Katherine Jenkins tells Barry Egan about dealing with the pain of losing her father at 15, growing up in a council house, being mugged and coping with vicious criticism
It was long before Katherine Jenkins was ever called ‘the Sweetheart of the Valleys’. She can recall being “cycled” to nursery school in south Wales — and “feeling like the coolest kid in the world on the back of my mum’s big old bike”. It was summer. She loved the sensation of the breeze “ruffling my hair and tickling my face”.
Not long after, Katherine — born on June 29, 1980 — won an infant-school talent show at the Alderman Davies Church in her hometown of Neath. She had her hair tied in bunches by her mother. She was four years of age. The win started a pattern of success throughout her life.
Katherine, who would sing songs from Les Miserables with her young sister Laura at family gatherings, joined the church choir at St David’s in Neath at the age of seven. She was head choirgirl within two years. At 11, she won the Welsh Choir Girl of the Year. “I remember how nervous I was,” she says. “It was all part of the journey to be able to do this.”
Katherine sang in the local church as its head chorister for seven years. Asked if she had 24 hours to live, what would she sing before she died, Katherine replied, the Welsh national anthem — “and I’d cry”.
There were tears in abundance when her father died of lung cancer in May 1995 at a hospice in Wales. Katherine was 15. When her mother told Katherine that she would understand if she didn’t want to go in to see her father for the last time, Katherine felt she needed closure and went in. She was “comforted” that her father looked as he “hadn’t looked in ages”. “Colour had come back into his face and he looked almost well again,” Katherine wrote in her 2008 autobiography Time To Say Hello.
At 17, she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. (During her university days in London, Katherine admitted in the past that she fell in with a “bad crowd” and briefly took class-A drugs. To pre-empt a low-rent expose in a tabloid, Katherine revealed to Piers Morgan in the Daily Mail in 2009 that “taking drugs is the biggest regret of my life”.) On graduating, she worked as a singing teacher at St Mary’s Church of England High School, in Hertfordshire, two days a week. In 2003 when Universal Music, who loved the demo tape Katherine’s then-boyfriend got her to record, offered her a massive six-album recording deal, she was nervous about leaving her part-time job.
Katherine, legend has it, didn’t tell anyone for a long time she had a record deal — the largest record deal in UK classical recording history, when she was just 23. “I carried on teaching until after my first album came out.” Premiere was released in April 2004. It became an international hit and Katherine, the Sweetheart of the Valleys, became a superstar, selling millions upon millions of albums across the globe.
But not everyone liked the Queen of classical crossover, aka ‘popera’. In 2008, the former Conservative MP David Mellor dubbed Jenkins’s rendition of a song set to Holst’s Jupiter as “vomitacious” and “bathetic rubbish”. The London Evening Standard moaned that Katherine had “never sung in an opera house”. When she signed another massive record deal in 2008, Opera Chic magazine wrote snootily: “Katherine Jenkins to Gain $10m by Watering Down Classical Music and Singing into Microphones.”
Whatever about such absurd criticism, did Katherine ever find it problematic dealing with her huge success?
“I think because of where I came from, and not being in the business, I had to learn everything on the job. So there were times when it was a steep learning curve,” she says. “I am approaching 40 (she hit the landmark two weeks ago) and that makes me realise that I have been in the public eye nearly half of my life. Understandably, growing up in front of people’s eyes, there will be things I wish I could have done differently or wish that they didn’t happen. But that is all part of the learning curve. The biggest part is trying to find out how to keep normality, I have always tried to draw a line between keeping something for myself and putting my heart on the line in my music.”
Is it difficult when people know private things about Katherine Jenkins that maybe they shouldn’t?
“I think you just have to take it when it comes with the territory,” she answers. “I would always prefer that people know me for my music and not for any of the other outside, radio interference kind of stuff.”
(Some of the ‘unnecessary radio interference’ perhaps relates to comments from David Beckham after her OBE for her services to music and charity in 2014. In 2017, Beckham’s leaked private emails revealed his thoughts on Katherine’s award — “singing at the rugby and going to see the troops plus taking coke. F***ing joke!” Katherine told the Sun that year: “I’m a human being. Of course something like that would be hurtful.”)
Following up 2018’s Guiding Light (her 13th UK Classical No 1 album), Katherine’s new album Cinema Paradiso includes songs from classic movies, including Pinocchio’s When You Wish Upon a Star, West Side Story’s Tonight and Moon River from Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
“I did Cinema Paradiso at the end of last year when coronavirus was something we didn’t even know about.” she says, “I didn’t know when I made it that we would have all turned to films for escapism and comfort and entertainment. So Cinema Paradiso really fits well into all of that. It is a very positive and uplifting album.”
Katherine herself possibly needed some uplifting just before Christmas. On the afternoon of December 4, 2019, Katherine was en route to rehearsals for the annual Henry van Straubenzee Memorial Fund carol concert at St Luke’s church in Chelsea. She saw an elderly woman being mugged by two 15-year-old girls on the King’s Road.
“She was in distress, screaming for help,” says Katherine, who followed her “instinct and rushed over to help. I had to help.
“I was standing there on the other side of the road in Chelsea,” Katherine says of that day last year. “I was thinking: ‘Why is no one helping?’ and then I just ran over, shouting: ‘Stop it, stop it!’ Katherine says she didn’t “think twice” about coming to the aid of the woman. “If it happened again, I’d do it again. If it was my mum being mugged, it would kill me to think no one did anything. I was shouting at the girls and because I’d intervened, they gave the bag back to her.”
Then the lady disappeared, Katherine adds, “and the girls started on me”, stealing her mobile phone.
“I was shaken up and kept thinking about all the photos of my babies on that phone.”
Despite the trauma of what she went through Katherine still performed that night at the charity concert for the guests that included Pippa and Carole Middleton. Katherine thought to herself as she stood on stage singing. “It was a charity and I didn’t want to let them down.”
Nor did she. She gave a “flawless” performance. The girl who stole her phone was eventually caught by the police and charged. Katherine forgave her. “It’s part of my faith to give people a chance,” she says, “ and show forgiveness.”
Katherine grew up in a devout Church of Wales household. Her mother Susan was a radiographer at a local NHS hospital. Katherine can remember her sister Laura asking their mother did she mend radios. Katherine wrote in her memoir Time To Say Hello, “we soon realised that mum’s job was slightly more important than that”. Katherine’s father Selwyn was a retired factory worker at the Metalbox Company in Neath.
Katherine grew up in a three-bedroom council house in Neath, a semi-detached which her parents eventually bought under a government scheme.
“I never thought coming from where I came from that I would ever have the opportunity to turn it into a career,” she says, “because I didn’t know anyone in the music business. I had no experience of the showbusiness world. And I probably didn’t have the belief in myself. It always kind of astounds me that all of this happened. I remember my mum, when I signed the record contract, thinking that it can still be taken away. As my mum said, ‘things like this don’t happen to people from Neath’.”
I ask Katherine what her mother meant by that. “That there was no clear route to that world. I didn’t know anyone even remotely connected to the entertainment world. I was a teacher and this record company offered me a record deal. It felt like a fairytale.”
What made the fairytale in Neath even more surreal was that classical music wasn’t played much, if at all, in the Jenkins house. It was more Mario Lanza, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra from her dad’s more vintage record collection — “my father was nearly 20 years older than my mum” — and Celine Dion and Tina Turner from her mother’s.
Her father died two weeks before Katherine’s GCSE exams. Katherine, who is a Christian, believes her father guided her to get nine A-grades in the exams. For his funeral service, Katherine made a tape recording of herself singing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu, a favourite of her father’s. After, she started having recurring nightmares about her father. “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 at the end,” Katherine told me in 2014.
How long did it take before she stopped having that nightmare about her father?
“I was recommended to see a child grief counsellor,” she says, “which is what really changed all of that for me, and helped me move forward. I am now involved in a charity called Grief Encounter, which specifically deals with children who have lost a parent or a sibling. It gets them help, to talk about things, and puts them in touch with other children in a similar situation. I am so thankful that advice was given to me because I think maybe there would have been a different outcome in my life if I hadn’t sorted things out,” she says.
Katherine had planned to go on a trip away for her 40th birthday with her family. That didn’t happen, for obvious reasons. “Knowing how short life can be,” she says, “I am just thankful to be with my kids and have a slice of vegan cake and a glass of champagne.”
Her dad’s death “now feels like such a distant memory because in my lifetime, he has been gone longer than he was here. But I think it is different when you have your own children,” she says of four-year-old Aaliyah and two-year-old Xander with her husband, New York-born film-maker Andrew Levitas (Georgetown, Minamata, My Zoe). “I talk about Dad and I remember him. He is still very much in my thoughts on a daily basis.”
“It was hard and it affected me in my relationships with men,” she told GQ in 2014. “Boyfriends became the man in my life because my dad wasn’t there, and I think other women who’ve lost their fathers at similar ages will know what I am talking about.”
Be that as it may, Katherine married Andrew on September 27, 2014 at Hampton Court Palace. She told me in 2011 that their bond grew perhaps because Andrew’s father “also passed away from lung cancer when he was young. Andrew found out (the diagnosis) when he was 13. He had a ten-year battle.
“So Andrew lost his dad when he was in his mid-20s. That’s something we have both gone through an understanding of.”
Katherine’s childhood friend Polly Noble died from cervical cancer in 2014. Katherine had Polly’s name — and her father’s — sown into her wedding dress, so that they could be with her when she walked down the aisle.
As for life now, in the Covid-19 lockdown in England, Katherine says she is “coping” and “getting on with it”.
Aaliyah is, she says, going to “big school” in September. “There has been some home-schooling but it hasn’t been as intense as other people,” she adds, saying that Xander is “too little”. She and Andrew have “never been in the same house for this long, ever. Normally I am away doing concerts or he is on a film set. So we are taking the positives from all this and the time with the kids.”
Katherine Jenkins’s Cinema Paradiso is out now