For over five years, Alexandra Burke has looked after her ailing mother Melissa Bell, who is battling severe kidney failure brought on by diabetes and is on life-saving dialysis eight hours a day.
The 24-year-old former X Factor champion buys her mum food, has spent £20,000 renovating her house so she can have the dialysis treatment there rather than in hospital, and is paying thousands more to send her on a doctor-approved holiday to Egypt for her birthday next month.
But the one thing Alexandra can’t give her mother is the only thing she really needs – a new kidney.
The need for a kidney…
That’s not to say Alex, as her friends and family know her, hasn’t tried. In fact, she’s tearfully offered her mother – the former lead singer of 80s Grammy Award-winning group Soul II Soul – her organ on more than one occasion even though it could impact on Alexandra’s chances of having children herself.
‘I’ve tried three or four times,’ she says as her eyes well up with tears.
‘But Mum made the choice and shut down the discussion because the doctors said it could mean I wouldn’t be able to conceive. She didn’t want to restrict me from having my own life. But I was willing to adopt because I want to do that anyway.’
Melissa has said that asking her famous daughter to give away a kidney would be ‘downright wicked and selfish’.
Alexandra says she responded by telling her: ‘I don’t think it would be a selfish choice. It’s been offered to you. I’m your daughter. Take it!’ She adds: ‘I’ve tried to meet her doctor privately to be tested to see if I’m a match, but he wouldn’t see me because my mum wouldn’t allow it.’
‘I’ve even had some of my fans offering their kidneys and going for tests. I’ve been very down about the situation. This might be selfish, but I’m not ready to let my parents go. After all, Mum’s still young – she’s only 48.’
Waiting for a transplant…
Melissa is one of 10,000 people in the UK awaiting an organ transplant. Sadly, ten per cent of these die while they’re on the waiting list. One of those statistics was Alex’s Auntie Verna.
‘She was waiting for a heart for eight years. The moment it came in she died,’ she says quietly.
Despite the statistics, only 31 per cent of the British population have put themselves on the NHS Organ Donor Register – a much lower figure than in many other countries.
That’s why Alex and her mum agreed to be star guests on From The Heart, a major ITV entertainment special next week hosted by Dermot O’Leary and featuring Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and Jools Holland. The show is the centerpiece of a week of programming on ITV to raise awareness of the shortage of donated organs.
‘I was nervous about taking part initially,’ Alex admits. ‘It’s a subject that’s so personal to me I find it very emotional talking about it. I only put myself on the register a year ago. I decided they can take everything from me when I die, apart from my eyes. I don’t think I’d feel happy without them, even in death.’
In 2008 Alex saved Melissa’s life after returning to the family home in Islington, north London, to find her collapsed in bed after going into kidney failure.
She called 999 and her mother was rushed to hospital. Soon afterwards she gave one of The X Factor’s best ever performances, an unforgettable duet with Beyoncé of the superstar’s song Listen, before being crowned the winner.
When her mother’s illness went public, former Harrods boss Mohamed Al-Fayed offered to pay for the treatment she needed privately.
‘She didn’t accept it,’ Alex says. ‘It was a genuine offer but the NHS advised her against switching to private care as they had been treating her so long. I’ve offered to pay for her treatment since as well.’
‘But it’s not about money. Money won’t buy her a kidney. You just have to wait.’
Alex has no idea how far down the waiting list her mother is. ‘She’s a rare blood type, which makes it harder for her to get a match.’
‘The waiting game is the hardest thing. They’ve said she can survive for 25 years on dialysis but she’s not living a proper life. She’s hooked up to a machine for eight hours a day and can’t really move.’
‘I know there’s a family history so I’m very strict about my diet and I work out all the time,’ Alex sighs. ‘I’m a bit of a health freak, completely unlike what my mum used to be. But she’s on a diet now and doesn’t even touch sugar.’
Alexandra’s family relationships have always been fraught. Her father David had an affair with an underage girl while Melissa was pregnant with Alex. The case went to court and Alex effectively lost contact with him until after she won The X Factor. (‘We’re very close now,’ she insists.)
As a result, Melissa was a single mum to Alex and her sister and two brothers.
Alex’s relationship with her mother has also been tumultuous. Melissa once said of her daughter, ‘To be honest, I’m a better singer than she is. But she’s thinner than me. It’s all about image these days, more than talent.’
However, Melissa’s illness has brought the pair closer. ‘Our relationship is not feisty at all any more. I’ve seen a drastic change in my mum. I feel we’re more like friends now, rather than mother and daughter,’ she explains.
Now it’s Alexandra who supports her family financially. ‘I’m 24 and I’m the backbone of my family. I pay for everything. But it’s what I live for and I don’t think it’s a burden. Don’t get me wrong it’s not a bed of roses all the time. But I feel it’s my calling.’
Unlucky in love…
Alex has already developed a reputation for being hopelessly unlucky in love. She’s rumored to have dated high-profile suitors, ranging from comedian James Corden to England footballer Jermain Defoe, but most of her relationships appear to end in heartbreak.Most recently she’s been linked with Hollywood actor Jeremy Piven, the star of ITV’s period drama Mr Selfridge. At 47, he’s 23 years her senior. Last month, the pair arrived together at a party in London for fashion designer Tom Ford.
Later, they were spotted entering London’s Corinthia Hotel in the early hours of the morning, sparking speculation they’re a couple. The last time I met Alex she told me she wanted to meet ‘someone who’s 42 and probably old enough to be my father.’
She hoots when I remind her of this, burying her head in a pillow. ‘Oh my God! If I was white, I’d be bright red right now,’ she says, clearly embarrassed. ‘Maybe that’s what happens when you put things out there to the universe!’
She claims she’s just ‘close friends’ with Piven but it’s clear to me, and I know her well, that there’s more to it.
‘Jeremy’s lovely,’ she says, still blushing. ‘I’ve known him for a few months now. We met when I performed at the Samuel L Jackson ball in London. He’s lovely. We hang out a lot when we can.’
She quickly remembers to add: ‘I have no intention of being in a serious relationship because of my focus on my career. It’s difficult for me to be in a relationship. It has to be with someone who understands my lifestyle, and that my career and family come first. I’m in no rush to get married.’
So what attracts her to older men? ‘It’s a maturity thing. I want a man to be serious. I don’t go for looks. You would also hope an older man would have done their mucking around with other women.’
Alex has always been wise beyond her years. ‘I’ve always been responsible. When I left school, I told my mum and dad I was going to be a singer. I moved out of home and I paid my own bills. That’s a different mindset to many girls my age.’
‘A lot of my girlfriends are in their 30s and 40s and I learn from them. I remember when I was 16 and first auditioned for The X Factor, Simon Cowell said to me, “You’re not 16, you must be 25. Show me your passport!”‘
Alex is serious about her plans to adopt in the future, although she would also like her own family.
‘I’ve traveled and seen kids across the world. Even though I can have my own children, I really want to adopt a girl from China because of their one child rule. I can’t wait to do it.’
One thing Alex is not is a stereotypical pop puppet. She is the first X Factor winner to make the decision to voluntarily break away from show supremo Cowell and sign with RCA Records, another division of music giant Sony.
‘It was a brave move but the right move. He was going to be busy with X Factor USA and trying to make that work. He had to concentrate on that.’
I wonder how hard it is to be known as the winner of the talent show, given how many people seem to want to see them fall flat on their face.
‘In general, people want to tear The X Factor down and I don’t think that’s right. I didn’t just get where I am from the show – I’d been working at it since I was nine. But I would never say I wanted to move away from The X Factor. If Simon ever offered me an opportunity to be a judge, I would do it in a flash.’
Alex is now recording her third album, taking piano lessons and considering trying out for a lead role in the West End after a successful one-off stint playing Eponine in the London version of Les Misérables to raise money for Children In Need.
‘I want to do as much as I can to further my career. I want to see myself being nominated for a Grammy Award one day. I’m not there yet and I’ve got a lot of work to do. That’s why marriage and children will have to wait until I’m 30.’
‘But what would make me happier than anything else would be for my mum to get her kidney. We believe this will be the year.’