Interview: Katherine Jenkins
PUBLISHED: 10:36 11 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:41 20 February 2013
Katherine Jenkins talks to Pat Parker about the highs and lows of her remarkable life, including her time as a singing teacher in Hertfordshire, just before stardom beckoned...
WITH her stunning voice and looks to match, mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins has been taking the world by storm.
But this summer music lovers closer to home are in for a treat as the singer returns to the area to take part in the Audley End Picnic Concerts, alongside another of Waless finest singing talents, Tom Jones.
Katherine, who will bring the season to a spectacular crescendo when she performs at the Last Night of the Audley End Proms on Sunday, July 31, is excited about her return visit to the venue, just over the Hertfordshire border.
Im really looking forward to it, she says. I love Audley End as a venue. The backdrop is gorgeous, and the crowds have been incredible. Its such a lovely atmosphere.
Ill be singing songs from all my albums a really wide mix of opera arias, folk songs, religious music, classical versions of pop songs, film soundtrack stuff, and all the light classics everyone knows.
Its this crossover mix of classics and pop (everything from Pie Jesu to Donna Summers I Feel Love) which has made Katherine one of the most successful British female recording artists ever. Her seven albums have sold millions worldwide, won multiple awards and helped make her an estimated 13million.
Her rise to fame was meteoric. Back in 2000, she was a part-time singing teacher in Hertfordshire, having graduated from the Royal Academy of Music. But then she signed a reported 1million deal with Universal, and her first album, Premiere, shot straight to the top of the classical charts.
Yet although her worldwide success over the past decade suggests Katherine has led something of a charmed life, she has known tragedy and has feared for her life on two occasions. Nothing, however, has dented her drive and sunny disposition, and she firmly believes adversity has made her stronger.
I feel Im being guided along a certain path and whether thats my dad or God, theres definitely someone leading me a certain way
Katherine grew up on a council estate in Neath, South Wales. Her mother, Susan, was a radiographer, her father, Selwyn, a factory worker.
Her singing talent was evident from a young age. After winning an infant school talent show at the age of four, she knew she wanted to become a singer, joining her local church choir aged seven, and winning the Welsh Choirgirl of the Year contest three times.
She also shone academically and her future was looking bright when, at the age of 15, her father, then 70, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died shortly afterwards, two weeks before she was due to take her GCSEs.
Katherine was devastated yet somehow gained the strength to excel in her exams, gaining nine A grades.
She says what spurred her on, then and now, was knowing her father would have wanted her to succeed. A lot of my motivation now is that he wanted this for me, as he saw how happy it made me, she says. I think when you lose somebody at that age, you just realise lifes too short, and you just have to make the most of everything.
Ever since Selwyns death she has been aware of his presence and has a strong sense that he is guiding and protecting her. I feel hes looking after me. I feel it all the time, and sometimes I have a word with him when Im about to go on stage. I feel Im being guided along a certain path and whether thats my dad or God, theres definitely someone leading me a certain way.
After her fathers death, however, she suffered dreadful nightmares and started to feel angry and resentful towards her mother, and God, for taking her father away from her. It was only after counselling that she started to recover.
She regained her focus at school and went on to gain straight As at A level, which she took a year early, and at 17 won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.
Her life seemed to be back on track but just when she was at her most carefree, she suffered a horrific attack after a night out with friends.
She was two minutes from home and talking to her flatmates on her mobile phone when she was attacked by a would-be rapist. Somehow, she broke free and ran but her attacker caught up and punched her to the ground. Instinctively, she curled into a ball so he could not rape her. After kicking her repeatedly the man gave up and took her purse. The police were called, but the smartly-dressed man was never found.
Her presence of mind undoubtedly saved her. I knew I had to get away from him, so I ran. I could see what he was trying to do so I thought, Well, Ill stay on the ground, and that makes it so much harder. I think unless youre put in that situation, you have no idea how youre going to react.
Not long after the attack, Katherine became convinced she was overweight and started to obsessively control her diet. For eight months she ate only protein and her weight fell to below seven stone, but she ignored the concerns of her family and boyfriend.
It was her mother who finally broke the cycle by convincing her to eat some chocolate cake. She was violently sick for 24 hours but from then on returned to a more normal diet.
I genuinely loved teaching in Hertfordshire.
It was the perfect thing for me at that point
During her last year at the Royal Academy, her then boyfriend encouraged her to record a demo tape which he gave to a music producer friend. The tape found its way to Universal Classics and she was invited to a meeting. She had graduated by now and was working as a peripatetic singing teacher at St Marys Church of England High School, Cheshunt.
She worked at St Marys two days a week, preparing students for GCSE music exams, and also taught at the Heathcote School and Barnwell School in Stevenage.
I genuinely loved the teaching, she says. It was the perfect thing for me at that point, to be with kids again after being in a place like the Royal Academy, which is very intense.
Stardom, however, beckoned. Universal loved her voice so much that they offered her a 1million six-album recording deal.
For Katherine, it was a dream come true. All the same, she was reluctant to give up her teaching jobs in case it all proved to be too good to be true. I didnt tell anyone for a long time. I almost thought if I told anyone, it would all go away. So I carried on teaching until after my first album came out.
Eventually the pressures of promotional and TV work made it impossible for her to continue. Katherines first album, Premiere, became a huge hit. In 2006, her albums held the top four places in HMVs classical charts.
She has won a succession of Classical BRIT Awards. She has performed before Pope John Paul II, at the Tsunami Relief Concert in 2005, the Live 8 concerts, the G8 summit, and the VE Day celebrations. Last year, she made her acting debut in the Dr Who Christmas Special. And in 2008 she signed a multi-million pound recording contract with Warner Music in a bid to crack the American market.
Ever since 2005, she has repeatedly risked her life by performing unpaid for British troops stationed in Iraq and now Afghanistan. The first time she flew to Iraq, the helicopter transporting her came under missile fire and plunged 1,500 ft in seconds. Katherine was convinced she was going to die.
When you lose somebody at that age, you just realise that lifes too short, and you just have to go out there and make the most of everything
But the experience didnt deter her from returning. At the time it was very frightening but my view of it is that you can experience danger while youre there, but Im only experiencing it for 24 hours. Theyre living with it day in, day out, she says. The troops are an inspiration to me and I have so much respect for them.
Katherine, 31 this summer, recently became engaged to TV presenter and fellow Welsh celebrity Gethin Jones, whom she met on Strictly Come Dancing in 2007. The couple will probably marry next year, so will marriage change her future career plans? No, she replies. I love what I do, and were both busy, so not in the short term, anyway. Do they plan to start a family? We do want that, but I would like to be at home when it happens, and Im touring so much at the moment.
In the meantime, Katherine is once more acting as mentor in the second series of ITV1s Popstar to Opera Star, in which the likes of Joe McElderry and Midge Ure have been training to become opera singers. Katherine loves the show because it brings out the teacher in her. A lot of the pop stars havent had a technical lesson before. They dont understand about whats going on in their bodies when they sing and its fascinating to help them discover a different voice.
Some in the classical world are rather sniffy about crossover music. But that doesnt bother her in the slightest.
I dont really care, she says. I love the diversity I get from crossover. It means I can do the more popular stuff and then go and do a concert of opera arias with Placido Domingo. I think classical music should be for everyone.
Its really important that people feel if they want to listen to classical music, its there for them. And Ill welcome them with open arms.
Find out more
The English Heritage Picnic Concerts at Audley End, Saffron Walden, will run from July 9 to 31, and will feature Bjorn Again/Bootleg Beatles, Scouting For Girls with Sophie Ellis Bextor, The Saturdays, Tom Jones, and, finally, Katherine Jenkins. www.picnicconcerts.com