“Absolutely fantastic!” was Simon Cowell’s verdict when a fresh-faced receptionist sang a rousing rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow at a 2006 X Factor audition. That receptionist was then 21-year-old Leona Lewis – who went on to be crowned winner of the series and make a name for herself as a global superstar.
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After beating off stiff competition from loveable finalist Ray Quinn to win The X Factor’s 2006 series, Leona released her debut single A Moment Like This – which smashed a world record after it was downloaded an incredible 50,000 times in 30 minutes. It made the coveted Christmas number one spot and outsold the rest of the Top 40 singles combined.
It was the beginning of a stellar 2007 for the diva-in-the-making. Following up her chart success, she signed a £5 million record deal in the States, where she headed to record her debut album Spirit. After months of hard work with top producers and songwriters including Ne-Yo, she dropped her first single Bleeding Love in October. It was a smash – rocketing to the number one spot across the globe, including in the UK, the US, Australia, France and Germany.
Her big break had been a long time coming. Leona, who grew up in Islington, attended the famous Sylvia Young Theatre School, the Italia Conti Academy and the BRIT school. The talented youngster was passionate about music from an early age and learned to play the guitar and piano before turning her hand to songwriting. "I tried to secure a record deal by doing things my own way. I worked very hard but I never managed to land a contract," she's said.
She followed up her first chart smash with singles Footprints In The Sand, Better In Time, Forgive Me and Run, all the while gaining critical acclaim which was cemented by three Grammy nods and four Brit Awards nominations in 2008.
The big-hearted star is passionate about animal rights, and turned down a $1 million offer from mogul Mohamed Al-Fayed to open the famous Harrods sale. “I got a lot of flak for that. There were people who said I should have done it and given the money to charity, but that would have been such a contradiction,” said staunch vegetarian Leona, who passed on the opportunity as the department store sells fur.
By 2009, it was time to start thinking about the always-tricky second album. Leona headed back to Los Angeles and spent nine months working on new material before releasing Echo in September 2009. The first single, Happy, shot to number two in the UK charts
In 2009, the UK was shocked when a man attacked Leona at a CD signing session. He was later sectioned under the mental health act. Despite the drama, the star dealt with the incident maturely and refused to let it affect her. “Obviously, it's a bit of a shock, and you ask should I be letting people come that close? But I've just got to get over it and leave it in the past,” she said. “The guy is very unwell. My mum is a social worker, and she deals with a lot of people with mental health issues. I feel very sorry for the guy. He really needs help.”
While her name is synonymous with a cleancut image, Leona has a number of tattoos – including a poem she wrote about a horse down her spine and Hebrew script on her left wrist.
Despite her ever-growing international fame, the down-to-earth Hackney girl – who is dating her childhood sweetheart, electrician Lou Al-Chamaa – is adamant that her private life remains just that.
“I definitely keep myself secret,” she admits. “I went on a show watched by millions of people, so this might sound ridiculous, but I had no desire to be famous, and I still don't."