The Mail on Sunday
29th April 2012
By Emily Hill and Lara Gould
With her black bob, blood red lips and penchant for dressing in leopard print and gold lamé trousers, she is the new, undisputed siren of Saturday night television.
Almost overnight, Jessie J has gone from promising singer to international pop star and celebrated judge of The Voice, helping attract ten million viewers to the BBC’s hit talent show.
But as these innocent pictures – seen here for the first time – show, at heart Jessie J could not be further from the vampish creation who appears on screen.
In photographs taken by one of her closest childhood friends, the future star is shown as a bright, middle-class girl from Romford, Essex. Fresh-faced, mousy-haired and utterly innocent.
To those who have watched the star’s progress, there is a delicate irony in 24-year-old Jessie’s appearance on The Voice.
For while she fronts a show that promises to select the UK’s next singing sensation based on his or her voice alone, Jessie has had to utterly revolutionise her image to become the Brit Award-winning artist she is today.
So while on the show she valiantly champions Toni Warne, 35, who has been left bald by alopecia, she will be painfully aware of how radical a makeover Toni would need to succeed
‘Jessie may act tough, edgy and streetwise but in reality she is a lower-middle-class girl from Essex,’ according to one who knows her. ‘The image she has is pure branding.
You could so easily draw a cartoon of her – blunt bob, big lips, Freddie Mercury leggings. Jessie has transformed herself. She is now instantly recognisable as a brand.’
Those who knew Jessie before she was famous are amazed at the scale of the change.
Born plain Jessica Cornish, she was the youngest of three daughters of Stephen Cornish, a social worker, and his wife Rose.
Aged four, Jessie started at Wenn Stage School in Ilford. And while her elder sisters, Hannah and Rachel, excelled academically, Jessie struggled at school, channelling all her ambition into performing.
If she had been less committed, her hopes of stardom could have dwindled early.
Aged eight, she collapsed on a family day out in Epping Forest. Rushed to hospital, she was diagnosed with Wolff- Parkinson-White syndrome, a heart condition that leaves its sufferers prone to dizziness, fainting fits and, in rare cases, sudden death.
Jessie had to take beta-blockers to keep her heartbeat under control, but the medication left her skin with a greenish tinge, making her school life in Dagenham a misery.
‘I was called “alien”,’ Jessie has revealed. ‘At the time, the bullying was pretty horrific.’
A classmate recalls: ‘The bullies would follow her and throw stones at her. It was really sad to see. She became a total shadow of the happy-go-lucky girl she’d once been.’
Those traumatic schoolyard experiences hold the roots of Jessie’s dramatic transformation. With her helmet-like hair and armoury of in-your-face outfits, she puts up a hard facade to hide a vulnerable core.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the young singer grew closer to the friends she made outside school – in particular Kirstie Kober, the daughter of Dawn Wenn-Kober, her teacher at the stage school.
‘Jessica was always destined to be a star,’ says Kirstie, who has dug out her photos from the loft to show her old friend’s journey to stardom. ‘Even from a young age, Jessica had an incredible voice.
‘My mum taught us ballet and in the middle of the class Jessica would be singing and making up lyrics to go along with the classical music we were doing our ballet exercises to.
‘Jessica was always destined to be a star. Even from a young age, Jessica had an incredible voice.’
Mum would say, “Jessica, this is a ballet class, not a singing lesson, please get on with your plié.” ’
Aged 11, Jessie and Kirstie were cast in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Whistle Down The Wind. Jessie played the role of Brat. She soon acquired the nickname ‘Brat Pitt’ after falling into the orchestra pit during one performance.
‘At one point Jessica had to turn around and walk to the back of the stage,’ says Kirstie, 23, a dance and drama teacher at her mother’s stage school. ‘For some reason she lost her balance, fell and landed on top of the conductor.
Both of them then toppled on to the lead violinist, whose bow went through his hand.’
‘It was because of Jessica that they now have a grille over the orchestra,’ explains Kirstie’s mother, Dawn. ‘She wanted to continue the show, even when she fell, but they insisted she went to hospital to get checked out.’
For Jessie a mere fall was no reason to prevent the show going on.
Quietly and determinedly she was battling a far more serious problem – her skipping heart.
‘I’m sure that Jessica was frightened by her condition,’ says Dawn. ‘If you’ve had a couple of passing-out episodes, you’re bound to be.
She came in to class with a heart monitor. But it was very much played down by her mum and dad. They were very good about reassuring us she wasn’t going to collapse in class.’
In her time at stage school Jessie seemed destined for a career in West End musicals.
But in 2003, aged 15, she entered a competition called Britain’s Brilliant Prodigies, which sought to find the country’s future stars in everything from chess to dance.
Jessie won Best Young Pop Singer and was presented with her award by the Duchess of York.
‘At that point she had to decide,’ says a keen observer of Jessie’s rise. ‘Did she want to go on the stage or be a pop star?
She couldn’t do both. In the West End you have to look anonymous to adapt to any role. As a pop star, you have to look unique. You have to stand out.’
Aged 16, Jessie successfully auditioned for the BRIT school of performing arts in Croydon.
It was an incredible year for home-grown pop talent, with Adele and Leona Lewis both in Jessie’s year. But she had yet to acquire her ‘look’.
‘When she first came, she didn’t have a fringe – her hair was just long and straight,’ says Kerry Louise Barnaby, a BRIT school contemporary.
‘She didn’t wear much make-up. She’d wear skinny jeans, a plain baggy T-shirt and Converse trainers. That was it, that was Jess.’
In early 2005, veteran music manager Raymond Stevenson picked Jessie for a girl group he was putting together called Soul Deep.
Govan, author of the unauthorised biography of Jessie J, Who’s Laughing Now?, explains that the wild image Jessie J projects today has been carefully put together over the past seven years.
‘Before Jessie got her first manager she looked a little staid and insecure,’ says Chloe.
‘Raymond knew that she needed a modern, more confident look and put her in touch with a producer called Shae, who had authentic street roots.
‘He stopped her listening to Mariah Carey and introduced her to the music of Kanye West and Missy Elliott. Basically, he gave Jessie her swagger.’
Jessie acquired her most distinctive feature, the sharp black bob – which she herself describes as ‘a cross between Mystic Meg and Lego man’ – after becoming a hair model for Vidal Sassoon. The only other thing she needed was attitude.
‘We gave her the street sense,’ Shae has explained.
‘She was a normal Essex girl before, not chavvy, but she was plain . . . Jessie was also a very intelligent girl. She’s like a sponge, she will absorb anything that’s around her.’
Jessie parted ways with Raymond Stevenson before she signed her first major record deal, and last year Stevenson entered into a legal battle with her, claiming 20 per cent of her earnings after overseeing her ‘self discovery’.
In 2011, Jessie J erupted on to the world stage.
Her debut album, Who You Are, had six UK chart hits – breaking the record for a British solo artist and putting her on a par with US star Lady Gaga.
But this sudden and seemingly effortless debut belies the years of hard work The Voice star has had to put in.
Her current look continues to amaze her old friends and contemporaries.
Her first single, Do It Like A Dude, was accompanied by an explicit video, which caused Kerry Louise Barnaby to shriek: ‘But Jess doesn’t even do caffeine!’
But as Jessie herself has explained: ‘I’m a businesswoman.
‘You have to be a businesswoman. You can’t survive in this industry if you don’t know what you’re doing.’
She has marketed herself with her saucy image and won a prime-time slot.
Jessie knows, better than anyone, that it is not all about ‘the voice’.
And thanks to her own extraordinary makeover, she is getting hers heard.