Leona Lewis: On the sunny side

The multi-platinum selling former X Factor winner takes on her first movie role in Walking on Sunshine

Here comes the sun: Leona Lewis, left, in Walking on Sunshine

Here comes the sun: Leona Lewis, left, in Walking on Sunshine


Leona Lewis has a four-octave mezzo-soprano vocal range. Why can’t she try a little harder at being a diva? She ought to stick her nose in the air and use an antibacterial handi-wipe when she shakes hands with journalists. But no. Instead she thanks you over and over for “taking the time to talk” to her.

She ought to rack up florist bills with more zeroes than the GNPs of smaller World Cup qualifying nations. But no. She spends her money on Brentwood’s Hopefield Animal Sanctuary in Essex. She should, after eight years in the limelight, have managed a couple of substance abuse or sex scandals. But instead, she is famous for vegetarianism, minding her Ps and Qs and turning down a seven-figure sum from Mohamed Al Fayed to open a Harrods sale; well, they are the only British department store tacky enough to still sell animal fur.

What’s wrong with you, Leona Lewis? Are you broken? Why won’t you let fame go to your head? Just a little bit?

“It’s a mixture of my mum and dad,” she laughs. “I never forget how hard my mum and dad worked to give my brother and me the opportunities that we had. It’s normal and natural for me to be polite to people. That’s how I was brought up. I always remember where I come from. It would be stupid of me to forget that.”

Leona Louise Lewis was born and raised in Islington by multiracial community-minded parents. Her dad, Aural Lewis, of Afro-Guyanese descent, worked with youth offenders; her mum, Maria Lewis, is a social worker and ballet teacher with Welsh, Irish, and Italian ancestry: “I had an Irish grandfather,”Lewis notes, “but I never knew him.”

As anyone not lately escaped from a cloistered silent order will know, Lewis first came to fame as the winner of the 2006 X-Factor final. She remains the show’s most untouchably successful export: her debut album achieved platinum sales 10 times over in the UK; she was the first British female to top the US Billboard 200 album chart in more than 20 years; she has hit the number one spot in more than 30 countries; she sang Whole Lotta Love with Jimmy Page at the 2008 Summer Olympics closing ceremony in Beijing,

She must have very different conversations with fans depending on where she is in the world?

“Definitely. In the UK and Ireland people come up to me and call me Lee, my nickname. They know me. They feel closer to me. They have a claim. In the US it’s a bit less familiar. Only real, real fans will ever know I was on The X Factor. They don’t have that prior relationship. So it’s a different reaction.”

Her overnight success does not seem to have gone to her head –perhaps because it wasn’t really overnight. Long before Simon Cowell, she had already trained extensively in opera and jazz at all the right stage schools: the Sylvia Young Theatre School, later the Italia Conti Academy, the Ravenscourt Theatre School and the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology. Before The X-Factor she had turned down the lead role in the Parisian production of The Lion King and had recorded two albums, both of which failed to make a commercial splash.

And still she beat on against the tide: “I like to keep my head down,” she says. “I like to keep working on things. I also know that – especially with music – you have to experience life to have the inspiration to write. But keeping that focus is important. I always feel like there’s more out there. There’s no ceiling.”

Sure enough, Leona Lewis is branching out. Her first film role – excluding performing that Golden Globe nominated theme song from James Cameron’s Avatar – is as part of the ensemble in Walking on Sunshine. An unabashedly cheesy ’80s jukebox musical set in sunny Puglia, Sunshine follows two sisters – in love at Italy’s heel – as they and their gal pals belt out such beloved karaoke standards as Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love and Madonna’s Holiday.

Leona Lewis has, over the years, had plenty of offers from Hollywood. Why did she plump for the vintage cheese?

“It was just such good timing for me. I had just finishing touring. I wanted to do a musical. I wanted to try acting. I wanted to get into film. So this came along and it was perfect. It was just the right balance of singing and acting. And also it wasn’t a huge role. So it wasn’t too much pressure. And not too much dancing.”

Really? Isn’t her mum a former ballet teacher? Shouldn’t she be an expert hoofer?

“Hmm. You know what?” She drops to a comic whisper: “I don’t excel in it. I just get by. There is a reason why I didn’t become a ballerina. We had a really great team. I needed them.”

She is said to be a perfectionist in the studio who will delay an album if it isn’t quite ready. With that in mind, I wonder how she managed in a much more collaborative environment?

“That’s exactly right. That was a big thing. I’m such a control freak.”

Hmm. Really?

“You’ve no idea. And that was really tough about the film. That was one of the challenges. I’m used to having control over everything when I’m making my music. This film belongs to the director and the producer and to other people. And I had to let go. It was a good lesson for me.”

Walking in Sunshine feels like a non-stop karaoke hen party. It can’t have been as much fun as it looks, can it?

“Obviously you have to think about your character and hitting your marks. But it was the most amazing beach. It looked like the Caribbean. Stunning. My character works at the beach bar in the film and a lot of my scenes were shot there. And between takes I would just have little lie-downs in the sun. It was a really pleasant shoot. And there were some good nights out with the cast. And now I see the poster and I can’t believe it. I’m so proud.”

Only Leona Lewis, one suspects, could get so excited about seeing herself on a film poster. Surely, by now, she’s accustomed to seeing her image towering above cities in the manner of a North Korean leader?

“No! I keep having to pinch myself. I’ve never been on the side of a red bus before. It’s totally different kind of advertisement. And then my friends sent me a picture of the trailer when it came on in the cinema. It’s so crazy.”

If Leona Lewis’s humility is an affectation, she’s doing one hell of a job. A charming everygirl, she talks about how much she enjoys clubbing with “her girls”, how much she loves Grease, and how much she admires Cyndi Lauper. Regardless of how Walking on Sunshine plays with the critics, she has already received what she calls “the ultimate thumbs up”.

“My dad is a DJ,” she says. “He loves music. But he does not love musicals. So when he said that the songs work really well in the movie that’s the best review ever.”

We say goodbye and I leave Lewis to go and be sunny and personable with somebody else.

“Thank you so much! I really, really appreciate it!” she gushes.

She really must try harder at this diva thing.

Walking on Sunshine is out now on general release and is reviewed on page 12