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LEONA

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FEATURE STORY

From Britain’s Pop Queen to America’s Sweetheart
BY RUTH ADKINS ROBINSON

LEWIS
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hen the famously curmudgeon Simon Cowell was stunned into silence by the vocal power of a young singer on his show “The X-Factor,” the U.K. show similar to “American Idol,” that nationwide audience sort of shook its collective head in wonder. When Cowell told the Associated Press, “It was blindingly obvious when this girl came on the show that this wasn’t just someone who had the potential to be a good singer, this was someone who had a potential to be a star,” England started to speculate just how big the impact would be of the young singer who’d thrilled them all with her talent. No one quite envisioned just how massive the impact would become. The canny Cowell had been looking for a talent like this. According to highly regarded BBC TV and radio host Dotun Adebayo, “Previous winners of our Cowell-created televised talent shows have been purely Anglo pop bands with limited appeal outside the U.K., but Leona was groomed for the American market from day one. Cowell identified something in her that would appeal to the Yankee market that he now knows so well.” Cowell wasn’t working with someone who just tried out on a whim. This was a serious, hard working young talent. Music runs in her family. The daughter of a Guyanese part-time DJ and a Welsh ballet teacher, Lewis grew up exposed to a variety of genres. She got the performing bug early, before she was old enough for school. “I would put on little shows, stand up on tables and perform for my family,” remembers the singer. Her parents struggled financially to pay for vocal lessons. At the age of five, she attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School and later

the Italia Conti Academy and the BRIT School. She worked hard enough to earn a scholarship to the prestigious BRIT School when she was just 14. She wrote her first song at age 12 and appeared in local talent shows. But in her early teens, it was opera, and not pop, that captured her interest. “My training is kind of classical, so I’ve done a lot of opera, and I was very interested in Leontyne Price,” Lewis confides. “As I got older, I got more into jazz, soul and blues.” After graduation, she took a laundry list of odd jobs to pay for studio time, cut a few tracks including the Minnie Riperton classic, “Lovin’ You,” but the going was tough. “I was quite frustrated because I really wanted to be able to make a living from it,” she said. “I’d been going into the studio and writing and working with different producers and I’d be auditioning for different shows... it was quite a struggle.” Her break came when she auditioned for “The X Factor,” singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She earned a spot in the competition and over the course of the season, the British audiences watched her grow. There were machinations on various levels as the season progressed. According to Adebayo, “Leona’s mum, Maria, mounted a big media campaign just ahead of the finale to suggest that her daughter, even though she was by far the best of the contestants, wouldn’t win because Britain was not ready to vote a Black, winner of the popular talent show. Well that was like a red flag to a bull, and the country voted for her in the millions.” Lewis won the competition in December 2006 and became the first Black/mixed heritage winner of “The X Factor” and also the first female to win. Meanwhile Cowell, who is permitted to mentor the contestants in the British talent show, unlike “Idol” where the judges can only comment on performers, was crafting a career path for the singer. As part of her prize, she was signed to a deal with Cowell’s label with Sony BMG, Syco, but Cowell wanted some diva insurance. He called Clive Davis and suggested that Davis might like to see the “next Whitney Houston.” Lewis remembers the day she went to audition for Davis at

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She is an artist who will be a true star for many years to come.
—Clive Davis

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his famed haunt--one of the pink bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She sang “four or five songs right on the spot. I was immediately knocked out by her range, her versatility, and the pure beauty of her voice,” said Davis. “She is an artist who will be a true star for many years to come.” And so it was that two of the industry’s most powerful men formed a joint venture to launch Lewis into superstardom. The planning was intense at every level. First they assembled a roomful of chart-topping elite writers and producers who could almost guarantee a hit. Davis and Cowell could get the talent in the room, but Lewis knew it was up to her to seal the deal. She “sang my heart out” in that room, she recalls. Not surprisingly, everybody who was invited “agreed to work with me,’ she added. So for the next year, schedules were juggled, songs were written, studio time booked and Lewis spent a lot of time on airplanes working on the album that came to be called Spirit. Lewis recorded tracks for the album in London, Miami, Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta. Among the impressive list of hitmakers are Dr. Luke, Dallas Austin, Max Martin, Stargate, Walter Afanasieff, Salaam Remi, Kara DioGuardi, Per Magnusson, David Kreuger, Richard Page and Novel. She also recorded a track with Ne-Yo. Two further tracks were recorded in early 2008 for the U.S. release of the album: “Forgive Me” featuring Akon and “Misses Glass” featuring RockCity. Like everyone who comes in contact with Lewis, these high-powered players all praise her. One Republic’s Ryan Tedder and pop prince Jesse McCartney co-wrote her first single, “Bleeding Love.” “Leona is the first vocalist that I have heard in well over a decade that, between her voice and her appearance and presence, had the different elements that I thought were necessary to be a world-class singer,” said Tedder. Hitmaker Ne-Yo, who wrote the track “I’m You,” describes her as a “beautiful person, inside and out.” He says, “She’s not just a pretty face--her voice is undeniable.” —Simon For Spirit, a collection of power ballads inspired by ‘90s R&B, Lewis also collaborated with former Britney Spears songwriter J.R. Rotem. “I also worked with Salaam Remi, who has written and produced for Amy Winehouse; Billy Steinberg, who has written for Madonna; and Walter A, who is my idol because he has written songs for people like Celine Dion and Mariah Carey,” she continues. “I love the big singing divas so it was great to write with him,” she adds. The hitmakers and the press are heaping such praise on the young 23-year old singer, they’ve put her into rarified company. She’s been compared to Mariah Carey and Whitney at every turn. That can twist the sense and sensibility of those who achieve it. But this young British girl is knocking over old statistics with an élan and a graciousness that surprises and delights all who meet her. Lewis has some different thoughts. “Those are very good compliments,” she says, “but I have a ways to go before I can be compared to them.” Truth be told though, her vocal range is staggering and her tonal quality is at once elegant and warm. Hopeful young singers will someday be directed to look to Lewis for both her singing prowess and her character. Simply put, Lewis is an amazing talent who is both grounded and secure. A peek at her MySpace page reveals how much fun she is having. Her downto-earth postings are collecting ever more American fans, while she racks up new high points in statistic shattering.

…this wasn’t just someone who had the potential to be a good singer, this was someone who had a potential to be a star.

Some of those stats: her debut album Spirit entered the U.K. album chart at #1; Spirit’s leadoff single “Bleeding Love” claimed the U.K.’s #1 spot for seven weeks selling more than one million copies in the U.K. in just five weeks. Ushering in 2008, Lewis received four prestigious Brit Award nominations, the U.K. equivalent of the Grammys. The U.S. market got all excited about Lewis when she performed at Davis’ hot ticket Pre-Grammy Party. Her single “Bleeding Love” came out of the gate as one of the most played and most requested songs at Top 40 and Black radio. She’s also the first British female artist to have a number one song in the U.S. in 20 years. As of March 2008, Spirit had surpassed the 2.5 million sales mark and debuted at #1 in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Australia, and New Zealand. In February 2008, Lewis broke the major American charts as “Bleeding Love” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #1 where it returned for at least four non-consecutive weeks in three separate runs beginning on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart dated April 5. The song was immediately certified Gold and Platinum in both the U.K. and U.S. Even before the album hit, she’d appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” MTV’s “Discover and Download” and VH-1’s “You Oughta Know.” The Oprah appearance was one of the chances of a lifetime, unheard of for a new artist. Lewis was nervous about the appearance, but realized it was her chance to break it big time in America, which previously hadn’t cared too much for winners of Britain’s talent quest “The X Factor.” They had enough “American Idol” contenders to contend with. ‘‘The thing for me was to remember it was an opportunity to share my music with people and share it on a very wide scale,’’ Lewis says. Oprah gasped and gushed and her ringing endorsement sent music buyers to retailers, creating U.S. chart history. The music that she is sharing on Spirit includes a mix of mid-tempo songs sprinkled with ballads, like her remake of Roberta Flack’s classic “The First Cowell Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” But Davis cautions against typecasting Lewis as a balladeer: “I really see her as a contemporary singer who is versatile and who can do all types of material,” adding, “She knows she’s got to work for it and she is indeed working for it.” Accustomed to working hard, Lewis says, ‘‘I’m not taking this for granted. You never know when this is going to end.’’ She seems to have missed the diva gene entirely. On her way to the first NewNowNext Awards show in New York recently, her car broke down. Instead of waiting on a replacement and not wanting to keep the production waiting, Lewis jumped out and hailed a cab. She was rewarded for her efforts. Lewis picked up the Kylie Award as the Next International Crossover. To get a real peek into why Britain’s Pop Queen has become America’s Sweetheart, read her MySpace posting: “The past few weeks have felt like a dream. I didn’t think things could get any better after being number one in the U.K. and then more and more just keeps on happening in other countries and now to be #1 in America! I just want to thank everyone for the brilliant support and to America for welcoming me. Everybody’s been so lovely and supportive. I feel so privileged that I get to sing and do what I love everyday. It’s hard to express how this makes me feel but I’m just so thankful.” So are we, Leona, so are we.

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