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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

"I looked uncomfortable? That’s how I usually feel." Beyoncé, November 2008

On the steps of the Mandarin Hotel in Knightsbridge, Beyoncé Knowles is stepping out to meet the gathered paparazzi. From the hotel foyer, looking out into the filthy London rain, she’s a silhouette in a strobe of flashbulbs. A couple of young male fans are allowed to step forward, for a moment with their heroine. Instinctively, the first one places his left arm around the singer. No less instinctively, a vast minder detaches the arm from Beyoncé’s black-and-white designer dress, and places it back where it came from.

Before you’ve even met Beyoncé, it’s an episode that flags up something unusual about her brand of star quality. Fans of, say, Madonna or Cher wouldn’t dare entertain notions of placing an arm around their idols. Though still only 27, Beyoncé has had plenty of opportunities to appropriate their brand of starry untouchability. It’s three years since she formally dissolved Destiny’s Child after three albums and a run of machine-tooled, Grammy-chomping R&B hymns to womanly empowerment anthems such as Survivor and Independent Woman; six since her duet with Brooklyn rap demigod Jay-Z on his 03’ Bonnie & Clyde served notice to the world that America’s foremost hip-hop star and emerging queen of R&B were an item. In the past year alone, she is said to have earned $80 million from record sales, film appearances and endorsements. And yet, in the flesh, it all seems a galaxy away from her disarmingly open body language.

Two days previously, it’s precisely that lack of celebrity airs that the warm-up comic on Strictly Come Dancing picks up on, when she prepares to perform her new single If I Was A Boy. Relishing her presence on his territory, he leers, “You know, Beyoncé, you’re the kind of girl I could take to McDonalds and let you go large.” Her vulnerability is compounded when he enquires as to the whereabouts of Jay-Z, who she is rumoured to have married two months before his momentous Glastonbury performance this year. On hearing Jay-Z’s name, the gleam of her diamond-studded heels darts up to her eyes. “He’s looking for you,” she tells the comic. For a fleeting second, the Amazonian Beyoncé of Destiny’s Child is resurrected – just long enough, in fact, to terminate the exchange.

Reminded of the encounter, back at the Mandarin, she laughs. “I looked uncomfortable? That’s how I usually feel. When I walk into a room and everyone is looking at me, it’s still embarrassing.” After all these years, her singing persona and her private persona may never merge. But far from attempting to reconcile them, Beyoncé’s new double album I Am… Sasha Fierce embraces that division. Drop the first disc – the I Am bit – into the CD tray and, according to Beyoncé, you will hear the purest expression of the person she is “underneath the make-up.” Take her at her word and it would seem that, left to her own devices, the “real” Beyoncé of soft-scented power ballads like Halo and Satellites bears scant resemblance to the 22 year-old who, in 2003, lit the touch paper on her solo career with Crazy In Love.

But, of course, there’s another CD stuck to the back of I Am… to tell us that it’s not that simple. Anyone pining for the formidable Beyoncé of old will find her all over Sasha Fierce. The other half of Beyoncé’s album is just the kind of name a shy, privately-educated Houston daughter of a medical supplies salesman father and hairdresser mother might come up with when struggling to come to terms with the volcanic transformation she undergoes when she performs. And, indeed, watching the leotard-clad singer shaking her wondrous thighs on the video to her other new single Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) – seven million Youtube viewings do date – it’s a part she plays astonishingly well.

It was, she insists, not quite as premeditated as that. “But there’s no doubt that in Sasha mode, things happen that wouldn’t normally happen. A few years ago, on stage, I had these earrings on, which were designed by Lorraine Schwartz. Anyway, we’re in the middle of the song and one of them fell. And, you know when you’re in the moment? I threw it out, and when I finished the performance, I thought, ‘What did I just do?’ Afterwards, my cousin – who is also my assistant – came in and was like, ‘You know, we’re gon’ have to have to tame Sasha.’”

The more she talks about it, the more it sounds like a coping mechanism; a device which allows her to normalize a life which, since forming Girl’s Tyme – aged just 10, with future Destiny’s Child cohort Kelly Rowland – hasn’t been terribly normal. She resents a lingering perception that suggests she was groomed for success in the way that, as children, Michael Jackson, or Britney Spears, might have been. In fact, two years elapsed between the dance classes she began attending as an eight year-old – to help overcome her shyness – and the first time her father (who eventually gave up his job to manage her, and even now, shares the credit of Executive Producer on her new album) saw her perform.

“The singing… when that began, [it] was definitely an escape,” she recalls. An escape from what? The answer, she thinks, has something to do with the birth of her sister Solange when she was five. “When she was born, I became the protector, and…”

The responsible one? She nods. “So, as an introverted kid, the stage was my place, where I could do whatever I wanted, and I wasn’t afraid of anything.” She is palpably a very different creature to Solange. Whereas an interview with Beyoncé amounts to a warm, yet ultimately tactful tango of discourse, an encounter with divorced single mum Solange Knowles – now also a singer – is characterised by statements such as, “I think people focus too much energy on getting people to like them… I’ve never felt any validation from that.” Whatever Beyoncé chooses to call herself, it’s hard to imagine her penning a title like ChampagneChroniKnightCap – the paean to self-medication which graced her sister’s recent album. “My sister…” says Beyoncé, struggling to stifle an almighty grin, “she definitely walks to a beat. The beat [of] Solange! She was born Sasha Fierce!”

With the role of family diva long since sewn up by Solange, it’s no wonder that Beyoncé has diverted a whole side of her personality into her creative life. In a story that she seems to enjoy retelling, the one time Beyoncé got close to entertaining delusions of diva-dom, she was publicly upbraided in a Houston record shop by her mother. After pointedly carrying on singing whilst her mother was asking her a question, the singer was slapped in the face and made to sit in the car. Perhaps, the most remarkable thing about this story is that Beyoncé was nineteen when it happened, with Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s On The Wall well on its way to selling 16 million copies.

As a singer, she says that the challenge of keeping her feet on the ground has come down to taking none of it too seriously. However, acting has made different demands of her. Immersing herself in the character of Deena Jones – loosely based on Diana Ross – for 1996’s Dreamgirls, Beyoncé later admitted that “I had to be moody and angry to make this role work. I was creating drama in my life so I had something to feed off. I was mad at everyone.”

Who, exactly? “Well, like my dad. I would have fake conflicts that weren’t really going on! So now, my dad is like, ‘When you’re doing a movie, I’m staying far away.’” This year, she completed work on Cadillac, playing legendary blues singer Etta James alongside Adrien Brody – a film chronicling the turbulent life of James, played out among the daily dramas that marked the rise and fall of Chess Records. This time, Beyoncé found herself able to demarcate between life and work. “It wasn’t like I wasn’t terrified,” she explains, “When you’re playing someone who is addicted to heroin and every other word is profanity… it was just so different from me.” So what changed this time? Though surely not intended as a slight to Diana Ross, Beyoncé exclaims, “I didn’t have to work as hard to make Etta seem interesting. It was all on the page. And, of course, I drew from the pain in my own life.”

If no film character is entirely a work of fiction, that leads you to wonder if the same can be said of the characters created to make music. Much of the fun to be had from listening to the second part of I Am… Sasha Fierce is spotting where the façade cracks. Graceful, demure, shy Beyoncé would surely never flaunt her man’s USPs as boldly as Sasha does on Ego. “Let’s get lost/Who needs to call into work/Cos you’re the boss… I love his big ego, too much/He walk like this/Cos he can back it up.” Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see Jay-Z – formerly President of Def Jam Recordings, now co-founder of the StarRoc label – in those words. “I am attracted to someone that is strong and confident,” she begins. “Now, someone that is obnoxious and talks about themselves all the time and is overly confident is completely unattractive to me.”

Mention of Jay-Z’s headlining Glastonbury performance – a billing that seemed to offend Noel Gallagher and millions of other people who felt hip-hop had no place at the festival – elicits a proud glow. “I remembered seeing all the tents. I had never seen so many people. I’ve been at big shows before, but everyone seemed like they were in their own world. It was something I would definitely love to do myself one day. I knew that everybody would love Glastonbury, you know? But, whenever there’s controversy, it’s a little like, ‘OK, what’s gonna happen?’ It was like the [American Presidential] Election!”

She shoots a playful glare to let you know that she’s aware of the exaggeration. Nevertheless, both events signalled paradigm shifts in their spheres. This month, the hitherto apolitical Beyoncé travelled between Tampa and Miami in Florida and then Virginia to “meet thousands of people that have been waiting in the lines [to vote] to encourage other people to come and wait in the lines. Then, on the night, I was home with my friends and we had… you know, red white and blue balloons everywhere, and we had flags. I mean, this is new to me. It was like watching a Martin Luther King speech. He has a light, you know?”

Having discussed two big days in Beyoncé’s year – Glastonbury and the US election – it seems only fitting to round things off with a third. Which was the most nerve-racking of all – either of the aforementioned, or her wedding? For a nanosecond, she looks like she might, for the first time, let slip inadvertent confirmation of her nuptials. “That’s a good question,” smirks Beyoncé.

I persist. Hmm, Glastonbury, then? Solange would have surely thrown me out by now, but Beyoncé merely laughs. “And you’re good, ’cause you’re waiting for me to answer! Hahaha! I’m not saying anything. I’m just a’smile!”

One more try. Does that mean the wedding list question is out too? More laughter. In the ante-room, anxious ruffling can be heard. This time, no intervention is necessary. Between them, Beyoncé Knowles and Sasha Fierce have it covered.

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