With a hot new look plus a brand-new album Leona Lewis is back, and has found her feisty side…
Leona Lewis is smiling coyly as she talks about her latest tattoo. It may be the smallest of the five on her body, but its meaning is hugely significant.
It’s a tiny flower and is a tribute to her boyfriend of two years, the razor-cheekboned German dancer, Dennis Jauch, 24, who has been instrumental in healing the pain of her split from childhood sweetheart Lou Al-Chamaa.
“I was in Berlin with my boyfriend and it seemed like the right thing to do,” she says. “I wanted to mark the moment, so I went into a tattoo parlour and had a little flower done. It represents starting afresh, something blooming.”
Then she tails off and starts to laugh. And that is Leona all over. While in a moment of rare indiscretion a little later, she confesses: “I haven’t actually had a snog for a month. My boyfriend is often away working,” She really isn’t one for dishing personal dirt.
In a world where the cast of TOWIE make a living from airing their dirty laundry on TV – Rihanna tweets her drunken snaps to millions and Lady Gaga flashes her knickers to anyone who cares to have a look – Leona, the girl who went from Hackney to Hollywood via The X Factor, prefers to keep her private life, well, private.
It’s led to her being dubbed “dull” and “boring” by critics. But Leona doesn’t care. And with £12million in the bank, 20 million albums sold worldwide and seven Brit and three Grammy nominations under her belt, why should she?
As well as being massively popular on home soil, she’s conquered the United States, becoming the first British female solo artist to top the charts there since 1987 with her post-X-Factor single, Bleeding Love. A performance on Oprah Winfrey’s show led the queen of American TV to declare: “A star is born”, and she counts Simon Cowell and Emeli Sandé as close friends.
It’s little wonder, then, that she pays absolutely no notice to any criticism.
“I honestly don’t care about the people who say I’m boring,” she says. “They don’t know me and I can’t get bothered by it.”
She didn’t read the critical tweets about her recent judging stint on The X Factor, and is oblivious to the comments that circulated about her weight loss following her split with former electrician Lou, 27, in June 2010, after seven years together.
“Did people really think I’d gone too thin? I didn’t think I’d ever been called thin, but anything people say about weight is just insane. I’m more bothered about being healthy than worrying about being too fat.”
Leona has never spoken publicly about the break-up with Lou – whom she started dating at 18 after they met at school. It was Lou who was said to have encouraged the shy receptionist to follow her dream and apply for The X Factor, where she swept to victory in December 2006.
Yet in the songs – which she co-wrote – on her brand-new album, Glassheart, it’s all there: all the pain, the loss, the heartache.
She nods: “In a song you get to pour in a lot of emotion. I wrote with Emeli [Sandé], who I absolutely love, and you take your own feelings, but then it sort of changes into something bigger.
“Trouble is about a relationship going wrong, love going bad, becoming destructive, and Unlove Me is that thing where neither of you can end it but you both know you have to.”
Is this a clue as to what happened with her and Lou?
After all, there were numerous reports of a bitter rift, including rumours he was trying to sue her for £1.5million for helping her get famous by filling out her X Factor application form.
And in November 2010, five months after their split, he took to Twitter with the pointed message: “At least I can say I was faithful… can you?”
The 27 year old shakes her head: “There are no harsh feelings. It was a very intense relationship, I was in love and you can’t regret being in love. We had a great relationship but it ended.
“What I found really hard was being on my own. I’d never lived on my own, I was never in a situation where I had no one to go home to. I had to get used to that, discovering what life was like being on your own, and that was actually a positive thing. What I have now is very different but I’m happy. I’m very happy.”
And that’s all she’s going to say on the matter, thank you very much.
To say Leona is controlled is an understatement. She may pour her heart out in her songs, but in person she is far more guarded. She bizarrely wears shades indoors throughout our interview, so her eyes give nothing away.
Does she ever let herself go? Would she do a Rihanna – get snapped partying around the world, wear see-through clothes, dye her hair bright red?
She roars with laughter: “I love Rihanna but I couldn’t be her.”
She would pose naked though. But only for a good cause, natch.
“I wouldn’t do it for Playboy, but I would do it for PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – she is a committed vegetarian] because it’s a cause I believe in.
“I always send back designer bags, I won’t carry anything leather,” she says, nibbling on an egg-white omelette. She has requested a vegetarian menu for everyone involved in our shoot today. Later one of her “team” tells us her omelette was “too scrambled”. It’s all very LA.
Has she ever (whisper it) done drugs? “Never. I’ve never been tempted; I’ve never even been offered any. But if anything it would have been very easy for me because of where I come from [Hackney in north London]. It would probably have been very easy for me to have been like Amy [Winehouse, a fellow alumnus of The Brit School], but I just wouldn’t do that.”
Then again, Leona has an exceptional role model in the shape of her grandmother, Lorette Josiah, who died in 2007 aged 78.
“I live by the idea of carrying myself with ‘dignity and grace’. It was my grandma’s motto,” she says.
“She came to England in the ’50s as a black woman when black people were thought of as being on the bottom rung of society.
“My grandma knew that because of her colour there was reason enough to think badly of her, so she made sure she always conducted herself in absolutely the most respectable way.
“She was always perfectly turned out, carrying a little clutch bag. She had this calm, demure demeanour and if anything happened, it would happen in private – she didn’t believe in washing her dirty linen in public.
It makes it easier to understand why Leona is so low key and understated. Well, most of the time. There have been a few exceptions. Like last year when she was papped at the premiere of Justin Bieber’s movie, Never Say Never, with a pair of hot-pink lips across her chest, teamed with a curve-hugging pencil skirt and poker-straight hair.
The outfit prompted speculation that a new, edgier Leona was trying to emerge and earned her comparisons to American reality star Kim Kardashian.
She bursts out laughing at this. “Big bottoms have come into fashion,” she says. “I like to experiment. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I get it wrong, but I never worry about it.”
In recent years she has split her time between an apartment in Los Angeles and a two-bedroom flat in Hackney.
“I love LA because of the weather and the lifestyle and I can go totally unrecognised in a lot of places there.
“It’s not my main home though. That will always be Hackney. I love it, it’s always been really important to me.
“I go out round there, to clubs and bars in Stokey [Stoke Newington]. I don’t get hassled and I see all my mates. It’s where I’m from, it’s who I am.”
People may think Leona’s boring, but there is a seriously kooky side to the singer, who confesses to creating an imaginary world with her best friend Stacey, which they “play” when they’re hanging out together.
“My alter ego is called Colin, Stacey is my wife and we have a pretend child called Pigface Man Child,” she giggles. “We make up plot lines that are more complicated than EastEnders!”
While in public she prefers to keep her emotions to herself, in private Leona is a bit of a cry baby.
“The other day I cried at True Blood when a girl was turned into a dog and they were going to shoot her,” she says.
“I always cry when I see old people standing at bus stops. It makes me think they aren’t being looked after. It makes me think of my grandma.”
Leona, whose parents Joe, a youth offending officer, and Maria, a social worker, both 48, scrimped and saved to send her to stage school, is still quite shy. She talks softly. Sometimes it is hard to hear her. But woe betide anyone who is fooled by her gentle manner.
“I’m a Hackney girl. I can handle myself. If I was in a club and someone pulled a gun, I would stay calm because it’s not out of my world. I grew up having to be streetwise, having to know how to handle myself.”
Indeed, she doesn’t shy away from confrontation. She recently teamed up with Ben Drew (aka Plan B) for a BBC documentary called Project Hackney – in which they mentored underprivileged and bullied kids in the area – but found herself at loggerheads with the singer.
“We had a big clash at the start as I felt he wasn’t letting me into everything he was feeling. I knew because it was so personal to him he wanted to keep control of everything, but I wanted him to let me in so I could get to know the kids.
“I explained it meant a lot to me too. Working with those kids was one of the most special and emotional things I’ve done. I did a lot of crying, especially when I helped a teenage girl called Courtney write a song about her dad who had died. I could barely speak.”
For Leona, it was Whitney Houston who was her inspiration as a young child. So she was overwhelmed when the superstar called her after her X Factor victory to congratulate her. And following a performance at the Grammys in 2008, her idol described Leona as her “baby me”.
The night Whitney died, on February 11 this year, Leona was on her way to see the star at a party being held in her honour, that still went ahead just hours after her death.
“I didn’t go. I couldn’t go. Whitney was such a huge inspiration to me, she was such an artist, she had such a voice.
One thing’s for sure. What happened to Whitney will never, ever, happen to Leona. And if that makes her “boring” then she will have the last laugh.
“Underneath everything, what I am is incredibly strong. I get my strength from my family, from the friends I’ve had for years, and I know what I want from life; to make music and to be happy.”
Always knowing who you could trust.
Who is the living person you most admire?
My mum. She was brought up in a kids’ home, yet she has gone on to achieve so many things in her life. She is an amazing woman.
How do you think your friends would describe you?
Emotional, funny and a free spirit.
What would your last meal ever be?
Mac and cheese from Peppers & Spice in Tottenham, and apple crumble and custard made by my mum.
Who are your dream dinner party guests?
All my mates from Hackney, plus Marilyn Monroe, Barack Obama and David Bowie.
What’s your greatest achievement?
I’d have to say my music – every album is a huge achievement.
What scares you most?
Being on my own. I’m getting better at living on my own and being by myself, but it’s still a fear.
The X Files
1 Leona returned to the show that made her a star when she appeared as a guest panellist on The X Factor this September
2 Her mum, Maria, and dad, Joe have been her biggest fans from the very start, and they’ve also been a major source of inspiration
3 Her relationship with Lou turned sour in 2010, but it left her with plenty to write about on her new album
- Glassheart is released on October 15.
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