Thanks to her charm, style and humour, Kelly Rowland is proving to be the face of 2011. Stylist meets the seriously energetic singer. Within the first four frames, Kelly Rowland has given Stylist enough cover worthy pictures to call it a day. Leaping in the air, landing effortlessly in five-inch heels, twisting her body to work the fringing of the Just Cavalli dress she’s wearing, the energy in Rankin’s north London studio has just gone up 10 notches. Even when the camera isn’t on her she keeps moving to the music [Jay Z and Kanye West’s album on loop], mouthing the words and smiling, before putting on a professional pout for another shot.
Looking around the room, her positivity has infected us all; grinning idiots, glued to the performer – star of Destiny’s Child, now solo singer and X Factor judge – extremely hard at work in front of us. At one point, catching my eye, I am so ridiculously happy, I give Kelly the thumbs up. Looking back, I can’t quite explain what came over me.
The only time Kelly stops moving is when her arms are draped around Rankin’s neck, inspecting her image on the screen in front of him. “He has such an eye,” she tells me later. “This is the third time we’ve worked together and it just works. Maybe it’s our energies together.” There’s that word again: energy. She’s positively bouncing off the walls; her enthusiasm can’t be quashed. Everything is “amazing”. The clothes, her nails, her make-up, art (especially Rankin’s collaboration with Damien Hirst hanging in the studio’s foyer, “I want one!”). Even the Curly Wurly gets a shout out.
At first, the announcement the 30-year-old Atlanta native would be taking a seat on the all-new The X Factor panel was slightly puzzling. Why did she need to do it? Won’t she be a bit, well, bland? But her positivity, drive, focus, and – yes, I’m going there – downright girl power has made her by far the stand-out star of the show. Feeling like I know Kelly a little more than I did six months ago (when, in my mind, she was Beyoncé’s friend and not too bad at belting out a David Guetta dance track), it doesn’t surprise me when she starts “shooting straight” as soon as we sit down. This is a woman entirely in charge of her own affairs, and she means business…
I think I learnt it. The way I grew up, I knew when to be on. It’s business, you know? Like all of this [the shoot] costs money. Time costs. So it’s important to get in, be professional, treat people with respect and have fun.
You head to the gym straight after finishing The X Factor late. Do you find it hard switching off?
I don’t really switch off. I’m always thinking of songs or ideas. I’m going to take guitar lessons. I watched a documentary on [producer] Berry Gordy and it showed that, in between albums, his acts [The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder] wouldn’t be chilling; they would be learning an instrument, brushing up on being a true artist.
But seriously, you must have some down time…
Oh yeah, I do. I sleep. No, that’s just sleeping. [Laughs] OK. I like movies; Pretty Woman, Coming To America, Steel Magnolias. And food. Anything fat. Chocolate. Those Crunchie bars you have over here. And Curly Wurlys. Truly amazing.
So that’s what keeps you in the UK; the food, not The X Factor. About the show – how do you feel about the instant fame it brings the contestants?
Well, I’m not here to deal with brats. I wasn’t a brat. None of the artists I grew up with were brats: the Ushers, the Brandys, the TLCs. We all worked our butts off. There is no way in hell I’m going to be your mentor and it’s going to be peachy-keen all the time. But, for them, it’s such a complete turnaround. Can you imagine going to school one day, then the next you have all these followers on Twitter, who have an opinion on what you do and say? It takes someone very special to come away from that and still be successful.
You seem unusually well adjusted for such a global star. How have you bypassed the negative impact that fame sometimes brings?
Great friends and great surroundings. Growing up with my mom, Doris, Bey [Beyoncé], and Bey’s mother, Tina. If I came home with a big head, they’d tell me to get out the house – which has happened by the way. That’s what is so beautiful about the friendship of Destiny’s Child; honesty. To this day, I could wake up one morning and there’s this long text message from Bey or Michelle.
As a group, you’ve managed to sidestep any rumours of catfights…
Listen, you can’t preach about having female power, supporting each other and being a unit, if you’re not one. I remember one of the first solo projects Bey did, I was sitting there the whole video shoot supporting her. I was happy for my sister. Some of the public would love for me to hate her, but what’s the purpose? What’s to gain out of it? One of the things I’m most proud of in my life is the fact that we have maintained a sisterly bond.
That does sum up what Destiny’s Child seemed to stand for. Was it a deliberate, thought-out doctrine?
No. It was just us. We would be in the studio and songs like Independent Women would naturally come about between us. And it was awesome. Timing was everything. You know, I completely salute Michelle [for joining the band in 2000 after two original members left]. She came onto a moving train that was going 1,000 miles per hour. Nobody ever gives her the credit she deserves.
Rather than being manufactured, it seemed you were always very much in control of everything from your music to your money...
Oh, yeah. I remember the first time we toured, I was like, “Wow, where did all these lights and the backdrop come from?” I was told, “Well, they came from your pocket. You’re paying for all of this.” So I started asking, “How many people are part of the tour crew? How many people do this or that? Do we actually need this?” I want to be smart. I’ve had a lot of money and I’ve had a little. I know what that feels like. I remember my mom struggling and I don’t want to be in that situation. I’m thankful to her job [live-in nanny] for showing me a different way. She worked for doctors, lawyers, people who worked in finance. I was like, “That’s a nice car. Woo, this is a great house. Wow, that woman smells good.” My mom had perfume but it came from the drug store, not Neiman Marcus. But I also saw how hard her bosses worked to have those nice things. I saw the time they spent away from their children. I saw that when they came home, they were still working. I understood what kind of work ethic it took to be a success.
With the kind of excess that go along with the entertainment industry, is it hard not to splurge on things?
In my industry, you come across a lot of money but it could easily slip through your fingers. You have to be careful not to allow your peers to make you feel like you have to live a certain way. Like, I’m not trying to keep up with Bey. Her income is completely different from mine. Yeah, I might like a nice handbag but I need to work my behind off to make sure I can get the bag and I’m still able to take care of my bills, my family and my business.
How important was it for you to achieve success as a solo artist?
I was very nervous to be honest. I think my nerves got the best of me for a long time. I’ve never really said that before. I released singles here and there, but it was never really anything that felt finished. I feel like I’ve only found my voice recently.
With your latest album?
Yes. This is the album where I’m coming out. I’m here. It’s documenting the journey of me continuing to grow as a woman.
Do you think your confidence is growing with age?
Yes. I love getting older. The grey hair bit I’m still getting used to – and the gravity [laughs]. But other than that, I love it. Things just start to click. I started developing as a business woman. I now know I need to make sure that everything is right for me, not for anybody else. And OK, that might be selfish, but there’s nothing wrong with being selfish, as long as you don’t abuse it. I have to think: ‘What do I want in the next 10 years? Do I work hard enough? Do I have my priorities straight? Am I waking up early enough to catch the worm and going to bed late enough to make sure everything is done?’ Delegating is something I’m still working on.
You sound… Like a control freak?
Yeah. I feel bad because, with my managers, I’m like, “Did this happen? And that?” And they’re like, “Yeah, we did that three days ago.”
Your technical abilities as a singer are amazing. When you see other bands who have perhaps become famous purely because of looks or image, how do you feel?
I think there’s enough room for everybody. As long as everybody works hard and you have passion behind what you’re doing, then you can’t really knock anybody. What are you going to say? If you pay attention to what somebody else is doing then you could be missing out on something you could be doing yourself. To me, it’s like watching a sprinter. They’re looking straight ahead because if they look from side to side, they will fall and fail. It’s important to look straight ahead.
Have you ever encountered jealousy from other women?
I think you always experience it as a woman, but you kill it with kindness. I hate it. It’s just pathetic. As women, we have to realise what we bring to the table. What do you want to do for the world? How do you want to change it? And when you know that, you don’t have to compare yourself to anybody else. The world would be boring as hell if everybody looked alike, dressed alike, with the same body type.
Do you ever feel judged unfairly as a woman in business?
Well, no matter what I say or wear, if somebody wants to do business with me, great. If they don’t, I can’t be mad at them. I don’t take it personally. That’s quite a skill. I’m an emotional person but sometimes you’ve got to put that aside. Saying that, sometimes I am completely ridiculous. I’m a bit of a drama queen. I said to Louis [Walsh] the other day, “I have too much oestrogen. I wish I had just enough testosterone to help balance everything out.” He was like, “You’re crazy.” [Laughs]
Is your sense of humour something you’ve always had?
I didn’t know I was funny until I came here [to the UK]. It helps in my industry to be able to laugh stuff off.
Like sexism? The music industry is notoriously sexist…
It happens a lot in this industry, absolutely. If it’s happened to me, I was shielded from it, which, if I’m honest, probably has happened.
Do you think that’s going to change anytime soon?
Maybe when men have vaginas? Or perhaps when women put themselves in even more positions to show how smart we are. We just underestimate our powers.
It feels like a really exciting time in music for female artists, with the likes of Adele and Lady Gaga.
Yeah, we’re smashing the men, aren’t we? I love it. It’s because we work harder; in dedication, discipline, passion. What some of us lack might be planning. I learned that from Bey. She plans everything.
So what’s your plan?
More work with my I Heart My Girlfriends charity. I see a lack of female solidarity, especially within teens. I want to help prepare them as women and give them faith and self-assurance to know they can count on each other. You can get lost in life. Whether it’s having family problems or having a hard time looking in the mirror. We all have those days and need a support system; a female support system. Singing is what I’m born to do, but so is this.
Take an exclusive look at what happened on-set - including footage of the incredible outfits the X Factor judge modelled below.