Jessie J shoots from the hip...
BEATING PLAYGROUND BULLIES, BEING A BAD GIRL... AND WHY GOSSIP ABOUT MY LIFE PUSHED ME INTO MOVING TO AMERICA
Daintily straining her cup of breakfast tea in Piccadilly’s Café Royal, Jessie J considers the suggestion that some of the songs on her forthcoming album are really rather rude. ‘Everyone loves a bit of filth,’ she laughs, her impressive teeth emerging from a slash of scarlet lipstick. ‘The song Sweet Talker is meant to be dirty – it’s like foreplay. Like when you can’t quite… anyway, it is filthy.
‘ Some days you want to be a bad girl, all sexual and raunchy, but be a good woman first before that. I wouldn’t want to be a bad girl every day anyway. Be too tiring. Look, I’m a 26-year-old woman. I don’t want to be a children’s entertainer. I have to represent the life I live, which is having sex, being in relationships, being emotional, discovering love...’
It’s 9am on a brilliant August day, and as the conversation turns to Jessie J’s meteoric pop career, the health problems that plagued her youth and the rumours about her sexuality, the signs are that it’s going to be a long one.
Clad in tight black and white, cola- coloured hair drawn back severely from her face, Jessie is slender as a reed and appears, on the surface at least, fiercely focused.
The air hangs heavy with the news of Robin Williams’s suicide. ‘It’s so tragic that he made people laugh all his life but he couldn’t make himself happy,’ she puzzles. Asked if she can understand how someone can feel so desperate, Jessie nods solemnly but says nothing.
It has been an extraordinary year for Jessie J. She’s navigated high and lows, negotiated personal heartbreak and professional triumph, mingled with royalty and sang with Smokey Robinson. She even turned on the Christmas lights on London’s Oxford Street. ‘How could I forget about that?’ she gasps, open-mouthed. But the momentum of her turbocharged career has been hard to maintain.
A triple-platinum debut album, six top ten singles with sales of 11 million and more YouTube hits for the single Price Tag than there are people in the United States (340 million and counting; it went to number one in 19 countries) proved a tough act to follow.
Add to that Jessie J’s role as coach and mentor for two series of BBC1’s The Voice and her appearance in the opening and closing ceremonies (the only artist to do so) of the 2012 Olympics, and the stage was set for global domination.
Yet her 2013 album, Alive, from which she gazed out defiantly without make-up or hair, having shaved her head in March to help raise €95 million for Comic Relief, failed to set the world alight. Her initial plan, in the wake of Alive’s comparatively modest sales (it reached the top five in the British album chart) and a deferred release in the United States, was to travel to America in the hope of collaborating on more commercially potent material. But, as she reveals, life, love and enlightenment got in the way.
To join Jessie J on her journey of discovery, we must go back to last November and a dressing room in the bowels of the Bournemouth International Centre in the south of England, where TV Week first encounters the singer, jabbing at her phone with a maroon fingernail. ‘Have a look at this,’ she fizzes with pre-gig energy. ‘It’s crazy.’
We watch footage of an earlier Jessie J concert at London’s O2 Arena. On stage, in a gold bodysuit, she looks formidable, almost computer-generated. Her blonde French crop glows with grown-up girl power.
The on- screen super- heroine contrasts comically with the lanky young lady in the comfy tour T-shirt and leggings holding the mobile. ‘Obviously I know that’s me up there,’ says Jessie J, in her taut Essex accent. ‘But when I’m at home in my pyjamas, I do sometimes think, “Who is that person?” ’
For all her front, fame and frankness, she is a passionately private individual who lives alone and enjoys making soup, singing and shopping for kitchenware. ‘Sound like a right super-loser, don’t I?’ she says with a winning grin.
Down the corridor at the Bournemouth concert hall is a makeshift gym where Jessie worked out earlier today and thought of ‘beach holidays, cellulite, paparazzi and “come on, don’t let them beat you!” ’
Fittingly, in this room full of mirrors, Jessie is in quite a reflective frame of mind. She has just completed this evening’s ‘meet and greet’ where, over the course of an hour, she met 100 of her young fans.
That might be only 40 seconds each for a cuddle, an encouraging chat and a photo, but time is of the essence – some of these children won’t see their next birthday. ‘We had quite a bit of crying tonight,’ Jessie says. ‘A lot of children with cancer.’ She is surprisingly clear- eyed about these poignant encounters. This pragmatic approach to illness came from her social worker father Stephen and the long periods she spent in and out of hospital as a child because of a rare heart disorder.
Jessie recalls undergoing an operation where electrical wires were inserted into her groin and shoulder. Coming to after the procedure, she asked her father, Stephen, if she was better now. ‘Nah,’ he replied, truthfully. ‘Didn’t work.’
‘But that’s my dad,’ Jessie says. ‘He’s always making light of serious issues because it’s a healthy way of dealing with things. He is so quick-witted – everyone loves him. My mum’s
really caring and gentle and he’s the entertainer. I’m a bit of both, I suppose.’
Here’s her dad now, backstage, sharing a joke with the caterers, accompanied by her mother Rose, a former nursery teacher. Her parents are using their daughter’s UK tour as an excuse to travel around Britain. ‘Staying in B&Bs,’ frowns Jessie. ‘They’re insane.’
Her father suffers from Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, the condition Jessie was diagnosed with aged 11. ‘I have an irregular heartbeat,’ she says matter- of-factly, but it is no coincidence that she calls her fans Heartbeats.
‘It means that I used to get dizzy a lot. So I got good at hiding it. No big deal.’
It was, of course, a big deal. The beta-blockers doctors prescribed Jessica gave her skin a green tinge; the crueller kids at school called her ‘Alien’. She couldn’t participate in sports. They threw stones at her. But this sickly, skinny girl with sunken eyes and prominent teeth held a trump card. She could sing. For two years, from age nine, Jessica shone in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End production of Whistle Down The Wind. Then, at 15, she won Best Pop Singer on ITV’s Britain’s Brilliant Prodigies.
‘I sang everywhere I went,’ she remembers. ‘I must have driven everyone mad.’ A future in music beckoned. Jessie J was on her way.
She was born Jessica Ellen Cornish at home on the floor beneath her mother’s bed, umbilical cord caught around her neck, purple in colour. ‘There’s a picture,’ she grimaces. ‘But I’ll spare you that.’
Big sisters Hannah and Rachel were both head girl at Mayfield High School in Redbridge, in the northeast of London, but their younger sibling was ‘bright but not that academic’. Jessica was fascinated with writing poetry, Rhino from Gladiators (‘he was so hot with his green eyes’) and the Spice Girls. She wanted to be Posh but was more like Sporty. ‘Me in a nutshell, isn’t it?’ she tuts. ‘I wanted to be all elegant but I wasn’t ever that girly.’
She enrolled at the Brit School (for performing arts) in 2004 (Adele and Leona Lewis also attended) but suffered a minor stroke shortly before graduating and was forced to drop out. Nevertheless, she had faith in her voice and felt confident she could write hits. After a fruitless stint with girl band Soul Deep, she quit and went to Los Angeles, having won a contract with Sony as a professional songwriter.
‘I was so naïve,’ she shudders. ‘Eighteen years old, no car, no manager, meeting all the wrong people, living off nachos. It got to the point where I had to speak with an American accent just to get understood.’
But youthful self-belief won out. In 2009 the young British woman co-wrote mega-smash Party In The USA for Miley Cyrus. Jessie J’s status as a songwriter, and her bank balance, would never be the same. There are few parts of Jessie’s life she won’t discuss. ‘Nothing’s secret,’ she shrugs, ‘it’s all there in my songs anyway.’
‘I’m a bit weird talking about money. But I’m generous and smart with it. My mum and dad have been able to retire, mortgage paid off. My sister’s moved into her new house with her little one and I have loved being able to give back. I’ve got a Porsche Cayenne, which is big and safe and I’m a good driver, but that’s all I’ve really bought for me.
‘I work bloody hard and give loads to charity but I’m going to be a bit more selfish this year. I bought a glass Huf Haus house in a mad moment but I sold it. I thought, “Why the hell did I buy a see-through house?” ’
Nor is she eager to analyse her looks. ‘No boobs, no bum, long legs,’ she says briskly. ‘What can you do? Toothpick, aren’t I? But I’m fine with what I’ve got, though I don’t like my earlobes, they’re too big. I could probably fit a Coke can through them if I really tried.’
Back in the chic Café Royal, Jessie has just dipped her stylish white sleeve into the tea. ‘I’m such a rubbish date,’ she hisses, jokily. ‘So messy. I’m the sort of person who will order ribs on a date, or the spaghetti bolognese and get it
all down my front. And I’m too full-on as a date, too intense. It’s like, if I’m going to be someone’s girlfriend I have to be a really good girlfriend, which can be a bit much for some people. Maybe I should relax more.’
‘ People expect me to be really aggressive,’ she acknowledges. ‘And they’re surprised that I can be vulnerable or feel fragile. I’m probably the least aggressive person you could meet. I’m direct yes, honest yes, but I’m not going to punch you. I am actually… a really sweet girl.’
She says her diary has recently ‘gone properly nuts’, a direct result of having a huge hit in the US. Bang Bang, her lusty soul romp with Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, currently sits at number six on the Billboard chart.
She is planning a move to LA, having sold her house in London and bought one in Hollywood. ‘Home is where the heart is and my heart is with my family so I’ll always be coming back here,’ she says. ‘ But America, at present, is where the work is. I’ll just pack a big bag and fly a lot.
‘In America they see me as a singer whereas here I feel that people don’t appreciate my voice. I’ve dedicated my life to singing and I want it to be taken seriously. Here [in Britain] it seems that all people want to know is what I’ve had for breakfast and who I’m sleeping with.’ She fiddles with her big bracelet.
‘The sexuality thing…’ she begins, cautiously addressing a sensitive subject. ‘I’ve never denied anything. I’ve never lied. I know what I want from my life… and I know what turns me on.’
During the year TV Week spends dipping in and out of Jessie’s life, her sexual preference is feverishly discussed in the media. Does she like boys or girls or both? Is she straight, gay or just bi-fornow? Jessie should have had the last word on the issue when she said ‘I think it’s about the person not the genitals’, but, nevertheless, the speculation continued.
One afternoon before Christmas, I ask if she is merely an equal opportunities letch. ‘An equal what?’ she splutters. ‘Did I say that?’ Well no Jessie, you didn’t. The phrase was coined by REM’s Michael Stipe to define his own sexuality. But it seemed a pretty neat summing- up of what Jessie was trying to articulate. The following spring, perhaps unwisely, she posted a detailed explanation of her sexuality on Twitter (‘Please tell me what I have done wrong here,’ she tweeted. ‘I haven’t spoken of being bi for years.’)
‘Sometimes I’m an idiot,’ she says today, dramatically clattering the Café Royal china. ‘Sometimes I don’t know when to stop. Sometimes I should just say nothing, but I can’t help myself and make some big statement when saying nothing would be much more appropriate. So, no, it wasn’t a wise move. I make mistakes but I’m learning.’
In the next breath, she’s swooning over ‘best mate’ Tinie Tempah (‘so immaculate and beautiful’), and can’t help passing comment on our waitress. ‘She is stunning,’ Jessie croons. ‘Like Kate Moss but even better looking.’
Before she leaves, I sense that there is something Jessie J would like to say.
‘Last year I was in a relationship for quite a long time,’ she confesses. ‘Not in secret, but I chose for it not to be in public. And I had to leave the relationship because I was doing my best but I wasn’t being let in. I’ve written a song about it called You’re Lost, I’m Found. It says, “I know I’m good enough for you but you won’t let me be and one day you’ll discover that.” I wrote all that stuff on my own, very quickly. I really needed to get it all out. It felt amazing.
‘My music feels like it’s on the right path now,’ she smiles, standing tall in her Stella McCartney stack-heels and leaning in for one last man-height hug. ‘Love is the hardest thing for me to get my head around,’ she says, exhaling hard. ‘Oh my God, it’s deep.’
Jessie J’s new single, Bang Bang, featuring Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, is available to pre-order now and to buy from Sept 29. Her new album, Sweet Talker, is released on Oct 13
From top: with her fellow judges on The Voice, Danny O’Donoghue, Will.i.am and Tom Jones
From top: with Gary Barlow; 15-yearold Jessica Cornish with her parents after winning Britain’s Brilliant Prodigies in 2003; on stage earlier this year; and with Rita Ora