LEONA LEWIS booked a one-way ticket to Hollywood this week before performing a world-class gig for America’s top critics.
And after her amazing performance, it’s clear this young lady won’t be going back to Hackney for a while.
The X Factor winner made massive steps towards cracking the US as she wowed the country’s biggest songwriters and record company execs with her incredible voice at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles.
The former Pizza Hut waitress from East London displayed no sign of nerves as she belted out three huge power ballads — proving without a doubt she is the Next Big Thing.
The showcase was hosted by legendary music boss Clive Davis — the man who discovered Whitney Houston.
Speaking via a satellite link-up from Britain, Leona’s own mentor Simon Cowell told the US music bosses: “Leona Lewis has the best voice this country has produced for at least 30 years.”
I caught up with the shy 21-year-old before her big night to find out how life had changed for her since winning X Factor.
While the show’s runner-up Ray Quinn is brimming with childish excitement at his success, Leona seems unfazed by the daunting expectations of her music gurus.
I suspect she simply doesn’t realise just how talented she is — but that should change once she has a few hits under her belt.
Leona told me: “Everything has changed since the show. I haven’t stopped working.
“I’ve been in the studio working on songs, I’ve got rehearsals for the X Factor Tour and I just haven’t really had a chance to let it all sink in.
“This is my second trip to America and I do find it a bit strange place — it’s definitely not like Hackney!”
Leona has been staying at the posh Beverly Hilton since flying over last weekend. She got her first taste of the celebrity lifestyle after British Airways staff upgraded her.
She says: “I couldn’t believe it. I was booked on business class and I was travelling with my dad, so when they asked me if I’d like to be upgraded to first class I said no because I wanted to travel with him.
“But the staff said we could both be upgraded — it was really exciting. I got a huge bed, pyjamas and a fancy washbag. It was amazing.”
I chatted with her as we went on a trip up into the Hollywood hills to get her first look at the famous sign.
She had an entourage of at least ten people, including managers, assistants, publicists, and make-up artists. She seemed as puzzled as me as to why they were there.
Leona had had no time for sightseeing since arriving in LA as she rehearsed her songs for her showcase — Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word, Over The Rainbow and Summertime. She admits: “I do get nervous about performing but there’s not much you can do to calm your nerves except get out there and do your best.
“I am a confident person, but I’m just not a loud person. I’m not a look-at-me type.
“I think my singing is what gives me a voice. It’s like a release.”
Leona sold a million copies of her debut single A Moment Like This and was Christmas No1 after winning the talent show in December.
She is now set to go head to head with major stars including Take That for the Best Single gong at this year’s Brit Awards, which is backed by Bizarre. It will be decided by a live vote during the event on February 14.
But modest Leona says she doesn’t expect to beat the Take That lads who she met when she performed their hit A Million Love Songs with them on X Factor.
She said: “I just loved that song and I had to keep pinching myself that I was performing with Take That. I loved them when I was about seven years old. I guess Gary was always my favourite!”
A winner like this ... Leona wowed viewers on X Factor
Music insiders believe Leona will be as popular with US audiences as she was with British viewers. But she insists she isn’t moving over to Hollywood for good. She says: “I want to give something back to where I’ve come from. I love the place I grew up in — it’s my home — so I’m not going to turn into some diva and move away.
“With me, what you see is what you get. I’m not going to change and I’ll stay true to who I am.”
Leona’s proud parents are behind her every step of the way — wherever that may lead. Dad Joe, 46, a youth offending officer, is with her in LA while mum Marie, 42, a social worker, has been on the road with her whenever she can.
The singer is still haunted by family tragedy after it was revealed her cousin Adrian Henry, then 14, led a gang which raped an Austrian tourist in 1996 and threw her in a canal to drown.
Henry’s sister Niasha, died of cancer in 2000 at 17. Their mum Gem Louise died the next year of MS aged 38. And last year Leona’s cousin Billie, 14, died from leukaemia.
Leona sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow at Billie’s funeral and dedicated the song to her on X Factor. Performing the song at the showcase on Wednesday, she told the audience: “This song means so much to me, it’s very special.” Talking about her family tragedies, she adds: “I’ve had sad things happen.”
Leona credits her childhood sweetheart Lou Al-Chama, who she has been dating since she was 17, with getting her through the hard times.
They have known each other since they were nine years old and grew up on the same road.
Leona says Lou gave her the confidence to push on with her singing career when she became disillusioned by setbacks and disappointments.
She says: “I was getting a lot of knock-backs and doors shut in my face before X Factor but he always encouraged me. We’re totally committed to each other. We went on holiday to Dubai after X Factor. It was great to get away and spend some time together.”
There have been rumours the pair are engaged but Leona insists there is no truth in them.
She says: “Right now I want to concentrate on my singing career and my album. I want it to be the best it possibly can and I’m going to put all my efforts into that.”
We’ll be cheering her on all the way. She certainly has the talent to be a world-class superstar. http://www.thesun.co.uk/article/0,,11036-2007060784,00.html