The famously petite popstar is looking even tinier than we remember from her last FHM appearance in September 2007. Weirdly, she’s even smaller than she was just two weeks ago when we shot the synapse-teasing photos surrounding this text. “Eight centimetres thinner, to be precise. That’s what the tape measure said,” she confirms, while we look for evidence of emotional turmoil or something darker that might be wasting her away. Ever the grubby hacks, our minds turn to the problems that beset the modern celebrity woman: stress, mental illness, the pressure to conform to the tyranny of ‘size zero’, the pressure to fire heroin up between your toes because “all those spanners in indie bands are doing it”.

“Christ,” we think, “if we flog this one to a gossip rag, we might even be on for a few quid.” Yeah, the headline’s going to write itself: ‘SAD RACHEL DRIVEN SKINNY BY NON-SPECIFIC LIBELLOUS TORMENT’.

We move in for the kill, sleuthing away and looking for clues. Sad face? No. Crazed boggle eyes and unattended children playing with matches nearby? Hmm… negative. Strange vomity smell and burgeoning ‘anorexic pelt’? Nothing doing. Nearby presence of Pete Doherty and keloid track marks up the arms? Neither.

“I’m eating, don’t worry,” she says as our dreams of a tabloid payday evaporate. “I’m really not that type. I’m just dancing every day. Six hours’ rehearsals, constantly challenging yourself. It’s the best exercise you can get.” Ah, yes. Strictly Come Dancing, the Saturday night shindig that has seen Rachel winning the hearts of the nation with her fancy footwork, resurrected the long-thought-dead concept of ‘all the family round the TV’ light entertainment programming and caused north London’s finest to lick herself into even better shape than she was in before. And it seems that the powers of hitting the dancefloor are nothing short of miraculous: “I mean,” she says by way of testimony, “John Sergeant’s lost two stone. Do you dance by the way?”

FHM looks at Rachel Stevens: a graceful, poised, suntanned poster girl for healthy living. FHM looks down at itself: a grumpy, sleep-deprived hack who once tore it’s own calf muscle Cossack dancing after a christening. “No,” we mutter sadly and face the grim truth; while Rachel is in the best shape she’s ever been, FHM is probably less fit than a 64-year-old ex-political journalist with a face like a full English breakfast.

LA story

Last time FHM met up with Rachel Stevens she was camped out in LA, steaming around in a convertible sports car playing terrible soft rock at full blast and generally doing what most young women get up to in their early 20s. Stevens, of course, spent that period of her life in S Club 7, the all-conquering pop sensations whose naggingly infectious tunes turned Cathy Dennis into the most in-demand song writer in Britain and cemented Simon Fuller’s reputation as a pop svengali of epic proportions. The band also left behind a remarkable collection of ten Top-Three singles, which still soundtrack karaoke bars, hen parties, nightclubs and FHM’s showers to this day (we sing Bradley’s bits, mainly).

“LA was brilliant, and the best thing I could have done,” she explains over early morning coffee (each day’s dance rehearsals start at 11am sharp). “I’d finished my second album and wanted to get away. I’d gone straight from S Club into my solo stuff and I hadn’t had any time to sit back and think about what I really wanted to do. I’d spent so many years having my diary scheduled around work, things planned out for me. I needed to take some time out.” Both her albums – 2003’s Funky Dory and 2005’s Come And Get It – were unqualified critical successes, albeit modest sellers.

While she has an admirably trooperish attitude to the travails of showbiz and doesn’t complain about the work involved, there’s a sense that being in a pop group such as S Club was a deeply strange, all-consuming experience with very little in the way of ‘aftercare’ for those involved. “Coming out of S Club and being on my own was a massive shock, because I’d spent all that time being part of seven people at a time in my life when I was quite young. You’re in this bubble, then you suddenly come out of it…” She struggles slightly for a way to explain the life to someone whose sole experience of public performance was a school production of The Machine Gunners.

“We knew we were on our last promo, did the tour, announced we were splitting up, did our last single and then… it was like the last day of being at school with each other. It was weird how it just ended like a chapter. But then once it had finished it didn’t seem strange. It seems a lifetime ago, but then it was a long time ago.” Despite this – and her American hiatus – Stevens seems to have been welcomed back eagerly by the British public. No mean feat at a time when celebrities’ careers seem to have the longevity of a fruit fly. There’s also the undeniable fact that Strictly… has a degree of dignity that, say, eating a kangaroo’s scrotum in the tropics doesn’t really bestow upon its participants. “I don’t put Strictly… in the same league as those shows. You’re learning something and people get to see you. They get to see what goes on behind the scenes and see you go on a ‘journey’.

I don’t know how people do I’m A Celebrity… and Big Brother and those ones. I do think I’m A Celebrity… is an amazing test of character, the things people go through. Three weeks? I’d last an hour.” And if she were offered the chance to fight it out with Dean Gaffney for the last hammock, or zip up George Galloway’s catsuit? “I think I was probably offered Celebrity…, but it didn’t filter through to me. Luckily that’s what your agent’s for.”

In person, Rachel shows a remarkable lack of the bell-end behaviour that’s the depressing norm among the young and famous these days. Although, while she’s eerily impervious to the ravages of time (she turned 30 last April), her American trip and current TV gig seem to have helped her grow up. “I wouldn’t say I’m confident now, but I’ve conquered my nerves. Every Saturday night I’ve gone out there and really enjoyed it.” We express mild surprise that someone with such a raft of experience under her tiny belt should get stage fright. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve gone out and done massive shows, arena tours, but I always got nervous, whenever we did it. I think that’s a good thing, but this is way out of my zone – I never trained as a dancer and you’re being really judged at the end of it. You’re on live TV, millions of people… you’re putting yourself out there. There was no way I was going to turn it down, but it’s really scary.’

The future is wide open for Rachel Stevens right now. Her 2009 diary currently has a marriage to her fiancé pencilled in (Alex Bourne’s a theatre actor she’s known since she was 12, rather than some dickhead she met on a clichéd ‘road trip to Vegas’, thank God), but little else. “Strictly… has taken over my life right now, so we’re just starting to talk about the wedding.” Mercifully, she doesn’t have a dream (read ‘naff’) wedding that she’s been planning since the age of seven lined up. “Am I weird that I haven’t been like that?” she asks. We reassure her she isn’t and that we could do with a few more women like her around. (And, as our photos prove, that she’s still got what caught our eye on CD:UK all those years ago.)

With breakfast finished, we pack up and leave Rachel to her rehearsals and the clutches of her snake-hipped dance partner Vincent Simone. Is he, we ask her, the terminal sex pest that we’d assume any Italian dancer to be? “I wouldn’t go as far as calling him that!” she says. “But he is the biggest flirt on the planet. You never know what he’s going to come out with next. He’s hilariously funny and I can tell him to piss off when he’s getting on my nerves.” The future Mr Stevens is apparently comfortable with the Latin Lothario’s conduct, although we feel it our duty to warn Rachel of what kind of ‘long game’ the perv could be playing. “God, that could be his game plan,” she says with mock horror. The thought of our own showbiz queen falling for the same banter as lonely salsa-learning housewives since time immemorial is almost too much to bear. “But you can see how that happens,” she protests. “You get very close, very physical…” She downs the rest of her coffee and smiles. “And obviously the high trousers are a turn-on.”

She leaves, and FHM gets out its phone and dials 118. “Yeah, we’re looking for a ballroom dancing outfitter in the NW1 area of London. And fast.”