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Every time I do interviews," pop star Alexandra Burke tells me, "I always hear, 'Oh, I didn't realise you were this fun. Oh, I didn't realise you were this bubbly. I heard you were a bitch.'"
It's a bewildering start to a conversation. We've just sat down, in the basement of her PR manager's office in central London. She hasn't had time to be fun or bubbly or a bitch; the kettle hasn't yet boiled on two promised cups of tea. "I remember I had a photoshoot last year," she says, "and the photographer told me, 'Yeah, I asked a few people and they told me you were rude. They told me you were a diva.' It made me cry."
The question I had asked, as we hunkered down on two knackered swivel chairs, had been a limp little thing about Burke's new single "Elephant" (out this week, ahead of a second album later this year). I told her I thought I'd detected a deliberate change in sound on the record, more of Burke's throaty north London accent in the vocal – different from her first album's run of songs, very polished and Americanised and released in the wake of her winning TV talent contest The X Factor in 2008. Was that intentional? "I guess so… not really," Burke replied, before embarking on this enormous explanation of the way she thinks she's perceived by the public, and the ways she wants to change that.
"And I said to the photographer, 'Are you for real?' It made me upset because I know who I am, and I was like, 'Hold up, what am I doing wrong? What am I not showing in my interviews? What am I not showing in my music? About who I am."
Burke talks extremely quickly, clicking her fingers if the rate threatens to slow. "I'm executive producer of the new album, so what I say goes. Of course I take advice from management, but I'm in a position where I can say a track's definitely not on the album because it doesn't speak about who I am. I don't know… Right now? All I care about is making sure no one ever says again: 'You're such a diva.'"
Then our teas arrive, and she offers to sugar mine. It's a promising start.
The engine that keeps patter like hers going is the same, I guess, that propels Burke in her work. You could see it when she won The X Factor. It was the year that Eoghan, smirking child-man from Northern Ireland, was having an off-camera fling with fellow contestant Diana Vickers, and the boy band JLS were winning fans by wearing primary-coloured jumpsuits. Burke got my vote for being the series' workhorse, the one you were certain woke at dawn to memorise pyro cues and practise tremolos. Three shows in, she gave a brilliantly frenetic performance of Christina Aguilera's "Candyman" and it set her on the way to winning. She went on to score a Christmas No 1 with a frilly cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", top of the charts for three weeks.
The next single, 2009's "Bad Boys", seemed to vindicate the win (a bullish R&B track, it also went to No 1) but a decision must have been made, post-Factor, to ditch the smouldering schmaltz of "Hallelujah" and make a feature instead of Burke's finger-clicky aspect. The video for "Bad Boys" imagined her beating up a bothersome chap in a bar; follow-up single "Broken Heels" had her in an American football kit, better to take on a dozen bruisers in an impromptu match at the end of verse three. Notable about these releases – likewise 2010's "Start Without You", another chart topper – was the singer's blatant confidence. She didn't look like most X Factor graduates in the early months after winning: over-promoted redcoats in merry panic. She seemed older than her years.
"A lot of people don't realise I'm only 23," Burke says. "I've had to grow up very fast from a very, very young age. My mum was always away touring and I had to look after my younger brother, take him to school, pick him up." The touring mum, Melissa Bell, was once a member of Soul II Soul. After chart success in the 80s and 90s, the band's star was well faded by the time Burke began releasing music. The succession of fame, from mother to daughter, hasn't always been smooth. Bell has made several incautious comments to the tabloids, the most damning on the back of an autobiography she published in 2010. "To be honest," Bell was quoted as saying, "I'm a better singer than she is. But she is thinner than me... It's all about image these days, more than talent."
"I don't know if you've read the papers," Burke says to me, pre-empting inquiry in the same way she pre-empted any suggestion she was a diva, "but I take on a lot with my family." I tell her I've caught one or two headlines. ("Burke's family rift"... "Mum of X Factor winner in benefit fraud probe"… "Alex: I'll give ma a kidney"...) It must be like living in a soap opera, I say.
"Honey," she says, "my whole life is like EastEnders. The Burke family – if we had one of those reality shows, people would be shocked. We're crazy." But they're enjoying a settled phase. Her parents, who separated in 1992, have become close friends again. "Now we can have Christmases, birthdays without any bickering. I love seeing my parents together. I even said to them, like, a month ago…" she leans forwards, and whispers… "'Why can't you guys just get back togevva?'" We agree this would have been an ideal time for the EastEnders drum salvo to kick in.
Burke's months under public scrutiny as an X Factor contestant had a direct effect on her life at home. She bought a flat in Islington, north London in 2008, "round the corner from where I grew up. I wanted to be close to my mum. And all these kids would start on me. It was horrible; they were throwing stones at my windows. I lasted six months there after winning the show." Her younger brother Aaron had gone to university in Hertfordshire, and on visits there Burke had liked "seeing a bit of green and some grass". She moved to a rented home in Barnet in 2009 and last August bought a big house there.
"I did get driven out, if I'm completely honest. My mum didn't want me to go, but I was like, 'Why should I sit here and take this grief?' So I moved to Hertfordshire, where it's peaceful and nobody knows who I am and there's loads of old people."
She lives on her own. A relationship with "an older man", she has said, ended last year when Burke realised she wanted something more serious than he did (the title of new single "Elephant" refers to the "elephant in the room" when one in a couple wants out). It's unusual, isn't it, for a 23-year-old to live alone in a big house?
"It is. I bought this house with the intention of having kids one day. So if I meet 'the one'... That was my whole thing. I've gotta have little rugrats running around. I can't wait."
Is she lonely? Burke points out she has her dog. Later she says: "There was a time, a couple of months, when I wasn't functioning. I was emotional; damn, it was bad. My assistant Nadine went 'Cool.' She booked bowling. She booked Thorpe Park. All these things she knows I love. She made me buy a KitchenAid from John Lewis and bake, and all of a sudden I was in a better place. My dog does that when I'm feeling low. I'll have my dog sitting with me watching a film and it's the best feeling."
Despondency is eased by work, she says. "I'm not in a good place if I'm not busy. I run at a million miles an hour. My mum's always told me I should slow down, but while it's hot you need to strike it. Right? Because maybe the day when you wanna take a break is the day you should've been busy, and all of a sudden you're not busy any more."
Even with a slower internal motor I wonder how much choice she'd have. The X Factor runs to an interminable annual schedule, barely a few months for the winner to pull some original songs together before they're promoted during the next series – a series destined to churn out more acts. "Elephant" comes out the week after singles from Rebecca Ferguson (X Factor class of 2010) and Marcus Collins (2011), the week before JLS (2008). "I feel like there's enough room for everyone in the universe," says Burke. "But I'm not gonna say there isn't competition."
She hasn't eased the problem – taking part, last autumn, as a guest judge on the show. Being back on Saturday night meant more public scrutiny, or at least more paranoid double-think about public scrutiny. "It's catch-22: if I went on the X Factor and didn't criticise the acts, I would've got slated for that; and if I go on there too nice, people would've said 'She's not got a bloody opinion'…" It starts to make sense that she got our chat under way with some gentle encouragement not to think her a bitch. I don't, for the record, think that. She seems charming over the course of a cuppa, only a little hectic, probably overburdened, inclined to rush out crowd-pleasing statements that might not read so well in the bald frame of a newspaper quote. ("Recording the album, I remember my management saying to me, 'Please, slow down,' and I told 'em 'Sod off! I'm gonna do loads of charity work at the same time.'")
In the video for "Elephant" she wears a giant ring emblazoned with the phrase "Let me know". I interpreted it as a sort of plea: let me know what you want me to do and I'll do that. No, she says. "It's just something I say. I always say it. 'Let me know.' It's been my mini-catchphrase for a while. I've got a lot of catchphrases. 'OK dot com'. I'll go 'dot com' after everything. I'll go 'dot com', 'forward slash', it's just me, I'm a nutcase..." And Burke's away again, talking at top speed and keeping pace with clicking fingers.
Elephant is released on 11 March