Despite being trolled for appearing on Strictly soon after her mother’s death, Alexandra Burke jived her way to the final. She tells Charlotte Pearson Methven how she picked up a record deal and an engagement ring in the process…
It isn’t often that an interview earns me this much street cred with my children. I have come on a wintry Sunday to meet Alexandra Burke – the 2008 X Factor winner and 2017 Strictly Come Dancing finalist, who has just signed a deal with Universal Music Group’s Decca Records. Showing the warmth and sass that have made her so popular with younger fans, the 29-year-old grabs my phone, saying, ‘Give it to me: I’ve got a good selfie hand,’ and proceeds to take the obligatory snap of us together and then record a video for my ten- and 12-year-old. She thanks them for supporting her on Strictly during which she and her partner Gorka Marquez danced their hearts out, winning fans but losing out on the glitterball trophy to Joe McFadden and Katya Jones.
Alexandra, from Islington, North London, was a natural, wowing viewers with her exuberant performances, notably her jive, which earned the first perfect ten of the season. ‘I’d dreamt about doing Strictly for years. They never usually invite people from The X Factor, so I was very lucky.’ Famous since she sobbed live in Cheryl Cole’s arms after winning The X Factor, she went on to release two albums, the first, Overcome, reaching number one in the UK chart (her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, on which she memorably duetted with Beyoncé, holds the European record for most single sales over a 24-hour period). And she has appeared on stage in musicals The Bodyguard and Sister Act.
But Alexandra has seen her fame rise to another level since Strictly. ‘While we were filming, I was rehearsing ten hours a day with Gorka or I was home asleep. But now I am doing normal things again, like popping into Tesco, I have been shocked by the level of recognition. I was shopping in Hatfield [the Hertfordshire town where she now lives with her fiancé, stage manager Josh Ginnelly] the other day and a kid tapped me on the back and said, “Excuse me, I just want to say you were a really good dancer on Strictly, and I wish you’d won.” It was so sweet.’
For all the love she received from the younger generation, though, Alexandra’s turn on the show did not win her universal adoration, with many labelling her a diva, accusing her of ‘fake tears’ and blasting her decision to take part right after the death, in August, of her mother, singer Melissa Bell (who was part of British band Soul II Soul). Everything from voter racism to a presumption that she was ‘safe’, such was her technical superiority, have been invoked as explanations for why she did not receive more votes each week. Though, ultimately, none of it mattered, as she made it to the final.
Alexandra wells up at any mention of her mum, although the two were said to have had a turbulent relationship at times. Despite the trolling on social media, she feels no need to defend her choice to do Strictly while still grieving – it is what the ambitious Melissa would have wanted and ‘it was a blessing to have a distraction from the pain’.
Another welcome distraction and source of joy was Josh’s surprise proposal in December, just days after Strictly wrapped. ‘He woke me at 4am and said, “Pack a bag. We’re going to Paris.” I had no idea what was coming although I knew engagement was on thecards at some point. I’ve never questioned our relationship [of three years] or needed to drop hints, as I’ve always felt secure with Josh.’
A further reason for her happy glow is that the new record deal will cement her status as a household name. Her third album, The Truth Is, will be released next month, with a UK tour scheduled for September.
‘I am grateful for the chance to share what I have been writing about for five years. So much has gone into this album: love, loss, heartbreak, happiness. It’s like a diary.’ The album includes some soulful songs, including the title track, written while Alexandra came to terms with the prospect of losing her mother (who had a degenerative kidney condition). ‘I don’t want people to think it’s a sad album, though; there’s also a lot of happy songs about finding love.’
I still can’t believe how much my life has changed since winning The X Factor. To go from working in pubs and clubs to what I am doing now is almost too much to take in. I will never, ever take it for granted.
Gorka and I clicked straight away. Had we not, I doubt we would have gone past the first round. When they put all the celebs and pros together in a room and we found our way to each other, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying – his Spanish accent is so intense. But once the mics went on he started speaking more slowly. We FaceTimed every day over the Christmas break, between the show finishing and starting the Strictly live tour. When you spend that much time with someone, you grow close – Gorka and I will stay in touch for ever. I am hoping he might teach me the foxtrot – the only dance I didn’t do.
I met so many brilliant people on the show. Aston [Merrygold, of JLS, the boy band that Alexandra beat in The X Factor final] and I get along so well. We are all in contact: we have a Strictly WhatsApp group called ‘plebs’ – short for pros and celebs.
The day I met my fiancé, I said to my manager, ‘I’m going to marry that man.’ Josh was the stage manager on The Bodyguard. He is so shy that we didn’t speak for six months after that first meeting. Every time I tried to talk to him he would ignore me. Finally, I asked him out for a drink. We have been together ever since. The only bad thing about our relationship is that when we first got together I put on that ‘love weight’ – when you’re comfortable with someone and ordering Chinese takeaways.
We have four dogs together and they are our babies. Our youngest is a French bulldog, which Josh gave me for my birthday in 2015. We also have a pomeranian, a chihuahua and a Yorkshire terrier. On the rare weekends when we aren’t working, we take them all on long walks in the countryside. In Caribbean culture [Alexandra’s mother was of Jamaican descent], you’re not meant to have animals in your house. I am so grateful mum rejected that and embraced pets – when I was growing up, we were always taking in rescue dogs.
I have always been a Mummy’s and a Daddy’s girl. The Bible tells us to ‘honour thy father and thy mother’, and I have taken that to heart. I am very religious – I go to a gospel church in North London and have never walked on stage without praying first. My dad has only been a part of my life in the past decade. My parents divorced when I was very young and for a long time didn’t talk. Growing up, I’d see my friends with their fathers and think, ‘I want that.’ Mum was hurt by him, but she realised it would make her children happy if they became friends, so they did. That is what I call unconditional love. I respect them both so much.
I am still in a very sad place about losing Mum, but also in a happy place. I appreciate what I have and don’t take a thing for granted because you never know what tomorrow will bring. Mum may have died young, at 53, but she’d done more than most 80-year-olds. She raised four kids on her own, always provided for us, working on Christmas Day singing in pubs so she could afford to have presents for us stacked around the tree. Whenever I get a bit down, I think, ‘Who am I to moan? That woman fought for her life.’
It was difficult to read what was written about me while I was on Strictly. For 11 weeks, the negativity kept coming – the diva thing, the fake tears – but I said nothing. I don’t have enemies, but if I did, I would never wish on them the pain I went through losing a parent. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and these days everyone has one, and they have Twitter as a platform for sharing it. I can only sigh and think, ‘They don’t understand what I was going through.’ Mum would have told me not to retaliate because they don’t know my truth. I did a life-coaching course in New York a few years ago, and I used a lotof the techniques I learned there to cope. Anyway, the positives of doing Strictly completely outweighed the negatives.
It wasn’t that upsetting not to win Strictly. The fact that we made it all the way to the final was incredible. We could have gone out in week two and been gutted at missing out, so to get through to the end meant everything. I was so happy for Joe and Katya. We were all hugging and saying, ‘It’s amazing we made it this far!’ Zoë Ball texted me and said, ‘Enjoy it, babe, because you won’t do these dances again.’ It’s true: I won’t be randomly doing the jive. At the wrap party, I was the only one who stayed on the dancefloor all night. My feet were so swollen. My family were there with me – the experience gave us all such a boost.
Seeing Mum on Top of the Pops made me want to be a singer. I remember her walking into the house [after performing ‘Wish’ with Soul II Soul in 1993] and she looked like a princess. I thought, ‘I’m going to do what you’ve done.’ And I did. They brought [TOTP] back the year I won The X Factor and I was one of the last people ever to be on it.
My three loves were always singing, dancing and acting, but Mum made me stop dancing – I was part of a successful street-dance group – and acting to focus on singing. She said: ‘You need to be really good at one thing.’ It was the right advice, and now I get to do all of them again. Doing musicals has made my voice much stronger, and Strictly has given me so much stamina.
Growing up, I was a tomboy. I played basketball and football, ran in every race at sports day and excelled at hurdles. It all changed when I was 15 and my sister [Alexandra has a sister, Sheneice, and two brothers, David and Aaron, on her mum’s side, to whom she is very close, and ‘more halves than I can count’ on her dad’s] said to me: ‘Girl, if you want to be a singer, you’ve got to learn to wear a heel like Beyoncé.’ Then she took me, behind Mum’s back, to get my belly button pierced and I thought, ‘I like this.’ That’s when the tomboy left the building.
I can’t sit down for five minutes. I tend to everyone else to keep busy. If I get home and Josh is there, I’ll be, like, ‘Can I cook for you?’ And don’t get me started on cleaning… I am a freak about cleaning my house. I work out a lot and do yoga. There have been moments when I’ve managed stillness – I once wrote a blog about it – but mainly I need to keep busy, especially now to block out the pain of losing Mum. It may not be the healthiest response, but it works for me.
I haven’t had a day off in five years – with The Bodyguard, Sister Act and straight into Strictly – and now that I am promoting my album, it doesn’t look as though I will have one until February 2019.
Signing to Decca was a dream. I burst into tears signing that contract. It was so overwhelming walking into the Universal building, knowing I was about to be signed. To think that when I was first asked to do The Bodyguard, I had to decline because I had issues with confidence. Now I have an album coming out and will be performing at the London Palladium.
Alexandra’s ultimate playlist
‘Reconsider’ by Melissa Bell
This was my mum’s first ever single as a solo artist so I listen to this every day for inspiration. I am so proud of what she achieved in her career.
‘Versace on the Floor’ by Bruno Mars
I love Bruno Mars, his artistry and how he produces and writes – I worked with him on my first album and loved it, this is such a feel good track.
‘I’m Kissing You’ by Des’ree
This is my favourite song that I listen to with my boyfriend Josh.
‘You Might Need Somebody’ by Randy Crawford
This is the first song that I ever learnt how to sing and perform.
‘I Have Nothing’ by Whitney Houston
My mum had the honour of singing with Whitney and she is my biggest inspiration. I sang this song every night for about 18 months whilst performing in The Bodyguard and still love it.
Alexandra’s new album The Truth Is will be released by Decca on 16 March. She will be touring the UK in September. Visit alexandraburkeofficial.com