Three years ago, Leona Lewis won Simon Cowell’s The X Factor, Britain’s version of American Idol. She wasted no time delivering on that promise—less than a year later, “Bleeding Love” became a transatlantic number-one smash and one of the most ubiquitous songs of the year. She sat down with EW to talk about singing with Cyndi Lauper at Thursday’s VH1 Divas concert, her new single “Happy,” and the cuddly side of Simon Cowell.
Entertainment Weekly: The VH1 Divas thing was last night, how did that go?
Leona Lewis: It was good, it went really well. I did a duet with Cyndi Lauper, which was really cool, we sang “True Colors” and then I performed my single “Happy,” so I had a good time.
EW: Which Lauper do you prefer—the wild new-wave songs or the more ballad-y stuff?
LL: I like her ballads, of course, “Time After Time” just like everyone likes, and “True Colors,” it’s so outstanding. She was telling me about what she wrote it about: It was when her friend died and they didn’t know what he had died of, and it was just a really emotional time for her and you can really hear that in the song. For me that’s what it’s about—it’s about conveying that real, raw emotion and you really hear that in her songs and through her voice.
EW: How does it feel to be performing with people you look up to? Do they feel like peers to you or does part of you still think, “God, these people are so famous”?
LL: Yeah, you feel like, “You are a huge star and you’ve had so much success,” like with Cyndi and your Sheryls. And they’re still going today and so relevant and strong and they’re inspiring.
EW: Now, let’s talk about “Bleeding Love.” Jesse McCartney and Ryan Tedder co-wrote that song, was it written for you?
LL: It wasn’t supposed to be for me, and it wasn’t actually even supposed to be heard by me but we managed to get hold of it. Of all the songs they sent, they just tagged this one at the end, just put it on to see, so it was a little surprise.
EW: So a producer or someone gave you the tape?
LL: Yeah an A&R person gave it to me, just “Listen to this song and see what you think.”
EW: When you heard it did you immediately decide it was perfect for you?
LL: Yeah, I was like, “This is a great song—we need to do it.”
EW: Now “Happy” is a song you co-wrote. Having co-written it, do you feel like more is at stake, like you want it to do especially well?
LL: I want all of my songs to do well whether I’ve written them or not. It’s just about the song and about people relating and connecting to the song. And I think the songs speak for themselves really and if people like it they’ll embrace it.
EW: What was the inspiration for that song?
LL: The inspiration was… we felt like happiness is something everyone strives to have, and sometimes it’s not just about being happy, but if you have obstacles in your life that you have to get over to be happy. And it’s just about that striving to get there.
EW: Was there anything going on in your life at the time you were struggling with or was it more about your personal history?
LL: Yeah, it was kind of like looking back at all of the things I’ve been through, just kind of putting that into the song.
EW: What are you listening to these days?
LL: I’ve got a really eclectic range of songs that I listen to, I’ve got Alicia Keys—I love her—like Zero 7, Sia, Stevie Wonder. I like everyone and everything.
EW: Do you watch The X Factor or American Idol?
LL: I try to. Because I travel so much it’s kind of hard to, but I try to do it on the… I think you guys call it TiVo? Where you record it, and then watch it when I get home.
EW: Just X Factor?
LL: Really most X Factor, but I catch American Idol because I’m in America quite a lot.
EW: How do you feel watching it now?
LL: Ohhh… I’m like, gosh, that was such a hard journey, it took a lot to get up on that stage every week and be judged like that. It’s difficult, but at the same time, we put ourselves in that position and we want it, so you have to do it. I just support the people who do it: Just go for it.
EW: Is it painful to watch?
LL: Yeah, I get nervous for them, I know exactly how they feel.
EW: You’ve been with your boyfriend a long time—how long?
LL: Seven years.
EW: But you’ve known him since you were ten. When you were kids did you talk about this, like, “When I grow up I want to be a famous singer”?
LL: He knew. I was always singing and dancing and stuff so he’s just been part of it.
EW: And Simon, he’s such a snarky public figure, but he’s helped you so much… what’s he like with you?
LL: Yeah, with Simon I think what people don’t know is actually he’s quite shy. It’s kind of a facade to have that exterior of being a meanie… But then again he’s really honest, so he’s not lying, he’s just saying how he actually feels. But around me, I think he’s just a bit of a big old teddy bear.
More from EW’s Music Mix:
Leona Lewis’ ‘Happy’: Just because it’ll be a smash doesn’t mean I have to love it