Alice Wyllie interviews Katherine Jenkins


I’m ten minutes late for my interview with Katherine Jenkins. I’m stuck in terrible traffic, in the back of a London cab, and while the temperature outside is barely scraping zero, I’m perspiring.

Being late for anyone is shoddy. Being late for a celebrity is unwise. But being late for Welsh classical superstar Katherine Jenkins? If the reports of diva-like demands and tantrums are anything to go by (rumours that she threw a phone at a record executive have been firmly denied), I’m toast.

Stumbling up the icy steps of the Blue Bird Cafe on King’s Road, I spot her instantly, sitting by a window, the stark winter sun creating a rather unnerving halo around her mane of platinum hair. She stands to greet me, hand outstretched, a wide smile revealing dimpled cheeks.

Am I being lulled into a false sense of security by this serene display? I apologise profusely. She tilts her head sympathetically, insists I don’t even mention it, and agrees London traffic is a nightmare. And offers me a drink.

I exhale, and not just because I’ve just run up two flights of steps. I’m definitely not dealing with a diva, and if her emphatic denials are anything to go by, Jenkins wants to distance herself from an entirely inaccurate label.

“People expect it now,” she says. “The type of music I do and because I’ve done this for a few years they think I must behave in this way. And they’re almost disappointed when I don’t. I’ll have a rider where I’ll ask for stuff like tea and water. I don’t ask for champagne, but I do ask for chocolate, if they can get it, because I don’t eat before I go on stage so sometimes I’ll have a bit of chocolate to boost my sugar levels. I’ve been in Japan and the man who’s arranged the concert will be like [at this point she adopts an apologetic posture and a hushed, reverential tone] ‘Miss Jenkins, we couldn’t get the chocolate!’ Then they ask if I’m still going to sing.”

Her eyes widen incredulously and she breaks into laughter, apparently amazed that anyone could cancel a gig at the last minute based on a rider not being met. Settled into our interview, she gossips about fashion, laughs at herself and comes across as your standard down-to-earth Welsh gal with a heart of gold. Only there’s nothing standard about this 29-year-old.

Born in Neath, she began singing aged four with a school rendition of Going Down the Garden to Eat Worms. At 13 she won the BBC Choirgirl of the Year competition and four years later landed a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. She signed a £1 million, six-album deal when she was 22 – then the UK’s most lucrative classical recording contract – and was told by her then manager, Brian Lane, that she was “the first of a kind, the most glamorous opera singer in the world”.

Certainly glamour is a keystone of the Katherine Jenkins brand. Some would argue that it’s helped to get her where she is today, and Jenkins is all too aware of the importance of image. She takes her beautician, personal trainer, make-up artist and hairdresser with her wherever she travels. Meeting her off-duty and in jeans seems akin to seeing a foundation-free Boy George or Cher minus the spandex.

Except that Katherine Jenkins is never really off-duty, when it comes to glamour at least. When one newspaper got its hands on a photograph of her without any make-up on, it said it was “as rare as catching a dodo in full flight”.

Today she wears tight jeans and a smart grey knit with high-heeled boots accessorised by a slouchy berry-coloured Mulberry handbag. Her hair is blonde, bouncy and pushed off her face with a diamanté-encrusted Alice band, behind which it rises into the kind of bouffant that would make a Texan housewife proud.

She is strikingly pretty. Her look might best be described as über high-maintenance. She wears less make-up than I had expected, but sports the kind of false eyelashes that make me wonder if when Katherine Jenkins blinks in Wales, it might it result in a hurricane in Los Angeles.

Certainly, it seems as though she might soon be going down a storm in the States. She is now on the books of US public relations powerhouse Liz Rosenberg (longtime PR for Madonna) and has set her sights on cracking America. Her seventh album, Believe, an unashamed crossover project, is her most commercial yet, and its classical take on well-known pop songs is sure to appeal to the US market. Working with legendary super-producer David Foster, who has mentored Celine Dion and Whitney Houston among others, this is the first of her seven albums made specifically with the US market in mind.

“With each album I’ve made it’s got more and more crossover,” she says. “When I made the first album I didn’t even know what crossover meant. All I knew was that I wanted to make albums that didn’t intimidate anyone, that if you loved classical music then that could be your thing but also if you’ve never bought anything before then it’s sort of an introduction to it. The core critics of classical music, they’re never going to be happy with anyone who makes it accessible because they want it to be a pure art form and that’s up to them and I personally think it’s a bit short-sighted. This is such a long-running genre of music, we have to do our bit to keep it going. It was the pop music of its day. Opera was written for the masses and it should still be accessed by people, it shouldn’t make them feel awkward about it.”

Believe has something of an airbrushed feel that doesn’t necessarily suit such tracks as the Beatles’ Till There Was You and, would you believe it, Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry. But there is certainly a market for Jenkins’s brand of hyper-accessible classical music. She is the 13th richest musician in Britain under 30 and is a judge on ITV’s Popstar to Operastar. She has followed in Vera Lynn’s footsteps to be the “forces’ sweetheart”, flying out to war zones to entertain the troops, and has worked with ballet dancer Darcey Bussell for the Viva La Diva stage show.

It is hard to ascertain how comfortable she is with fame, and how much she sought it. Anyone who sets out to be a pop singer knows fame will be a by-product of success. Not so with classical performers, who generally don’t have to deal with paparazzi, screaming fans, and intrusion into their private lives. In starting out as a classical singer, Katherine Jenkins didn’t necessarily sign up for this.

“I do this because I love the music and because I love singing and not necessarily because I wanted the celebrity aspect of it,” she says. “And that’s why I am so guarded about my personal life – because I know that it’s something you can’t get back. Doing Popstar to Operastar, Rolando, [Villazón, a Mexican tenor and fellow judge] he doesn’t have any of that. I have paparazzi following me and he is a superstar in the world of opera and he doesn’t have that. That sums it up exactly.”

Rolando Villazón also isn’t one half of Wales’s current “it” couple. Jenkins lives in north London with her boyfriend, Welsh former Blue Peter presenter, former Strictly Come Dancing contestant and all-round hunk, Gethin Jones. The pair have a firm pact not to talk about their relationship, but she does concede: that she’s looking forward to starting a family one day.

“I’d like to get married and have kids and have that happiness in my personal life as well,” she says with a sunny smile. Would she give up her career to concentrate on family life? “I’m torn by that question because when I do decide to be a mum, I want to be a really good mum and my lifestyle now would not suit that anyway. I don’t want to be dragging children around the world. So it may mean that I would take a few years and concentrate on that and then I could start performing again. That would be the ideal, but we’ll see. Maybe it will be something I’ll put off for a few more years.”

She won’t be drawn further on her romantic life, perhaps because she’s been stung by personal revelations in the past. The public appears to have imposed on her a bizarre requirement that she be squeaky clean. There is no reason that she should have any less of a “past” than a pop star or actress, but perhaps because her genre of music involves floaty dresses and angelic voices and has closer ties to religion, there has been an understanding that Jenkins’s behaviour should be nothing short of angelic.

Which is why it came as such a shock when, last year, it emerged that she had experimented with ecstasy and cocaine. During an interview with Piers Morgan for GQ, he asked her if she had ever taken drugs. She responded with a firm “no”, but later, racked with guilt at having concealed the truth, phoned him up to confess that she had tried drugs in her student days. Cue unflattering anecdotes from past acquaintances and images of a wide-eyed Jenkins with cocaine around the nostrils.

The confession came as a relief. “I did feel the pressure to be a role model,” she says seriously. “It’s the type of music you do and therefore you’re sort of put on a pedestal and I felt I was constantly being portrayed as whiter than white, and I’d not said that about myself but it was perceived that way because of the music, because of the long dresses and going to sing to the troops. I found it quite a lot to deal with because I’m 29, I’ve done stupid things like everyone else, I just happen to do a different kind of music. When it all came out, in some ways it was a weight off my shoulders because since then people have seen, well maybe she’s a bit more like us.”

So what lies ahead for Katherine Jenkins? She has said she’d consider living in LA, but remains reluctant to leave the UK. She’s keeping quiet on any potential image change for her US push, but in recent publicity shots has looked a bit more youthful and “undone” than usual. Her latest album is her most commercial, and yet as her voice matures she’s keen to pursue opera and is getting tuition from Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo.

“I definitely want to do it,” she says, firmly and somewhat defiantly, knowing that the opera world might be reluctant to embrace a crossover artist. “It will be difficult in some ways for me because I know that the critics will pan me before I open my mouth, but I will do it for myself. I’ve always wanted to do it. That was my dream and we’ll just wait and see what happens … but I will do it. It’s something that I didn’t feel I could do before and I’ll do it when I feel that I’m ready.”

Our time is up. Jenkins’s tight schedule has been thrown out by ten minutes thanks to me, and she’s ushered off to her next appointment. I exhale once again, thankful that my tardiness didn’t result in a phone being hurled at my head.

Then, as I take a sip of my latte, I spot Jenkins returning through the door of the café, rushing towards me and brandishing a mobile phone. I needn’t start perspiring again. We have the same phone and she picked mine up by mistake, in addition to her own. Now she’s the one dishing out the apologies.

Katherine Jenkins’s UK tour comes to the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow on 4 March.

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