The Grammy fave ''Kiss from a Rose'' is the balladeer's sweetest coup

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated February 16, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

To get a quick lesson in the art of living well, watch Seal eat a plate of fruit.

Seal does not eat fruit the way most people do. Seal eats fruit as if he’s seducing it, as if each slice of orange or cantaloupe were his mistress. His left hand lingers over the plate, selects a ripe blackberry, raises it to his lips. He spends nearly a minute with that blackberry, savoring every pearl of juice. ”I think it’s important not to deny yourself the things that you want,” he offers between bites, resting his 6’4” frame on a couch at a Los Angeles hotel. ”I try to live each day like it’s the last one.”

Lately that credo has been easy to heed. ”Kiss From a Rose,” a rococo ballad that appeared on both Seal’s second album, Seal, and the Batman Forever soundtrack, luxuriated in Billboard‘s top 10 for 17 weeks and recently landed him three Grammy nominations, including Record and Song of the Year. And that’s just the dessert course to a grand feast: The same album, Seal, also generated five Grammy nominations last year. ”It’s amazing,” he marvels, wooing a strawberry. ”It’s particularly rewarding because people say the second album is the most difficult album you will make.”

Well, actually, it was difficult: He and producer Trevor Horn tinkered with Seal’s rich madrigals and verdant soundscapes for more than three years. But by now, Seal’s fusion of the spiritual and the swank has sold in excess of 3 million copies — and his music has become a satiny soundtrack for, shall we say, eating fruit in the ’90s. Suggest that he presides over the act of love the way Barry White did in the ’70s, and Seal erupts into a kingly laugh. ”That’s a great thing. Because when couples are getting it on, they’re usually at their most vulnerable, and the choice of music in that situation is extremely important. In a perverse way, I guess they’re allowing me into their sex lives.” At the moment, Seal himself is single.

”I’m sure if he’s ever alone, it’s by choice,” says Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher, who oversaw the ”Kiss From a Rose” video. ”He sings with his whole body and his hands and his fingers. He is very sensual.” No wonder fans consider Seal a kind of silken shaman — half spiritual seeker, half sybarite. He drives a Mercedes, leases a home in the Hollywood Hills, plays tennis with Regis Philbin, snowboards in the Swiss Alps. He has a designer, David Cardona, who caters to his sartorial needs; he has a faith healer, Brue Richardson, who tends to the celestial. Like Sting and Bryan Ferry, Seal is that brand of British pop star with a flair for finery, from the buttons on a Savile Row suit to the snow on a Colorado slope. ”I love nice things,” he concedes. ”I’m a material junkie.”

But Seal, whose full name is Sealhenry Samuel, didn’t come to that princely state by the luck of the draw. He was born in England 32 years ago to working-class Nigerian parents, and he grew up on a steady diet of strife. ”Kiss From a Rose” may sound like a reel from the court of Versailles, but Seal was homeless when he wrote it, biding his time eight years ago in a squatter’s flat in northwest London. Since he didn’t play an instrument, he composed the song’s honeyed layers in his head — and recorded them by cooking up an a cappella symphony with only tape machine and voice. ”In fact, I’m very fond of those years,” he says. ”I guess I was hungry. Hungry for success. Hungry for life in general.”

Maybe that’s because the squat felt like a suite at the Dorchester compared with his early childhood. When he was born, Seal went to live with a white foster family in Essex (for reasons he still doesn’t know), only to be reclaimed by his natural mother, Adebisi Samuel, a wig maker, four years later. She fell ill after two years and Seal was shuttled off again — this time to his father, Francis Samuel, an interior decorator possessed by a volcanic rage. ”My worst memories involve me just being flogged to the point of nearly collapsing,” Seal says quietly. ”My father was extremely violent. Extremely violent. When I was about 12, I remember being suspended from school and not telling my father.” When Dad found out, Seal says, ”I just received the flogging from hell.” He ran away from home at 15; his father died soon after. The son wound up taking his first journey to Nigeria to bury his father’s ashes.

Which helps explain why Seal might seek the comfort of a faith healer — or a custom-tailored suit, for that matter. ”I was one of those kids who looked in magazines and saw nice cars and nice houses and thought, Wow, one day I’d like things like that,” he says. Even during the leaner years writing songs in London, Seal betrayed a gentleman’s bearing. ”He’s always been very well-spoken, very polite,” recalls producer and friend Horn. ”He has good taste, which is something money can’t buy.”

When Seal got the itch for rock stardom, he was already in his mid-20s and couldn’t play a lick of guitar. To this day, the southpaw strums his six-string upside down. ”When I learned to play, I didn’t have money to buy a guitar, and I thought, The only way I’m gonna learn is if I can pick up any guitar in the studio. And they were all right-handed.”

The tide turned when Seal lent his pipes to ”Killer,” a percolating 1990 hit by a disco Svengali named Adamski. Seal cut his Warner Bros. debut a year later — also titled Seal — but the throb of London techno was only a thread in its plush tapestry of folk, glam, and soul. Seal’s first hit, ”Crazy,” smashed through a Maginot Line of radio formats and went into heavy rotation from nightclubs on the Riviera to mosh pits in the Midwest.

Even so, Seal himself remains a mystery. For years, fans have assumed that the pattern of dark, butterfly-shaped scars on his face springs from some Nigerian tribal rite. Actually, they’re remnants of a strain of lupus that he contracted at 23. ”People will always want them to be tribal scars,” he muses. ”That’s just the nature of the media — and of people’s imaginations.”

Not that Seal is ashamed of those scars — or the ones that lie deeper. ”I feel fortunate to have gone through such an abusive childhood,” he says. ”You can really learn from that abuse, try to fathom it, try to channel it out in a way that other people will benefit. I don’t think you can sing about pain if you don’t know what it is to be hurt.

”Nothing is for free, you know,” he goes on, flirting with a blackberry. ”Maybe that’s why I have such a great life at the moment. Because I really did pay my dues.”