Alexandra Burke says music industry told her to bleach her skin

X Factor star also says she was told not to wear braids in order to appeal to a white audience

Alexandra Burke, the X Factor winner who went on to achieve three UK No 1 singles and further fame on Strictly Come Dancing, has spoken about the racism she experienced in the entertainment industry.

She said industry demands included that she bleach her skin, not wear braided hair and tailor her music to a white audience. She also says she was told to “be quiet” during attacks on her in the press during Strictly.

Speaking on Instagram, she said she first faced issues when she was 16, after her first attempt on the X Factor, when she lost out in the early rounds. She says unnamed person on the show told her: “You haven’t made it through, but give me a call in a couple of months, and I’ll sign you.” Burke described it as “the break that I’ve been waiting for”. She said she was then told by the same person: “I already have one black artist, I don’t need another.” Burke said: “It sucked to hear those words, because of your skin colour you now can’t have this opportunity that was promised … that was a big deal for someone who was only 16.”

She next spoke of the aftermath of winning the X Factor’s fifth series in 2008, during which she performed with Beyoncé and scored her first No 1 with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. “I got told when I first won the X Factor, ‘because you’re black you’re going to have to work 10 times harder than a white artist because of the colour of your skin. You can’t have braids, you can’t have an afro, you can’t have anything that basically is my identity. You have to have hair that appeals to white people so they understand you better.’”

She says she was also told to bleach her skin, a demand she describes as “absurd … that was something I refused to do”.

She says she was later told by an unnamed record label: “You have to smile more because you come across aggressive,” and “you can’t release this type of music because white people don’t understand that”.

Having also found success in musical theatre, she appeared on the BBC dance show Strictly Come Dancing in 2017 and came second. At a promotional event for the show held the day after her mother’s death, she said a journalist told her: “So you’re not doing press. Being a diva today are we?” She said: “That was the image they had of me because of papers, particularly one journalist.

“I was so scared on that show, because if I spoke out, she’s playing the victim card. If I was happy, how come she’s so happy, she’s just lost her mum … I was getting so many trolls.” She said she was treated in this way “because of me being a black, strong woman”.

She said she had “wanted to do this video for a long time, but I’ve been a bit scared to do it”. She credits her mother for giving her a thick skin and making her strong enough to keep going.

Burke is the latest black woman to speak candidly about racism in the British entertainment industry. Fellow X Factor contestant Misha B, who came fourth in 2011, said the show crafted an “angry black girl narrative” around her, and that she was the victim of a “corrupted agenda” to frame her as a bully, including by judges Tulisa and Louis Walsh. She said the treatment had made her consider suicide.

Tulisa responded: “One thing I regret is calling her out publicly … that I am truly sorry for. But to say and make claims … that it was racially motivated is ludicrous.”

The Spice Girls star Mel B recently said she had been told to straighten her hair for the video to accompany the group’s debut single Wannabe. “I refused point blank because my hair was my identity,” she said. She says she was also asked to leave a luxury boutique in South Africa, while her bandmates were not.

The Sugababes singer Keisha Buchanan said she was made to “look aggressive” in the press, when members of the group left. She also said she was used as a scapegoat for the group’s failings.

Their revelations come at a time of reckoning for the UK music industry, with black music executives, Mobo awards organiser Kanya King and others calling for sweeping changes to combat inequality.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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