Jamelia Davis swapped humble beginnings in Handsworth for A-list red carpets and world tours, but says she’s never happier than when at home in Brum. We catch up with the star and find out how she keeps it real
Jamelia must pinch herself at times. Her accidental role as a teen pop star has morphed into a long and varied career that keeps her excited and pays the bills. Thrust into the spotlight at age fifteen, she was soon touring the world with the likes of Usher and Destiny’s Child. Jamelia could have believed the hype and overindulged, but she didn’t, and has maintained her likeable down to earth nature as a result. She isn’t ‘papped’ falling out of nightclubs, or checking into rehab. And when asked if she has ever been tempted to search for a more showbiz life, her trademark hearty laugh ensues: “It’s never crossed my mind to leave Birmingham let alone Britain. I’m lucky enough to be able to travel wherever and whenever I like, but there’s no place like home.”
Jamelia didn’t envisage a career in music. She was just a girl with a good voice who loved singing. “If my family and friends were seated that was my cue for a show. Under duress they listened and applauded,” she says. When her estranged father gave her a karaoke machine, she started recording homemade albums and listening to them on her Walkman. Thanks to Jamelia’s cousin, one of her ‘albums’ made it into the hands of EMI who spotted her potential right away. Jamelia remembers sitting next to her mum discussing terms with EMI executives when her mother put the brakes on and declared, “she’s not signing anything until she’s passed her exams.” A determined Jamelia had been disinterested in class until then, but she returned to school, knuckled down, got the grades and returned to EMI to clinch the deal.
Jamelia’s catchy R&B tracks stormed the charts throughout the noughties. Top ten spots became the norm and singles like ‘Superstar’ and ‘Thank You’ still feel fresh over a decade on. A fistful of MOBOs, nine BRIT nominations, a Q Award and a tete-a-tete with Nelson Mandela followed. This was the stuff of teenage dreams and yet against the odds, Jamelia managed to avoid the trappings of fame and has carved out a successful and varied career. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the glitzy side of my life, but it’s not the way I live day-to-day.” She was rubbing shoulders with Denzel Washington on the red carpet a few days before our interview, but Jamelia is able to hop on and off the showbiz treadmill, mainly because of her determination to stay in Brum. Most of her ‘inner circle’ is made up of old friends she went to school with and she is immensely proud of her home town. “Showing the city off to friends from the South is one of my favourite past times. They arrive with misconceptions about what Birmingham is like, but leave thinking it’s cool and can’t wait to come back.”
The only clichéd part of Jamelia’s pop star life was her marriage to premiership footballer Darren Byfield. The marriage ended in 2009 and despite being brought up by her single mum, Jamelia was consumed by shame at finding herself on her own with two daughters. “If people I met assumed I had a husband I wouldn’t correct them,” she admits. “When the opportunity arose to get involved with the BBC3 documentary Shame About Single Mums I jumped at the chance.” The programme had a profound effect on Jamelia; she spent half of filming in tears as she encountered brave women and listed to their shocking stories of suffering and stigmatisation. “It changed my life,” she says. “Although single parenting is not ideal, it’s perfectly possible to have a loving relationship with your children, be a good parent and absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.” Jamelia seems to have inherited her mother’s protective streak, choosing to home school her children, however when her oldest daughter asked if she could go to school aged ten Jamelia didn’t hesitate. “My girls are everything. I’d do anything for them. The fact they passed the entrance exam reassured me I did a good job at home.”
Although music is her first love, Jamelia is relishing all of the other projects that have come her way. “Acting has been a revelation. I had no idea I could act or that the leap was possible,” she says. In BBC1 series Death in Paradise alongside Ben Miller, Jamelia managed to combine both acting and singing by playing a singer who was poisoned mid-performance. She ditched her Brummie twang in favour of a Basian lilt and put in a really convincing performance. I’m intrigued to know if there’s a man on the horizon, but Jamelia says she might wait until her girls have left home before she looks for love again. Given they’re seven and 11 I hope she’s joking and anyway aren’t their fellas queuing round the block? “Where would I find a suitable man?” she laughs. “Every man I meet knows everything about me, or thinks he does which makes dating odd.”
While there is a well documented darker side to Jamelia’s extended family, it’s hard to reconcile with the person before me. It makes Jamelia’s charming nature even more remarkable. The lyrics to Thank You hint at Jamelia’s own experience of domestic violence with an old flame. Perhaps knowing such horrors explains her strength and determination to be the best she can be and to protect her girls to the utmost. She feels lucky to have escaped the more difficult periods of her past and to have cultivated such a lovely life. “I daydreamed about this sort of life growing up, but I didn’t really believe it would happen. I’m able to give my girls what they need which makes me happy. They are everything to me.”