Superstar Leona on Simon, Jedward, that shock attack and playing Belfast
In an exclusive interview Leona Lewis gives Maureen Coleman the inside story on this year’s X Factor controversies
In the midst of last weekend’s X Factor high drama a stunning performance by the show’s jewel in the crown was slightly over-shadowed.
As conspiracy theories began to unravel regarding Simon Cowell’s deadlock decision and the subsequent survival of John and Edward Grimes, the unassuming Leona Lewis slipped quietly out of the studio.
Just minutes before the live results had been announced — unleashing mass outrage on a spectacular scale — Leona had treated the audience to a show-stopping rendition of her new single, Happy.
Yes, the Terrible Twins might be the biggest story of this series, but Leona is undoubtedly its greatest success to date — the benchmark by which other contestants are measured. The record-breaking, Grammy-nominated superstar reminds us the X Factor can — and does — produce outstanding talent.
And that’s what Leona believes the show should still be about.
Speaking about Sunday’s night show Leona (24) says she had mixed emotions.
“It was lovely to be back on the stage again where it all happened for me three years ago,” she says.
“But it was pretty nerve-wracking, too. I always get nervous before going on stage.
“I was happy with how the performance went, but then I felt really sad about Lucie Jones going home, especially as I thought she was a very talented singer with a really good voice.
“The thing about the X Factor is that its power is very strong, it exposes you to so many people.” It should be about the most talented people but it’s also an entertainment show. And it’s the public who vote, If you don’t get the votes, you don’t get to stay.”
The softly-spoken popstar is diplomatic about John and Edward and the criticisms levelled at Cowell, her mentor from the 2006 show.
“The thing is, the public is voting for John and Edward and that’s what you’ve got to remember,” she says.
“John and Edward have a huge following, they’re getting the votes. If Simon had sent Lucie home I could understand all the outrage but he didn’t. He allowed it to go to a public vote.
“I’m not defending him, but he made his choice and he obviously had his own reasons.
“He didn’t send Lucie home, it was the public, but it was still sad to see her go because I really thought she was such a talent.
“I liked Rachel Adedeji as well, I thought she had a great voice. But she went, too. You just never know when it goes to a public vote. If you don’t have that connection, you’re out.”
Leona has sympathy for the twins and is appalled at the negative press and the opposition to the teenage boys from some sections of the X Factor audience.
“To hear that booing is just awful,” she says.
“I’ve met John and Edward briefly and they’re lovely. They’re just young boys getting up there each week but they’re getting such a hard time.
“I feel bad for them and I really hope it doesn’t affect them too much.
“But like I said, they are getting public support and they are entertaining.”
Leona won’t be drawn on who she thinks will win the current series, now that her two favourites have left.
“I really don’t know who’s going to win now,” she says.
“You just never know with the X Factor. I think all the winners have been different from each other.”
She’s also adamant that the show will survive this series’ ongoing controversy and that there is a definite place for it within the music industry.
“The X Factor is still a good show,” she maintains.
“It gave me this huge platform so I really don’t know how well founded those reports are that it’s on its way out.
“I think the viewers will still tune in this weekend.”
As an X Factor winner Leona has enjoyed unrivalled success since becoming the winner of the third series.
Her debut single, A Moment Like This broke a world record after it was downloaded over 50,000 times in half an hour.
The single became the most downloaded song in 2006 and went on to sell around 830,000 copies. Her 2007 album, Spirit became the fastest-selling debut album and the biggest seller of that year. It also made Leona the first British solo artist to top the Billboard 200 with a debut album.
Her second single, Bleeding Love produced by Ryan Tedder and written by Tedder and Jesse McCartney, was another worldwide number one and won Record of the Year in December 2007.
And her cover of Snow Patrol’s Run — which she first performed on Radio One’s Live Lounge — was released as a down-load single in the UK, reaching number one and becoming the UK’s fastest-selling download-only single.
Not bad for a nervous young singer, who only entered the X Factor because her boyfriend persuaded her to.
Leona’s second album, Echo is due out later this month and to promote it the star is embarking on a massive world tour next year.
And we can reveal that the tour will bring her back to Belfast, where she last performed with the rest of the X Factor class of 2006.
“I’ll be playing the Odyssey Arena in Belfast on July 1,” she says.
“I’m looking forward to it. The last time I performed there, the crowd was really up for it. They’re well into their singing.”
They’ll certainly know all the words of Run, I point out.
“Oh yeah, Snow Patrol are from Belfast,” she says. “I’ve never met them, but I was in contact with Gary Lightbody via email. He seems like a really lovely guy and they’re such a talented band. I’m a big fan.”
Leona’s tour will kick off in May and rehearsals have already begun.
The shows will feature material from Spirit and Echo and while she says there’ll be “some contemporary movement” on the stage, the focus will be on that voice. It’s not the dancing or the grand production that Leona’s fans will be coming to see.
“All the songs from Spirit will be there and I’ll be showcasing the new album as well,” she says.
“I’m really pleased with Echo. I was working on it for almost a year and there are some good songs in there.”
Her new single, Happy, was co-written by Ryan Tedder, who also wrote and produced Bleeding Love. And she collaborated with Justin Timberlake on one of the tracks, Don’t Let Me Down. She laughs as she recalls a previous crush on the Cry Me A River star.
“I fancied him when he was in N Sync but not now, not since I’ve worked with him,” she said.
“It was great working him, but I don’t fancy him any more. Not after working with him.”
To prepare her for the upcoming tour, Leona returned to the Empire Theatre near her home in Hackney last week — a venue where she first appeared in a talent competition at the age of 13.
“It was quite emotional for me playing there,” she says.
“And I got so much support from everyone. It was lovely.”
But all the wonderful experiences she’s had since winning the X Factor ran the risk of being eclipsed by one very frightening incident at a book store signing last month.
Leona was autographing copies of her new book, Dreams at a Waterstones shop in London when a crazed man in the queue punched her in the face.
A distraught Leona was escorted from the premises in tears.
Peter Kowalczyk (29) was arrested at the scene and charged with assault. He was also sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
Leona says it was a “horrible” episode but that she is getting over it.
“I’m fine now, I’m good, but yes, it was horrible at the time, very shocking,” she recalls.
“The guy is obviously unwell. But because it was an isolated incident, I’m not going to let it affect me. Sometimes horrible things happen and, unfortunately, this happened to me but I need to come back from it and be more positive”
Leona says that while she doesn’t feel the need to step up her security, she is aware that being in the public eye makes her vulnerable.
But she also says the support of the public helped her cope with the attack.
“I’m not getting any extra bodyguards or anything like that,” she says.
“But when you’re in the public eye you are more exposed and have to look after yourself.
“And I’m just so grateful for all the lovely cards and flowers and messages of support that I got. They really helped me.”
She also has her long-term boyfriend to lean on, electrician Lou Al-Chamaa. The pair have known each other since childhood and live together in Hackney. But she reckons she’s too young to tie the knot just yet.
“I’ve still too much to do and anyway, I just think I’m too young for that,” she tells me.
Next year’s tour will take her away from London for several months. In the meantime, she’ll be kept busy promoting her new album, which is released on November 1. Another record-breaker then?
“Who knows?” she says.
“I hope it does as well as Spirit. It would be great if people liked it. I certainly enjoyed making it.”
Move over John and Edward — the real star of the X Factor is back to reclaim her crown.
Leona Lewis plays the Odyssey Arena on July 1, 2010. Tickets go on sale on Friday, November 20 at 9am from the Odyssey Arena box office, tel: 9073 9074 or usual Ticketmaster outlets