Katherine Jenkins has battled for her success and is still proving to the world – and terrifying teenage muggers – that she’s hard as nails. Here she opens up about the late mentor who encouraged her to travel to war zones
Last year, while walking down the busy King’s Road in London’s Chelsea, on her way to perform at a charity carol concert in St Luke’s Church, Katherine Jenkins saw an elderly woman being mugged by two teenage girls. She couldn’t believe her eyes as people just kept walking by, as if nothing was happening. Within seconds the world-famous mezzo soprano was bolting across two lanes of traffic to come to the woman’s rescue.
‘I was standing there on the other side of the road, thinking: “Why is no one helping?” and then I just ran over, shouting: “That lady is being attacked, stop it, stop it!” and threw myself in. I didn’t think twice. If it was my mum being mugged, it would kill me to think no one did anything. I was shouting at the girls and because I’d intervened, they gave the bag back to her. The lady then just disappeared and the girls started on me.’ Katherine’s own phone was snatched but police, who were called to the scene, eventually caught one of the muggers, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, who later handed over the iPhone and told a court she wanted to apologise for her behaviour.
Katherine says she was not even aware the case had gone to court. ‘I didn’t mention it to anyone at the time,’ she says. ‘I was shaken up and kept thinking about all the photos of my babies on that phone, but then I knew they were all stored on iCloud and it was just a phone.
‘I carried on to the church and got on stage and somehow managed to sing. My husband was in New York at the time and I sent a message to him to tell him I was OK. When we finally spoke later that night, he said: “I’m proud of you. You did the right thing.” I never want to be that woman who looks the other way.’
Left: Katherine singing in an empty Royal Albert Hall on VE Day last month. Right: With husband Andrew last year
The angelic voice and Disney princess looks don’t immediately hint at the ballsy, steely side of Katherine Jenkins, but it’s there. Actually, it’s been the 39-year-old’s trademark her entire life. Katherine – whose new album Cinema Paradiso will be released next month – may be inextricably linked with big ballgowns, coiffured hair and performing for royalty, popes and presidents, but beyond the froth and taffeta, I tease her, lies quite the badass.
‘You seriously think I’m a badass?’ she says, laughing hysterically, shaking her head. She can laugh but there’s no denying it – Katherine has guts. It’s evident in how she, a working-class Welsh girl from an ex-council house in Neath, has spent almost two decades challenging the prejudices of the classical music establishment, which didn’t exactly welcome this doll-like blonde in high heels into their formidably elitist fold.
Then there were her multiple trips to the frontline in Afghanistan to perform for British troops. It was during one of these forays that the helicopter she was travelling in was attacked by a Taliban missile, causing it to fall several hundred feet. At the time, she said, ‘All I could do was stay calm and I was also thinking a lot about my mum. I can’t remember how long it lasted – it seemed to go on for ages, but in reality it’s a matter of minutes – and then, you know, it’s passed.’
Only an hour later, Katherine pulled a slinky black dress and a tube of red lipstick out of her backpack and carried on, singing for hundreds of soldiers. It’s no surprise Katherine believed then, as she does now, that music can be the ultimate morale booster. ‘Every Saturday throughout lockdown I’ve been doing a concert from my home on Facebook because I think it’s important to keep spirits up – and that’s what singing does. I do my own hair and make-up and put on a nice dress. My husband’s my sound man and my daughter is the audience. People can respond to me directly with comments and I always end up crying. But I love this new very simple, real intimacy.’
In fact, today’s photo shoot for YOU is the first Katherine’s done since the coronavirus pandemic took hold and as such is happening in the garden of the London home she shares with her film-director and artist husband Andrew Levitas and their children, daughter Aaliyah, five, and two-year-old son Xander.
Surrounded by greenery, looking serene in pretty floral dresses, it’s easy to forget that Katherine’s entry into the music industry and her global success were hard won. She progressed from singing with the Royal School of Church Music in Wales to the Royal Academy of Music in London, winning a £1 million record deal in 2003; the Taffia (her affectionate nickname for her group of childhood friends and family) would hire a coach to come to see their girl perform at the Royal Albert Hall, shrieking and applauding regardless of the formality of the event.
Yet she was looked down upon by the classical world as being a crossover artist because she’d happily perform with mainstream stars such as Kylie Minogue. To the celebrity world, meanwhile, she was an opera singer and, despite her obvious global popularity, has never really been regarded as, well, ‘cool’.
‘But it’s about learning to understand exactly who you are and not be afraid to be that person,’ she says now. ‘I used to worry about everything and I’d listen to other people advising me what to do. Now I always feel I know what I want to do, I know what I want to sing, what I want to do next. The older I’ve got the more confident I am about being myself and, yes, I am strong.’
She draws inspiration from her mum Susan, who raised her and her sister Laura alone after their dad died when Katherine was 15.
‘Mum was my role model – and she’s such a strong woman. I often talk about my dad and how hard it was to lose him at such a young age, and so much of the emotion in my music is because of that loss of him.
But my mum was always there. She’s an incredible woman and a lot of my strength comes from her. One of the hardest things about lockdown is not being with her, so we talk every day and I see her on our weekly Zoom family quizzes, but I can’t wait to see her again when we can.’
Later this month, Katherine will turn 40. She has not yet had a meltdown about it, she says, because her life has significantly improved in the past decade – or rather since 2013, when she began dating New York-born Andrew. ‘I think if I’d shut my eyes at the age of 15 and thought what I wanted at 40, I couldn’t have even imagined it would be what I have now. I’m really happy to be 40 because I love the life I have exactly as it is.’
There is definitely a difference between the ‘before Andrew’ Katherine and the ‘after Andrew’ one. She laughs: ‘I’m more relaxed, I have children… I have less time – I might run out of the house and notice there is baby sick on my shoulder and then just think, “Oh well!” And I’m so much happier.’
Katherine was single through most of her late 20s and early 30s and focused entirely on her career. She was a good deal more guarded back then, always expecting to be picked apart for her perceived lack of credentials.
‘I was a bit of a shock to the system,’ she says now of the classical music world. ‘It was the same when I arrived at the Royal Academy of Music on a scholarship. I didn’t look like a lot of other people there, and some assume that means you can’t be taken seriously.’
She pushed harder to prove herself and her focus served her well – she made album after album (Cinema Paradiso is her 14th studio recording), travelled round the world constantly, making her name in the US and appearing on Dancing With The Stars (the American version of Strictly Come Dancing), where she got to the finals but lost out to American footballer Donald Driver.
It was less easy back then to see her fun side – the Katherine who hangs out with Piers Morgan (‘He’s so cheeky, he makes me howl’) and who, like most of us in lockdown, admits she has got through it by increasing her intake of alcohol. ‘Andrew and I have definitely been drinking more. He will have tequila and I will have champagne. The good thing about doing my Facebook Live shows is that I have to get all dressed up, so afterwards we have a little date night and Andrew gets to see me when I’m not going around the house cleaning in my PJs.’
Since getting married in 2014, there has also been a shift in her career choices. Earlier this year she threw classical caution to the wind to appear as the Octopus on ITV’s The Masked Singer, even undergoing vocal training to strip the operatic beauty out of her voice.
‘I did the show because I just wanted my children to see me in something that would appeal to them and they would love. Aaliyah came running up to me and hugged me. She said, “You were a really good Octopus”, and it made it all worth it just for that.’
Last year she also made her movie debut alongside Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy as a junior reporter in her husband’s film Minamata, about the devastating effects of mercury poisoning in Japan. She also co-wrote the title track. Was she nervous about acting alongside Johnny? She gives a stunned look: ‘I was terrified. But he was incredibly nice, as was Bill. Andrew had been working away in Serbia on the movie for six months, just after I’d had Xander. He kept telling me I should play the part and eventually I just felt I should challenge myself. It was also a chance for all of us to be together.’
Katherine with Johnny Depp and Minami Hinase at the premiere of her husband Andrew’s film Minamata in February
Meanwhile, her new album is a tribute to her favourite movie songs and shows her dad’s influence on her music. ‘There’s always an emotional connection for me. This album is about songs I love, songs that mean something to me, from “Singing in the Rain’, which my dad would always sing after a few pints, to “Moon River”, which I sang as my best friend Kirsty walked down the aisle on her wedding day.’
Katherine’s lockdown has been more surreal than most. Bar cleaning toilets and family Zoom quizzes, she’s had two of the most surreal performances of her life. For VE Day she and Dame Vera Lynn did a version of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ with all proceeds going to the NHS, which topped the iTunes charts the day it was released. Dame Vera – who died this month after our interview – had been Katherine’s friend and mentor for 15 years. ‘I met Vera through working with her on previous VE Day celebrations,’ says Katherine, ‘and she had a huge effect on me because she encouraged me to go out to war zones to perform for the troops. She’s an incredibly inspiring lady.’
Katherine’s quickfire six
Your karaoke song
‘Empire State of Mind’ – particularly the rapping, but only so I can prove that while Welsh girls can’t rap, they can make everyone laugh at them trying.
Your favourite tipple
Champagne, Perrier-Jouët or Krug, please.
Your go-to takeaway order
Lebanese – hummus, tabbouleh – my mouth is watering as I haven’t had a takeaway in three months.
Last thing you put on your credit card
My Ocado shop – that’s all that is on there at the moment.
The last time you cried
Many times this week as we have just had a bereavement in the family.
Have you ever been starstruck?
Yes, performing with Kylie Minogue and any time I meet the Queen I am always instantly tongue-tied.
‘I met Vera through working with her on previous VE Day celebrations and she had a huge effect on me because she encouraged me to go out to war zones to perform for the troops. She’s an incredibly inspiring lady.’
On VE day itself, Katherine performed Dame Vera’s songs in an empty Royal Albert Hall – a 30-minute set featuring clips of the 103-year-old icon, which was streamed globally on YouTube – and then she sang live at Buckingham Palace.
‘It was the strangest, most unforgettable of days. To do the performance at Buckingham Palace I wore an enormous blue ballgown, which was so huge I could barely fit in the car. Andrew drove, we parked outside the palace then the two of us walked into the courtyard where they do the changing of the guard and I sang there. It was so odd, so completely empty, no faces at the railings – the palace was totally shut up. Andrew and I felt like we were in a zombie apocalypse.
‘And the Albert Hall,’ she pauses. ‘Well, it was even more bizarre because I’ve performed there so many times. We had a skeleton crew, but everyone was being so careful to follow all of the social distancing rules.
‘I didn’t really think about anything but what it meant to be singing on the day. I just wanted everyone to have a moment of happiness, hope and togetherness, and I felt it had never been more important a time to honour VE Day 75.
‘But as I was singing the final line I looked up at all the empty seats and I was hit by this huge emotion, thinking of the people who would normally be there and what that emptiness meant. I had to style it out as if my eyes weren’t filling up because I didn’t want any sadness to come across, but that really got me.
‘We were all apart but music was bringing us together. I’m just very proud I could keep on singing.’
Katherine’s latest album Cinema Paradiso will be released on 3 July. For tickets to her 2021 UK tour, go to katherinejenkins.co.uk
Styling: Sophie Dearden. Styling assistant: Stephanie Sofokleous. Hair and make-up: Charlotte Reid at One Represents using NARS Cosmetics. Production and art direction: Ester Malloy. Rex/shutterstock/Getty images