fri 06/12/2019

Meeting Katherine Jenkins | reviews, news & interviews

Meeting Katherine Jenkins

Meeting Katherine Jenkins

The Welsh popular soprano discusses drugs, singing to troops in Helmand and cracking the pop market

Katherine Jenkins's glamorous image has, inevitably, drawn fire from classical singers of the old school

It’s pretty well understood that talent, good looks and hard work are not enough to guarantee you safe passage through the celebrity jungle nowadays. But for five years it looked as though they might be enough for Katherine Jenkins. Until recently the general view of Jenkins held that she was a nice, polite, touchingly naive, and unaffected young woman from Neath in South Wales, who just happened to be the most popular classically trained singer to emerge here in this century.

Her reticence appeared almost saintly. Jenkins never talked in public about her boyfriends, never dissed less musically gifted rivals such as Charlotte Church and was never photographed falling out of taxis at 4 in the morning. Until November of last year the notion that her past might contain embarrassing secrets – a phase of class A drug use, say, or a tangled family history – seemed highly unlikely.

It still does today. On the eve of a big show in Las Vegas - where her first interview since all the tabloid hoohah takes place in and out of the broiling desert heat - Jenkins does not come across as the secretive type. She chats for Wales and while occasionally saying that “she doesn’t want to dwell” on this or that she accepts that unwelcome media revelations are “all part of the job.” She insists that she has only “tried to draw a line between my music and my personal life.”

Jenkins does not come across as the secretive type. She chats for Wales

This hasn’t been easy. She tells of the problems she’s had with stalkers and overzealous fans. One man managed to sneak into her dressing room during a London concert. “ I was like, ‘hello, do I know you?’” Another cunningly identified her address in North London via the satellite pictures on Google Earth and started posting notes through her letter box. “He would always begin by saying ‘I’m not stalking you, Katherine, but' …!” Five guys on motorbikes once chased her car after spotting her leaving an event in the West End. “That was quite intimidating actually.” Even though the police haven’t responded to her complaints, she still won’t use bodyguards, except for one at her concerts.

Not that a bodyguard would have been much use to fend off the intrusions she’s endured recently. The trouble started with an interview Jenkins did with Piers Morgan for the men’s lifestyle magazine GQ in which Morgan laddishly pressed her to reveal the devil within Miss Jenkins – if there was one. She cheerfully declined to play the minx and when Morgan asked her if she had ever taken drugs she denied it.

The truth was, though, that Jenkins had taken cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis during her student days at the Royal Academy of Music. With a wide-eyed astonishment that seems to belong to a more innocent time than the one we all live in now, Jenkins says she’s “amazed that stuff I did at parties as a student is news.” But it was. After the GQ article ran last October one of her former party pals contacted Britain’s leading scandal-broker, the PR Max Clifford.

Forewarned about the imminent sale of a drugs exposé to a tabloid, Jenkins rang Morgan, whom she likes and calls “great fun”, and told him loads. She admitted snorting up to three lines of cocaine a night “usually at parties after getting drunk on too many Malibus and Cokes,” and suffering terrible hangovers the next day in which she felt “depressed and paranoid.” The comedown from Ecstasy, she said, was even worse: “I didn’t want to live.” She put it down to having fallen in with “a bad crowd” and insisted that she was “very naive about things like drugs. There was nothing like that around where I grew up.”

Morgan’s graphic but sympathetic account in a Sunday newspaper averted much of the "shock horror". There was however plenty of tabloid tittering and a droll "Excess All Arias!" headline. Although she says she hasn’t touched drugs since signing her first record contract in 2003 Jenkins seems slightly less repentant now, claiming that she “was just experimenting, really.” The most hurtful part of the disclosure, she admits in a pained whisper, was the betrayal by her so-called "friend". And she doesn’t want to dwell on that.

The first time I saw pictures of my sisters was in a national newspaper. I wanted to send them some flowers to say sorry, but I don’t have their addresses

No sooner had this storm died down than another blew up. This time the uncomfortable revelations were news to Jenkins herself. In March the Daily Mail ran a story claiming that she had two twin half-sisters by her late father’s first marriage. The women, both now 56, still live, as they have done all their lives, in Neath in South Wales, the town where Jenkins grew up. Following a tip-off, the reporter doorstepped Pauline Jenkins, who appeared wearing a towelling dressing gown and slippers. She said that, yes, she was Katherine's sister but that she “didn’t want to get involved in all of that”. Two months later Jenkins and the twins still haven’t met, and she hasn’t spoken publicly on the subject.

She again professes to be perplexed by what counts as news these days. “The first time I saw pictures of my sisters was in a national newspaper, which was quite upsetting for me. And I feel really sorry for them that they’ve got dragged into my world because I don’t think they wanted it. I wanted to send them some flowers or something to say sorry but I don’t have their addresses. Neath is quite a big town but I’m amazed that we’ve not met before. I still have friends there who are trying to sort that out.”

Though her mother apparently knew about her two step-daughters, neither she nor her husband ever spoke of them to Katherine or her younger sister. She doesn’t resent her mother’s silence, she says, “because mum’s like me, we don’t like to argue. If something’s an uncomfortable subject for us, we’d rather sidestep it.” Not dwelling on awkward matters is clearly a Jenkins family trait.

People who’ve worked with Katherine Jenkins in the past are quick to stress how ambitious she is. “Ruthless” is the term used by one who says “she’s good at moving on. There came a point when Katherine wanted to be seen at the Baftas and in Vogue magazine, and she made sure that she got new people in place who could deliver that.” She swiftly fired her first manager and, according to a former staffer at her record label Universal, “became quite demanding, and costly, in terms of hair and make-up.”

 

That Universal were happy to comply is a measure of the success that Jenkins’ mix of light classical favourites and old pop ballads such as "Somewhere", has enjoyed. Hers is not a unique formula. Other singers of the so-called "can belto" school – young, classically trained vocalists marketed as pop stars, like Simon Cowell’s operatic boy band Il Divo – have made "crossover" into a commercial hotspot recently. With six albums released and four million copies sold, Jenkins is the "can belto" school's leading soloist, and not just by virtue of her sweet and powerful mezzo-soprano. She has become one of the iconic blondes of the day

Her glamorous image has, inevitably, drawn fire from classical singers of the old school. A row erupted in February 2008 following Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s dig at “opera fakes” in an interview she gave to a newspaper in her home country, New Zealand. The gist of the Dame’s complaint was that singers like Jenkins can only perform with a microphone. They can’t cut it, unamplified, in an opera house. Representatives for Jenkins hit back saying they were “very surprised” at these criticisms, especially since Dame Kiri had recently sung a duet with Jenkins on one of her albums “for not a small fee”. Jenkins got the better of this spat after Opera Now magazine called Dame Kiri’s comments “rather short-sighted” and pointed out that Jenkins has never described herself as an opera star.

Dame Kiri would doubtless snort with derision, but Katherine Jenkins is now aiming to become a mainstream pop diva in the States

For the time being she has other plans. In October last year she switched record companies to sign a new £6m contract with Warners, the biggest deal yet offered to a classical artist. Jenkins says this was her idea, “because my manager doesn’t take any decisions without my agreement.” The most attractive element in it for her was the opportunity to work with David Foster. A Warners retainer, Foster is a prodigiously successful songwriter, producer and doyen of the power ballad who has presided over some of the biggest hits of the past 20 years, notably the monster from The Bodyguard movie, "I Will Always Love You". Dame Kiri would doubtless snort with told-you-so derision, but Katherine Jenkins is now aiming to become a mainstream pop diva in the States.

This is some mountain to climb. As Jenkins takes the stage at the Mandalay Bay Events Arena, one of the largest performance barns in Las Vegas, the ripple of polite applause barely extends beyond the first 10 rows. It’s clear that hardly anybody in the 8,000-strong audience has the faintest idea who this cute little blonde Brit in the green satin frock is. She might be a household name back home but Jenkins doesn’t even get a mention on tonight’s bill. The show is called David Foster and Friends, and he has a lot of them. His professional pals include Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Michael Buble. In the classical area Foster has worked with Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli. Compared to the "friends" who’ve turned up to sing or just hug and air-kiss tonight - Cher, Donnie Osmond and Paul Anka to name three – Katherine Jenkins ranks as a nobody.

The fact that she’s here at all is a measure of her ambition. It’s no accident that she has teamed up with a veteran hit machinist who chooses his projects with a shrewd eye and ear to their commercial success. Back stage before the concert the crinkly-browed, fast-talking Canadian is gushing in his admiration. “Katherine’s voice is right up there with the best. A singer like Whitney Houston, great as she is, if I ask her to do something she’ll give me something different. Anything I ask Katherine to do, she’ll exactly do it. Unlike a lot of the classically trained ‘popera’ people who can’t work outside the box, she’s hip.”

Jenkins never talks on the day of a performance for fear of straining her voice; and even if she did, conversation would be difficult tonight. A phalanx of suited bodyguards surrounds her, protecting the $5m diamond necklace she’s wearing as part of her sponsorship deal with the luxury goods brand Montblanc. On the day before the show however, Jenkins raves about Foster calling him “the best producer in the world for my taking my kind of music to a pop level. Not many producers are musically trained like he is. He has perfect pitch so he can hear something and immediately and write it down. Plus he has a very strong sense of what will work in America.”

America is important to her, she says, because it’s the gateway to the rest of the world. Her success so far has been limited to the UK and Europe and it is whispered that the reason why Universal let her go was because they felt she had plateau-ed: Jenkins has never had a million-selling album. Undaunted, she says she would love to tour America and perform a residency in Las Vegas one day. “I think every artist wants to do well in America. It’s a challenge. Not many people manage to crack it.”

Fair point. But given the problems that fame has brought her recently, you wonder why Jenkins is so keen to become public property in the land where celebrity is king. Naively or otherwise, she remains unfazed at the thought of being approached by clamouring fans and star-struck strangers in malls. “I don’t mind that. I get into conversation with people quite easily. I like it. That was one of my dad’s characteristics. He could talk to anyone. When people come up to David Foster they just wanna say good job, congratulations. That’s all they want. It’s very positive.”

Katherine Jenkins is a pop kid at heart. She says she has to be “either researching something or in the mood to listen to something classical. If I’ve been singing classical all day I want to listen to something I don’t have to think about.” She bops around the dressing room to Kylie’s greatest hits before every performance: “it’s become a superstitious thing with me.” The artists she names from her iPod are all pop and include the rapper Kanye West, Nelly Furtado and Beyonce. Her favourite is Amy Winehouse. “She’s mega-talented. I hope she can get over what she has to get over. I sometimes think I could have ended up like her. I don’t think I’d ever have got that bad, but who knows with drugs?”

Born in 1980, Jenkins was singing songs she heard on the radio before she started going to school. She adored Madonna. “The first song I bought was 'Material Girl'. I used to sing that all the time. I used to tell my mum I wanted to be a pop star, because that’s all I knew.” A precocious self-starter she entered a talent show aged 4 “just because I loved singing,” and won her first talent contest when she was 10.

Classical music is 'just the pop music of its day, really'By then Jenkins was a staunch fan of pop starlets Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan of whom she “still has good memories.” Classical music, which she maintains is “ just the pop music of its day, really”, she learned by the traditional route. Coming from the Welsh valleys, her vocal prowess meant she was soon inducted into the choral culture of the area, singing in the local church choir, her comprehensive school choir and, in time, the National Youth Choir of Wales. As a teenager she joined a group of travelling cathedral singers who toured Britain. It was no surprise to anyone when at 18 Katherine Jenkins won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.

Her home life up till then had been happy, and unusual in the respect that most of the parenting was done by her dad. Her mother Susan was 25 years younger than her father Selwyn – the same age in fact as his two unmentioned daughters by a previous marriage. When Selwyn opted to take early retirement from his manager’s job at a local factory in 1985, Susan went back to work as a hospital technician, screening mammograms for breast cancer. “She was the career woman. She’s very strong and she made me and my sister think about being independent, getting your own job and earning your own money.”

 

When I point out that house-husbands must have been quite a novelty in Neath in the 1980s, Jenkins seems surprised. “I suppose it was quite forward but it didn’t feel different to me because dad was so much older than my mum.” She loved being picked up from school, ferried to and from music lessons and having her tea cooked by her dad. She was heartbroken when in 1995 he died of lung cancer. Though she’s never been short of boyfriends – she’s currently dating the former Blue Peter presenter Gethin Jones – she has no plans to start a family in the near future. “I’m a perfectionist and it’ll have to be at a time when I can focus properly on that,” says the determined career-woman

Fellow students from her days at the Royal Academy remember Jenkins as “driven”. There’s a widely circulated rumour that she might have had a boob job during her time at the RA. Jenkins has denied it, but she was sufficiently interested in her appearance back then to enter a modelling competition in 2000 which got her crowned Face Of Wales. When a female member of the orchestra at the 2006 Classical Brits made a bitchy comment about her figure, Jenkins was so furious she hauled the conductor into her dressing room afterwards and had the woman summarily fired.

As a pop kid, the teaching at the Academy felt rather staid. “They aren’t interested in anything to do with presentation. It’s like, don’t move your hand unless its relevant to the song. Just stand there and sing. When I see someone I admire in concert I like to know why they chose this song, and what it means to them.”

Now I hear these kids saying I want to be a classical star, which shows that there has been a real breakthrough

After graduating Jenkins taught for a year at a comprehensive in Stevenage, then re-applied to the Royal Academy to study opera. At around the same time, she began punting a demo tape she made with a friend, which deployed a pop rhythm track against her singing "The Flower Duet" from the opera Lakmé. Whether it was down to her voice, the bold arrangement or her youthful good looks, she found herself at 22 signing a £1million recording contract, the richest deal ever offered to a debutant classical musician.

Out on the road supporting other singers such as Cliff Richard and Aled Jones, she soon noticed that the songs that went down best weren’t her arias. “I wanted to show people that opera was for everyone but I could hear that more contemporary pieces worked better in a live setting.” In response she cleverly devised a version of the Whitney Houston ballad "I Will Always Love You" with Italian lyrics to make it sound operatic. Within a year of the release of her first album Premiere in 2003, Jenkins’ big voice was being heard at the sort of big public events at which communal emotions run high - international rugby matches, cup finals, Live Aid. She sang before the Queen, and for Michael Parkinson’s TV show. In the world of light entertainment, Katherine Jenkins swiftly ranked as a heavyweight.

Then in a clever move which perfectly suited her new-for-old agenda, she became a 21st-century “forces sweetheart”. Cynics have scoffed but there is hard kernel of integrity here. Having been raised in a part of South Wales which is one of the traditional recruiting grounds of the British army, Jenkins knew several people from the Neath area who had been sent out to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight. After performing with Dame Vera Lynn at the 60th Anniversary of VE Day in the summer of 2005, Jenkins and the Dame shared a tearful private moment together backstage. “And Vera said to me, ‘You really must go out there and entertain the troops, you know.’”

So she did. The day after Tony Blair flew in and out of Iraq in December 2005, Jenkins helicoptered to Basrah, under the auspices of the British Forces Foundation charity, of which she is a trustee, to sing two free concerts for the troops. I accompanied her for the Sunday Times, and was with her at dusk on a Sea King, choppering to the main British base at Shaibah, when our helicopter was targeted by two ground-to-air missiles. Luckily, the pilot released decoy flares and after a fast and nearly vertical descent, we landed safely.

Close calls such as this can put you off traveling in war zones. I know it did me. But despite describing the experience as “terrifying”, Jenkins has risked her life on two more occasions supporting our boys and girls in the Middle East. She went back to Basrah for Christmas 2006 with the chef Gary Rhodes. “He cooked Christmas dinner and I was like a dinner lady, serving it up.” Then in February 2007 she flew to Afghanistan to entertain the troops in Helmand – a desolate place she remembers as “ strangely empty, with huge craters and obliterated buildings.” Last year she performed at the compound on Cyprus where returning British troops stopover to de-compress after a tour of duty.

Jenkins says that what she loves most on these trips is meeting the soldiers, “even though I know most of them don’t really like my kind of music.” This isn’t quite true. On our Basrah trip I recall the rapt attention she commanded from kids wearing Coldplay T-shirts, and Velvet Revolver baseball caps as she sang "I Will Always Love You". One of them came up to her afterwards and said her singing was “angelic”.

I also remember her final words on leaving Shaibah. “We all think we know how it is out here because we watch it on TV but until you see the circumstances in which these soldiers are living, being away from their homes at Christmas, you realise it takes really special people to do this.” Virtuous cliché it might have been, but coming from a woman who four hours earlier had nearly been incinerated by an insurgent missile, this felt like more than the prattle of an ambitious diva.

For an old-fashioned, on-her-best-behaviour sort of person, Katherine Jenkins turns out to be surprisingly keen on America’s sin city, Las Vegas. She certainly knows it well enough. Last year she came here with a girlfriend “because she’s a massive Cher fan” and Cher’s show at Caesar’s Palace is a Vegas fixture. A couple of years back Jenkins spent a week’s holiday sampling the epic kitsch of the hotels on the Strip, “which was fun but a bit too long, actually.”

On the day before her Vegas concert, Jenkins shows me round in the chauffeured stretch limo laid on for her by her record company. She displays a remarkable level of courteous concern for others at all times. She offers detailed advice to the chauffeur, Tommy, on his sinus problem. She spends as much time attending to her lady manager Tara – who formerly looked after the Appleton sisters from All Saints – as the manager does fussing over her. She keeps me plied with bottled water, and at one point thrusts a Krispy Kreme doughnut into my hand. So unused am I to this sort of unsolicited generosity from star interviewees that I initially assume she just wants me to hold it for her.

Once the photo shoot is despatched, Jenkins is keen to re-visit her favourite hotels. She loves being paddled around the Venetian’s indoor waterways in its mock gondola’s. She likes to take the view from the top of the Stratosphere tower, which bills itself as “the tallest building west of the Mississippi”. She’s not so hot on the Strat’s high-altitude rollercoaster ride, which dangles carloads of passengers in mid air above the viewing station. “Ugh! I would not go on that thing no matter what you paid me!” she squeals.

We wind up at the Wynn, the strip’s toniest hotel, with its own 200-acre golf course. The Wynn’s avenues of high-end designer boutigues are, in Jenkins’opinion, the best shopping in town. Clothes are a big interest of hers. She wore a red, white and blue Mark Jacobs outfit for her Basrah appearances in 2005. In September 2007 Jenkins modelled a Julien McDonald dress at a Fashion Relief event organized by Naomi Campbell. She inspects the contents of the Wynn’s priciest stores with a practised eye, calling out, “I’m just looking, thank you!” in a broad Welsh accent when sales assistants hover.

Lunch is at the Golden Steer, an antique eatery by Vegas standards which was once frequented by the leaders of the brat pack, Sinatra and Dean Martin. Also commemorated in the picture gallery on the wall is another old customer, Jenkins’ heroine Marilyn Monroe. She says she’s been infatuated with Monroe since she twigged that Madonna’s video for Material Girl was based on the movie Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend. “Then I started watching all her films. If I was off sick from school my mum would put Calamity Jane on.” As she became rich in her mid-twenties Jenkins began collecting original 1950s photographs of Munroe, which she prefers to the films “because she’s got more of that naivety and innocence mixed in with the glamour in them, I think.”

She inspects the Wynn's priciest stores with a practised eye, calling out, "I'm just looking, thank you!" in a broad Welsh accent

At this point, the notion that Jenkins still identifies with naivety seems less plausible. In the background now is her new American publicist, Liz Rosenberg, whose most famous client is Madonna. To judge from the way Jenkins banters with the Golden Steer’s barman – a genial old guy who has clearly never been called a “cheeky monkey” before – high-octane nattering is something Jenkins has developed a taste for during her recent spell recording in Los Angeles . She tells of a power lunch at LA’s Ivy Restaurant “which was great fun” and was attended by herself, Piers Morgan, Sharon Osborne, Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah and others. Jenkins’ easy way with wiseguys should serve her well in the States, you suppose, if and when the American TV chat show hosts come knocking.

How well the Americans will take to Jenkins’ music is harder to predict. The two songs she sings at the Foster concert – one a classical aria, the other a setting of a theme from The Godfather movie – are well received without bringing down the house. The Vegas crowd are more transported by the other female newcomer on the bill, a tiny 16-year-old Filipino with a bloodcurdling scream of a voice whose rendition of "I Will Survive" has everybody on their feet. Pop kid though she is, Jenkins is too cultured a vocalist, you feel, to compete with the likes of this histrionic child.

Nor does she particularly want to. Ambitious as she is for pop success in the States, on the day after her Vegas debut, Katherine Jenkins flies back to London to begin rehearsals for the Classical Brits at which she will sing a duet with her friend and occasional singing coach, Placido Domingo. While she’s home she will probably hook up with her gifted protégée Faryl Smith, the 13-going-on-30-year-old operatic singer who was a finalist in 2008’s Britain’s Got Talent and for whom Jenkins is now acting as a career mentor.

As far as she can see with her shrewd careerist eye, classical is still the way to go. “Now I hear these kids saying I want to be a classical star, which shows that there has been a real breakthrough over the last five years. And it’s one of the areas where album sales are doing best because people don’t download classical. They still want to buy CDs.”

It’s ruthlessly pragmatic thinking like this that leads one of Jenkins’ former associates to observe that “she has exactly what you need to be an international star,” and to add that “with Katherine it’s about more than just the music.” Is it, though? Jenkins doesn’t want to dwell on that. She smiles sweetly and changes the subject.

With six albums released and four million copies sold, Jenkins is the 'can belto' school's leading soloist, and not just by virtue of her sweet and powerful mezzo-soprano

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