“It’s quite shocking”
Winning X Factor doesn’t guarantee success in pop music (the first winner recently performed in a Pizza Express). But since her victory a year ago, Alexandra Burke – through canny management, hard work and personal ambition – has become one of Britain’s m
‘I’M GOOD, darling, I’m good. Just done my sound check and I’m very happy.” I’d say she is good and very happy. This time last year, Alexandra Burke was toiling away at the coalface of The X Factor, the must-see family entertainment show that is in equal measures car-crash television, gladiatorial karaoke competition and – if you can bear to look beyond the obvious, and there’s an awful lot of the obvious – a glance into how the meretricious, manipulative pop music industry skilfully packages its products.
“The past year has been amazing, out of this world. There has been a lot of hard work, but it’s all been worth it,” says a breathless Burke, back in her Dublin city-centre five-star hotel, following a quick rehearsal at the O2 for the recent Childline concert/screamfest. If she thought her life had changed enough last year when she entered the competition, she wasn’t to know what was going to hit her after she had actually won it. You mightn’t forgive Burke trotting out the “I’ve been on a big journey” cliché if it weren’t so true.
Burke had been there before, of course. In 2005 she auditioned successfully for The X Factor. She got as far as the “Judge’s Houses” stage whereby several hopefuls in each of the male/female/band/over-25s categories get a taste of the good life by travelling to various parts of the world to perform, without musical backing, in front of the judges. Her then mentor, Louis Walsh, did not put her through to that year’s final 12, claiming she was too young.
Burke persevered, however. The daughter of Melissa Bell, one-time main vocalist with successful UK chart act Soul II Soul, was made of sterner stuff than many other hopefuls who, with confidence and dreams shattered, drift back into obscurity.
Further honing her singing and performing skills in bars and clubs in and around London, Burke entered last year’s contest. In the second show, she performed The Jackson Five’s I’ll Be There, and was criticised by Simon Cowell for being “a copycat.” By the end of last year, Burke was signed to Cowell’s record label, Syco. In February of this year, she signed a five-album deal for Epic Records in the US.
Since winning the contest, Burke’s life has radically changed. She has gone from being a relative ingénue (prior to The X Factor she had no professional vocal training) to one of the most successful popstars of the year. Her version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sold more than one million copies, making Burke the first British female solo artist to sell one million copies of a single in the UK.
Her debut album, Overcome, grabbed the No 1 spot in the UK album chart in the first week of its release last month. Cowell delayed the album’s release from March so that Burke could finish top of the class in his “Finishing School for Pop Stars”.
His instincts were correct; when Burke returned to The X Factor several weeks ago to perform her debut single, Bad Boys (which also topped the UK charts), it was clear she had scrubbed up well. She now rubs shoul- ders with the likes of Beyoncé and 50 Cent, while in July it was confirmed that she is to be the face of a new fashion line from Dolce & Gabbana. From plucky contender to market leader in the space of one year? All change, then, for the girl from Islington.
“It still feels like it was yesterday,” says Burke of how the year has passed. “It’s quite shocking, really. I remember having a meeting late last year with my management and the record label, discussing where we were going to go, and how we were going to do it, what direction, and now the album is out. My first hope and dream was to be a signed recording artist. For me, that was the biggest step, to find someone who believed in me, to take a risk, and who would encourage me to do well.
“So yes, making the album, performing in places I never thought I’d perform in, meeting and singing with people like Beyoncé – who I’d always wanted to meet – was pretty overwhelming. It’s a bit crazy, but without The X Factor I’m not so sure I’d be where I am today.”
What would she have done if she had been voted off in the early stages of last year’s show? “I’m quite sure I would have been devastated, like anyone would, but I know I would have carried on . . . I remember a time where I wanted to give up, and that lasted about an hour. That was when I was 16, in the first X Factor series I tried out for. I just snapped out of it, though. I knew I had to get more experience, get wiser, grow up.”
Does it concern her that of the 12 finalists on last year’s show, no more than three (Burke, JLS and Diana Vickers) could be deemed to be enjoying visible commercial success, or that outside of these acts the public has virtually forgotten the remainder? Burke’s answer is, inevitably, tempered with the sweet tone of the prizewinner.
“It depends on how you use the publicity to your advantage. It’s a case of working hard and keeping at it. Just because you’ve been voted off in the early weeks doesn’t mean that it’s the end, or that you have to stop what you’re doing.”
What’s great about the show, she opines, is that it gives everyone a platform, and whether you’re the poor soul who is voted out in week one, or whether you’re the star in the making who wins in the end, everyone has an amazing reach.
“You’ve been on one of the biggest entertainment shows in the world. You really need to learn how to use that to your benefit, and in that way you can stick around. Self-belief is important, and I know that’s easier said than done. Some people have been knocked back, but when you have self-belief and have people around you that can encourage you, then it helps.”
(Try saying that to Emily Nakanda, Daniel De Bourg, Hope and Same Difference – a mere four of the where-are-they-now? 2007 X Factor finalists.)
It’s all fuss and bother now, as Burke has to make her way from her hotel back to the O2. One more question: what’s the most important thing she has learned about herself in the past 12 months?
“I have learned to remain myself. Is that easy? No, it’s actually the hardest thing in the world. But I keep people who I love and trust around me, and that keeps my feet firmly on the ground. I’ve had my same friends for years. My family is supportive and loving. No one treats me like a big shot, and I’m happy about that.”