When singer-songwriter KT Tunstall was contacted last year by ITV series Long Lost Family, offering to trace her biological father, she swiftly accepted – but had low expectations of a fairytale ending.
“With adoption, you’re not going to find a Disney movie,” she says. “There’s going to be heartache, there’s going to be pain, there’s going to be reasons why a mother couldn’t keep a baby – and that’s never going to be easy. You be naive to expect to find some flawless person.”
Adopted at just 18 days old, Katie Victoria Tunstall grew up in Fife, enjoying an idyllic childhood as daughter of Rosemarie and David Tunstall, though she knew she and her brother Joe were adopted, even before she could speak. “My mother said she used to practise. She’d stand over my big brother’s cot telling him. So there was never this moment that we would be shocked about it.”
Her beloved adoptive father, David – “a cantankerous, emotionally stunted scientist – I feel I was in his life to teach him how to hug” – died seven years ago. Rosemarie, a teacher – slender and fair – now lives in Bath, and features in the programme, gazing at photographs of KT as a chubby-cheeked dark-haired toddler. “I just want her to be content with her life,” she says, adding quietly: “What world is she stepping into?”
KT says her mother was unfailingly supportive of her decision to allow a search for her biological father, while having “massive concerns” for her wellbeing.
“It could be hurtful, it could be stressful, it could be disturbing,” she says. “It would, essentially, change my life. You don’t go backwards from that knowledge. Once you take that step, you close a door behind you and walk into a different future.”
But KT’s craving to know outweighed the risks. Admitting that, “as an adopted person, there’s always a feeling of being an outsider”, she says: “You have abandonment issues if you’re adopted. It’s something I hadn’t really engaged with until the last few years.”
But her adoptive father’s death had a profound effect on her sense of identity, prompting her to pose “very, very big, deep questions” about herself. “My dad dying was a huge, huge flag in the sand in terms of my perspective changing. As soon as he died, I realised I was totally unhappy and left my marriage.” She’d been married to drummer Luke Bullen for four years.
Even though her upbringing was secure and loving, KT felt like “the quintessential black sheep” – she was obsessed with music from the age of four, and her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, in 2004, sold four million copies worldwide; her academic parents didn’t even own a record collection. “I’m very different from my family. No one else plays music. No one else can sing. No one else performs, is every remotely involved in the arts.”
Also featured on the show is Carol Ann, KT’s birth mother, now living in Spain – who KT traced herself aged 23. Even without the emotional rollercoaster of family members reuniting, it was tricky – she was becoming famous, and the tabloid media cruelly suggested that this was why Carol Ann wanted to meet her daughter. “It wasn’t like that at all,” she says. “She gave me a lease of life when she came and found me.”
As for KT, their relationship has “enriched” her, but she says “finding my birth mum was not without its bumps along the way. It was quite tough. And so when Long Lost Family described the support [from the show’s production team]” – which included discussions with a psychotherapist – “I was like, I wish I’d had this the first time round. It would have made it a lot easier on the heart.”
Carol Ann had lost touch with John, KT’s biological father, but provides tantalising information. Not only does she tell KT that they look similar, she reveals that they share traits, too. “He loved to sing… I can see a lot of him in you. All you need is a moustache!”
Carol Ann also reveals it was her idea to give KT up for adoption. “I was the one that stopped him from having a life with you,” she tells KT in the show. “He wanted us to be together [as a family].”
“She was the one struggling to cope as a parent and couldn’t keep me,” says KT. “But there was always a knowledge that it had broken his heart.”
KT appears so mindful of her birth mother, I wonder whether she ever feels resentful towards her. “I go through fluctuating feelings of that all the time. It’s not a static relationship.” But she tries to be reflective, to let go of “anger, resentment, low self-esteem, shame, guilt. I know now that all she wants is for me to be happy.”
However, there’s desperately sad news; the Long Lost Family team discovered that KT’s biological father died in 2002.
The singer is told off-camera, and admits that she cried her eyes out at the sadness of never being able to give him a hug – but tells me that she “wasn’t really shocked at all” by his death. “It was out there who Carol Ann was. If my biological father had been around, I feel he’d have got in touch.”
But, joyously, it emerges that after his relationship with KT’s birth mother, John had gone on to have two other daughters. Siobhan and Lesley-Anne live in Fife, and their resemblance to KT is striking. They had no knowledge of their older, famous sister, though their mother told them their father always carried around a picture of a little dark-haired baby. “He kept a photo of me in his wallet,” says KT.
Watching their reunion is so moving. How does it feel? “It was just a–mazing!” she cries. “Very unreal. It’s so special to me because I didn’t look like anybody else growing up.” Her biological mother is half-Chinese and, as a child, “you would guess that I wasn’t completely Caucasian.”
She fantasised about having a lookalike sibling. ‘There were two people walking around who were my siblings who I do look like. It’s like your kid dream coming true!’
KT is shown a photograph of her father for the first time – and their similarity is remarkable. “I’ve got pictures of myself as an eight-year old,” she tells me, “and if you just put a tache and a belly on it, I would look exactly the same as him. It’s really uncanny. All my friends I’ve shown his picture, they’ve gone: ‘That’s you!’”
It’s a bittersweet discovery – KT jokes that it would have been easier had her birth father been “an a--hole”. But she says: “It was so lovely to find out that he was a very loving dad, and so popular. He ran bars, hotels, pubs – he was the typical jolly landlord and everyone loved him, apparently. And he used to get up and sing for his punters.”
As for KT’s new sisters, Siobhan and Lesley-Anne admit to having sung KT’s songs at karaoke, but are unfazed by her fame. What matters is “how we get on as human beings and sisters”. And they get on beautifully.
“To find these two extraordinary women, who I look like, have a total kinship with, share some deep personality traits, share world views with,” says KT, her mellifluous voice full of wonder – “I’m still pinching myself.”