How do you solve a problem like Alexandra? Maybe she isn’t the problem.
I was bullied at school. I may have mentioned it. From my very first day, when I ran enthusiastically to the Wendy house and put on a skirt from the dressing up box, to my last, when I unpacked my things from my locker – covered in knife marks and homophobic graffiti – I was tortured. It took many forms over the years, from the regular, violent stuff or the name-calling, to the more covert exclusion from games, victimisation through rumour mills, mocking of my intellect or lack thereof. It was, to say the least, very wearing. I would lie in bed at night, not always crying or scared, but usually puzzled, dismantling my personality piece by piece and examining it, wondering what I could change or suppress to make it stop. I would sing songs to myself or make up stories about what it would be like to walk into school one day and be… not popular, because I was never that deluded, but just allowed to exist, be myself with no fear of reprisals, not to have every movement or word scrutinised at all times, to simply be. I never got to find out. Every single day was a heavy weight on my back, like an extra rucksack full of stones. My eyes were dead and my smile pained. I retreated into books, and Lego, and a determination to get out of there as soon as I could. I was driven by the idea that one day, somewhere, I would live my best life, with no apologies and no regrets. I’m still working on it.
In 2008, years later, when the bullies’ faces had melded into one and they became a distant echo, a fever dream rather than the constant nightmare of my youth, I saw something special about a contestant on The X Factor. Step forward, Alexandra Burke. What could we possibly have in common? Very little on the face of it. I was a northern gay guy 12 years her senior. She grew up in Islington, and was a regular, if exceptionally talented, girl. And yet I saw a light in her eyes that made me think, “She just wants something better”. Hunger, maybe, but born of starvation, not gluttony. All X Factor contestants tell you “they really want it” and that it “means the world” but when I looked at Alexandra, I thought, “Yeah, she really does. In fact, she needs it.”
She wasn’t the favourite, by a long shot, either with the public or judges. But as one by one her competition dropped out, she began to shine – it was like watching a star being born before your eyes. She always seemed wary, however – worried about letting too much of herself show. She was young, but she wasn’t stupid; she knew how it went, and who you had to be if you were a young black woman on Saturday night primetime TV. She’d witnessed fellow Londoner Rachel Hylton being destroyed in the press for speaking her mind about the show, and for having a past. It must have been terrifying. There were contestants younger, blander, whiter and more… middle England than Alexandra, but none as talented and yet, TV contests voted by the public being what they are, it was still a surprise to find Alexandra in the show’s first – and as far as I know only – all non-white final, when she faced boyband JLS in the very last showdown. Everyone reckons the show-stopping duet with Beyoncé won her the show but, as epic as it was, I dismiss that. Her performance of the winner’s single afterward is what clinched it. Note-perfect, every word of a song she had likely only heard for the first time three weeks before – with a controversial Westlife-esque arrangement that had Leonard Cohen fans frothing – sung like she’d lived it, and meant it. Hallelujah indeed.
But from such a high there can be only a fall. Alexandra’s came fast, before she’d even left the studio. Excited by her win and pulled in every direction by presenter Dermot O’Leary trying to get her to first speak and then sing, she fell to her knees, tried to take in what he was saying and, when shown it, grabbed her winner’s CD single, dedicating it to everyone who voted for her. It was a gushing, emotional, starry reaction – truly a woman who could not believe she had won. Her debut album, released ten months later, was called Overcome. Boy, was she. But the reaction jarred with some. Only two years earlier, another female non-white winner, Leona Lewis, had stood kind of meekly embarrassed while talked through her win by then-presenter (and much better) Kate Thornton. She showed humility, disbelief, as did Alexandra, but Alex’s reaction was more “OMG YES” – as anyone’s would be, surely. Joyous, unrestrained. I sensed eyes narrowing across the country.
A few years later she returned to The X Factor as a guest judge, standing in for a “really sick” Kelly Rowland. Alex was excited to be there. What a coup to be the first contestant to cross over to the judges’ desk, to be the only one who truly knew how it felt to be on that stage putting everything you had into that performance. Alexandra was only too aware that chances like this didn’t come along every day. So she was a little over the top, she was extra, boisterous. She stole the show, especially with her “OK.com” catchphrase – and the rest of the panel wasn’t happy. Gary Barlow, a tax-shy, sentient oatmeal biscuit, rolled his eyes and mugged through all her (valid, helpful) feedback to the contestants, while Tulisa was very probable relieved not to be the newcomer for once and grimaced alongside, while Louis Walsh, whose last constructive comment on The X Factor sadly goes unrecorded, because it has never happened, also joined in. From then on, it was open season on Alexandra.
Accusations of fakeness can be hard to quantify. It’s a word bandied around about reality TV stars or presenters. Nobody seems to realise that if everyone in the public eye behaved like a “normal” person, the entertainment world would be full of deathly dull cardboard cutouts with all the verve of a bank manager or a Sainsbury’s self-checkout. With Alexandra, however, this supposed fakeness seems to inspire genuine, inexplicable, hatred – or at least the internet’s closest version of it. This year she’s performing on Strictly Come Dancing – go take a look on Twitter whenever she’s on camera. Some of the things people say about her are absolutely wild. You’d think all these people had been personally wronged by her, that she had said and done some monstrous things in the past, not simply been a bit… I don’t know, what is it? Full-on? Confident? Talented? Grateful? She can’t win. She clams up and says nothing – it means she’s cold and distant; people say they can’t “warm” to her. She gushes with joy about being on the show, or getting a good score – she’s a phoney, not being real, has an ulterior motive, or just wants to win. She stays straight-faced and listens to judges’ feedback, promises to do better next week – she’s too earnest, taking it too seriously. She sheds a tear over the death of her mother, who died days before the series started, or at the departure of a fellow contestant – she’s playing for votes, is laying it on thick, playing the sympathy card. So, you see, there is nothing left for Alexandra to do except… well what? Drop dead live on air?I guess then she’d be accused of martyrdom or spoiling everyone’s Saturday night. It’s that heavy, wearing sensation; it’s the rucksack full of stones. It is a sleepless night of “What do they want from me?” She can’t do anything right, so what should she do? Give up? Hell no. She’s carrying on.
Alexandra isn’t the only contestant on the show to attract mystifying criticism. 59-year-old Debbie McGee, who was married to the late Paul Daniels, has also shown natural aptitude and has been in turns just as gushing and serious as Alexandra, and she too has been accused of being a “ringer” – Alexandra has performed in the West End; Debbie had a ballet school – and playing on the public’s sympathies. What do you think the public are so frightened of when it comes to these two women? But Debbie’s treatment has been nothing compared with Alexandra’s. Week after week, an onslaught of ridiculous tabloid tales: she doesn’t get on with anyone; she’s a diva backstage; she is furious her partner Gorka is romancing another contestant; she had a screaming meltdown after being in the dance-off. Relentless, malicious and damaging claims that especially stick when the subject is a young black woman. But why are the tabloids so keen to bring her down? You could argue it’s a personal vendetta, but it’s more likely they’re merely tapping into the public’s perception of her as an easy way to get clicks on links and eyes on pages, reinforcing their suspicions about her.
It’s very difficult to have a conversation about Alexandra sometimes because as soon as you do, someone who doesn’t like her will pop up unprompted and remind you they’re definitely not racist. The deafening denials shut down any debate because, as we know, to be accused of being a racist is a much worse predicament than the actual existence of racism. It would perhaps be lazy and simplistic to state that the sole reason people can’t “warm” to Alexandra is that she’s black – and people will queue up to tell you otherwise, and that it’s something that “can’t quite put their finger on”. In our post-woke world, that something as basic as disliking someone based on their skin colour should still exist feels reductive. “It can’t be that,” they say, “it must be something else”, like racism was lasered out of existence just because Obama was president and Beyoncé’s still really popular.
So instead we go through the motions and take apart Alexandra’s personality, her psychological makeup. She is beautiful, talented, confident, believes in herself, works hard, enthusiastic, grateful, eager to please – so far this is the best school report in the world, right? But she is also, according to some, gushing, over complimentary, talkative, excitable, dramatic, theatrical, over the top, grating, mildly annoying, calculating, overly humble and modest – some of these are direct quotes. But when you look at the other contestants on the show, are NONE of them also like this? Are none of US? Does blond, pale, pretty Mollie – who was in a girlband for years – not gush about how she loves being on the show, or celebrate when she’s through, or crease up in gratitude, or try really hard? Is she not mildly irritating, as indeed we all are at some point? Same with Gemma (blond, white, actress). All the supposed negative character traits Alex (and to a certain extent Debbie) expresses are present and correct in her fellow female contestants. Male too, actually: Davood was effusive and practised like a demon, taking it very seriously. So why do they get a free pass when it comes to this behaviour? It is true that we must be careful when attributing low public votes to race – Strictly has always been about personalities as much as talent. Viewers like a journey, humility; they are tribal and, unlike the show’s judges, look to past glories as well as current performance.
But why are Alexandra and Debbie under such scrutiny, every action or word open to wilful misinterpretation? The only thing different from the others’ behaviour is totally superficial – Debbie is an older woman, and Alexandra is a black one. And both of them are good, and neither of them are behaving as this bizarre hive mind that is the British public would expect someone “like them” to behave. Why can Debbie get her legs so high? How can she do those lifts at her age? And as for Alexandra, well… what is it? If it isn’t her skin colour, what’s the problem? She’s too confident? Why don’t you want her to be confident? Must we always slice the tall poppies in two? She annoys you – OK, why exactly? You can’t put a finger on it? Try. She’s too fake? What does that mean? What’s lacking in authenticity for you? The way she expresses gratitude? You don’t believe she means it? Why? She’s not from a privileged background, or a stage school brat – so why wouldn’t she be genuinely grateful to be where she is now? Why does it shock you a celebrity can still feel impostor syndrome? Are we so jaded we assume she’s lying to get our sympathies? It’s working a treat, isn’t it?
Or maybe the problem is in the delivery. The way she speaks, her movements, her lingo. What is it that bothers you? Be precise, show your working. She talks like a confident young black woman from London, who knows every part of her behaviour is scrutinised from all angles, because she is expected to be a certain way to avoid upsetting the nice folks at home – and yet still can’t help herself sometimes showing actual emotion. She knows she has to work ten times harder, because there are instant expectations on someone of her background, who looks like her, who speaks like her. She grabs onto the positive, trying to make it work, stay focused, stay upbeat, not show emotion, get angry in case she seems aggressive, to speak plainly in case they think she’s faking it, not use too much slang or webspeak in case she seems unapproachable, too “street” or too common. She tries not to sound too starry or articulate in case she comes off as having ideas above her station, forgetting who she is, or where she came from – like anyone would ever let her. Imagine what it’s like being in Alexandra Burke’s head for even five minutes and have this internal merry-go-round of self-doubt, anxiety, bewilderment at what you’ve done wrong, and desperation to do your best and be the person you want to be. And then imagine how exhausting it must be. Would you even get out of bed in the morning? And this isn’t unique to her Strictly experience – this ghost has chased her a long time, completely without foundation.
You say this isn’t about race. OK. The people who don’t like her may well not be racist, and there’s more to disliking someone than sheer optics, but the immediate, unwritten expectations placed on this young woman on her behaviour, personality and looks are ALL about race – ask any black woman you know.
She probably won’t win Strictly Come Dancing; her journey hasn’t been as distinct as some other contestants’ and she has been unapologetically excellent in almost every dance, which is a turn-off to viewers who like a trackable narrative and fairy-tale endings. She will probably take it on the chin – she can’t win every Saturday night. But while there’s no law that says you have to love her, or even like her, for putting up with the ceaseless, vicious, malevolent abuse week after week simply for being herself, she deserves nothing less than your total, unwavering respect. Bow down.
And, Alexandra, remember what Beyoncé told you in that famous duet, which I watch once a month without fail: “Sing it, girl”.
And don’t you ever stop.
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