The British pop star is crossing the pond after a two decade-long career. Here’s what took her so long, what she’s loving about the process, and what’s next.
Last week, eight million viewers tuned into the season premiere NBC’s America’s Got Talent: The Champions to watch a judges panel, more stacked than ever before, try to find the world’s biggest and brightest new talent. There’s Simon Cowell, who started it all with American Idol in the U.S. in 2002; further down the desk is Howie Mandell, longtime AGT judge and former Deal or No Deal host; next to Cowell is former Project Runway judge Heidi Klum, a six-year AGT vet herself. It’s a true who’s who the competition show circuit.
But this year, there’s an actual “who?” beside the legends up there, a fourth judge who’s likely entirely unfamiliar to American audiences: British pop star and presenter Alesha Dixon. The appointment (Dixon takes the place Season One Judge and Spice Girls legend Mel B, who’s given her replacement her blessing) came as a pleasant surprise to fans the show, and a delightful shock to Dixon fans who’ve waited for this American crossover for decades.
To supporters, the 41-year-old entertainer is known as a Strictly Come Dancing and Britain’s Got Talent judge, a former member the early ‘00s girl group Mis-Teeq and, following their disbanding in 2005, the successful and beloved solo act behind seven U.K. Top 40 hits. To AGT viewers, she’s the cheery, unfamiliar British woman next to Howie and Heidi who replaced the Spice Girl. “I never presume that people know who I am,” she says with a laugh when she calls from Los Angeles. “But I hope this is the beginning something.”
Hers is the sort casting that makes no sense at first glance and then, upon more thought, all the sense in the world. Two episodes in, the 41-year-old Dixon has brought a much-needed burst warmth and depth to her critiques, employing skills she’s honed and sharpened in her native England over the past 15 years. And really, who better to judge a talent show than a pop star herself, one who once scored a worldwide hit you probably don’t even know you know (Mis-Teeq’s 2003 song “Scandalous,” which peaked at No. 2 on the U.K. charts and No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100)?
“Getting to work on such a brilliant show and fast track my way to getting to know the American audience has been wonderful,” Dixon says. “This is exactly where I want to be.”
Late last week, Billboard rang up the singer, judge, presenter, and rapper to unpack why America, why now, and why you should care about one the U.K.’s most underrated pop exports in recent history.
In terms cracking America, what did it take for you to get here? And why now?
The last 20 years have been such a blessing, but just before I turned 40, I started feeling a bit anxious. I was feeling quite frustrated… like, yes, I've checked certain boxes, and yes, I've done so many great things in my career, but what about this next chapter in my life? What's next? I started to feel a little bit stagnant, and I felt like I needed something new and fresh to remotivate me.
Over the last decade, I kept thinking, "Why am I not in America? Why am I not doing more? I feel like I'm underused." But if you're patient and work hard and take your time, life is beautiful in that it will reward that. I feel like I'm stepping into this new era as a mature woman, a more experienced woman, a more grounded, calm, and level-headed woman. I feel like I'm well-schooled for it and well-prepared. Maybe I wouldn't have been able to have coped with it well if it had happened 10 years ago or 15 years ago. I used to be so scared everything, and I feel like I've got to a place now where I feel confident in myself and my abilities and what I have to fer.
Within the last year, the fact that I had another healthy daughter and was fered my dream job and I'm here in America and I'm back in the studio recording, which I hadn't been doing for a while… it almost feels like when I turned 40, things got better. Everything that I've done the last 20 years have led me to this moment.
What was it about the U.S. that felt so appealing?
From a practical working point view, the U.K. is quite small. Once you've worked on Britain's Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing, the pool shows is quite limited. Once you reach those points and you've been successful on them, you're thinking, "Well, what now? Where do I go next?" When I look at America, I think it just seems like there's more, a bigger pool to choose from. Also, I think there's an attitude in America that's really appealing to me. Of course I love the British sense humor. But I am definitely a cup-half-full kind person. There is something about an energy here which feels very yes we can and anything's possible.
Then also, just to be quite frank — I think I would be a fool not to be honest about this — as a woman color, I definitely look over here and I think, "Wow, when you're a woman color out here, it's more celebrated.” There just seems to be more opportunities. Whether I'm feeling it wrong or not, from where I sit in the U.K. looking over here, it just looks so appealing. That's not to say that I don't love working in the U.K., because course I do, and still I feel very, very lucky. But I think it's more about scale. It's more about the possibilities that I feel attracted to more than anything.
Have you found yourself getting recognized for one thing in particular in America?
What I’ve found quite refreshing about being on AGT is just how many people were fans Got Talent as a franchise. Even yesterday, we were at Disneyland, and a couple young girls came over and were like, "We've been watching you on BGT for years.” That was such a pleasant surprise, because I just did not expect it.
Now that you’ve been judging and presenting for a decade-plus, what do you think makes a good judge?
I think it's perspective. The one thing I said to myself when I was first fered a job at Strictly Come Dancing was: The best thing that I can be, and the only thing I have influence on, is showing up as my most authentic self. Don't try to be something you're not. Don't try to say things that you think people want to hear. Just be true to you, be honest, be in the moment. The best thing you can be is just you.
I think the audience is so savvy — they can see through anything, and I would be doing myself a disservice if I wasn't myself. That’s served me well over the years. Ever since I started out in the business, I've always tried my best to just be as natural as possible, as honest as possible, as kind as possible.
You’ve spoken so eloquently about finding that confidence after struggling from imposter syndrome. How did getting the call for AGT play into that?
Now, actually, I feel that I'm in a position where I'm competent in what I bring to the table and I do believe in myself and I no longer question whether I should be there or not. The way that you get there is through experience, through having moments in your life that don't work out so well, where you actually learn your own resilience and strength.
It's all well and good somebody else saying to you, "I think you're good for the job." For you to excel and be the best version yourself, you have to know that. That took me a long time. I've always had an element confidence, but I had deep insecurities growing up which fed into the early parts my career. It's a shame because it's just such a waste a moment where you're not fully present, when you’re questioning and doubting whether you belong. The more confident you are in your own skin, then you can fly, you can excel, and people will pick up on that energy.
It's something I've had to learn. It's not something that comes overnight. As much as I wouldn't wish bad on myself or wish for failure, when I look back, I understand that the points that I've had in my life that have knocked me back or haven't been pleasant or been difficult, they were the making me.
You mention setbacks. In 2015, you put out Do It For Love on your own label. What necessitated that shift?
It was quite a scary time. I just wanted to put my own team together and do it all on my terms. I called it Do It For Love because I wanted to do it for that reason and no other. The first single out, I made it chart ineligible because I didn't want a chart position. I didn't want to be judged. I spent a year making a record that was like a dream come true. It's such a personal record. I didn't want to have some chart position or sad, negative kind perspective on that chart position to ruin what was a passion project for me.
What’d you learn making that album that has stuck with you?
I learned to trust my instincts. I learned that I'm a bit a control freak when it comes to attention to detail. Well, I reconfirmed that I care about the quality a product, and I really learned that I don't like to work on anything unless I'm genuinely passionate about it. Show business is definitely business first and then show. To actually try to hold onto the love something in a business is so tough, and sometimes toxic. But I feel like I achieved that with that record.
Musically, what’s inspiring you right now?
Motherhood. I'm completely consumed with my daughters and all the highs and lows that come with being a mom. My girls completely re-inspired me; that's what makes me want to keep recording, because I feel like my most authentic self when I’m recording or when I'm on stage. I feel alive. But having these two little humans that are completely dependent on you and looking up to you and watching every move that you make, you want to make sure that you get it right.
I definitely feel like I've got a lot to say, and I'm excited by it. Sometimes you walk into a studio and you don't always know exactly what you want to say, but I always trust that once I'm in the studio, what needs to come out comes out. I truly believe that songs are sometimes pre-written. You just need to catch up to them. You're constantly telling stories within your soul; in a way, you're just putting pen to paper and allowing what needs to come out for the next healing part your journey or the next part your story. You're just allowing it to flow. So I try to just trust that process and see where it takes me.