Alexandra Burke on cherishing family, how Celebrity SAS transformed her self-worth, and embracing her late mum’s advice
Ever open your bathroom cupboard and think you’re hoarding way too many products? Donating spares could be an option – as there are lots of people in need.
Recent years have seen growing awareness of ‘period poverty’, highlighting how young girls are missing school due to being unable to afford sanitary products. There’s a wider picture too, with many families struggling to afford basic hygiene products like toothpaste, deodorant and washing detergent.
A recent survey of teachers – commissioned by Boots UK and The Hygiene Bank – found 69% have noticed ‘hygiene poverty’ amongst pupils, with the issue getting worse since the pandemic. Nearly three-quarters (71%) have taught pupils with body odour, with 75% having seen children attend school in unwashed clothes, and 62% noticing children coming in with unbrushed teeth.
“It’s heart-breaking,” says singer Alexandra Burke. “It’s hard to read what these stats are saying, in this day and age.” She’s understanding about how easily this can happen though. “Knowing it’s the difference between a family picking to pay their utilities bill or buying hygiene products – you’re going to pick the utilities bill first.”
The London-born star, 33, has teamed up with Boots and The Hygiene Bank – a charity that collects, sorts and distributes personal and household hygiene products to community partners, so they can reach those in need. To help, Boots now has Hygiene Bank donation points in over 400 of its stores, where anyone can drop off donations (these can include new and unused, in-date items). The retailer also matches customer donations in stores through its ‘You Donate, We Donate’ scheme.
“It’s such a hidden crisis, not many people are aware of it,” says Burke. “There are certain things we do talk about, and there’s such a taboo about other subjects. We can’t rely on kids to speak up for themselves, they won’t have the confidence, so it’s a matter of us doing our part.”
Speaking of confidence, Burke agrees the impact of hygiene poverty can run deep for young people, affecting their self-esteem and “just everything”, she says. “And if you think about how these kids are our future, we want them to be able to thrive as much as possible. Mental health is a crisis in itself – to know these kids will be impacted mentally as well by something that’s out of their control, it’s really hard to think about it.”
Looking back to her own school days, she feels “fortunate” hygiene poverty wasn’t something she experienced. “My mum, bless her heart, she was a single mother and was able to have the help of my grandad and my aunty, her sister – she was very lucky to be a single mum with help, not a lot of people have that. She always made sure we had food on the table, clothes on our back, all the hygiene products we needed.
“I don’t ever recall not having the things we did need. I just recall going without seeing my mum, because she was always working so hard, in order to provide for us,” adds Burke, whose mother was the late Soul II Soul singer, Melissa Bell. “That’s just my childhood; I feel very lucky my mum was able to do what she loved for us.”
Burke’s own music career launched after she won The X Factor in 2008 aged 20. She remains one of the show’s most successful ever contestants, with record sales of over four million in the UK alone – but it hasn’t all been plain-sailing, and in recent years she’s opened up about the racism she experienced in the music industry, revealing how she’d been asked to bleach her skin, and told she’d “have to work 10 times harder than a white artist”.
She has also talked about the painful grieving process she’s been through since her mum’s death in 2017 aged just 53, following a long battle with kidney failure. Viewers saw the singer touch on it during her appearance on Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins, saying how she felt she’d “lost all purpose” after her mum died in her arms.
Burke had been on tour at the time, driving back to the hospital after shows and sleeping on the floor just for a chance to be with her. She opened up on the podcast How To Fail With Elizabeth Day about her “regret” of going on tour at all. When she’d suggested calling it a day after her mum’s health took a turn for the worse, Bell urged her daughter to keep going, saying: “It’s only nine months, come on, let’s just get the tour over with and then we’ll have time.”
Burke – who reached the final three in the Channel 4 show, which sees celebs tackle gruelling SAS style challenges – now says it’s one of the best things she’s ever done. “It was hardcore, probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done mentally and physically, but at the same time something that was so rewarding personally. It was very, very special in the sense of what the outcome was for me. When I say that, I’m talking about my self-worth, it just changed me as a person,” she explains. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
The series is filmed in advance, and Burke admits “reliving it” while it aired recently was “really difficult”, saying: “You go through that journey and then you don’t remember that it’s all going to be shown”.
Warmth and openness are part of Burke’s personality, but she’s learning the importance of remembering to “protect your heart” too. “I’m definitely conscious of not giving away too much about my personal life, because I want to protect my family,” she says. “It’s hard having every single thing out there. And what you have to remember as well is, once it’s in the press, I tend to get a lot of questions about it just popping to Tesco. People don’t have a barrier, they will just ask you. So yeah, you’ve got to have a balance.”
Right now, that balance also means “trying to spend as much time as I can with my family. I’m not the type of person who likes to go out a lot. I like to stay indoors and go on dog walks and stuff; I’m a very normal girl! I really appreciate quality time with my friends and family and being at home, because I’m rarely home, so when I get the opportunity, I take it with both hands.”
Fitness is a daily must (“That for me is the most important thing for staying healthy and grounded”) and despite making the most of being a homebody, she’s also happy to be back in the studio with a new album in the works (her first in three years).
And whatever happens, she’s holding dear the cherished life lessons passed on from her mum. “One thing I’m really learning now is just to appreciate who I am as a young black woman in the industry. Mum would always say to me, ‘Just remember, stay strong within this industry, always be yourself, never allow negativity to get in the way, and live and breathe what you love to do’,” Burke shares. “And having manners and respect. I live by that, day in, day out.”
Alexandra Burke is ambassador for Boots UK and The Hygiene Bank partnership. For more information, see boots-uk.com and thehygienebank.com.
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