Alexandra Burke: I was told my baby hairs made me look aggressive

The singer has spoken about her experiences of racism in the music industry.
The singer has spoken about her experiences of racism in the music industry.

Alexandra Burke has said she was told by her former management team to “smile more” while her mother was dying because she did not look “approachable”, and was warned that her baby hairs made her look “aggressive”.

The former X Factor winner previously revealed she was asked to bleach her skin after her appearance on the talent show and has now said she does not believe “complete change” in the music industry will come in her lifetime.

Burke, who won the ITV series in 2008, shared an emotional video last summer, shortly after the death of George Floyd in the US, in which she detailed her own experiences and said there is a “notion within the music industry and institutionally that whiter is better”.

The 32-year-old singer, who is now a West End star, has now told the Guardian that her first experiences of the prejudices of the industry came when she was just 12, after she appeared in the talent show Star For A Night.

She said: “I started getting comments like ‘Because you’re black, you won’t get that far’, ‘Because you’re black, you need to work 10 times harder’.

“Industry people were saying it as well as Joe Bloggs. The remarks came quite often and were difficult to digest.”

Burke said it escalated after she won the X Factor, when she was 19, adding: “It only really hit me when I got asked to bleach my skin after X Factor.”

She would not comment on who made the suggestion but said it was “a certain person on the creative side who was working with me”.

She said she was particularly upset by an incident with her then record label ahead of a performance at the London Palladium.

‘Bruce: A Celebration’ – London
Alexandra Burke arrives at the BBC event Bruce: A Celebration At The London Palladium (Jonathan Brady/PA)

She said: “It was a beautiful show in honour of Sir Bruce Forsyth and I had my hair in a bun, with a couple of baby hairs.”

Baby hairs are the thin, wispy hairs that sometimes grow around the hairline, and can be styled using gel.

Burke went on: “It was classic, classy; I had a black dress on.

“Half an hour before I was due on stage, my hair stylist came up to me and said ‘I’ve just been told you look quite aggressive with this hairstyle. We need to change it.’

“I said ‘What?’ He said ‘Your record label’s just told me you look aggressive, so we have to change it.’ I said: ‘What part of me looks aggressive?’

“He said it was the baby hairs stuck to my head.”

When she joined Strictly Come Dancing in 2017, paired with professional dancer Gorka Marquez, she said she was told to “smile more” by her then management team, adding: “That’s why I let them go. They used to say to me ‘Every time you don’t smile, nobody warms to you’.”

Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour Launch – Birmingham
Alexandra Burke and Gorka Marquez on Strictly Come Dancing (Joe Giddens/PA)

At the time, her mother, singer Melissa Bell, was in hospital, dying of kidney failure caused by diabetes.

Burke said: “So to be sat down and told ‘You’re not smiling. You don’t look approachable. No one’s going to like you’…”

Her mother died aged 53 on August 17, the day her daughter was due to join her co-stars to film the Strictly Come Dancing launch show.

Asked if the music industry has learned any lessons since last summer, she said it has but more needs to be done, adding: “I’m hoping people are not just going to forget about it. I really pray that one day it changes completely – but it won’t be in our lifetime.”

It was recently announced that the X Factor has been cancelled after 17 years but Burke said she is “actually quite sad” to see it go, adding: “I did have a wonderful experience on it.

“I had a mum in the industry so you couldn’t walk over me – not with the mother I had. My mum would be there and she’d be very strong. Not everyone has that person in their life.”