For someone so Texan, Kelly Rowland has taken surprisingly well to British culture. She gets Simon Cowell-level sarcasm, does a passable English accent, doesn’t mind the cold too much, takes Sunday brunch at Julie’s in Holland Park and loves the sticky toffee pudding at The Langham hotel. ‘Sooooo good,’ she says, her Southern drawl transforming the height of British stodge into spirit-lifting soul food. In the evenings, when she’s not at Nobu or Hakkasan, she likes to hang out at the bar in the W hotel with Dermot O’Leary, go to The Box, get in the studio with super-producer Calvin Harris and sing at parties for Elton and Richard Branson (once, sitting on my knee during a slow number, Vegas cabaret-style, she made me blush).
Whoever knew that one third of Destiny’s Child, a girl who comes from a state where, according to her, dinner is ‘either smother-fried or soaked in gravy’, would end up being a girl about Mayfair and Marylebone? When it comes to the Queen, according to Kelly they’re practically neighbours. ‘I’ve actually been living just down the street from her,’ she says. ‘When I moved into the ‘hood, I was hoping I would get to see her walking the dawgs. But I guess she has people to do that for her. She’s the Queen, so she got it like dat, right?’
Yes, Kelly, Her Majesty has indeed got it like that. I can’t help smiling every time Kelly talks hip-hop to me. It’s ghetto-cute and deliciously out of kilter with the mullioned windows of the St Pancras Renaissance hotel where we meet. She tells me my tie is ‘dope’, informs me that I am wearing the waistband of my trousers at just the correct height, not all low-slung like in the USA. British men I discover, in general, are ‘fly’.
If Kelly needs to pop over to Paris to see her friend and producer David Guetta, she does the London thing and hops on the Eurostar. ‘I like the time you spend on the train. Very calming and relaxing. Then, when you get to Paris… time to par-ty!’ In the summer, she did what all fashionable young Londoners like to do; she went to Ibiza. The trip proved to be something of a revelation. ‘That place is wild,’ she says, describing dancing at David Guetta’s F*** Me I’m Famous! club until dawn, then hanging out at the beach during the day, sleeping off the excesses of the night before. Then waking up and doing it all over again. The F-word doesn’t sound quite right coming out the mouth of one so wholesome, church-going and well-mannered. And she doesn’t deliver it confidently either, as if she’s barely said the word before.
‘I do love being over here, the people, the humour,’ she says. ‘But sometimes I get a bit homesick.’ The other night, Kelly found herself missing America more than ever and, needing to get a fix of something that reminded her of the huge retail spaces of home, she put on some big sunglasses and an oversized hoodie and had her driver take her to the 24-hour Tesco on Cromwell Road. ‘A big grocery store always reminds me of home and it felt good to walk along the aisles and buy my own stuff and take it back to my kitchen,’ she says. Did she get spotted as she perused the BOGOFs and meal deals? ‘Honey, I looked like a crazy person… no one recognised me.’
Kelly was born in 1981 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her full name is Kelendria Trene (‘Tren-nay’) Rowland. ‘I always figured that my momma gave me a name with all those syllables because I put her through so much pain,’ says Kelly. When she was seven, her mother Doris Rowland Garrison left her violent, alcoholic father Christopher Lovett and relocated to Houston, Texas, with little Kelly in tow. Despite recent attempts by her father for reconciliation, she hasn’t spoken to him since.
Still in her early teens, Kelly went to church on Sundays, sang in the choir and joined an
all-female rapping, singing and dancing outfit called Girl’s Tyme, which included her friend Beyoncé Knowles. Originally the band was a six-piece, but it was eventually reduced to four hard-working members. ‘I think it’s important to say that we were not your average kids,’ she explains. ‘It’s amazing that God made our paths cross because we all had the same dream and the same work ethic.’ Which was gruelling, to say the least. ‘During the summers, we would wake up at 6am and jog one lap around the block. Then on the next lap we would jog and sing. Then we would do another lap and jog, sing and harmonise, making sure that everything was tight. Then we would get home and watch videotapes of Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, the Jackson Five and En Vogue while we ate, and after that we would rehearse. After that we would do voice lessons, followed by more rehearsals.’
Didn’t the girls feel that being so committed to work they were missing out on being teenagers? ‘Dude, we were only about 14 or 15, we weren’t even thinking about sex or nightclubs or that sort of thing. We just wanted to go to Astroworld [a theme park in Houston]. We would hang out at Momma T’s [Tina Knowles, Beyoncé’s mother] hair salon, singing for all the ladies having their hair done, then go round with a cap and get money so we could get enough to go to Astroworld again.’ It sounds rather exhausting. ‘Yes, but it was what we wanted to do,’ says Kelly. ‘It was by being so committed that our management saw so much potential in us. We weren’t normal kids. We were different. We had a dream and we believed it would come true.’ Except it didn’t… for a while. The band’s management encouraged Girl’s Tyme to enter the US TV talent show Star Search, The X Factor of its day. They failed. How did that feel? ‘You think your life is over. You really do,’ she says immediately. ‘But you get straight back up there and go out and you kill the stage again. That’s what it’s all about.’
Surprising then, that almost 20 years down the line Kelly agreed to sit on the judging panel of The X Factor, a show that fast-tracks fleeting fame and effectively removes hard work and dedication from the equation. ‘You know, I felt the same way about the show before I started working on it, but when you get involved and you see what the kids do away from the cameras backstage, you have a different kind of respect for them. They have to learn two songs in just two or three days. They have to do interviews and have cameras following them. Theirs is pressure on a different level. It would freak some people out. You could take that kind of attention as “Hey, I’ve arrived” or “I’m just scratching the surface”. The way you perceive it is crucial to how you take it to the next level.’
Kelly and her three girlfriends – now renamed Destiny’s Child and managed by Beyoncé’s father – had their breakthrough in 1997 with ‘No, No No’, swiftly followed by club bangers such as ‘Bug a Boo’. Two members were consequently dropped, two more hired, another dropped, and eventually the world-beating trio (Kelly, Beyoncé and Michelle Williams) came together, determined to take things to the next level. ‘Independent Women Part 1’ and the girl-power anthem ‘Survivor’ were huge hits and by the time Destiny’s Child disbanded in 2005, the band had sold more than 40 million albums and 20 million singles. A tough act to follow for a newly solo artist.
In the shadow of Beyoncé’s incandescent mega-stardom, Kelly seemed to struggle to find her musical identity, dabbling in pop, R&B, hip-hop and Whitney-esque belters. But she found her niche after meeting French DJ turned producer David Guetta (The Black Eyed Peas, Usher, Leona Lewis) in 2009. ‘I come from an R&B background so I was looking for something different,’ she says. ‘David had this house backing track and I just sang over it in a kind of soulful way. David said, “I lurve eeet!” ’ The anthemic ‘When Love Takes Over’ with its peaks and troughs and uplifting chorus relaunched Kelly as a Euro-house diva, all oily legs, cosmetically enhanced cleavage, provocative dancing and killer heels.
Simon Cowell liked what he saw in Kelly 2.0 so much he called her up and offered her The X Factor gig (after Dannii Minogue had allegedly turned it down and Cheryl Cole had allegedly refused to return after an ignominious exit from the panel of the American The X Factor at Cowell’s behest). ‘I’d heard rumours he wanted me,’ she says. ‘But really the call came out of the blue. I figured I’d been blessed with 15 years in the business and it was time to start letting other people have the benefit of my experience. I said yes straight away.’
She does an amusing impression of Cowell, stretching out every nasal, estuary vowel into a creepy, comedic drawl. ‘It’s actually a very clever way of talking because you don’t have to say much and it makes other people listen to you.’ When she signed up for The X Factor Cowell sent her a silver-framed photo of himself and the message ‘Thanks for everything, Lippy’. Why does he call her Lippy? ‘I think it’s because I have something of a smart mouth and I am not afraid of him.’ Indeed. Kelly used the word ‘freakin’ on live TV, got accused of being drunk on screen and was even bold enough to pull a sickie, sneaking off to the US halfway through filming The X Factor. A backstage feud with fellow judge Tulisa was mooted – a fracas apparently designed to whip up falling ratings. Still, she says she’ll do it again, if she’s asked.
We talk about Kelly’s religious beliefs and I wonder how she squares up the sexually explicit bump and grind of her professional life with her wholesome Christian side. She says she is religious ‘in every way’, attending church at home and listening to the teachings of white-toothed megapastor Joel Osteen while she’s on the road. (Osteen, by the way, believes homosexuality to be a sin, a notion which might not play too well with Kelly’s flamboyant friends on the Pacha dancefloor.) ‘I think I’ve always dressed and behaved with integrity and as long as my momma’s OK with what I look like, I’m OK and I don’t care what anyone else says. I don’t care too much about being judged.’
The decision to have her breasts surgically enhanced – former ‘little nuggets’ now modestly increased and tastefully proportional to her Amazonian physique – was, she says, ten years in the making. ‘It’s something I really wanted to do for myself, not for a man, not for work, for myself. And I love them.’
To keep herself in trim Kelly does intensive cardio – ‘There ain’t no problem that can’t be solved with a treadmill’ – while listening to the new Jay-Z and Kanye West album Watch the Throne, and has her personal chef prepare her salads of beans, quinoa and occasional treats of macaroni cheese. She keeps herself in shape but refuses to obsess. ‘I don’t care about what people in the business say about the way I look,’ she says. ‘I just want to feel good and eat clean for myself. And I want look good nekkid.’
She says she’s ‘not ready’ for kids just yet. ‘I won’t be jealous when Beyoncé’s baby arrives. I’ll just be just happy to pick her up and put her down again.’ Instead she is busy planning her next career phase: exploiting her increasingly ‘nekkid’ image, ramping up the Kelly brand. She’s released a Sexy Abs workout DVD and is the new face of TW Steel watches. A clothing line is also rumoured to be in the offing, and the scone and sticky toffee pudding-loving Anglophile has plans for a chain of restaurants. ‘I want to have a breakfast spot serving amazing food,’ Kelly explains. ‘And I want to call it Morning Wood. I think that would be so dope, don’t you?’ Damn. First the sitting on the knee, now this. Kelly Rowland has made me blush again. ES
Kelly’s third album Here I Am is out now