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“I got told to bleach my skin”: Alexandra Burke shares her experience of music industry racism

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The X Factor star Alexandra Burke has spoken out about the traumatic impact of racism that she faced from music industry executives after winning the show in 2008.

The X Factor winner Alexandra Burke says producers advised her to bleach her skin to “look whiter” in an emotional video on the impact of racism within the music industry released this weekend.

After winning the show aged 19 in 2008, Burke says she was told, “you are going to have to work 10 times harder than a white artist because of the colour of your skin”.

Executives said to her, “You can’t have braids, you can’t have an afro […] You have to have hair that appeals to white people so people can understand you better.”

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In a candid 15-minute clip posted on Instagram yesterday, Burke says it had taken her years to get to the point where she can speak her truth about the discrimination she’s faced at all levels over the course of her music career.

The Start Without You singer says that, for a long time, she felt ashamed and frightened about sharing her experiences in the industry. But the recent Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd in the States prompted her to speak out about the “heartbreaking” racism she has encountered.

“I kept myself so quiet and I’m angry with myself about that,” she says. “But now that this movement is happening, I just feel like now is the right time to speak up and not be afraid to do it.”

“I got told to bleach my skin and that was something I refused to do because it just is absurd to me that someone could even remotely say to someone, ‘bleach your skin so that you could look whiter,’” Burke says. “Still to this moment it breaks my heart that I was told that.”

Even before she won The X Factor, Burke says she got a taste of the kind of discrimination that lay ahead. When she made it into later rounds of the show aged 16, the singer was told by an executive that he would sign her to his label. But when she rang to follow up on the offer, she was told: “I already have one black artist, I don’t need another.”

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Burke also reveals a long line of “microaggressions” that she has experienced at the hands of various different music management companies and labels during her time in the spotlight. 

The singer has been told things like, “you have to smile more on your Instagram because you come across aggressive”, and “you can’t release this kind of music because white people don’t understand that”.

These messages were dictated to her, as a black woman, “so many times, on so many levels”.

“I could have spoken out much earlier but I was too scared to. Even doing this video now scares me,” Burke explains.

Alexandra Burke with Gorka Marquez on Strictly Come Dancing in 2017

Burke also addresses the trauma she went through appearing on the BBC show Strictly Come Dancing in 2017, as trolls accused her of behaving like a diva and “playing the victim card”.

At one point, a journalist taunted her on the red carpet after her mother had just died. Burke still had to attend the event but, understandably, she felt unable to speak to the press. One of the journalists called out to her, “being a diva today, are we?” 

Burke says the fallout from the show took a huge toll on her emotional wellbeing. 

“How I got through it, I have no idea,” she says. “I don’t even like thinking about that experience.”

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Burke says she has constantly been fed the message that “because you’re a black girl you won’t really make it far in the industry”, noting that, “I am very proud to be a black woman”.

She says she hopes her video will inspire others to share their own truths about racism, urging viewers not to “wait years” as she did before speaking out.

Her video has already had a powerful impact on Instagram, with nearly 200,000 views at the time of writing, alongside thousands of supportive comments.

“Alexandra you are so brave and beautiful. Thanks for sharing!” read a typical response, as another person adds, “This is so so deep. So strong.”

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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