Alexandra Burke: ‘I got asked to bleach my skin after X Factor’

Her career has taken her from pop success to Strictly and the stage. She discusses the pain of racist comments, the joy of duetting with Beyoncé – and the enduring influence of her late mother


Alexandra Burke has come out of the pandemic running. Since lockdown eased, the singer has taken part in a reality TV series (she can’t say which) that left her with broken bones and hypothermia, acted in her first film, Pretty Red Dress, and segued to a starring role in the West End musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

What makes this surprising is that Burke describes the enforced stillness of the past year as “the best thing that ever happened to me”. After 12 years of almost unstoppable hard graft since winning The X Factor, she decided to take six months out in 2020 even before lockdown was announced, after the suicide of a close friend. “I hadn’t seen him in a long time and I meant to reach out to him. Instead, I was running on stage thinking I’d talk to him next week and then he was gone. My mental health was really struggling with not putting friends and family first.” She took on a life coach, bubbled with her close friend and assistant Nalini, and switched to a plant-based diet. It all left her feeling fitter, happier and calmer.

Effervescent and gym-fit, and blazing with smiles, she is clearly thriving on the latest burst of activity. An hour from now she will be on stage for Joseph (“I’ll gargle with TCP to clear my throat”), and before the night is over she will be performing a private gig. Yet she almost turned down the role of the Narrator – a big, all-singing, dancing part that holds Joseph together. The biblical show wasn’t her first foray into musical theatre – that was in 2014 with a storming debut in The Bodyguard, followed by several more. However, she says, “I didn’t know if my brain could retain it because I hadn’t worked in a year. Then they sat me down and said: ‘You’ll be the first ever black Narrator to do this [in the West End]’, and the answer couldn’t be ‘No’.”

Burke stars in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Jason Donovan and Jac Yarrow
Burke stars in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Jason Donovan (left) and Jac Yarrow (right). Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

The significance of that first, for her, extends far beyond theatre – to the murder of George Floyd last May, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the part she came to play in it. When Floyd was killed, she says, “I cried for two weeks straight. Every single day. All I could think about was my two brothers, who are constantly stopped by the police, and the black men in my family – my cousins, nephews. My [white] ex couldn’t understand why I was crying. When I tried to explain about white privilege, the first thing he said was: ‘Don’t attack me – I’m not racist.’”

Even though she hadn’t planned to become part of the bigger conversation about race, she was taken over by the urge to go public with her experiences in the music industry. She made a video and uploaded it on Instagram. “I had no intention of doing it,” she says. “I was working on a song about BLM in a studio session Zoom call. I was talking about how I felt about the movement when a shiver went through my body and I heard a scream in my ear. I said: ‘Guys, I need a minute’, shut the laptop, walked upstairs, put my phone camera on and just started talking.”

In the video, she described the microaggressions she had faced in the industry, from advice to bleach her skin to being encouraged not to braid her hair. She had quietly been feeling their sting for years. “We’re talking about it openly now because we feel safer to speak out. Otherwise I’d be too scared.”

Her late mother, Melissa Bell, a singer with the 1980s band Soul II Soul and Burke’s manager until she was 15, had made her aware of the industry’s entrenched prejudices at an early age. “She’d warned me that people would inevitably bring up colour. When she was in Soul II Soul, she used to get certain comments: ‘If you were slimmer, or if you were white, you’d have a much bigger career.’ She was advised not to have kids because: ‘Women who are black already struggle.’”

Burke’s own experiences began at 12 after her first TV appearance, in the talent show Star for a Night. “I started getting comments like: ‘Because you’re black, you won’t get that far.’ ‘Because you’re black, you need to work 10 times harder.’ Industry people were saying it as well as Joe Bloggs. The remarks came quite often and were difficult to digest.”

It escalated after she won The X Factor in 2008 at the age of 19, going from playing pub gigs to singing with Elton John at London’s O2 Centre. “It only really hit me when I got asked to bleach my skin after X Factor,” she says. She won’t comment on who suggested that, only that it was “a certain person on the creative side who was working with me”.

Alexandra Burke with her mother Melissa Bell
Burke with her mother, Melissa Bell, who died in 2017. Photograph: Courtesy of Alexandra Burke

There was one especially upsetting incident with her then record label, as she prepared to perform at the London Palladium. “It was a beautiful show in honour of Sir Bruce Forsyth and I had my hair in a bun, with a couple of baby hairs. It was classic, classy; I had a black dress on. Half an hour before I was due on stage, my hair stylist came up to me and said: ‘I’ve just been told you look quite aggressive with this hairstyle. We need to change it.’ I said: ‘What?’ He said: ‘Your record label’s just told me you look aggressive, so we have to change it.’ I said: ‘What part of me looks aggressive?’ He said it was the baby hairs stuck to my head.”

When, in 2017, she became a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, she says she was told to “smile more” by her then management team. “That’s why I let them go. They used to say to me: ‘Every time you don’t smile, nobody warms to you.’”

At the time, unbeknown to viewers of Strictly, her 53-year-old mother was in hospital, dying of kidney failure caused by diabetes. “So to be sat down and told: ‘You’re not smiling. You don’t look approachable. No one’s going to like you’…”

Has the music industry learned any lessons since last summer? Yes, she says, but a lot more needs to be done, in music and beyond. “I’m hoping people are not just going to forget about it. I really pray that one day it changes completely – but it won’t be in our lifetime.”

Burke knew she wanted to be a singer from the age of five when she saw her mother on Top of the Pops. Bell became her hero and even now remains a strong presence in her life, only ever a few sentences away. “I feel her every night as I go on that stage,” she says. “I tell myself: ‘You are Melissa Bell’s child. You’ve got this.’ I say it as that curtain opens up. I wear her perfume (Chanel No 5) on press nights. Every time I’m nervous about something I think: ‘Melissa Bell raised you.’”

As a starry-eyed child, she saw her mother sing backing vocals for Whitney Houston, Lisa Stansfield and many others. “A documentary came on about George Michael recently and I saw my mum doing the backing singing! I paused it and thought: ‘There’s Mum!’”

The family grew up in north London, in Islington, opposite Pentonville prison, and Burke went to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson girls’ school, where many of the women in her family had gone. Did she like school? “I loved it, but I refused to go to college. My mum disapproved and said: ‘You’ve got to have a plan B.’ But I said my plan B was the same as plan A; I was determined to be a singer.”

She already knew how hard that life could be. She was six when her mother separated from her father, David Burke, and from then on Bell was a single parent with four children. “Trying to live her dream and be a mum was very difficult. When people say to me: ‘Slow down’, I feel I don’t have an excuse to slow down.”

Burke appearing at the 2018 We Day at Wembley Arena, London
Burke appearing at the 2018 We Day at Wembley Arena, London. Photograph: James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock/James Gourley/Rex/Shutterstock

Sometimes, Burke followed her mother around the globe for gigs (“We lived in Bahrain for three months!”) and at other times the children were looked after by their aunt or grandfather while Bell toured. Did she mind the uprooting? “No, because I was following in my mum’s footsteps. I was like her little shadow.”

Now that her mother has gone, is she close to her father? “Yeah, we got close just before X Factor and he’s amazing. But Mum was the queen of the family. She held everyone together and all I’m now trying to do is what she did: be the glue.”

Her mother’s death has also changed her relationship with her body. Diabetes, often triggered by pregnancy, runs in Burke’s family, with too many female relatives dying of kidney failure linked to the disease. “I’m trying to break that chain,” she says. “For me it’s about being in the best shape that I can be and I feel, at 32, that I’m at my healthiest, my fittest and my happiest.”

First, though, she had to get over Strictly. As well as bereavement, Burke had to contend with a swarm of negative press coverage, including tabloid reports of diva-like behaviour backstage. When you meet Burke, it’s hard to square those stories with her unboundaried warmth; even now people tell her they are surprised she is “so nice”, she says. “I’ve had it so many times where I’ve walked into a supermarket and people talk to me. The last bit of the conversation is: ‘Gosh, you’re not a bitch, are you? We read that you’re vile.’”

Alexandra Burke with her dance partner Gorka Marquez on Strictly Come Dancing in 2017
Burke with her dance partner Gorka Marquez on Strictly Come Dancing in 2017. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC/PA

She was so distressed by the stories that she tweeted Dan Wootton, then a journalist on the Sun: “I’m finding it very hard to read all of the lies you have published about me …” She has since talked to Wootton, at the beginning of this year, and says they have cleared up any bad feeling.

Did he apologise?

“Yes, he did. I’ve known Dan for years. He’s not a terrible person. He explained that, unfortunately, there were people inside the Strictly show who were giving him the stories. To this day, I still don’t understand where the stories came from because they were absolutely lies. I loved my time on the Strictly dancefloor but I’ve had to put the rest of that period behind me and I’ve had to have therapy to do that. I just really encourage people not to believe everything they read.”

Looking back at her time on The X Factor, was that an entirely positive experience? Some former contestants have been critical about its gladiatorial format, and ITV recently announced the show’s cancellation after 17 years. She’s “actually quite sad” to see it go, she says. “I did have a wonderful experience on it.” But maybe she was luckier than some. “I had a mum in the industry so you couldn’t walk over me – not with the mother I had. My mum would be there and she’d be very strong. Not everyone has that person in their life.”

But did she ever feel pushed into creating a certain kind of music, or siloed into R&B, as some black artists are said to have been? Quite the opposite, she says. It was Simon Cowell who pushed her towards pop because she could sing and dance at the same time, and she has been happy with that musical trajectory.

There was also the unforgettable moment on the show when she duetted with Beyoncé. Burke lights up at the memory, delivering a blow-by-blow account. “I only found out about that less than 24 hours before. Simon [Cowell] gave me the call at midnight. He’d just secured the deal and said: ‘Kid, we’ve got Beyoncé singing with you tomorrow.’ I hung up the phone and then called him back to say: ‘Sorry, babe, did you say Beyoncé?’

“When Beyoncé arrived, I walked in, I cried. I wasted all our rehearsal time crying. Her mum [Tina Knowles] cried. Cheryl [Cole] cried. Everyone’s crying because I’m telling Beyoncé how much I love her.”

Aelxandra Burke with Beyoncé on The X Factor in December 2008
With Beyoncé on The X Factor in December 2008. Photograph: Ken McKay/Shutterstock

Since then, she has met Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, whom she spoke to after singing at the Commonwealth Day service in Westminster Abbey last March. They both support the same charity, Smart Works (the duchess is patron, Burke an ambassador) and they were reported to have bonded at the service, which was the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s final official engagement before they left royal life. Does she feel the duchess was hounded out of the country by racism? “Look, when I sit and read certain things about her, as a black woman I do think they were racist comments. It’s hurtful to read and you can only imagine how she felt. There are so many opinions out there about her and I feel like saying: ‘Guys, leave the woman alone. Let her just be a mother and a wife.’”

Burke is in a relatively new relationship with Darren Randolph, the goalkeeper for West Ham. “I’m told I’m in safe hands,” she says, saucily. Having watched the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy with him at home, she speaks ruefully of the onslaught of racism in its aftermath. “So much abuse. This is why I say it’s a slow change and I don’t know if it’s going to completely change in our lifetime. That was just a few weeks ago when we saw monkey emojis and other horrendous abuse.”

But all the while, there are gains – inches perhaps, but forward movement nonetheless. She recently had a thrilling moment on the set of Joseph, when talking to a child in the cast. “A little black girl asked me how long I had been the Narrator. I said this was my first time and that I was the first black woman to do it in the West End. She was flabbergasted by that and said: ‘So you’re telling me I could do this too?’

“It had me in tears and it reminded me that I was her once: a little girl with a dream who didn’t see what was possible for me because of my colour.”

• Alexandra Burke is in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium until 5 September. Tickets: josephthemusical.com

Contributor

Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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