Alesha Dixon: “The biggest risk brought the biggest pay-off”

Singer, Strictly winner and TV judge Alesha Dixon advises her younger self to keep the faith that one day she'll be a star

I was quite rebellious at 16 years old, and very sociable. I did like my clubbing. But I think when you’re 16 you tend to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, there’s so much pressure to succeed. So I was also worried about my GCSEs and what path I was going to take. Fortunately for me I always had quite a clear vision and even though I’m not doing now what I thought I should be doing – becoming a PE teacher – I was always one of these individuals that had a plan. So I was an interesting mix between somebody who was a bit of a rebel, but also quite sensible and focused on making sure that I carved out a career for myself.

Lots of people describe my childhood as tough [her father moved away when she was four, and her mother suffered domestic violence from a subsequent partner]. But I have great memories of being in a very loving household, with great friends and great family. But like lots of human beings I had challenging times and, of course, everything you go through shapes who you are. So I was very streetwise as a kid, very savvy and awake to the world. I wasn’t one of those 16-year-olds walking around in a whimsical fairy land. I had a strong grip on what the real the world was like. But at the same time I was a dreamer. I dreamt about creating the life that I wanted. I dreamt about having a successful family. I dreamt about being on stage and travelling the world. So as much as I was a realist, I was also an optimist.

I’ve always had a good relationship with my mum. She was great at supporting my optimism. So when I said to my mum, I’m interested on singing or I’m thinking about joining a girl group – most parents would be freaked out by something like that. They’d tell you to get a sensible job. But she was always encouraging me, saying things like, it’s very important when you wake up in the morning that you enjoy what you do, that you love what you do, because that’s how you shine. I remember when I said to people I wanted to be a singer, I was aware almost as the words were falling out of my mouth how ridiculous it sounded. Because the music industry may as well have been on Mars. I knew nothing about it, it was such a far-fetched dream. But my mum always made me feel like anything’s possible if you’ve got a vision. I think that’s probably what helped me make the decision after two years of college to leave and pursue singing. It was a massive, massive risk but because I had that support, I was able to take that risk.

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I’ve always been a very strong-headed, determined person. But I’m 41 and even though I’ve ticked lots of boxes, I still question the next 10 years. What am I going to do next? I think when you’re a creative person, you tend to live in that space of ‘What’s next?’ The unknown is quite an exciting place, now that I don’t fear it any more. When I was younger I feared the unknown. I needed to know what was going to happen. Now I’ve accepted that a lot is out of my control. I can work towards things, but actually life is always surprising. So you’ve got to let go. Give it over to the universe.

My biggest, riskiest decision was to leave Mis-Teeq [the successful all-female R&B/rap band she was in until 2005]. I had been in a girl group for eight years. That was my comfort zone. But there was an instinct, a feeling towards the end of my time in the group that I wasn’t happy. And I needed to leave. I was only 25, I hadn’t paid off a mortgage, I still had bills to pay. So it was a major, major decision. I signed a new record deal and spent a year-and-a-half making an album that the record company shelved, then found myself out of a deal. So I was like, oh my god, what have I done?

I would tell my younger self to have faith. There I was, sitting in my house with no record deal, having pretty much lost all the money I’d ever worked for, and some other things that were going on in my life that have been very publicly documented [her marriage to rapper MC Harvey broke up after his affair with another singer]. I literally thought I’d lost everything. And then the universe just said: That’s what you thought, but here we go. You’re about to enter into this new phase of your life. And then I had a hugely successful solo record and had this incredible journey when in 2007 I became a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing and I won. And that took me on to becoming a judge on the show. The biggest risk brought the biggest pay-off.

Music has always been top of the list for me, where I feel my most authentic self, where I feel the most happy. And yet it always ends up at the bottom of my schedule; there are all these obstacles. But what a brilliant problem to have, juggling all these amazing things. One day I’m working on my children’s book, another day I’m working on the best show on TV [as a judge onBritain’s Got Talent], then I go into the studio and have therapeutic writing sessions and pour my heart out into a song. I feel very, very lucky and super-excited that my fifth children’s’ book is about to come out. But once I get back in the studio I just feel so alive again and I feel so good and that’s best of all.

Looking back now, when I was 16 I was so anxious. I wasted a lot of time worrying. I wish I could go back to that 16-year-old and tell her everything’s going to be OK. And actually, failure is not a bad thing. When you’re young you think, oh my god if I fail it’s the end of the world. You don’t realise that actually, it might be the making of you. And I wish that back then I knew that challenging times and up-and-down moments are just the landscape of life. Sometimes when you’re younger you have these idealistic takes in your head that everything should be smooth. But life comes with bumps in the road.

I’ve had lots of amazing moments but the best of all was probably when I got the phone call to be on America’s Got Talent [it was announced last year that she was to become a judge]. For about 20 years, maybe more, I’ve been obsessed with working in America. So that was the moment that really felt like a dream come true. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had many amazing moments, but what was so significant and exciting about the phone call that I got to be on America’s Got Talent is that it happened when I was 40 years old. We have these preconceived ideas about what happens when you get to a certain age. And there I was at 40, getting the best phone call of my life. And oh, I happened to be pregnant at the same time too!

If I could go back to any time in my life, I’d be onstage, probably at V Festival in 2009. It was a glorious sunny day. I looked out at this never- ending sea of humans singing my own songs back at me and I felt like I was standing on the top of the world. I remember feeling grateful in that moment. One thing I do like about my personality is that I’ve always been grateful and even at the very, very beginning of the Mis-Teeq days I never took anything for granted. I’ve always known how lucky I was and I’ve just loved every minute of it.

Star Switch by Alesha Dixon is out now (Scholastic, £6.99)

Picture: Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock