“I’m excited, but nervous,” says Leona Lewis. “I’m everything, a mix of everything!” It has just been announced that the record-breaking British vocalist will be touring the UK next year in support of her repackaged holiday album Christmas, With Love, which includes her best-selling Christmas anthem One More Sleep. Released 19 November, the reissue features a stunning ballad with Ne-Yo, titled Kiss Me It’s Christmas, and a brand new take on The Bee Gees’ beloved disco hit If I Can’t Have You.
Before then, however, Leona will be embarking on a 16-date arena tour across the UK with Gary Barlow, where she will perform some of her most lauded hits, from Bleeding Love to Better in Time and Fire Under My Feet. It’s been five years since Leona embarked on her third headlining solo tour for her fifth studio album, I Am, so that’s where the nerves come in. “Shows went away over the past year,” she says, “so I’m obviously not as used to being out there!”
As well as embarking on a cross-country tour and continuing to cement her status as the (British) Queen of Christmas, Leona will be making her reality television show comeback this year with Paramount+’s highly-anticipated Queen of the Universe. Hosted by Graham Norton, the Eurovision-inspired series will see some of the world’s fiercest drag queens sing in front of a live audience and the “Pop Diva Panel”, which consists of Leona, Michelle Visage, Trixie Mattel and Vanessa Williams. “It’s an international show so we have drag queens from all over the world,” Leona tells GAY TIMES. “All of the drag is very different and they all have different influences. That’s kind of what I love about it, is that you’re seeing so much variation.”
We caught up with Leona to discuss all of the above, as well as her love for drag and her favourite modern Christmas track. And with next month marking 15 years since Leona’s X Factor win – 15 goddamn years – we had the star relive some of her career highlights and her strong affiliation with the LGBTQ+ community.
You’ve repackaged Christmas, With Love and released the magical new single, Kiss Me It’s Christmas, with Ne-Yo. How did this collaboration come to be?
Oh, thank you! I’m glad you like it. I recorded this song about a year and a half ago and it was actually an idea that was presented to me from the same writers as One More Sleep. I love collaborating with those guys, we get along so well and they just get me. This song was presented and I just fell in love with it. So I went in with them, we worked on it together, I put a vocal down, and then originally it was the other writer’s vocal on it as the male vocal. When I listened to it back I just could hear Ne-Yo’s voice. I’ve been a fan of his vocals for a very long time, I’ve worked with him before, and he brings something special to it. So, I reached out to him and then he jumped on it.
Wait, you’ve been sitting on this song for a year and a half?!
Yeah! We’ve had it a while, I know. I had been thinking about repacking the album and putting it back out there for a while and I just felt like this year felt like the right time to do that.
You’ve also recorded a cover of The Bee Gees’ If I Can’t Have You. Why did you want to record this particular song for your album?
I have so many songs that I’ve recorded that I haven’t been able to share yet, because I haven’t found the right way to put it out. I wanted to do a version of this song because I knew that Yvonne Elliman version, which is a disco/uptempo version of it, and I always wanted to strip it back and see how it would sound as a ballad because the lyrics spoke to me so much. It actually reminds me of this one particular breakup that I had years ago, and how I felt around Christmas time. So, although the song’s not traditional Christmas, it gives me that sense of Christmas, but the sense of heartbreak. Christmas isn’t all joy and fun for everyone. Some people are going through breakups or they’ve lost loved ones and I wanted both of the songs to reflect the different feelings and emotions that go into this time of year. Especially after coming out of all the difficulties that we had the past year, I just felt like I needed a balance of the two emotions.
I think I speak for every Leona Lewis fan out there when I say I need access to your hard drive…
I have so many! They’ll slowly trickle out…
Since its release eight years ago, One More Sleep has become a Christmas staple here in the UK. It keeps flying back up the charts! How does it feel to have a song of yours officially cemented as a holiday classic?
I don’t want to jinx it, but I’m so happy with how it’s done. Each year it just grows and grows and I get the opportunity to see that and to become part of people’s Christmases more and more. So yeah, it’s just so cool. I really hope that it continues to grow. I really do!
What would you say is your favourite modern Christmas anthem?
Modern one… You know what? I really liked the Kelly Clarkson album. I thought it was really strong. I love Underneath The Tree, I think it’s such a tune and I love her voice. So I think for modern albums, it might have to be that one.
That’s also a favourite album of mine. Right, let’s talk Queen of the Universe. I’m so incredibly excited about this series. Why did you want to be involved?
I’m so excited about the show as well. They asked me a while back. They were thinking about doing this show, they showed me the deck and they were like, ‘It’s a drag queen singing competition.’ So I was like, ‘Sign me up, honey!’
How on Earth could you say no?!
It’s literally the perfect show for me! Last year, when I was thinking about the things that I wanted to achieve this year and what I wanted to do, a very personal thing for me was to do things that I just really enjoy; that I’m having fun with, that is just good, light-hearted and still meaningful but fun and enjoyable. This show came along and it literally ticked all of those boxes. As soon as they said, ‘Do you want to be part of it?’ I was like, ‘Yes, 100%. I am there.’
What was your experience like with drag before Queen of the Universe?
I’ve been to loads of drag shows and I love Drag Race. I actually really wanted to be on Drag Race just to experience it. But, when this came along I was like, ‘This is better for me. This is exactly my thing.’ I’ve been a fan of RuPaul’s for years, and all that Ru’s managed to achieve. Drag has always been something that’s really inspiring for me as well, seeing the craftsmanship and the creativity that goes into these shows and into the outfits and the performances. It was actually really just the perfect thing for me to get involved in.
Have you ever seen a drag entertainer perform one of your songs?
Loads of times! I frequent the drag scene quite a lot, so there’s been quite a few drag queens that have performed my songs, which I just love! I had a drag queen perform at my wedding, The Bearded Bitch, who is just an amazing, amazing performer. I used to go and see her shows in New York when I was on Broadway. She’s phenomenal. So yeah, I’m just very inspired by the whole thing!
Wow. Are these queens aware that you’re in the audience?
Actually, every time I’ve gone, they’ve known that I’ve been there. It’s only a few times that I’ve seen them perform a song but it’s amazing. It’s amazing to see how they take it on and do their own thing. Actually, one of the queens on Queens of the Universe, her name’s Leona Winter and she was very inspired by my songs and my music and voice and stuff. So it’s really cool.
What was the transition like for you, from being a contestant on The X Factor to becoming a judge?
I have a very unique perspective on the panel. Me and Trixie actually because Trixie has been in the same boat as me. We’ve both entered shows, so I feel like we have that unique perspective. It’s really hard because you want them to do well, but you also have to be very honest when you critique. I feel like we come from a place of empathy for people that come onto that stage because even just showing up there and being willing to expose yourself in that way, is so huge. It’s a big deal. So, I have a lot of respect for everyone that goes onto stages like that. And I have had experience in the past of being on the other side of the panel too, and judging different shows, but I would say that this one was by far the funniest. It was also really emotional because some of the stories and the adversities that some of these queens faced doing drag was insane. There’s a lot of emotional stories. There’s just so much, it’s really full of everything.
We can expect a lot of tears then? I sob at everything, Leona, I really do.
Yeah, I’m the same. Literally at the drop of a hat, I am crying. And there were tears! There’s tears, there’s fun, there’s happiness. It’s like a rollercoaster.
You’re on the panel with some iconic personalities: Trixie Mattel, Michelle Visage and Vanessa Williams. What’s the dynamic like between you all?
It was really fun. Vanessa, Michelle and Trixie have all been involved in Drag Race so they’re like seasoned pros, and I was coming into it as the baby. But honestly, I just loved being around them and around their energy. Vanessa is just an icon to me. To even sit there next to her and have a conversation, I was fangirling the entire time. When I first met her I was like, ‘I’m such a fan!’ She was so sweet. And then Trixie, we were just pissing our pants the entire time. Michelle, I really get along with. I just love how she just shoots from the hip. She’s very straightforward, she’s very honest and every single comment that she gave was so on-point. So, I feel like the queens really got a really good 360. I was all over the vocals, obviously, and giving tips and advice on that, stage presence and performance. It was a really good balance of all of us.
Trixie has that classic dry British sense-of-humour…
You’re right! Very dry, we get it. The audience was in the room and we shot it in the UK, so sometimes American jokes don’t really go down as well, but she got it. She can read the room and she knows how to deliver a good joke.
I have to ask: last year, Vanessa competed on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race. Would you ever consider following in her footsteps and embracing your inner drag queen?
Definitely. 100% I would have to do it. I would love to do that, actually. So fun!
C’mon season two! The cast for Queen of the Universe looks insane. What can you tell about the queens? Without spoiling too much, of course!
What I really love about the show is that, obviously, it’s an international show so we have drag queens from all over the world. All of the drag is very different and they all have different influences. That’s kind of what I love about it, is that you’re seeing so much variation from the different song choices. For example, we have a drag queen from Paris, we have one from India and another from Mexico. There’s so much diversity that makes for really interesting song choices and outfit choices. I think it’s a really unique show, for sure, even from any of the other drag shows. And then on top of that, obviously, they’re using their real voices. One of the queens was from India, and she couldn’t perform in her country because they just don’t allow drag. She came on stage and got to perform and… It was so emotional and so beautiful because her voice was amazing, her costume was stunning. This should be celebrated and this should be seen. My heart was just open the whole time for her. And then we have seasoned pros like our UK drag queen who had been doing drag for years and years and came out and gave us the biggest show. The queens are all very unique. They go from people that haven’t performed on stage before to the season pros. It’s a good mix.
Can we also talk about how 2021 marks the 15th anniversary of your win on The X Factor?!
I know, 15 years! It’s crazy!
Looking back on your career so far, what are some of your biggest highlights?
I think the first thing that comes to mind is that I got to sing with Stevie Wonder, which for me is like… I never in my wildest dreams thought that that would happen. Sitting in my house with my parents in Hackney listening to Stevie Wonder to then singing on stage with him, it’s literally like a dream. I think that’s one of the biggest highlights for me. And then I sang with Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, which was just insane. I think the collaborations that I’ve been able to do, the people I’ve been able to work with, musicians that I look up to and that I listened to, like Rodney Jerkins, who produced the whole of the Brandy album. I got to work with him! Those kinds of things to me are a bucket-list tick off like, ‘Okay, I’m good now.’
At what point in your career did you realise you have a big LGBTQ+ following?
All my good friends are gay, and I already had them as fans! I already knew I had my little fanbase there. But it was probably when I sang in gay clubs, which I just love, and I saw everyone turn out and singing along to my songs. I feel like in those moments, especially early on in my career, when I first came off of the show, I met so many gay fans. It was just amazing. Being with them, connecting with them and connecting with the community. Obviously, I grew up with a gay uncle who was very close to me so I’ve always felt part that community. It’s a beautiful thing for me.
Out of all the songs in your discography, which one gets the biggest reaction from LGBTQ+ fans in concert?
Do you know what? There’s this song called Another Love Song and it’s an album track. I love performing that, it’s kind of got a garage 2-step feel that gets a really good reaction. Glass Heart also gets a really good reaction. Those are actually two of my favourite songs to perform.
I’m obsessed with both. That leads me onto my next question. When you are a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, what song would you like the queens to lip-sync to?
Oh, goodness, that’s hard. I think Fire Under My Feet would be a really good one because it’s got energy and vocals. Then Bleeding Love, I would love to see that because it’s got a big vocal. Not as much energy, but I feel like they could give it the emotion!
Personally, I would love I Will Be. I remember that music video so well, wasn’t it with Chace Crawford?
Chace! Yeah, I love Chace.
I bought that music video on my iPod Classic…
You had to buy it?!
I bought it, Leona. I remember music videos were always £1.89 on the iTunes Store.
Back when you had to buy music videos! That’s a good one, as well. That was such a fun video.
I mean, Leona, you were on the bloody run. You were on the run!
We did a crime, we were running! There was a whole script! I love that. I love that you were rooting for me.
You’re going on tour with Gary Barlow at the end of the month for 16 dates. It’s your first tour in five years, so how do you feel about hitting the road again?
Definitely excited and nervous. Definitely a bit nervous. Shows went away over the past year, so I’m obviously not as used to being out there! But, also excited because there have been no shows, so to actually be out there and reconnect with people… Also to do a show where I’m a special guest, it’s not just my show, it’s his show so I feel like I can have even more fun in a way. It’s going to be quite Christmassy. I’m going to play a lot of Christmas songs, and then some classics. Gary’s just lovely, his set is going to be great as well. I’m excited, but I’m nervous. I’m everything, a mix of everything!
And you’ve just announced that you will be touring Christmas, With Love Always in 2022! What can you tell me about that? Does this mean a new studio album is also in the works?
My tour is next year, which is really good for me because I get to go back out on the road because it has been, like you said, five years. I have been in the studio… I have been working. I’m really excited about what I’m working on at the moment. But there isn’t a definitive timeline as to when it’s going to be out yet. So yeah, we’ll see! I don’t know what that tour is going to be exactly yet. I’m still figuring out what I want to do, but it will definitely be some Christmas songs, some of my kind of classic songs, and then we’ll see if there are new songs on there by then.
Leona, promise me that when new material does come next year, we’ll do this all over again?
Oh, I would love to! I would love to! You’re top of the list.
Christmas, With Love Always is now available on iTunes and streaming services. Listen here on Apple Music or below.