Fleur East looks back: ‘My mum loved to put me in the most flamboyant dresses: big poofy sleeves and shoulder pads’

The singer recalls her shy childhood, how she ended up on X Factor twice, and finding her own voice

Fleur East in 1990 and 2023. Later portrait: Simon Webb. Styling: Andie Redman. Hair and makeup: Keshia East. Archive image: courtesy of Fleur East

Born in London in 1987, Fleur East is a musician and presenter. As a contestant on 2014’s X Factor, her cover of Uptown Funk was so popular it charted before Mark Ronson’s original was released. After she finished in second place, her debut single, Sax, went platinum. She parted ways with Simon Cowell’s label in 2017, setting up her own, Platinum East, on which she released her 2020 album Fearless. She is now a host on Hits Radio and is married to the stylist and designer Marcel Badiane-Robin. Her new single, Count the Ways, is out now.

My mum loved to put me in the most flamboyant dresses you can imagine: big poofy sleeves and skirts and shoulder pads, with coloured socks to match. This photo was most likely to have been taken at a family gathering in our house in Walthamstow, north‑east London – I’m about three and I look fed up. I was probably overtired, but all my family were playing music and having fun and laughing. My expression is screaming: “Come on, take the picture! I want to go to bed.”

My mum and dad had a really good social life – a lot of my childhood memories are of them hosting loads of people – family, friends and neighbours. Music was always a big part of our family DNA. We would listen to Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, George Michael and Simply Red. Because they had speakers in every room, and liked to listen to tunes and party all night, I can sleep anywhere, any time.

Despite being exposed to so much socialising growing up, I wasn’t an extrovert. I was a quiet kid. A scaredy-cat. I used to sing, but only ever in my room by myself. I had a poster of 3T on my wall, and Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls were huge inspirations. One of my earliest memories is playing a keyboard that my parents had bought me – I’d sit in the corner of my room and make up songs.

One time I looked behind me and Mum and Dad were standing over me watching. I burst into tears. because I was so shy and mortified that they had heard me. They said: “Keep singing! Keep singing!”

After that, they would get me to perform songs for their friends. I didn’t love it at first, but I am so glad they encouraged me. I’d probably still be singing alone in my room if it wasn’t for them.

I was 13 before I was able to perform confidently in front of other people. There was an after-school club called Ladders where I could sing and write songs, and I loved it, especially as I wasn’t very self-assured at school to begin with. I wanted to blend in, like a lot of kids do when they’re becoming teenagers. Other students would sometimes comment on my hair, so I didn’t want to wear it natural because I worried that it might draw too much attention. I’d put it in a ponytail. Then one day I just thought: “You know what? This is my hair. I’m proud of it.” I stopped worrying about what other people thought, fully embraced who I was and turned into a real social butterfly.

I liked to talk to all the different groups, play games, and have debates about life. I was quite popular, and with the singing I really started to come out of my shell. I even became a little rebellious – nothing too extreme, but my parents broke up when I was 15 and I knew I could get away with going out a bit more if I was staying with my dad during the week. Overall, I was a good kid, though – I worked hard in my exams and never went too wild.

Part of that work ethic comes from my parents. They were full of life and energy, really outgoing people, but they always encouraged me and my sister to focus. When I told them I wanted to be a pop star, they never said it would be out of my reach. There weren’t many success stories from our area – all we had was East 17 – but they backed me anyway. They said: “That’s great. You can do it. Just get a degree first.” [East studied journalism and contemporary history at Queen Mary University of London]. They made me feel that becoming a singer was achievable.

When I was 16, I started a group called Addictiv Ladies with some friends from Ladders. We applied for X Factor, mainly for a laugh and so we could get some feedback, and we ended up getting into the live show. We got booted out in the first week, but I knew from that moment that singing was what I wanted to do. I wanted more.

For the next 10 years, my career took me all over the place – I worked at Topshop as a sales assistant and in a nightclub as a champagne girl. I was a market researcher. I was in another girl group and toured with DJ Fresh for a few years.

By the time I went on X Factor for the second time, I was 26 and thought: “Right! I’m ready for it now.” Simon Cowell really backed me and we were good at collaborating. He’d always say: “Fleur knows what she wants. I don’t need to tell her – she tells me.” And I loved that.

The whole experience went very fast, but I was ready to live my dream, and I’d always head back to Walthamstow and tell my family all the insider information: “This is what telly and the red carpet is really like.” I could see a lot of people around me getting swept up in the glitz and glamour and the ego that can come with the show, but I stayed close to my roots and that kept me focused.

Being signed to a major label, having a huge debut single, then being put on a shelf [Fleur was dropped from Syco in 2017] and having to start again was the toughest thing I’ve gone through professionally. I felt like I had made it and then all of a sudden I hadn’t – it was gone. My parents told me: “Don’t let that stop you. You know what talent you have.” They really encouraged me, and I realised that nothing has ever come easy for me. I am used to being the underdog. It was my default mode and I should embrace it.

I might not be travelling the world like I was a few years ago, but I’m still recording music. I feel so proud of everything I’ve achieved, especially when I get mums of black or mixed-race kids saying they see me as an example to their daughters because of the way I wear my hair or because I am a woman in the music industry.

My husband knows me better than anyone, and he can see that even though I am happy, there’s still that little girl’s voice inside me, the one that says: “Oh no, maybe you’re not good enough. Who is going to come to your show? Who is going to buy your music?” Over the years, I have learned how to quieten that voice, because the love and the passion for what I do is greater than the fear. But I don’t want to lose her totally. She is why I’m as grounded as I am. I’m very aware of where I am from, where it all began – and I still rock a scrunchie every now and then.

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Interview by Harriet Gibsone

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