Having burst into the mainstream in 2010 with 'Do It Like a Dude' and then global hit 'Price Tag', British pop star Jessie J has somewhat faded from view in recent years, even though she was still making music at a reasonable rate, giving interviews, and even popped up in Beijing back in 2014.
So when news emerged at the beginning of this year that she was set to appear on Chinese TV talent show Singer, the unusual career move certainly raised an eyebrow or two back home. Then again, it raised her own eyebrows too. '"They want me to compete?!" That’s what I said,' she tells us, describing the moment her management first floated the idea. 'You know, it takes you aback 'cause you kind of go: Why? Why do I need to? They think I need to?!'
However, whether it was just for the 'money, money, money' or for the thrill of a challenge, whoever ultimately convinced her to go on is deserving of a hefty raise. After three months appearing on the Hunan TV show alongside established Asian pop stars, Jessie J triumphed in the finale having not once dropped out of the top three rankings during the series. Her victory sparked headlines not only in China, but also internationally.
Jessie J performing 'I Will Always Love You' on Singer.
When we meet in Shanghai a few days after her win, it's clear she's still trying to get a handle on the situation. Friendly and approachable – albeit in a glamourous red ballgown-like dress and with a make-up artist fussing around her – she seems a little taken aback at being in the spotlight once more. 'Once the first show aired, it was like being in 2010 all over again in a different country,' she says. 'It's been so long since I've had this instant heightened fame that I don't remember how to be. You know, people going like, "can I have a picture?", and I'm like, "so why?" Then I'm like, oh right, okay yeah, I'm in the show, right.'
Her somewhat confused reaction was mirrored in the befuddlement of much of the international press. 'A lot of people, especially from the UK and America that have reached out to me [after the win] are like, "it's amazing but like what’s happening?" And I think there's still that kind of unknown, you know? I think because I've won it, now they're going "what is it?" For me, I'm just really trying to take baby steps and not overlook the fact that I've just achieved something that's not just incredible for myself but is bigger than me. It's amazing for the country.'
If we're being generous, then perhaps, like the French Revolution, it’s 'too soon to tell' quite what her win's impact will be on international relations. But, in fairness, it did drum up some global interest the show and, by extension, Chinese pop.
The ultimate outcomes may have been largely positive, but it's clear there were times when it was a struggle for her. 'Everything was intense. You know, the first week I was just like "I don’t know what's going on." And to be honest with you I think that was actually a good thing, 'cause I couldn't emotionally connect straight away. I just laughed when everyone else laughed.'
Her health also took a hit. Opting to 'commute' in from LA and spend just two to three days at a time in China, she was inevitably hit with some serious jetlag, to the extent that she briefly ended up in hospital, and was forced to miss an episode. 'I do love a challenge,' she says, 'but this has definitely been one of the hardest things I've ever done in my career.'
Yet such struggles now seem worth it. What may have seemed like a pretty bizarre career move at the outset, paid off in the form of renewed press interest overseas (in the show win, and in her latest album, the four-part R.O.S.E.), plus a major tour of ten Chinese cities – a highly unusual undertaking for a European pop star. So would she recommend other European or American acts follow in her footsteps by appearing on a Chinese TV show in this way? 'One hundred percent,' she says earnestly. 'If they don’t, they’re stupid.'
By Jake Newby