Beyonce: reality behind the icon
Beyoncé is more than just a pop star, writes Ailbhe Malone. From a girl who always knew her destiny was to be a singer, she has fought hard to become a global brand.
It would be fair to say that Beyoncé Giselle Knowles is arguably the biggest star of this century. Bigger than Bieber. Bigger than Gaga. She's got 16 Grammy Awards. She won Billboard's Millennium award before she was 30 years old. As of September 2009, she had sold 75 million records worldwide. She's the most successful female recording artist of the past decade, and yet remains utterly enigmatic — refusing to ever speak about her marriage to fellow mogul Jay-Z. In this age of reality stars, mystery may seem quaintly old-fashioned to some, but it's the backbone of an icon.
Born in 1981, Beyoncé was raised in Houston, Texas, along with her younger sister Solange (who's also a singer in her own right) by her parents, Matthew and Tina. Up until recently, Matthew was Beyoncé's manager, and Tina is the head of the House of Deréon, which formerly designed all of Destiny's Child's stage wear. Beyoncé won her first talent contest aged seven, and by nine she was in an all-girl group named Girl's Tyme. Destiny's Child followed soon after.
Reflecting, Beyoncé has stated: “When our first single came out I was 15. My lyrics, and my goals, are completely different now. In the beginning, I was so happy to be in a studio and so hungry for us just to sell half a million records. Now I want to create something that I'll be proud of 20, 30, 40 years from now — something that will last beyond me. The things that used to excite me just don't any more. I'm always trying to challenge myself.”
But even though she speaks of her past in terms of her legacy, she concedes that “socially, I did miss out. I left school at 14 and had a tutor. I was never exposed to people long enough to make friends, so my family became my friends”.
She continues, saying that although she didn't feel confident around teens, she always felt “comfortable” on stage. “I was awkward around other kids but felt comfortable on the stage. I said to my mum, ‘there is no way this will work, but I am going to be a singer'.”
Destiny's Child had something of a revolving door line-up — and Beyoncé regularly came under fire for cast changes. This resulted in a period of depression for the singer, which lasted several years. Beyoncé struggled to explain her state to anyone — fearing that because Destiny's Child had won their first Grammy Award, nobody would take her seriously.
“Now that I was famous, I was afraid I'd never find somebody again to love me for me. I was afraid of making new friends.” Reflecting on that era, she says “There were certain moments when I was 18 and I'd look out of the window to see girls going to parties with their boyfriends and think, ‘How am I ever going to meet anybody?' I couldn't just go on a date, and nobody was going to ask me out. I was working too hard and not exposed to people my own age.”
She's been accused of being emotionally vacant in interviews — something she attributes as a need to guard her privacy. Fittingly, giving her performance-focused childhood, it seems that she's only open on stage — entirely comfortable with the audience and the attention. Beyoncé has said: “I get really uncomfortable when I'm not performing on the stage or on a photo shoot and have too many people looking at me, expecting a performance. It makes me kind of shut down and become shy.
“I'm better at one-on-one conversations. I do become shy and a bit intimidated when it's a large group of people, I definitely retreat. At a big dinner, I just hope that no one expects anything from me. I wish I'd disappear.”
However, in candid photographs of her and husband Jay-Z, she glows — and a six-month break seems to have done her the world of good, she concedes. “What was great was having this normal life of sleeping, getting up, going to an office and then coming home. I even did some cooking, although I didn't really enjoy that. I'm not the greatest cook — I can do good things with oxtail, though. It was great just having the time to be a wife rather than this non-stop travelling career girl.”
Beyoncé seems at ease with who she is, and how she wants to be, and feels ready to put her alter-ego Sasha Fierce to one side. “I don't need Sasha so much any more because these days I know who I am. It takes time to figure out who you are and I am still discovering different things about myself. As I am exposed to different experiences I think, ‘Oh, I like this, I didn't know I liked this'. That's the journey of life that is so exciting. More and more I know who I am, I know what I like, I know what I want and that makes me feel so free. I don't need to hide any more.”
This new-found confidence comes across on her new album 4. Preceded by the Major Lazer-sampling Girls, it's the sound of a woman who has always known what she wanted, but now notices what she needs. Beyoncé has mentioned before that on 4 she aimed to use the rawer qualities of her voice, and it comes across. She's always been an emotional singer, but this time — especially on album opener 1+1 — it sounds as if she's singing from the heart rather than her diaphragm. Beyoncé's experimented with form before — most notably on her debut solo album B Day. Get Me Bodied is eight minutes in length, and is easily the predecessor to the rhythm-focused Single Ladies. Equally, it could be argued that Ring the Alarm has echoes of Girls (Run the World).
She's delighted with 4, though. “It's definitely riskier than something a bit more ... simple. I just heard the track and loved that it was so different: it felt a bit African, a bit electronic and futuristic. It reminded me of what I love, which is mixing different cultures and eras — things that typically don't go together — to create a new sound. I can never be safe; I always try and go against the grain. As soon as I accomplish one thing, I just set a higher goal. That's how I've gotten to where I am.
“I'm over being a pop star. I don't wanna be a hot girl. I wanna be iconic. And I feel like I've accomplished a lot.
“I feel like I'm highly respected, which is more important than any award or any amount of records. And I feel like there comes a point when being a pop star is not enough.”
Beyonce’s album 4 is out now. She will play the main stage at Oxegen on Sunday, July 10
The many faces of a megastar
The pop star
You know the story — overbearing parent turns their child into a star; the kid gets a record contract at age 12 and ends up wondering where it all went wrong. Except that for Beyoncé, whose dad was indeed the pushy manager of her teenage girl band Destiny’s Child, it all went right. Somehow, Beyoncé managed to quit the band and her father’s clutches, and become even more successful.
At the recent Billboard awards, Beyoncé made a very humble speech in which she paid homage to the original members of Destiny's Child, including LeToya Luckett. Yet Luckett told me sadly that if she could write just one last letter in her life it would be to Beyoncé, to tell her how it felt when she was pushed out of the band.
But, remember when Beyoncé came on to The X Factor to sing with Alexandra Burke, who could only tremble? A runner from the show says they watched Beyoncé spend hours helping Burke rehearse, being lovely the entire time.
Forbes magazine has estimated her earnings at between $30m and $85m a year. Clearly, she follows a similar philosophy to her husband, who wrote in his book Decoded about how dealing drugs on the street taught him how to hustle in hip-hop and make his millions.
Perhaps this explains why she accepted a cool couple of million to play a private show for one of Gaddafi’s profligate sons. She has since said that she gave the money to charity, but it still seems odd that somebody so keen on liberation would play for a regime so repressive.
The age of pragmatism, winning out over all other isms, has worked well for Beyoncé.
Rather astonishingly, Beyoncé has said on more than one occasion that Jay-Z was her first proper boyfriend, after a long teenage affair with another guy in which “we didn’t live together, we didn’t, you know ...”. Which means — OMG!! — that she has probably been to bed with only one man. Well done Jay-Z, however it was you did it, since no details or pictures of your secret wedding in 2008 have ever come to light. We can only assume that you did indeed put a ring on it.