There is one word that haunts Leona Lewis in every interview or critique that is written about her, it is ‘nice’. When she won The X Factor in 2006 as a shy and polite 21-year-old it was probably an appropriate adjective.
‘I think a lot of people in this industry did kind of dismiss me because they thought I was too nice’
But six years on – as an internationally famous recording artist – Leona is aware that her ongoing reputation for ‘niceness’ has somehow been interpreted as a euphemism for ‘boring and bland’.
On why she’s deemed so nice:
Yet there is nothing remotely boring or bland about Leona, and nice is far too feeble a word to describe a woman who is, in fact, strong, funny, opinionated and, by her own admission, ‘a bit of a control freak’.
‘I think a lot of people in this industry did kind of dismiss me because they thought I was too nice. People would say: “Oh my God, why are you so polite, why don’t you do anything interesting or scandalous like take drugs?’
‘It’s weird in the music industry because you are damned if you do the bad stuff and damned if you don’t,’ she says.
It is the second time I have met Leona. A little over a year ago, shortly before her album Glassheart was originally scheduled to be released, I encountered her in a dramatically different environment to that of the plush Fulham studio where we meet today.
In September 2011, as a preliminary to a planned full talk and photo shoot (delayed when the album’s release date was indefinitely put back) I spent half a day with Leona at the animal sanctuary she supports – Hopefield in Essex – knee deep in mud.
Her entourage that day was a collection of goats, some very noisy geese and her then boyfriend, German dancer Dennis Jauch.
On her love for animals:
Leona’s love of animals is well known but seeing her at the sanctuary, which she reveals is also her own sanctuary – ‘one of the few places I can be anonymous’ – was fascinating to observe.
This is Salt who was sold to his owner as a German micro pig but grew so big they couldn’t cope. Poor Salt,’ she said, gently petting and talking to every creature on our tour – from a particularly insistent goat called Randy to a blind angora rabbit called Scruffy.
‘Oh, this is Colonel, I love this horse, and over there is Max the bull – bulls get such a bad rap but he is so friendly.”
But there is no doubt that Leona is at her most relaxed and natural when she is talking about animals – her two one-year-old rescue dogs Forest and Lily, her horse Spirit and her ‘baby’ Melrose, the rabbit she bought from a homeless man in LA, that is now ‘a house bunny’ that runs free, has become very fat and ‘does her business in her potty’.
Leona not only confirms her recent statement that ‘horses are 100 per cent nicer than people’, but goes on to insist that ‘almost all animals are nicer than people because people lie and animals don’t’.
Leona – who recently became vegan – isn’t just genuine about her love of animals; she is also very funny. Do you know what? I wish that humans had tails because then you would know what they were really thinking.
If you and I had tails now we would know exactly how each other was feeling – you can always tell by animals’ tails whether they are happy or sad or angry.
It would make human relations so much easier. We can lie because we can talk and we don’t have tails,’ she says, roaring with laughter at the idea and saying she would like a very long one that could be ‘dip-dyed’ like her hair ‘and would knock a lot of things over when I was really happy’.
One day I would like to find someone who could balance me like my dad balances my mum.
Why her studio album is delayed:
A year on, in the Fulham studio, I want to know why the album was delayed for so long and what she had been doing during that time.
Why, until she appeared briefly as a guest judge on this year’s X Factor, had she virtually disappeared from public view for so long? Why had she been missing from the Jubilee Concert and why wasn’t she – the British star who had appeared as the main attraction for London 2012 at the Beijing closing ceremony in 2008 – not been included in the opening or closing ceremonies of this year’s Olympics?
Had she, I teasingly ask, been riding horses at Hopefield for the past year?
“I wish that I had but I was working. The thing with me is that I am a perfectionist and I just didn’t think the album was ready last year. It wasn’t fully cooked and the record company were really supportive.”
They said: “OK, if you don’t think it’s right and you want to record more, go ahead”, and that’s what I did,’ she says, pausing and then adding, ‘I didn’t do anything for the Jubilee or the Olympics because actually I wasn’t asked. I just enjoyed the celebrations with my family like everyone else.’
On growing up:
Leona is extremely close to her family and credits them with instilling in her the work ethic, the importance of good manners and the belief that she could do or be anything that she wanted.
The middle child of three – she has an older brother, Bradley, and a younger brother, Kyle – she was raised in Hackney, East London, by her Afro-Guyanese father Joe and her Italian-Welsh mother Maria (who finally married on a beach in Barbados when Leona was 19).
‘My mum is my best friend. And she is my creative inspiration. My dad is such a good man. You know how when you are a child you think your dad is invincible? Well, I still think that – he is so wise and everything I do I ask my dad’s advice about first,’ she says.
The hard work that Leona has put into Glassheart was worth the long wait (although, inevitably, it has had mixed reviews from the more pretentious of the music publications).
Many of the songs deal with heartbreak and have been linked to Leona’s 2010 break-up with her childhood sweetheart Lou Al-Chamaa.
She won’t say whether any of the more recently recorded songs were inspired by the lead-up to her split with Dennis Jauch in September, but perhaps his devotion (as witnessed with the geese and the goats at Hopefield) was just too cloying.
‘My mum is my best friend! Liam and I talk a lot because we have a lot in common.’
On her relationship with Liam Payne of One Direction:
Around her neck today she is wearing a large silver heart engraved with the words Be Mine.
She laughs when I ask whether it was a gift (rumors link her name with newly single Liam Payne of One Direction, although recent reports that their relationship has become more intense have been denied by Leona’s publicist) and insists she bought it for herself.
‘Liam is really sweet and lovely – very talented, and he is writing songs now as well. I feel like he is the one that keeps it all together for 1D. He is grounded, he comes from a stable home.’
‘He is very aware of what is going on in the music industry outside what he is doing, which I like.We talk a lot because we have a lot in common.‘ We are friends,’ she says.
Insisting that she is relishing the creative solitude of being single (the Be Mine round her neck is – I suspect – symbolic of her current need to be alone).
‘I have definitely learnt that I need my space. I have my best ideas when I am alone. It’s because your mind is still and quiet and I definitely need that.’
‘I am in my 20s and I think it’s important to experience different things and not have anything holding me back.’
‘Not that a relationship necessarily holds you back, but for me I just need time to be on my own,’she says.
On how Simon Cowell supports her career:
Ravishingly beautiful, Leona has been careful throughout her career not to allow herself to be ‘sexually objectified’– as she feels so many female recording artists are. Something, she says, that Simon Cowell has totally supported (she stands by her description of Cowell – early in her career – as ‘sweet, down-to-earth and witty’ but admits that she forgot to send him a birthday card this year).
‘The great thing about The X Factor is that it’s about voice and personality, but outside that in this industry – for female artists – it’s about looks. It can be fine to embrace your femininity and your sexiness but sometimes with some girl performers.’
‘It goes over the line and verges on porn and that’s when I think, “What are you doing? That’s gross, have some self-respect.”
On being a positive role model:
Leona is aware of the responsibility of being a positive role model to young girls and was touched by the number of X Factor contestants – when she was on the panel – who were clearly overawed by the presence of their musical heroine.
“Simon Cowell totally supports my career.”
‘I would like to be a positive force for young girls. I’m not an angel – I mean, I have read and enjoyed Fifty Shades of Grey – but when I am making videos 100 per cent of what influences me is:
“Would I be comfortable with my six-year-old goddaughter Faith watching this?” Because I have seen her doing inappropriate raunchy dances from other videos she has seen and I am like, “No! Don’t do that.”
“I have to be a role mode for my goddaughter Faith.”
On wanting children:
This leads me to ask if she likes children (she has previously mentioned adoption because her mother Maria was raised in a children’s home).
‘Yes, but I don’t want any yet – not never, but not yet. I do really like children but not as much as animals. Oh, that is such a bad thing to say!’ she says covering her mouth with her hands to stress the point.
On how her zodiac sign affects her personality:
A believer in astrology, Leona is ‘a typical Aries, a typical ram’. Those born under her sign are, she says, passionate, ambitious, loyal but balanced. ‘But Aries people do argue and can hold a grudge for a very long time. That’s bad and I am trying to work on it.
“I am really not looking for a relationship right now.”
If I have an argument with a boy I won’t let it go for a week – I don’t talk to him. I’m really stubborn. But that hasn’t really affected my relationships because I have always chosen people who are OK with that, can tolerate it,’ she says with a grin.
I point out that perhaps her next relationship might be more successful if she picked someone less tolerant and more challenging. An older man perhaps, as successful as herself, rather like the hero of the novel she has just finished reading. ‘Christian Grey? He would be great but without the sadistic side. Well, maybe a little, but not too much. Not too much pain.
But honestly, I am really not looking for a relationship right now. I know I need to be alone. One day I would like to find someone who could balance me like my dad balances my mum. She has the dreams and my dad works out how she can fulfil them…that is the perfect partnership between a man and a woman.’
Leona’s single ‘Lovebird’ will be released tomorrow, taken from the album Glassheart
Photo 1: Leona wears: Dior dress from Merchant Archive. Beyond Retro gloves, vintage choker, Rellik. belt, Roger Vivier. rings, Erickson Beamon, Mawi and Dominique Lucas, from boticca.com. tights, Jonathan Aston, from uktights.com. shoes, Carvela, from Kurt Geiger
Photo 2: Jeweled body, Bebaroque. vintage tutu, Jane Bourvis. necklace, bracelet and ring, Lisa E Moss. on the cover: vintage jacket, Thierry Mugler, from Atelier Mayer. body, American Apparel. vintage tutu, Jane Bourvis. vintage choker, Carole Tanenbaum, from Atelier Mayer. belt, Alessandra Rich, from Harrods. Ring, Dominic Jones, from Feathers
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Interview source: DailyMail