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Singer Leona Lewis may be a huge star in her native London, but she can still walk through New York City without creating a scene. Considering that this week she became the first British solo artist to land at number one on the U.S. pop album charts with the release of her first album, “Spirit,” that’s about to change.
The 23-year-old came to the attention of her fellow Brits in 2006 as the first female winner of “The X Factor,” a U.K. show similar to “American Idol.” As part of her prize, she won a record deal with Simon Cowell’s label with Sony BMG, Syco, but Lewis also caught the eye of music honcho Clive Davis, who came on board to coproduce “Spirit.” Soon, the shy girl from Hackney was jet-setting between London and Los Angeles, where she spent a year working on the album.
For “Spirit,” a collection of power ballads inspired by Nineties R&B, she collaborated with big names like Akon, Jesse McCartney and former Britney Spears songwriter J.R. Rotem. All the extra work paid off — press reviews are already comparing her to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, another Davis protégé, though Lewis demures. “Those are very good compliments,” says the blue-eyed chanteuse, who also lists Alita Adams and Eva Cassidy among her childhood idols. “But I have a ways to go before I can be compared to them.”
Music runs in her family: Lewis’ Guyanese-born father was a part-time DJ and her Welsh mother was a ballet dancer. At the tender age of five, “I would put on little shows, get on coffee tables and perform for my family,” remembers the singer. Her parents took on multiple jobs to make ends meet to pay for one-on-one vocal lessons for their daughter, and at 14, she earned a scholarship to the prestigious BRIT School in London, where Katie Melua and Amy Winehouse also honed their skills. After graduating, she worked as a Pizza Hut waitress and a receptionist to pay for studio time until her electrician boyfriend, an aspiring singer, convinced her to apply for “The X Factor” with him.
Since winning the reality competition, Lewis has been juggling life in Hackney with enjoying birthday parties thrown by Davis and posing for the covers of British Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan. She has yet to attend a fashion show, but counts Stella McCartney and Chloé among her favorite labels.
“I wear whatever I want to make me feel comfortable and confident,” says Lewis, who sticks to classic gowns when performing. “I like to be quite feminine and girly, but I like to put on biker boots and be edgy as well.”
And like any star-in-the-making, Lewis is already amassing her fair share of rumor and speculation. The latest is that Cowell has purchased a $5 million mansion for her in California. “He didn’t,” she says with a laugh. “It’s funny that things just kind of pop up out of thin air.”