‘I used to hate the way I looked’ Alesha Dixon reveals the emotional inspiration behind her latest venture

Unbelievable but true: there was a time when Alesha Dixon couldn’t stand to look in a mirror. Now her mission to stop her daughter – and children everywhere – feeling the same has inspired her debut book.

Alesha Dixon is one of TV’s most instantly recognisable faces. A judge on Saturday-night staple Britain’s Got Talent alongside Amanda Holden, David Walliams and, of course, Simon Cowell, she’s also a former Strictly Come Dancing winner who went on to join the judging panel. Before this, she enjoyed chart success with R&B girl band Mis-Teeq, writing, singing and rapping her way to three double-platinum albums.

Born to a Jamaican father and British mother, Alesha, now 39, married MC Harvey, a rapper from So Solid Crew, in 2005, but they separated within a year. She has a four-year-old daughter Azura with her long-term partner, choreographer Azuka Ononye, 38. Now she has written her first children’s book, Lightning Girl, about a mixed-race schoolgirl with superpowers.

Rachell Smith

I didn’t set out to make a statement about race in the book. But I’d be fibbing if I said it wasn’t a factor. I feel proud to have a British, female, mixed-race superhero on the cover. Aurora Beam, my heroine, is really strong and has incredible powers but she wants to be a normal girl and is in denial. Her friends understand that, but eventually, when the going gets tough, it turns out each of them has a unique, hidden gift, too. I want my readers to walk away feeling empowered that they have something special to offer and don’t need to act or look like everyone else to be accepted. Having a high profile has made me conscious that I’m in a fortunate position where I have creative freedom, and from the outset I wanted this book to make a difference. I can’t wait to go into schools and meet young people and see their reactions and answer their questions.

I don’t want my daughter growing up thinking beauty is blue eyes and long blonde hair. Beauty comes in many forms, many skin colours, many hairstyles and textures. It’s hugely important that children see those reflected in the books they read and the characters they encounter. Things are improving – Disney princesses are far more diverse than they used to be, and you can see a shift in the sort of women featured in magazines and on catwalks – but we’re not there yet. When I was little, my mum made me feel that looking different was wonderful and I really want to pass that on. Equality isn’t about being the same, it’s about being treated the same.

As a mum I can see the power that a storybook has on a child. I have always loved the idea of writing a children’s book, and having Azura has galvanised me to take it seriously. I have been reading books to her every night since she was born. I’ve always written things down: songs when I was in Mis-Teeq, poetry or just my thoughts, but I wasn’t interested in doing an autobiography – although there would be a lot to write about! I thought long and hard about the narrative arc and the characterisation, because I wanted it to have subliminal messages that would make children feel positive about themselves.

Not a day goes by without me longing for another baby. I don’t know whether it will happen given my age, but I adore the idea of having a large family and I hope that I will be lucky. The love I feel for Azura is so pure and unconditional that I still stop and catch my breath in awe that Azuka and I have created this perfect little human being. The main thing is to enjoy her in the present and be philosophical about the future, because what will
be will be.

Rachell Smith

The last time I cried was on a deserted beach. Just after Christmas I went on a break to the Maldives with my nan, mum, Azuka and Azura, and it was the best holiday I’ve had in my life. As soon as I arrived I turned off my mobile. Then I took off my shoes and didn’t put them on again for nine days; I even went out to restaurants barefoot. The holiday was so relaxing and life affirming that I wept because I was overcome with happiness. I needed to be somewhere quiet and still, surrounded by the people I love.

I’ve been bombarded with abuse on social media. I made a throwaway joke saying that if I were prime minister for a day I would ban smoking and eating meat. This was construed as meaning I was standing for public office and campaigning to ban burgers and cigarettes. I was taken aback by the strength of emotion and the names I was called – it was shocking. But after initially reeling at the forcefulness, I saw it as a reminder that you must always keep a sense of humour. I do sometimes get embroiled in ‘debates’ with people on Twitter, but I keep it light and always take the conversation with a pinch of salt. Social media is fun and useful for work, but I keep it in perspective and I know how to step back and switch off.

If slaughterhouses had glass walls we’d all be vegetarians. I gave up eating meat six years ago and I’ve never looked back. Animal welfare was at the forefront of my decision but I wouldn’t ever condemn people who make other choices about what they eat. I simply believe it’s a good idea to be informed and discover more about the food on your plate and where it comes from. My mum is vegan but I wouldn’t go that far.

I may be a vegetarian but I’m not boring! I like to drink, although not to excess. Good red wine is my tipple of choice: pinot noir, malbec and you can’t really beat Châteauneuf-du-Pape at a nice restaurant. Sometimes I meet my girlfriends for dinner and then we might go on to a bar or a club; it’s nice to go with the flow and see where the evening takes us. When I was younger I had terrible FOMO [Fear Of Missing Out] and would have to go out every night because staying in was unthinkable. These days I’m more mellow and really happy to chill at home.

When I was younger I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror without full make-up. In Mis-Teeq, I always wore hair extensions, false eyelashes and loads of make-up; I hid behind them. When I got home and took it all off I felt diminished and unattractive because that mask gave me confidence. Nowadays I only wear make-up for work and there’s a glam squad of professionals there to make it happen. Afterwards it’s a relief to take it off and be me. Maybe that’s the main difference between being 20 and 40 – my self-esteem doesn’t depend on a blow-dry.

Strictly Come Dancing was life-changing. It marked a turning point in my career. Winning it and then being a judge was amazing; it’s such a fabulous show that you can’t help being happy when you watch or take part in it. I’m proud to be associated with it and the only reason I left after three years was because I felt it was time to do something new and I believed a new door would open – and it did. I joined Britain’s Got Talent and it was – and still is – an absolute joy. That’s why I’ve stayed for seven years and counting. The judges are great fun and everyone who works on the show is full of energy and positivity.

Rachell Smith

Nothing on Britain’s Got Talent is set up in advance. The judges don’t see the acts before the audience and if there’s ever a spat or I’m telling the boys to shut up, that’s for real, too. That spontaneity keeps it all so fresh. Yes, Simon is the boss, but he’d hate it if we were deferential towards him. It’s a testament to our working relationship that we get on with things and laugh an awful lot during filming.

Whenever Simon Cowell looks appalled and asks, ‘What are you wearing?’ I give a little cheer. It means I’ve got my outfit right. My clothes are quirky and edgy because I come from the music industry. Amanda came from musical theatre so her style is sophisticated and princessy. We don’t confer about what we’re wearing in advance – we’re grown women, for heaven’s sake! One of us might mention the colour we’ve chosen, but believe it or not it’s the least important element of the show, even if our dresses make headlines. We think it’s funny when Amanda’s outfits – and very occasionally mine – spark complaints from viewers. Some people have too much time on their hands.

I haven’t seen my dad for years. My parents broke up when I was four and although I saw him on and off, he has a new family now and is not part of my life. My mum later endured domestic abuse at the hands of another partner and she was very strong to get through it. As a result of various relationships, I have something like 101 siblings. They have different mothers or different fathers. It’s crazy and complicated but that’s just how it is; I don’t consider any of them ‘half’ brothers or sisters. I had a very secure childhood despite it being a bit dysfunctional; I felt loved and cared for, which is important for any child.

Dogs make a house into a home. We have four: Rosie, Prince and Paris, who are golden cocker spaniels, and Daisy, a rescue pointer from the RSPCA. One of the charities I support is World Animal Protection; I travelled to Thailand with it to film undercover at wildlife venues, where elephants are exploited and beaten in the name of tourist entertainment. One of the privileges of being in the public eye is that I have the opportunity to campaign for causes. Another charity very dear to me is ActionAid and I have travelled to Ghana to learn about the work it is doing to end child marriage.

Being a mum is my greatest joy and my biggest challenge. Every day I try to be the best, most patient version of myself and it’s sometimes a struggle, but, hand on heart, I can say Azura has made me a better person. Because of her I try to rein in my busyness and be more calm and mindful, although it’s not always easy. Azuka is so loving towards her – towards us both. I love watching them together and seeing that wonderful bond growing stronger every day.

Alesha’s book Lightning Girl will be published by Scholastic on Thursday, price £6.99. To order a copy, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15