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Katherine: I'm no diva

Down-to-earth opera star Katherine Jenkins talks about her childhood and reveals how she was traumatised her father's death

By Barry Egan

Divas are generally supposed to be impossible - manipulative and haughty in the extreme, cold to the point of sub-zero, sociopathic indifference to anyone other than fellow divas. They are also prone to ridiculous demands (Mariah Carey was infamously particular about her dressing room furnishings while on tour: "No busy patterns"), and on occasion contractually demand total avoidance of direct eye contact from their long-suffering subjects and media minions.

My initial observation of Katherine Jenkins is that she exhibits no signs of unchecked mania of the ego. In fact, after 90 minutes in her company, I am happy to report that she is perhaps the nicest, the most implacably down-to-earth and the most normal, so-called diva I've ever met.

"People have a typical view of a Wagnerian soprano with Viking horns," Katherine told US magazine Interview in 2011. Viking horns are as absent as prima-donna hissy fits as Katharine walks into her suite in The Savoy hotel in London. She laughs like a broken drain that "the whole diva thing is probably" the biggest misconception about her - "and you know, that I'm high maintenance."

She believes there is basically an unvarnished sexism, even misogyny, at work here. "I think it is an easy thing to do with a woman in classical music. I think people want to think you're a diva. I'm always amazed about how people talk about having to have hair and make-up and stuff for TV shows," she smiles, through blindingly white teeth, "but the male counterpart who does my job - and I know a lot of them - they all have the groomers and they all have the people to get them ready to go on TV. But no one ever says a thing about that. So I just think you're an easy target (if you are a woman)."

Katherine can recall being inspired by her mother showing her black and white movies with Judy Garland in them, or being off school sick and watching Calamity Jane at home on the couch. "I can sing every single word of Calamity Jane!" she hoots.

So, was it a 'jazz-hands' kind of showbiz family? "Not at all! That's the thing - it wasn't," she laughs. "My mother was the complete opposite of a sort of a pushy stage mum. I think my mum never let Laura and I," Katherine says, referring to her sister, "have a kind of idle mind. Like, any time we were at home, we would be never just watching TV. We would be making cakes or doing an art project or watching musicals."

Is that the kind of mother Katherine will be one day? "I think so," she smiles. "But in some ways, I look back and I think, some children are left to have an imagination and dream up things. I didn't have that bit. I was always kept active. I was always making things and being creative in a physical way with some stuff. Yeah, I think I will probably pass that on, because I like to be busy."

The folklore-ish tale of Katherine Jenkins, sweetheart-of-the-Valleys and classical music crossover superstar, is that she grew up in a council house in Neath, south Wales. (I assume it is a bit like the tale of Dolly Parton growing up in a one-room cabin on a tiny farm on the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.) I ask the alternative Princess of Wales about the truth or otherwise that she grew up in a council house.

"My mum always wants to have this one corrected!" laughs the blonde superstar, who was born on June 29, 1980. "Our house that we grew up in was an ex-council house that my parents bought. My dad lived in it for years and years before my mum and he moved in together." (Katherine's father was 23, three years older than his wife.)

"My mum thinks it has been somewhat dramatised. It was a nice house in a nice area. A very small house. It was the four of us and it was like a really happy house. So I don't know why it has to be made to sound so dramatic sometimes." Katherine characterises her childhood as being "very happy" - until she was 15 when her father Selwyn died of cancer.

Was it like her life suddenly could be viewed in terms of Katherine pre-15 and Katherine post-15? Everything changed because it had to change? "Yeah ..." The sweetheart-of-the-Valleys is now crying. "I think it is a really weird dynamic that you don't really understand until you're older," Katherine says.

"Because my mum lost her best friend, her partner, the love of her life. We," she says referring to her younger sister Laura and herself, "lost our dad."

"And ..." Katherine begins before stopping because the tears are welling up in her eyes. "I'm sorry that I'm a little emotional today because I am on the cusp of it because Polly, my best friend, passed away this year and it is her birthday today.

"So, it is the first one without her. It is really odd. She would be 33 today. She passed away in June. That happened this year. It is just weird because it is the same day as my brother-in-law's 40th birthday and her birthday. It is all a bit odd," she says her voice quavering more than a touch with emotion. "So I am on the emotional edge anyway today," she then laughs. "So, where were we?"

Your dad got cancer, I say. "And two months," she says, the tears welling up again, "he was ... gone. It was a shock. I can't think of any thing I would change about my childhood pre-dad passing. We had this little caravan that we would go to sometimes, six miles down the road for a weekend, just to be together. I just laugh and think: 'This is so silly. We are going to Swansea. We live in Neath!' But it was about having a barbecue and sitting around the table and playing cards with pistachio nuts. I loved that time. I look back and they are some of my most special, and happiest, memories."

So, she wasn't kicking up about not being brought to St Lucia instead of Swansea Bay?

"I didn't know any different," she laughs. "I didn't know what was out there, to ask for anything else. I was happy with what I had. I'm very conscious to make sure that I pass that sensibility on that my mum brought up in me," she says, meaning when she eventually has children of her own. "I definitely do not want to raise little monsters. I won't put up with it."

Katherine is candid enough to admit that she dealt with her father's death "through therapy. I went to someone. I was 15. Like I was saying earlier about my mum, she was experiencing a very different kind of grief from what we were experiencing. I think you need somebody who is completely outside of the circle, because it is like a chain reaction, you know?

"If I'm upset and my mum sees me upset, then I'm bringing back the grief to her. So then you end up locking it all down, which is what happened. We all tried to look after each other. You're not dealing with it. You're not talking about it. I started having nightmares about dad. Recurring nightmares. So I went to speak to this lady."

I ask her what was the recurring nightmare. "It was about him being in the house and him not being able to get out of the house, because he was not well enough. That was obviously due to him being so frail and stuff at the end." Katherine is grateful for therapy because it allowed her to properly make sense of her father's death - "not be at peace with it," she continues, "but I think there is a point in your life where you go through a trauma and you can either let it be the thing that defines you or is the excuse for every bit of bad behaviour, or ... you know, I am really glad that lady came to talk to me, because she was really helpful.

"I believe my dad is definitely with me," she continues. "I have no doubt about that. He has come back to talk to me. I feel him. I have a word with him when I go onstage every time. I feel like I am being guided on a path that I can't explain but that my dad is with me."

Katherine, who at the age of 11 won the Welsh Choir Girl of the Year competition, recalls that her 70-year-old dad died two weeks before her GCSEs. He knew maths was not her best subject. Be that as it may, the night before Katherine's maths exam her father came to her in a dream telling Katherine to check under her bed.

The future sweetheart-from-the-Valleys woke up at dawn and looked under her bed. Under there, she found a maths book which she had forgotten to revise. On the first page was an algebra equation. On the last page of Katherine's exam was a question that required that exact equation.

Dealing with a life so lived in the public eye, Katherine says, is "the harder bit of the job. It's a difficult one because you don't want to complain because I know I'm really lucky to do my job and I love it. Having said that, when I trained to be a classical singer, classical singers weren't what they are now. So then even if you were at the top of your game in the classical world, you were barely a household name. You weren't photographed going down the street. You weren't part of the celebrity culture thing that there is now. I always wanted to be a singer; I just never expected it to be in this way."

The paparazzi attention has only increased recently because the beautiful mezzo-soprano got married to her American beau Andrew Levitas at Hampton Court Palace on September 27 this year. She describes him as a "typical straight-talking New Yorker. He is an artist, a sculptor. He does metalwork photography. I can show you his work," she says and disappears into the room to get her phone to show me pictures of her hubby's latest exhibition.

I ask her has she ever sung a song about him. "We Gather Lilacs on the new album," she refers to Home Sweet Home, "you think of it being like a World War song and you sort of think it is a nice pretty song until you actually put it into perspective in your own life. What if I was now saying goodbye to my husband for an amount of time and we may never see each-other again? I was trying to imagine myself saying goodbye to my husband going off to war."

The sweet siren of popera says that she and Mr Levitas were introduced by a friend who "thought we were similar".

"I think a bonding thing is," adds Katherine importantly, "that his father also passed away from lung cancer when he was young. He found out when he was 13. He had a ten-year battle. So he lost his dad when he was in his mid-twenties. I think again that's something we have both gone through an understanding of."

  • Home Sweet Home is out now

Classical crossover acts who have wowed the crowds

  • Charlotte Church - the Welsh singer found fame in her childhood years, after she sang Andrew Lloyd Webber's Pie Jesu over the phone on This Morning in 1997 at the age of 11. Despite massive success with her classically-flavoured albums, she later changed direction into pop and TV presenting
  • Paul Potts - the former mobile phone salesman became an overnight star after appearing on ITV show Britain's Got Talent in 2007. He has recorded several albums and toured the world
  • Andrea Bocelli - the Italian tenor, who has been blind since a childhood accident, has sold over 100 million records and become one of the world's most popular classical stars
  • Sarah Brightman - the English soprano made her West End debut in Cats and married the show's composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, but later divorced. She went on to star in several West End and Broadway musicals

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