Alesha Dixon: Why I want to be the British Oprah
A traumatic childhood scarred by domestic violence. Disastrous relationships with men. A terrible family betrayal. Yet she's risen above it all. Here, Strictly Come Dancing judge Alesha Dixon reveals why she's now determined to be the biggest name on TV.
Alesha Dixon is on schedule - in every way. The photoshoot that preceded our interview ended bang on time, which is unusual.
Put a celebrity of her age and background in a photographic studio and, what with all the air-kissing, the hissy fits, and the cooing over designer shoes, things tend to over-run.
Not so with Alesha. She whizzes through outfit changes like a dervish and doesn't dawdle in front of either the mirror or the camera. Everything about her - except her laugh, which is a startling foghorn - is a study in elegant efficiency.
The next Oprah? Alesha says she'd love to have her own chat show, addressing serious issues while keeping a foot in the entertainment world
Little wonder she wowed on the Strictly dancefloor, where timing and poise are of equal importance, and where being in control (of limbs, sequins, emotions) is paramount.
Two minutes after the camera stops, when I'm still marvelling at the length of her legs and the dinkiness of her outfit, she's in front of me, foot a-tap, examining her watch and praising the photographer for 'not faffing about, because I hate faffing'.
As we march off to get a coffee, I suddenly see how Alesha Dixon once thought that she was born to be a PE teacher. One can quite imagine her with a stopwatch and a clipboard.
'Being ruled by a diary kind of suits me, to be honest,' she agrees. 'I like to think of myself as a creative, spontaneous person, but there's also a part of me that craves order.
'If I don't have a schedule imposed on me, I make one myself, always have done. When I was a little girl, I'd write down my plans for the day, to the last minute. I'd go, "Shower 8am, dressed 8.15am..." I like to get up in the morning and have a plan, and know what I'm doing at any moment of the day. I like to feel that I am in control of my own life.'
One could even accuse her of control freakery, and she wouldn't be offended.
'Oh, I always have to be in charge. I was the bossy one at school - the one who always had to play teacher. My mum always jokes that I wouldn't even let her tie my shoelaces.
'From as far back as anyone can remember I would always say, "I can do it myself." I was pretty independent. Now, everything has to be just so. I travel a lot but when I get home I have this ritual of unpacking. I can't relax until I get everything sorted. It's the same with my home. When I get home tonight, I'll have to whizz around cleaning and clearing up before I can properly relax.'
Having it all: Alesha was described by Gordon Brown as a 'national treasure'
Blimey. Alesha Dixon - dance diva - does her own cleaning? 'Well, I have a cleaner I can call on too, but on a day-to-day basis, I do the dishes, yeah. I mop the floor. I kind of like it.
'When you do it yourself, you get this great sense of satisfaction. I can look round my house - my house, bought with my money, from my hard work - light a scented candle, and go "Yes!" It's like when you tick off everything on your "to do" list, you can finally relax.'
Of course, people like Alesha have never, ever finished ticking off their 'to do' lists. Five minutes into our interview and she has told me, straight-faced, that her ultimate ambition is to become the British Oprah Winfrey.
'Obviously, I haven't got an exact time scale for it. I can't say I want to do it in five years, or ten, but that's the ultimate goal. I would love to have my own chat show. I'd love to be able to address serious issues, and keep a foot in the entertainment world. I just want to do it all, and I think you can. Oprah has.'
On the surface it's preposterous, of course. Just a few years ago, Alesha was a member of girl band Mis-Teeq, a household name only in houses with teenage girls.
Now, though, she's everywhere. In Arlene Phillips's chair on the Strictly judging panel. In Downing Street, where Gordon Brown - presumably with wide-eyed envy, - described her as a 'national treasure'. A couple of weeks ago she was presenting the Mobo music awards but breaking away from the Autocue to perform her recent single, Drummer Boy.
She's also found the time to make a number of documentaries on issues as diverse as absent fathers and airbrushing in magazines. Each programme is a little more hard-hitting than the last - and more under her control, too, it seems.
'I've actually set up my own company to do the documentaries now,' she points out.
'I kind of got to the point where I thought, "Why listen to other people pitching ideas, and taking control of a project, when I can do it myself." If I'm going to do something I'm passionate about, I want to be able to control it. Thankfully, I've reached the stage in my life where I can.'
Such ambition is laudable, of course. As she points out, Oprah wouldn't be where she is today if she'd let other people make her career decisions for her.
But the more Alesha talks, the more you wonder whether this almost obsessive desire for control is entirely about mapping out her future.
Or could it be more about making sense of her past? She's the one who poses the question.
'It might just be part of my individual make-up, yes, but we are all products of our environment s to some extent, aren't we? I do wonder how much my childhood had to do with it. Life at home was always... lively,' she says, choosing her words with the utmost care.
'I saw things as a child that no child should see. I saw my mother being hurt. That stays with you'
'I had step-siblings. There was always something happening in the house. Maybe me scribbling into my diary was my way of carving out a bit for me. I just don't know.'
The 'something' always happening in her house wasn't always pleasant. Indeed, her childhood could be described - although never by her - as chaotic, dysfunctional even.
In her latest documentary, filmed for Children In Need, she tackles the subject of domestic violence and its legacy on children forced to witness brutality in the home.
It is, she admits, about as personal a project as it gets. She herself, she tells me, grew up in such a shadow, and has spent much of her adult life coming to terms with what happened in her family home.
'I saw things as a child that no child should see. I saw my mother being hurt. That stays with you. I can remember specific incidents like they just happened yesterday. They are that vivid although, thank God, the emotional reaction to them isn't. I've had a long time to work through things. The distance gives you a sense of perspective.'
She is anxious about bringing such a private matter to the interview table, stressing that 'the programme isn't about my story. It's about the kids I meet, because what they have to say is so much more important.'
Alesha won't go into the specifics of what happened, because she doesn't want to upset her mother, but even the big picture sounds pretty gruesome.
The bare facts are this. Alesha's mother Beverly and father Melvin split up when she was four - 'so young that I don't even remember my dad being around'.
Melvin, an electrician who eventually moved abroad, would come back into her life eventually, and she says they are now very close. But by the time she was eight, her mother had another boyfriend, and things were going badly wrong.
Life-changing: Alesha replaced Arlene Phillips on the Strictly Come Dancing judging panel after winning the BBC show
Beverly's new partner was aggressive. On more than one occasion her mother ended up in hospital, so severe were her beatings. She suffered broken ribs. It sounds as if cuts and bruises were commonplace.
Beverly was also beaten in front of her children, Alesha included.
'It went on for about two years. I was about eight when it started, which is old enough to know that something is wrong. In a way, that was the saving grace for me.
'Although my parents had split up, my childhood had been really happy before all that happened. And it was really happy afterwards. So in my head I knew that this blip in the middle wasn't the norm.
'That was really brought home to me when I met the kids for this documentary. For many of them, violence was the norm. Some had known nothing else.'
Alesha says she felt compelled to 'understand why some children are destroyed by what goes on in the family home, while others go on to thrive regardless, and despite all the odds.' She clearly comes into the second category. Why?
'I put it 100 per cent down to my mum. She was amazingly strong. Yes, it happened, but she never let herself be destroyed, or defined, by it. She had the strength to get out of that relationship. She walked. We've talked about it since, and I've told her how proud I am that she did that.'
'When I say Strictly changed my life, I really do mean it. It opened up a whole new world for me'
Alesha might cite Oprah as her biggest role model, but it actually sounds as if her mother might be up there too.
Beverly has come in for some harsh criticism in the past. Alesha's older brother, Mark Harris, once sold a story about their childhood to a downmarket tabloid, alleging that theirs was actually an upbringing characterised by neglect. They would go without food, he claimed, and he insinuated that Beverly put a succession of boyfriends before her own children.Alesha refused to speak to him after this, and to this day is fierce in her defence of her mum.
'I never went without anything. I'd actually say my childhood was rich. There was very little money, and yes, I didn't get designer trainers, but who needs those? My mum struggled to bring three kids up on her own, but she did it, and brilliantly.
'She gave me everything I needed. My big break was directly down to her because she gave me her last few pounds to get a train into London to go to a dance class.
'But the biggest thing she gave me was my positive outlook. She taught me that you really can cope with whatever life throws at you - and stay happy to boot.
'She is the happiest person I know. It would have been so easy for her to be destroyed by what happened to her, or turned into a bitter person who doesn't trust anyone. But she's not. She's in another relationship now and has been for the past ten years. Crucially, she has managed to forgive, if not forget. It takes strength to do that.'
History does repeat itself. Alesha has had her own painful experience of men who disappoint. Her very public marriage, to rapper MC Harvey, started out in glossy magazine pictures, with the couple hailed as the Posh and Becks of the urban music scene (albeit with a bit more edge).
Things fell apart spectacularly in 2006, however, when Harvey had an affair with Alesha's friend, singer Javine Hylton. The pair went on to have a child, which was vinegar to the wound. Alesha's near breakdown during that period - at one point she was incapable of even getting out of bed - is well documented.
Painful: Alesha's marriage to rapper MC Harvey fell apart when he had an affair with her friend, singer Javine Hylton
She still refers to it as 'the worst time of my life', but credits her mum with giving her the strength to call time on her marriage.
'Mum would never tell me what to do, but she was a huge support at that time. She kept telling me I would be strong enough to do whatever I needed to do - and she was right. I've forgiven Harvey too, in the same way she did to her ex-partner.
'The way I see it, you have to really. Otherwise you just become twisted by it, and you have all this baggage that you end up carrying into the next relationship. I was determined to take back control.'
Interestingly, the break-up of her marriage coincided with a career crisis too, when she was dropped by her record company. She says she took 'the biggest gamble of my life' by agreeing to appear on Strictly Come Dancing.
'That was about me taking control of my own destiny too,' she muses. 'It really could have gone either way.
'I spoke to influential people in the music industry, asking if my music career would be shot to pieces by appearing in a reality show. The feedback was divided. Some said: "Yes, it would be suicidal." But I went with my instincts.
'With hindsight, it was a pretty good call. When I say Strictly changed my life, I really do mean it. It opened up a whole new world for me.'
Juggling music, her role on Strictly, and the documentaries seems to be where Alesha is most comfortable - being on the move, constantly working. Her self-assured new album, The Entertainer, reflects how she's grown as an artist.
'I feel I've made an album that's really personal to me. I was determined to make a record that took me in a new direction.'
Alesha professes surprise when I suggest her life clearly hasn't always gone according to plan.
'I'd say my life has gone 100 per cent to plan. There have been a few mishaps, but I'm still on track. I'm 32 years old and I own my own house. I make my own decisions professionally. I'm at that point where I don't have to lie awake in the middle of the night wondering if I'm going to be dropped from Strictly, or if I'm going to get another album deal.
'I'm not complacent - hell, none of us knows if we will even be here next year, never mind have successful careers - but I'm at a place where I am content.'
She's at an age where all her friends are having children, yet insists she's not too bothered about the ticking biological clock.
'I'd love kids, but I'm not broody at all, which surprises me a bit. I don't look at my friends who have kids and think, "I wish that was me". I'm pretty happy in my own life.'
And happy on her own? She thinks for a while. 'Obviously I'm nervous about giving my heart away again. That's why I'm still single.'
As she says, for perhaps the 50th time, at the moment she's relishing being in control of her own life - whether that means in terms of men, money or the state of the kitchen floor.
'I don't need a man to be happy, and I get so annoyed with my friends when they say they do. One called me up the other day moaning, "I need a man, Alesha", and I gave her a stern talking-to. I said, "You don't need a man. It's like when you say you need chocolate. You don't. No one needs chocolate. You aren't going to die without it."'
Still, it takes incredible self-control to refuse a Galaxy, sometimes. She laughs her head off. 'Well, maybe you can have a little bite once in a while, but the trick is knowing when to stop.'
Alesha's new single, Radio, is out on 28 November, followed by her album, The Entertainer, on 29 November. Strictly Come Dancing is on BBC1, tonight, 6.15pm.
Styling: ELIZA SCARBOROUGH. Hair: SHARON MILLER. Make-up: KYM MENZIES FOSTER.
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