ALESHA UNLEASHED Alesha Dixon on fighting for diversity and why she’s happier than ever as she prepares to turn 40

The BGT star tells of creating a role model for girls such as her daughter and of our first mixed-race Royal, Meghan Markle

28 May 2018 - 10:08

When Alesha Dixon was growing up in the ’80s, she struggled to find role models she could relate to.

There was no one on TV or in fiction who looked like her, no one she could truly identify with.

Decades on, the lack of diversity on screen, in books and in public life is still an issue.

“Every young person needs to have a character that they can identify with and feel included by,” says Alesha. “At home, my daughter Azura has got this long blonde wig that she loves, and she’s obsessed with Rapunzel, but you need to have balance. It’s important that she understands her curly hair is beautiful, too.

“You would think that in 2018 it would be balanced, but I still think there is an issue that has to be addressed. We’re getting there slowly, but for me a healthy place would be where we don’t need to have this conversation.”

There was a moment recently when four-year-old Azura made Alesha catch her breath.

 Alesha grew up in a time when nobody on telly looked like her
 
Alesha grew up in a time when nobody on telly looked like her

“For the first time ever, she let me put her hair down,” Alesha says. “She said that now she has the same hair as Aurora Beam. And it really choked me.”

Tears spring to her eyes as she recounts this story. Aurora Beam is the heroine Alesha created for her impressive debut children’s book Lightning Girl, which came out last month. She’s an ordinary schoolgirl who discovers she has superpowers. She also happens to be mixed race.

Does Alesha think Meghan Markle, as our first mixed-race royal, can encourage more progress?

“Ooh, that’s a good question,” she says, giving it some thought. “I guess her joining the royal family is a positive thing because it’s something that’s never happened before.

 The mum of one tells how letting her daughter's hair down for the first time ever made her choke back the tears
 
The mum of one tells how letting her daughter's hair down for the first time ever made her choke back the tears

“Maybe because I’m mixed race, I don’t see the colour when I look at Meghan, I just see a beautiful, articulate, lovely woman who has stolen the heart of Harry and I wish them a lifetime of happiness.

“It’s a shame that there’s been any negativity about it. It’s just so interesting that in 2018 anyone would ever come up against a problem because of the colour of their skin. It’s a real shame. So we clearly have more work to do.”

Alesha is on typical form today – always so engaging and expressive and… zingy. It would be hard to walk away from her company feeling anything other than buoyed by her energy and zest for life. She talks so much (and so fast) that it’s impossible to cover everything within the allotted time and, jeez, the transcribing is a killer.

The 39-year-old mum of one looks like a goddess, of course. Like, extraordinarily beautiful.

We meet some weeks after the shoot when she’s dressed down and make-up-free and could easily pass for a 20-something rather than a woman with a milestone birthday coming up in October.

“You can’t help being philosophical about turning 40,” she says. “I’m human and I’m a woman so it all depends on my mood. I have good days and bad days and it changes all the time. So I do have days where I’m like: ‘Oh my god I’m going to be 40 – I can barely even say it!’

“Sometimes I think I’m enjoying life so much and it’s going so quick and you become more aware of...”

Your mortality?

 

 Alesha says it's a shame that in 2018 there's negativity around Meghan's race - she sees a beautiful, articulate woman who's won Harry's heart
 
Alesha says it's a shame that in 2018 there's negativity around Meghan's race - she sees a beautiful, articulate woman who's won Harry's heart

“Yes, that becomes more present. But then I have other days where I think I’m so blessed that I’ve made it to this age, days where I look at what I’ve done in 40 years and think: ‘That was one amazing chapter’, and I feel really optimistic and empowered by that. I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been in my life, so I have to give thanks for that.”

She adds: “I genuinely feel at this age the most fearless I’ve ever felt, which is really freeing. It takes time to get here – you have to go through things and experience highs and lows, and all those things combined lead you to this place. And that’s the beautiful thing about getting older. People worry about their looks going, but go deeper and you realise you know yourself more and you’re more comfortable in your own skin and more settled within yourself, and that’s a really great basis on which to live your life.”

Alesha has encountered plenty of life’s ups and downs, not least the collapse of her marriage to rapper MC Harvey in 2006 after she discovered he was having an affair with singer Javine Hylton.

“I could tell 1,000 stories, but I’m not ready yet,” she says. “Let’s be honest, if I was to write an autobiography it would be pretty heavy. There will come a time when I’m ready to tell my story properly, but right now I’m having more fun in the children’s world – it’s a lot lighter!”

A recent magazine feature claimed Alesha was “longing for” a second child with her partner, dancer Azuka Ononye, 34.

Ahem. Not quite.

“I didn’t say that!” she protests. “I ‘long for’ another baby? Er, no, I’m good thanks! Tell you what I long for: a lie-in! Ha!

 On feeling broody, Alesha says: 'If it stays the three of us then I’m a happy girl as well' - pictured are Azura, four, Alesha and Azuka
 
On feeling broody, Alesha says: 'If it stays the three of us then I’m a happy girl as well' - pictured are Azura, four, Alesha and Azuka

“Seriously, let’s put it out there. I’m very open-minded when it comes to having another baby. I’m not ‘longing’, I’m very happy and content with one. If – and it’s a big capital IF – we are blessed with another baby, then I’d embrace that and it would be wonderful. But if it stays the three of us then I’m a happy girl as well.”

One subject that is definitely off the table today is Britain’s Got Talent colleague Ant McPartlin, who is currently receiving treatment at a rehab centre following his drink-driving conviction. All Alesha will say on the matter is that she’s fully behind Declan Donnelly, who will be presenting this week’s live shows on his own for the first time.

“I’ve been in touch with Dec and he’s doing well.

"We all support him and know that he’ll do well as he’s a professional and he’s fantastic. He actually doesn’t need my encouragement as he’s been doing it a lot longer than I have!”

 

 'We all support him and know that he’ll do well as he’s a professional and he’s fantastic,' the BGT star says of colleague Ant McPartlin
 
'We all support him and know that he’ll do well as he’s a professional and he’s fantastic,' the BGT star says of colleague Ant McPartlin

She’s much more forthcoming when defending BGT from critics who say there are too many international acts and accusations that it must mean Britain simply doesn’t have enough talent.

“When are people going to get over that?” she replies, rolling her eyes. “The moment Attraction [the Hungarian shadow theatre group] won the show [in 2013], that was when I thought we just embraced people. The public voted for them to win.

“Can you imagine saying to someone: ‘Oh, I’m sorry, but you can’t audition for our show cos you’re French’?! It would be so awful!

“When someone from another country comes on the show and we ask them where they’re from and they say Belgium or Canada, for example, I think we should look at it as an honour that they’ve chosen to come here.

“We’re all human and we all live on the same planet, so when someone says that there have been a few complaints I take it with a pinch of salt.

“One of the reasons I’m proud to sit on the panel is that whether you are black, white, gay, straight, old or young, have a disability or come from another country, our doors are open to you.

“We’re looking for talented people who are going to entertain, and when you get people from another country, they offer something different and bring a different vibe, which is a good thing.

“We could rename it, I suppose. Humans Got Talent? Ha ha! Or Humans And Dogs Got Talent!”

She acknowledges that she may be biased, but she reckons this series has been “brilliant”. At the heart of things, she’s a genuine fan.

“There is always such a lovely energy around the show and it feels joyful, celebratory and inclusive.

 

It always delivers and every year it just gets better.

“My family love watching me watch the show because I watch like I’m not actually on it. I’ll turn to Azuka or my mum and say: ‘That was a really good show tonight, wasn’t it?’”

She just about keels over laughing. Alesha’s golden buzzer contestant this year provided one of the most emotional moments of the series so far. Lifford Shillingford enjoyed early-Noughties success as lead vocal on the single Please Don’t Turn Me On with garage band Artful Dodger, but he withdrew from the industry and fell on hard times amid a battle with anxiety and depression. Alesha, who was in girl group Mis-Teeq when Lifford was riding high in the charts, remembered him from the circuit, fell in love with his rendition of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come and gave him the golden ticket to the live shows.

“Every year I say to myself I’m going to press my buzzer for an act no one expects. And what did I do? I pressed my buzzer for a singer!”

There have been cries of “Fix!” with outraged Twitter types claiming Alesha was showing preferential treatment towards an old mate. Pah! Alesha says today that she only vaguely knew Lifford and it was a purely spontaneous decision driven by nothing other than admiration.

“The thing is, you can’t help what moves you.

It was just this moment where I had something inside that felt right. I sort of knew him from the scene – we were never friends or hung out, but I was a fan of his voice and when he walked out on the stage I was genuinely taken aback.

 The singer and presenter has a lot of respect for anyone going down the route of a talent show in an industry that is so judgemental
 
The singer and presenter has a lot of respect for anyone going down the route of a talent show in an industry that is so judgemental

“It took a lot of courage, guts and humility in an industry where there is so much judgement and looking down noses if people go down a route like X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, and I really respected that and appreciated it.

“And even taking all of that out of the equation, he just had the best voice. It just hit me – so much soul and passion. You could tell that he’d had a few knocks and that is what drew me to him. He left his ego at the door and he deserved a shot… and that was actually one my favourite moments on the show.”

Alesha has been around long enough to understand how harsh the entertainment industry can be, but she’s always managed to roll with the punches. Her solo career faltered after Mis-Teeq split in 2005, but she bounced back by winning Strictly Come Dancing in 2007. Two years later, she was made a judge on the show, and she stayed for three series before quitting to join BGT in 2012.

She says she’s always had a blind faith that everything will be OK.

“I know the politics within the industry. There are so many talented people who have had knock-backs, who have just slipped through the net, singers who have had a break and then it didn’t work out. And it’s quite a difficult position to be in because then what do you do? Do you just get a ‘normal’ job? Do you keep going? At what point do you say: ‘I am not going to do this any more’?

“I don’t know if it was me being away with the fairies, but there was never any option other than it working. When I was a little girl I wasn’t the most confident person. So many things scared me, but outwardly I’d always put my best foot forward and go for it anyway.

“The only way to grow and move forward is to not be afraid to fall. I’ve fallen and that’s OK. Because when you repair, you’re stronger. So then you’re more equipped to deal with the next phase of your life.”

A second Lightning Girl book is scheduled for September, and Alesha is also planning on heading back into the recording studio to write new music.

“That was my target for this year, concentrating on the three things I’m most passionate about – Britain’s Got Talent, Lightning Girl and writing music. Quality projects over quantity.”

Is there talk of adapting Lightning Girl for TV?

“Ha! In my head there is. In my head there has already been talk of a live-action movie!” And she roars with laughter again.

  • Watch Britain’s Got Talent live semi-finals, Monday-Friday, 7.30pm and 9.30pm, ITV.

Credit:

  • Photographed for Fabulous by Zoe McConnell
  • Additional photography: Rex Features, Instagram/Alesha Dixon  
  • Hair: Michelle Sultan using Ouai  
  • Make-up: Francesca Neill using Tom Ford Beauty  
  • Nails: Julie Luong using Zoya Polish S/S ’18  
  • Styling: Nana Acheampong  
  • Stylist’s assistant: Lydia Burns

 

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