-rock cavalier and the man behind the civilised pre-show cocktails, pouring spirits like he's pulling pints. Duke, the oldest and 47, has all the charm of Cary Grant with half-dozen oysters and is, reportedly, something of a hit with the ladies. And as for polite, taciturn Steve Marker: don't cross him.

"We went out drinking one night Steve came back into the studio to work," explains Shirley. "The next morning when we arrived, we found a phone book on the floor. It had been torn in half."

You want to joke about studio musos? You should talk to Steve.

"Shall we go somewhere with a little vibe?" asks Duke as another aged patient is wheeled past, rather spoiling Butch's story about supporting Iron Maiden. We go and look for Shirley. The elderly breathe a sigh of relief. Saved.

Shirley, of course, was the centre of the recent press whirl, gaining more exposure than Jarvis Cocker and Ian Brown could manage in a slow news week and having a dual effect on her detractor's attitude. One: she was an evil hussy, soaking up all the press and beating down the band with a feather boa. Two: (and this is more prevalent in a world still incapable with coping with the idea on equality) she is being used to sell their records. Both are patently ridiculous. They appear to adore each other, united like a bunch of rock meerkats. When Shirley's fretting about her hem not being straight for the photo session, it's Duke who helps her adjust it, cigarette in mouth, every inch Jean Paul Gaultier. When Butch complains of calluses on his hands, it's Shirley who makes him rub handcream into them.

"I sometimes think, 'I'm going to shut up today and let my poor boys get a word in,'" laughs Shirley. "And I sit there in for ten minutes in silence until..." she explodes like a balloon.

Is it you who controls the tourbus?

"If I was in charge of the tour bus it would be a damn sight cleaner than it is but there's something in me which rebels against putting on a pair of rubber gloves and cleaning out the toilet. It's a lot like Das Boot. I like it really cold too. As one of the crew says, "If you can't hang raw meat in it, it's too damn hot."

She happily admits to her control freak tendencies as she rifles through her handbag, looking for her sunglasses under Butch's benevolent eye.

"I can count the number of things I've lost in my life. On one hand. Because I am super-anal."

When they went home for Christmas, they all had precious copies of the CD. "And I was nagging the boys constantly, 'Don't lose your CDs'" Of course, Shirley managed to lose hers. "When I got home to Scotland, I started going through all my luggage, right when I arrive home - my husband hadn't seen me for five months - and I'm phoning them every five minutes. They're tearing the studio apart..."

"Every fucking place," confirms Butch wryly.

"I'm in the pits of despair, and I hit my CD player as a gesture of defiance, it bounces open and there's the CD and I hold it up and go, 'LOOOK!'" She squeals like an overexcited five-year-old. "My husband just goes, 'Fuck off.'"

And now, the sunglasses.

"Everyone puts shades on and looks as cool as fuck," wails Shirley. "I put shades on and look like an oaf. It took us three years to find me a pair of shades, and when we finally do, I lose them."

Butch smiles quietly. "She was walking around in them reeally slow, like a blind person, because she didn't know what to expect. Then we had a look at them and they had an oily film on them. They were totally dark."

"I am so uncool, it's unbelievable," grimaces Shirley. "I spend my whole life as a geek. It's so unfair."

This, as anyone who followed the recent press blanket-bombing will know, is something of a regular complaint in Shirley's interviews. A million people, looking at the accompanying pictures of a dazzling rock ьberfrau in miniskirt and stack-heeled boots. growled, "Girl, get a mirror," with a look of disbelief on their not-so-pretty faces. Yet it almost seems to be a reflexive action in her, a frequent refrain even as she sits backstage in what she sheepishly admits is a free Versace top.

"I'm just putting lipstick on, which I do on a regular basis when I'm feeling peculiar," she'll explain. "Like a cat licking it's tail." She excitedly point pout her wardrobe case, containing all her clothes from her year loving in America, winter coats among the froth of feathers and sequins, the satin of the album covers padded orange jacket. It's the first time in all her years in bands she's had such a luxury. "Every time I open it it makes me smile," she grins. "They all laugh when they see me hovering around it - it's like when my sister got the Barbie house and we played with it for hours and hours." Yet, approaching it before the show, she growls, "Now what am I going to put on my stupid body?" The more she speaks like this - like anyone confronted with a mirror, basically - The less for real she's going to seem to those who mistrust her, who believe that anyone so patently gorgeous complaining about her looks is just rolling up for the trauma circus.

"I've had a lot of criticism aimed at me by people saying I'm phoney," she declares. "Somebody wrote something like, 'On record she's dysfunctional and troubled but in the flesh she's a charming and witty young lady.' Oh, because I'm polite and smiley for an hour in your company, you think I have no temper, no hormones, no insecurities?"

Isn't more the other way around - when you show your emotions people instantly think it's all part of some grand plan to show you too are artistically tormented?

"I found it very difficult coming back to the UK," she sighs. "We'd been in the studio for a year. And we came in to do some press. It had never happened to me before that we had so much attention and I was taken aback. I hadn't had much time to collect myself so a lot of press we did I was freaked out and negative. I retrospect, I should have been more prepared for the fact that I was going to get so much attention. I've never been that careful about what I've said before, and I don't really want to be like that, but now I realise I've got to start protecting myself more."

Do you regret what you're revealed?

"I don't regret it because ultimately I don't give a fuck what someone I've never met before thinks of me." She cackles mischievously. "People say you should stop reading your press, but I have to read it if I know it's there. Sometimes you get lambasted and that's really difficult, but then the flaw in my personality will pick up the good review and boom! For two seconds it makes me feel really good. It's the same with a love - he'll say to you, 'I love you so much', and then he'll go to work. And six hours later you're thinking, 'Why isn't he home yet? Oh God, maybe he's down the pub meeting another woman.' Suddenly you're in torment and six hours earlier he told you he loved you."

It might be said that if you genuinely felt ugly and shy, then you wouldn't be so quick to get up there with your red hair and your - tut! - miniskirt and make such an exhibition of yourself when you could in fact be at home whimpering in an airing cupboard.

"But it's the complete opposite!" she exclaims. "I've come to realise that the performance is a confirmation, comes from the perverse desire to feel less ugly - and, damn straight, when I'm on-stage I don't feel ugly. I fell beautiful. I find it difficult when I come offstage to look people I know in the eye. I get so caught up in enjoying myself that I forget about my circumstance and then you come and you realise and it's almost like [people watching you have a pap smear, or watching you fucking.

"When we played Paris they gave us this insane reaction and I felt so happy. It was a passing fancy, gone in an hour, but for that hour it was pure joy. It's really pitiful. I know there' something so flawed in my make-up that it makes me look for fulfilment in that venture. It means I'm eternally damned."

But then. isn't everyone. I mean, compared to an addiction to hallucinogenic toads or a Hanson fetish, it's not very high on the list of deranged pop start quirks, is it? Everyone wants approval.

"Of course they do. But I have the opportunity to get it. I'm an addict in the same way they say heroin is the greatest high you'll ever have. I've never taken heroin and never would, but that doesn't mean that if I did take it, I wouldn't enjoy it."

Do you have an addictive personality?

"No. I can really cut things out and have done all my life. That said, I really am sadly addicted to playing in a band. I can't stop. That explains the dreadful scenario of bands like The Rolling Stones who go on and on and on. It's nothing to do with money. It's to do with a really serious addiction. Women don't have the same luxury as men to continue doing something like this. There's no way I'd be accepting doing what I'm doing at 40 - certainly not at 50. But I'm not frightened that I'm gonna have to kick it - I've kicked other habits before."

When Shirley talks like this, it's not the high-octane rhetoric of the pop star, but a genuine expression of the soaring confidence she feels. These aren't sexy, druggy, rock'n'roll issues. These are the things that spur her on.

"Being able to write songs was an amazing feeling. All of a sudden I've found something in my life I can do," she says. "When I was in America I got really dangerously sick. It was a really peculiar incident where I went to the doctor for something really routine and got told my health was in serious danger. I just went in for something for my throat and it turned out to be this... whole ghastly hoo-haa." She shudders at the memory. "I had no idea how to seek help in a foreign country. I didn't even know how the insurance system worked and they wouldn't give me a blood test until I gave proof that IU could Financially support myself. And in the course of this whole episode, I wrote 'Medication' in five minutes and it momentarily distracted me from this very distressing period in my life. I made me fell great I could comfort myself through doing something creative."

Do you ever fell like rolling over and admitting defeat?

"Never." She looks out the window. "My niece was seven years old when she died of cancer. It was the most profound experience I ever had, where this child was totally robbed of her life. I was a heavy smoker at the time. I drank heavily. I took drugs, and standing by a coffin which was less that 3ft long, putting a seven year old child in the earth. I swear to God it was like a punch in the face. I stopped playing around with my life because I realised how valuable it is and I'll never squander it. It idea of losing my life terrifies absolutely me because that child's death showed me what the alternative were and infused me with a responsibility towards myself to enjoy what I had." She smiles slowly. "I love life, and I've had an amazing one. I never thought I would have when I was a teenager, and all of a sudden it's like this epiphany like, THIS IS FUCKING AMAZING! LET'S GO!" It's an epiphany that hasn't faded. For four people who've spent most of their lives in or around bands, they still freeze when their songs come on the radio, listen to the end. "WE got letters before our show in London from Siouxsie Sioux and Chrissie Hynde - all my fucking idols - and it was unbelievably, mind-bogglingly thrilling!"" exclaims Shirley. "I tried to remember what it was like being 14 years old and watching Siouxsie Sioux at Edinburgh Odeon and imagining if someone had come up to me and whispered in my ear, 'When you're 30 years old and in a rock'n'roll band, she's gonna come and see you play.'"

She grins incredulously. Those crazy, crazy, crazy nights. They've earned them.