When three West End divas got together in a studio to collaborate on an album of theatre songs, Leading Ladies – Songs from The Stage, it could have been the mother of all catfights. But in the bar of the Savoy hotel, where I’m meeting Hollywood actress Amber Riley, British soul star Beverley Knight and West End veteran Cassidy Janson, the only sound you can hear above the tinkling of glasses is laughter.
‘This album is by women for women – and any man who wants to buy it,’ says Amber. ‘We are three very different ladies with very different life experiences. We are different ages, different shapes and from different ethnic backgrounds but we all love music and that has bonded us. The album is full of emotion, full of joy and, we hope, a bit of old-fashioned glamour.’
With TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing already fighting to book them, and offers of a tour, the Leading Ladies project has already captured the imagination of the British public. The album includes songs from shows such as Rent (‘Seasons of Love’), Memphis (‘Love Will Stand’), Cats (‘Memory’), Dreamgirls (‘One Night Only’) and Meet Me in St Louis (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’). ‘But there is a bit of a twist to the way we harmonise and the songs we sing,’ says Cassidy. ‘The one track we all absolutely fought for was the Queen song “Somebody to Love” (from the show We Will Rock You). There was a feeling it wasn’t “musical” enough but we stood firm together and refused to let it go. It’s one of the most incredible tracks on the album.’ Here, each of the Leading Ladies talks about their road to West End stardom.
American actress Amber Riley, 31, is best known for her TV role as Mercedes Jones in the award-winning Glee. In 2013 she triumphed in the US version of Strictly Come Dancing – Dancing With The Stars – and last year she made her West End debut as Effie in Dreamgirls, which won her a coveted Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
I have two big sisters at home, and now I have two big sisters in London. Beverley calls us a ‘supergroup’, other people call us ‘divas’ but to me we are a sisterhood. There are no egos, no fights, because I love those girls. My life is crazy – I never believed I would be in a group with two incredible British performers. I came to London on my own. I had never done a stage show before and it can be very lonely. Bev and CJ swooped in and scooped me up. I’ve had problems with the cold because I’m from LA and 24-hour sunshine, and they’ve had me steaming my throat, eating ginger for colds and avoiding dairy. Bev is also a great cook and I have an open invitation for some West Indian dinners. I feel their love.
I thought I would work at Ikea for the rest of my life. I always wanted to sing and act but I spent years getting rejection after rejection. I was rejected for American Idol when I was 17, and by the age of 19 the only gigs I could get were in a tiny open-mic venue in Los Angeles. So I gave up on my dream and worked at Ikea for two years until my parents told me I had to get my passion back. That gave me the strength to battle rejection once again.
My weight goes up and down because I’m a normal woman. I go on diets. I come off diets. I take up exercising. I stop exercising. I go vegetarian and then I want to eat lamb chops. I try to be healthy and then I have a craving for six-cheese macs, which I make from scratch as cooking is my other passion. My weight is more of an obsession for other people than it is for me. When the Glee team went on TV chat shows, the other actors would be asked about so many things, and all I ever got was the ‘fat questions’.
I struggle with body confidence. Self-esteem and self-love is a process I have to begin again on pretty much a daily basis. I have to remind myself all the time that I am proud of what I have achieved. But I am a work in progress and as prone to comfort eating as the next woman. What I love about Bev and CJ is how healthy they are. They don’t focus on size, they focus on health. I am feeling very healthy right now, which is the most important thing.
I refused to be the fat cliché. I didn’t want to take acting roles that were just the fat unhappy girl eating all the time. I wanted to show that your shape does not define you. I think I have shown that I can act, that I can sing – and when I took part in Dancing With The Stars I definitely showed I could dance. That meant a lot to me – and to a lot of other plus-size women out there.
The most meaningful song on the album for me is ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’. I have dedicated it to my childhood friend Stacey, who died a few months ago. We grew up together and she was like a sister to me. She was a beautiful dancer but she contracted an autoimmune disease that affected her mobility. My greatest sadness is that I never got to see her to say goodbye, because I was committed to the West End. This is my goodbye to a very special woman.
I never knew how hard performing on stage would be. I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that I was going to put my heart and soul into it and absolutely commit. I have so much respect for stage performers because you have to be 100 per cent on your game every night – and it’s not about you, it’s all about the audience, making their experience count. To win an Olivier was a strange moment for me. I felt so happy that the British theatre world had accepted me with open arms, but I am always incredibly nervous when the spotlight is turned on me as myself.
I love everything British – if only there was sunshine it would be perfect. The people are wonderful, the fashion is fantastic and I love fish and chips. If I get homesick I watch Friends and if my sisters Toiya and Ashley come over from the US to see me – which they do a lot – I get them to bring a special barbecue sauce rub and Mucinex for my sinuses. I’m pretty easy to please.
Sexiness comes from confidence. With Bev and CJ by my side, I feel very confident. In the music industry there are a lot of female singers whose look is overtly sexy. I believe a woman has a right to dress as she wants, but I don’t want my five-year-old niece Teonie signing up for that sexy look. As Leading Ladies we love a bit of good old-fashioned glamour. Glamour is sexy; a beautiful, well-cut dress is sexy, but most of all I think sexiness comes from confidence. It’s lovely to perform together, to share the experiences. I’m so excited about this project. If it means more collaborations with Bev and Cassidy, I’m in.
Beverley Knight MBE rose to fame 20 years ago as a multimillion-album-selling pop star, winning three Mobo awards and three Brit Award nominations. The 44-year-old singer, who was mentored by Prince, made her West End debut in The Bodyguard in 2013 and has since starred in Cats and Memphis, which won her an Olivier nomination.
This album means the world to me because I very nearly lost my whole world this year. In February I was told I could die if I didn’t have urgent medical treatment. I knew there was something wrong, and my stomach was so bloated I was convinced I was pregnant, but the tests were all negative.
I’d always been incredibly healthy. I don’t overeat, I exercise, I avoid sugar and dairy, and eat very little meat, so it didn’t make sense. The first sign something was wrong was at the Children In Need Rocks show last November. I collapsed mid-performance and the next thing I knew I was backstage with a paramedic telling me to eat a Mars Bar because my blood pressure was dangerously low. It was completely insane. I was shouting: ‘I don’t eat dairy, I don’t eat refined sugar’ and everyone, including my husband [property developer James O’Keefe], was shouting back at me: ‘Just eat the Mars Bar.’ I ate it in the end because I was determined to get back on stage and finish the performance. It was in honour of Terry Wogan and there was no way I was letting Terry down: he was a huge supporter of mine and I loved him.
I was in a state of absolute denial. In February I flew to Toronto to star in The Bodyguard and, during the costume fittings, I started doubling over in pain, which was why I finally went to the hospital. I thought I would just be given something to stop the pain so I could get on with the show – but a scan showed that fibroids had blocked the ureter tubes to my kidneys, causing my blood pressure to skyrocket to stroke levels. Then a doctor told me that if I didn’t get help he could guarantee he would be performing my autopsy within days.
To be told you need a hysterectomy is a thunderbolt, even at 44. I had never wanted children because I always felt my work was so full on I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be, but in the back of my mind there was always an option. Now everything was whirling: ‘That’s it. I am never, ever going to give birth.’ My husband told me: ‘I just want you. And I want you well.’ I had to go on three different types of blood pressure tablets to finish the run in Toronto, then I came home in June, cancelled everything in my diary and had a hysterectomy.
When times are tough, home is the place I have to be. I was very poorly for several weeks and I just had to be in Wolverhampton with my mum. The surgeon didn’t remove my ovaries so I wasn’t pushed into menopause. I called Jason Vale [the healthy-eating guru] who is a friend and got advice on the best juices – green juices, red juices, lots of spinach, kale, beets, ginger and cinnamon – to help me regain my strength. I drank water like it was going out of fashion, had infrared saunas and my mum’s West Indian ackee and salt fish. I’m doing well. I’m still here.
I’d seen Amber perform on Graham Norton’s show and thought: ‘That girl is special.’ Then, a few months later, I went to see Cassidy in Beautiful – The Carole King Musical and I was blown away by her voice. A seed was planted in my brain. My record company, Warners, had been talking about doing a West End album for a while, and I said: ‘What about me, Cassidy and Amber singing together?’ They loved the idea, contacted the girls and we got together in London. It was one of those magical meetings, and by August we were in the studio.
None of us are tantrum types because we share a work ethic and an absolute love of music. The biggest problem we had was trying to get our list of songs down to a manageable number.
Nine years ago Prince flew me to Los Angeles to perform at his Oscars party. We spent a few days together, which was incredible, and one day he looked at me and said: ‘I can see you in a supergroup, Beverley.’ And this is it. We don’t call ourselves a girl group, we call ourselves a supergroup. Thank you, Prince.
Cassidy Janson, 37, has appeared in Avenue Q and starred as Elphaba in Wicked as well as singing regularly with The Jive Aces swing band. In 2015 she took on the leading role in Beautiful – The Carole King Story, and was hailed as ‘a true star’ by Carole King herself, who went on stage to sing alongside her.
To be part of this album is a dream come true. Beverley is a British icon and Amber is a Hollywood star – and I’ve spent my life in the West End. But when we got together for the first time and heard our voices blend together, everything made absolute sense.
My parents remortgaged their house for me. I don’t come from a show business background. I grew up in Barnet, North London. My dad, Clive, is a plumber and my mum, Maureen, was a housewife. But as soon as I could talk and walk I was singing and dancing. I saw Cats when I was ten, and knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When I was 16 I got in to London’s Millennium Performing Arts school. My parents had to borrow money to pay the fees, because they believed in me.
I spent four years waiting tables. Anyone wanting to be a West End performer has to understand how tough it is. You need to be able to survive on very little money – which is why I love charity shops – and to keep on working and believing something will happen. When the breaks come you have to grab them with both hands, and be the best you can possibly be at every performance. If you turn up late or get a routine wrong, you won’t get asked back.
Good things can come out of bad times. My most difficult time was when my marriage ended after only two years. I got married in 2012 but it didn’t work out because we wanted different things. I had no work after we split, but then I was asked to perform with a swing/jazz band called The Jive Aces. We toured for two years, which kept me busy and opened my eyes to a new way of performing – I loved being on stage at gigs. When I auditioned for the Carole King musical, I know the fact I’d done proper gigs to festival crowds helped me win the part.
It was so emotional when Carole came on stage to sing with me. None of us knew she was in the audience because she’s an incredibly private woman. Then, during the curtain call, this woman made her way on to the stage – and it was her. I was partly in shock, partly running through every line of every song in the show wondering if I’d done it well. Then she took my hand and said to me – and to the audience – ‘When you sang “Natural Woman” you made me cry. You were who I was. You felt what I felt. You were me.’ Then we sang ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ together. I have never won an award but that was my Olivier moment.
Beverley, Amber and I bonded over dogs. The day we first met we just sat and talked. We started off talking about music but what really got us laughing was the subject of dogs. We are all obsessed, even though only Amber has a dog (a rescue poodle-mix called Chewie). Beverley is desperate to get a dog, and I love dogs but have cats which I have inherited. We sat there for hours scrolling through images of all the dogs we wanted.
I spend most of my money in health food shops. Altrient liposomal vitamins are expensive but they are the best for anyone who works in this business. Bev and I are both health freaks so we talk about nutrition a lot. I used to be a vegan but I’ve now added fish and meat because running on soya and carbs wasn’t good for my body. Everything in my life is about keeping my voice and body strong so I’m in the best shape to sing and perform – no alcohol, no partying.
I rush home from the West End to watch Strictly Come Dancing. It’s my obsession. Anton Du Beke is my favourite. I’d love to dance with him.
To sing with two fantastic, talented women is the most empowering thing. On our first day in the studio Amber started to sing ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ and we both joined in, following each other’s harmonies. We hadn’t discussed it but we were completely in sync, and the whole song was finished in one take. That was the moment we knew we had magic.
I still get chills when I sing ‘Natural Woman’. I’m so glad it’s on the album. The hardest thing was to choose the songs. The reaction so far has been amazing. None of us knows what’s going to happen next but fingers crossed for another album and a tour and a whole new adventure. This just feels so right.
■ The Leading Ladies album Songs From The Stage (Warner/East West Records) will be released on Friday