Leona Lewis is having a Mariah Carey moment. She’s singing, mimicking the ascending whistle notes that close out Carey’s early-’90s hit “Emotions.” It’s not much – just a few notes, sung as the song comes up casually in our conversation – but this “moment” entails more than an impromptu Lewis performance via cellphone.
Lewis mirrors Carey not just vocally – both have voices strong enough to knock you over. But the “Bleeding Love” belter’s career is soaring with the same wings that Carey once spread back in 1997, when the legend emancipated herself personally and professionally. The U.K. X Factor star walked away from her label of seven years, Simon Cowell’s Syco, in 2014, citing creative differences; now signed to Def Jam, Lewis’ first studio album, I Am, flaunts her newfound independence.
Liberation certainly looks good on Lewis. The 30-year-old Londoner has never seemed more free… and fun. Who knew she played drag queen bingo? Or how growing up around her gay uncle helped her learn to be herself? And that she has “gay husbands” in major cities across the world? Well, now we do.
You’ve played a lot of gigs in your life. Been on a lot of stages. What was it like being on the G-A-Y stage in the U.K. recently?
Oh my god. Doing G-A-Y is one of the funnest shows I get to do, and that’s why I always go back whenever there’s an album. Literally – you can just do whatever you want. The more flamboyant, the more fun it is and the more the audience gives you so much energy. So yeah, there’s always so much love and support there.
Are you used to being around that many gays in your everyday life?
I mean, yeah. I obviously have so many gay husbands.
What constitutes a “gay husband”– and how many gay husbands do you have?!
I have my L.A. gay husband, and I have my U.K. gay husbands. I’ve got a few there, and that just constitutes as my gay best friend. If I don’t get married, then clearly we’ll end up getting married. (Laughs)
I wonder, though: Can one gay husband get jealous over another gay husband?
Sometimes they do. I definitely split my time equally. And I get jealous over my gay husbands with their straight wives! So they have to split their time with them for me. It’s a partnership.
When were you first aware of your gay following?
When I was doing The X Factor every week we’d have people coming down to the show, and I found myself with a huge gay following. Again, just so much love. People were waiting for me after the shows, and I’d go and sign stuff, so it was really early on that I became aware of that.
In 2007, “Bleeding Love” elevated you in so many ways, including within the gay community. You know how we love our big, belty voices. I can’t imagine what that song did for your gaggle of gay husbands.
(Laughs) They were loving it. And they’re always giving me opinions on what I am to wear on stage and what I am to do on stage. I’m like, “All right, guys; calm down.”
How often do you take their advice?
I mean, it depends on who it’s coming from. I have my stylist – a very close friend of mine – who’s an amazing stylist. He has suggestions on wardrobe and stuff like that. And I listen. But some of them are crazy. Sometimes I’m like, “Yeah, no; you wear that.”
How do you think your gay fans will relate to I Am?
I have a lot of fans who are younger and haven’t even come out to their families yet. I do this campaign called “I Am Empowered” to share stories, mantras and affirmations, and I got one guy who wrote me saying he gets bullied a lot in school because he’s gay. He says he just wants me to empower him to get through that and get through the torment, and so I know that it definitely is a very, very strong message to the gay community, especially being young and coming out and being open. It’s very hard and it’s a very difficult time, and you need to be empowered in that. You need to have the strength to stand true in what you are and who you are. And it’s a very prevalent message on the album.
How did you end up with a drag queen in the video for “Fire Under My Feet”?
It was my idea. My uncle actually is gay, and when I was younger I remember he would wear makeup and eyeliner. It was the ’80s, so you know – people were all out there. And it was always so normal to me; it was never something I questioned, never something that I found anything other than normal. So I had that experience growing up. And even though he’s not a drag queen, I wanted to put that in the video. I wanted people to know that you can be whatever you want to be.
What did you learn from your uncle about being yourself?
He taught me a lot. When I was younger, it was to be accepting of anything; however people want to express themselves or present themselves is up to them. It’s not something to look at weirdly or that should be shunned. And self-expression – he taught me that. Not being afraid to show who you are.
What does it mean to you to know that your songs are being fiercely lipped by drag queens?
I love it! A couple of months ago I actually went to drag queen bingo and they were commenting on the (“Fire Under My Feet”) video saying, “I love that you have a drag queen in there.”
Did you win at bingo?
I didn’t, unfortunately. But I did get to call out some numbers, which was kind of cool!
Which line on the album means the most to you?
On “I Am” it says, “Thought I would never rise again. But I am, I am.” It’s about going through times and thinking it’s the hardest time and not seeing the forest through the trees but knowing that time is such a big healer and a big factor in so many situations. I feel like so many people give up just as they’re about to have a breakthrough, and sometimes you have to go through that. The line “I am, I am” is, I feel, a powerful affirmation to put out there when you’re going through those times.
Your vocal abilities often draw comparisons to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion. What songs of theirs would you be most apt to sing at karaoke?
With Whitney, definitely “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” I mean, everyone does that song at one point or another! Mariah… it would have to be “Heartbreaker.” It’s just so cool and I love the video – she was in the movie theater, and I remember she had the pink top and her little denim jeans. And Celine: probably “All By Myself” or “My Heart Will Go On.”
What’s your favorite note that’s ever been sung?
I feel like it has to be during “I Will Always Love You” – the long-held note that Whitney does, and you’re like, “What is she doing right now!? She’s killing my soul.”
PETA named you Sexiest Vegetarian in 2008. Where does that rank on your list of career achievements?
Uhh. Quite high! Sexiest anything! I will take what I can get, soooo… that ranks very high.
In your opinion, what’s the sexiest vegetable or fruit?
That came to you a lot quicker than I thought it would.
Right?! I surprised myself even.
Now that the album is finished, how are you feeling about the label changes you made in order to honor who you are as an artist?
I feel amazing about it. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I made that leap of faith and then, luckily, there were people at the other side to catch me and help me do what I wanted to do. I really count myself blessed because it does take a lot to walk away from such a big situation. But, again, I knew what I needed to change and that I needed to do me and be very authentic to me, and so, this is it. I just feel lucky that I can do it; a lot of people don’t get that opportunity.
You say you had to “do me.” Did you ever feel like you’d strayed from your authentic self?
I feel like I’ve definitely always been true to myself, but sometimes I feel like myself, as well as other people, get a bit lost by everything that goes on within music. The heart of what we do in music is to connect with people and express ourselves and share that with people. But I feel like the hair and the makeup and the designer clothes takes over everything. The fame, the notoriety and letting that get to your head is so dangerous. My dad’s always told me don’t believe the hype. That’s something that’s always stayed with me.
When you look out at the pop scene, do you see a lot of authenticity?
You know what I see a lot of? Amazing artists. And I also see a lot of (them) seem to be a bit lost. But again, it’s all part of an individual’s journey and it’s all part of learning about ourselves. You have to go through that learning process sometimes. There’s a lot of very young people in the industry, and being so young and vulnerable and subject to… I don’t know… a lot of impressions, sometimes you can just get lost in it.
“Bleeding Love” was a colossal success, so I have to imagine it set the bar high for you. How much pressure have you felt to match the success of that song and what it did for your career?
Definitely in the beginning I felt pressure. There’s definitely been a lot less pressure the past few years, but for my second album (2009’s Echo), I felt a lot of pressure then.
When I was first recording my (new) album, even before I had a deal, there was never any pressure on me. It was just like, I’m recording music; this is what I do. With my first album, again, there really wasn’t any expectations, so I didn’t really have a lot of pressure. But then after the album blew up and went massive, there definitely was a bit of pressure. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is happening; I’ve got to step up my game. I’ve got to be better. I’ve got to match it.” I’ve learned over the past few years that that is definitely not conducive to creativity. You have to just go down a new path and blaze a new trail.
By Chris Azzopardi, editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).