Alexandra Burke Was ‘Asked To Bleach Her Skin’ After X Factor Win
Alexandra Burke has spoken out about how she was ‘asked to bleach her skin’ after her The X Factor win.
Since her win in 2008, Burke has gone from success to success. In her career as a singer, she has had three singles reach UK number one, and one album at a UK number one. She went on to star in West End musicals, The Bodyguard and Sister Act The Musical. Burke also took part in Strictly Come Dancing, signed a record deal with Universal Music Group’s Decca Records, and has continued to excel in her musical theatre career since. It was announced in June 2021 that she will even star in a film, playing a character inspired by Tina Turner.
Despite the 32-year-old’s success, however, Burke has opened up about immense challenges she faced due to racism she experienced within the entertainment industry, and claims that she was even asked to bleach her skin.
After the murder of George Floyd last May, Burke said she cried every day for two weeks. She told The Guardian, ‘All I could think about was my two brothers, who are constantly stopped by the police, and the black men in my family – my cousins, nephews.’
She goes on to say how her ex, who was white, could not understand why she was crying. She said, ‘When I tried to explain about white privilege, the first thing he said was, ‘Don’t attack me, I’m not racist’.’
Burke recalls how she did not initially have any intentions of going public about her experiences of racism within the music industry. However, when working on a song about Black Lives Matter and talking about how she felt about the movement, suddenly was taken over by the urge to speak out.
In the Instagram video, Burke asks fans to forgive her for her nervousness, and that she has just been ‘really frightened’ to speak her truth. She states how the video is not to ‘bash anyone’ or to be a ‘negative video’, it is just her speaking about what she has been through the ‘past 11 years’.
Burke continues by telling about how she was born in Islington and how her mum raised Alexandra and her three siblings singlehandedly, with the help of her auntie and grandfather.
Burke’s mother, Melissa Bell, was a singer in the 1980s band Soul II Soul and was Burke’s manager until she was 15 years old. Burke said she was raised to have ‘thick skin’ and to be a ‘strong, independent, young Black woman’.
Burke goes on to say, ‘I am very proud to be a Black woman. I am proud of my culture, my heritage, I am proud of what my family have done, what they have sacrificed for us kids to be in this industry.’
While Burke says Bell raised her to fight off any negativity and always try to be positive, she goes on to describe how Bell had a tough time in the industry as well, due to being a Black woman. She says that her mum was regularly ‘judged’ for her dreadlocks, judged for simply being a Black woman and for the ‘fact that she spoke her mind, was strong and independent’.
Burke says that Bell warned her of the experiences she would face in the industry as a Black woman. Burke tells fans that she ‘thinks it is only right’ to share her experiences, as it may help encourage others to feel able to speak up too, ‘to inspire other people to speak their truth’.
She goes on to recall her first experience, aged 16, when she first auditioned for The X Factor (her second audition came when she was 19 years old). Burke recollects how aged 16 she made it to the round that takes place at the judges’ houses.
Without naming anyone, Burke then details how she did not make it through, but was told by someone to call them in a few months. She waited and then called him, seeking work, but says she was told, ‘I already have one Black artist, I don’t need another’. Burke goes on to say how she ‘still doesn’t know how to take that now’. She says how it ‘sucked’ to not have an opportunity that had been previously promised, attributing it to her skin colour.
Burke said that if she did not have the love she has for music, she ‘would definitely not be in this industry’. She goes on to explain ‘a few’ reasons.
Burke recalls that when she first won The X Factor, she was told that because she was Black, she would have to work ’10 times harder than a white artist’.
She explains in the video that she was told she was ‘not allowed to have braids’ or ‘an afro’ or ‘anything that basically is my identity’. Burke also says that she was told that she had to have hair ‘that appeals to white people’ to be ‘understood better’.
Burke goes on to allege that she was ‘told to bleach her skin’ after her The X Factor win, which she refused to do because it was absurd to her. She said, ‘Still to this moment it breaks my heart’.
Sorry if I get emotional guys. So many people know me as an emotional person and I’m really trying my hardest to hold back tears, because it’s really heartbreaking, the sh*t that went on.
Burke continued by saying that she has experienced microaggressions ‘so many times’. She says how she has been told ‘regularly’ and by previous management companies that she should ‘smile more’ on social media, as she comes across as ‘aggressive’. Burke said she was even told by a label that she ‘could not have any baby hairs showing’, due to that making her ‘come across as aggressive’.
She goes on to speak about how her style of music was limited too, being told that she could not release certain music as was told that ‘white people won’t understand it’. She said, ‘To have that dictated to you so many times, at different levels by different people. I’m so upset with myself that I allowed that.’
Burke gets upset as she speaks of the ‘joke’ of how she could have spoken up ‘much earlier’, but that she was ‘too scared to’. She goes on to say how even posting this video scares her.
Burke speaks of how she lost her mum on the same day as her Strictly Come Dancing reveal, but that her family convinced her to carry on and do it, her auntie telling her, ‘This is what your mum would have wanted.’
She says that while she attended the event, she ‘couldn’t do the press’ because she felt like she would just ‘break down’ if she ‘opened her mouth’. Burke said no one knew about her mum’s passing as they had wanted to keep the news private and because it ‘didn’t feel real’. She recalls how a journalist came up to her, calling her ‘a diva’ for not talking to the press.
If I could rewind time, actually I don’t know what I’d do. But to have someone say that, that was the image they had of me because of papers. Particularly this one journalist […] He has painted me out to be a complete and utter b*tch.
During her time on Strictly, Burke ended up getting injured and taken to hospital. She recalls not saying anything in case she got perceived of ‘playing the victim card’. She said that this specific journalist then proceeded to say she had been backstage ‘throwing chairs’, ‘screaming’ and ‘doing this and that to her partner’, but that she had been in hospital at the time.
Burke recalls she remembers thinking, ‘Why can’t anyone stick up for me? Why can’t a) Strictly, or anyone from the BBC say something?’
She explains she was told to ‘be quiet’ and ‘not say anything’, which is now one of her ‘biggest regrets in life’. She explains how she was being trolled for whatever she did and whatever reaction she had.
Burke claims that her fans, friends and family got her through it, and thanks audience members of Strictly who contradicted the journalist’s reports of events, calling him out on social media.
She concludes the video by saying she believes that she received all the negative treatment ‘simply because’ she is a ‘Black, strong woman’ who can ‘speak out for herself’, having been taught to do so by her mother. Burke says she tries to never speak out in a way to hurt anyone, simply in a way in which she can speak her own truth.
In the video, Burke says how it is the ‘first time’ she has felt able to ‘speak up’ and that the movement has meant it felt like the ‘right time to do so’.
That’s just my truth and I wanted to share my experiences with you guys. To be told all the time, because you’re a Black girl you wont really make it that far, or if you were white you’d be bigger than you are now […] I’ve been told that from several labels and management companies, and it’s hurtful.
Burke thinks that the music industry has learnt some lessons since her time on The X Factor. However, while changes have been made and she prays that one day things will change completely, Burke doubts that it will be ‘in our lifetime’.
The journalist who published the stories about Burke during her time in Strictly, Dan Wootton, has since apologised to her. She said, ‘I loved my time on the Strictly dancefloor but I’ve had to put the rest of that period behind me and I’ve had to have therapy to do that. I just really encourage people not to believe everything they read.’
The X Factor has recently announced its cancellation after 17 years. Burke is ‘actually quite sad’ to see it go, noting that she did have a ‘wonderful experience on it’. However, she says how her mum being in the industry significantly helped prevent anyone from walking all over her.
Burke details how it was Simon Cowell who pushed her towards pop, which meant she could sing and dance at the same time. She says how she was happy in that genre and never felt pushed into creating certain styles of music that other Black artists have spoken up about having to do.
Burke is currently dating West Ham United goalkeeper Darren Randolph. She notes the ‘horrendous’ racist abuse that took place after the Euro 2020 final. She explains, ‘This is why I say it’s a slow change and I don’t know if it’s going to completely change in our lifetime.’
Since lockdown, Burke has taken part in a reality television series, acted in her first film, Pretty Red Dress and is currently starring in West End musical Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat as the first-ever Black narrator.
She says that she spoke to a girl in the cast who asked her how long she had been the narrator. Burke recalls telling the girl how it was her first time and that she was the ‘first Black woman to do it in the West End’. The young girl replied, ‘So you’re telling me I could do this too?’
Burke explains that the girl’s response made her emotional, remembering how she was once that small girl with a big dream ‘who didn’t see what was possible for me because of my colour’.
Burke will be starring as the narrator at the London Palladium production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat until September 5.
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