Interview: Leona Lewis
The pop star and 'X Factor' winner visits Hackney City Farm with Jonny Ensall
Leona Lewis is one of the nicest stars in pop... as long as you don't mess with her animal friends. She spends a day at the farm with Jonny Ensall.
Leona Lewis loves animals. Not just the big, pretty ones like her horse, Spirit (‘He’s the love of my life’) but also the small, fussy smelly ones, like the chickens on Hackney City Farm. ‘A part of me feels like I was an animal in my past life that wasn’t treated very nicely,’ she says by way of explanation of her Doctor Dolittle-esque affinities. ‘And I do believe that every creature has a soul and has feelings.’ How about chickens, I ask. What do they feel? ‘Pain. I’m sure they feel sadness, if they’re cooped up in a little cage. Fear and pain and suffering is not okay for any being to feel intentionally at the hands of us.’
Lewis’s compassion is impressive. She’s not happy until it’s confirmed that the chickens are allowed out of their coop during the day. But I can’t help thinking that these hens are the lucky ones. They’re the ‘The X Factor’ finalists of the avian world, having been saved from the anonymity of the battery farm or the ignominy of the Chicken McNugget box. In Hackney they’re celebrities – just like Leona Lewis.
Seven years ago Lewis was not a famous singer; she was working as a receptionist in London and battling to get into the music industry. She was 21 when she first appeared on ‘The X Factor’, singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ to a typically antsy Simon Cowell who accused her of falling off the melody. Lewis doesn’t agree: ‘I didn’t fall off the melody, it was an Eva Cassidy version of the song, which clearly he hadn’t heard before.’
Her career since that moment has been exceptional: ‘The X Factor’ winner; a Number One in 34 countries with ‘Bleeding Love’; over 20 million records sold worldwide. And yet she remains impressively down to earth. She asks me what I’m up to over the weekend. She befriends a 450-pound Tamworth pig named Pepper. She really cares about the lives of all around her – humans and animals.
Later on, in the farm’s café, this kindheartedness comes into focus. ‘I feel like I’ve lived quite a sheltered life, like my mum and dad were quite protective of me,’ she says. ‘I’ve learned a lot in the past few years that not everyone has good intentions, and I always want to see the best in people. I won’t ever let it make me jaded, because I’ll always think that there is some good in everyone. Even the worst person.’
This seems like a good point to talk about Simon Cowell. He was wrong about her audition song, has he been wrong about anything else?
‘I don’t think that anyone’s right 100 percent of the time,’ is her considered response.
How about ‘The X Factor’, a show that treats its contestants like emotional crash test dummies? Lewis saw the best possible outcome from her involvement, but many have had their hearts broken by the competition. Lewis agrees that it can sometimes go too far.
‘I was a judge on the show, and I would see some acts and I’d feel uncomfortable watching them. Like, oh, you’re not supposed to be here – I’m not comfortable with this.’ How did the producers respond to her concerns? ‘They’d say, “No no, it’s fine, they want to be involved. It’s all for fun”… but I feel like some of the acts that go on it may not be 100 percent stable and shouldn’t be on there.’
This is perhaps not what Simon Cowell would want to hear. But three albums into her record deal (her latest, ‘Glassheart’, is out this week on Syco) she seems keener than ever to prove that she’s Cowell’s protégée, but not his puppet. Lewis has a reputation for being nice to the point of naivety, which isn’t ill founded. ‘I do live in a fairyland half of my life,’ she admits. ‘And I have been burned a couple of times because of that.’ She hints at ‘shady’ figures in the industry – people who would attempt to get close to her for personal gain.
And yet, despite appearances, she’s no pushover. At least not any more. ‘I feel like, as I get older I just get stronger and I know myself more,’ she states. ‘I’m in my twenties… it’s a time of self-discovery.’ I explain that I’m in my twenties, and I don’t always have her confidence. ‘Well, you haven’t discovered yourself yet,’ is her slightly terse response.
A final flash of ire is reserved for Damien Hirst, whose retrospective at Tate Modern she went to see recently. His piece ‘A Thousand Years’ displays a rotting cow’s head being gradually devoured by a swarm of flies. ‘The cow’s head was unnecessary,’ is Lewis’s critique. I wonder whether its themes have passed her by, but she is more incisive than she’s often given credit for. ‘What, it’s supposed to be life and death, or something? Okay, I see that every day. I don’t need to look at it in a museum.’