How Leona Lewis became the UK queen of Christmas with One More Sleep

Leona Lewis is ready for Christmas. The three-time Grammy Award and seven-time Brit Award nominee has just flown back to London from her home in Los Angeles to begin rehearsals for a UK tour, which will see the X Factor phenomenon perform a selection of Christmas classics and greatest hits while also celebrating the 10th anniversary of her acclaimed studio album, Christmas, With Love. She may be based out of the guard-gated Hidden Hills these days, but London always feels like coming home, Lewis shares.

“Oh my gosh, definitely!” she insists in her immediately identifiable (and unaffected) East London accent. Aside from one “gotten” that sneaks into the interview, no hint of an L.A twang is detectable – she still drops her T’s, pronouncing the word, ‘Bri-ish’.

“I don't spend crazy amounts of time away from the UK, so hopefully it doesn't slip,” she says sincerely. “I'm back and forth quite a lot, and now I have the baby, [Lewis and her husband, professional dancer and choreographer, Dennis Jauch welcomed a daughter into their lives in 2022], I come back for longer periods of time. This is always going to be home for me. It’s where I grew up; it's where my family are.”

Now aged 38, Lewis may have embraced an L.A lifestyle, (recently opening plant-based, vegan coffee shops in Pasadena and Studio City), sold over 35 million records worldwide and broken numerous records, (her X Factor winner’s single was downloaded 50,000 times within 30 minutes, her first record was the best-selling debut album by a female artist in the 21st century – while its lead single, Bleeding Love was the best-selling single of 2007 – and she is the first British female solo artist to reach the top five with eight singles), but when she’s in the UK, it’s the simple things that make her happy.

“I definitely miss a good roast dinner,” she answers straight away when asked what British cuisine she misses when in the US, instantly delighted to talk about food. “Going and getting a lovely roast dinner on a Sunday with my family; I miss that for sure. It's just so warming and hearty. It's the lead up to the big Christmas dinner. I cook it myself, but I like going out to a pub or to my local when I'm here.”

At 17, Lewis left Brit school to focus on releasing music, working as a receptionist at a solicitor's office and at Pizza Hut to fund studio sessions for demo albums, hoping to secure a record deal. When nothing materialised, she tried out for the third series of The X Factor in 2006, where her unassuming and endearing demeanour was quickly overshadowed by her obvious vocal talent.

Lewis’ performance of Over the Rainbow saw her eventual mentor Simon Cowell go from bored, to intrigued, to a broad smile as he looked upon the show’s eventual winner and ticket to credibility. Louis Walsh immediately declared, “You’ve got the whole package,” and Sharon Osbourne agreed – “the OG [judges]!” points out Lewis fondly. 

Four easy yeses saw her sail through to the next round and all the way to the winning spot – a reminder that between Cowell’s withering put-downs and Osbourne and Walsh collapsing into hysterics, the show did unearth some genuine talent.

She laughs when it’s pointed out that if she were auditioning today, she’d be relegated to the ‘Over 25s’ group, often referred to as simply ‘Overs’. “Yeah! You’re the older ones…” she trails off… “Under 25s and overs like that, I don't think that would really work now. We'd have to have a different category or something, because when you think about it, if you're over 25, you could be 25, you could be 90,” she laughs. “They’d have to reformat it for sure.”

What was considered entertaining just 15 years ago would likely see a show (or person) cancelled today, and the categories wouldn’t be the only thing needing reformatting for a modern audience. The X Factor delighted in the bad auditions, and missguided auditionees would find themselves at the barrel end of a savage piece of Cowell feedback: “It was like you’d swallowed a load of people and they were all screaming,” he deadpanned once, or, “I don’t know what cats being squashed sounds like in Lithuania, but I now have a pretty good idea; You couldn’t win this competition if you were the only person in it,” and, “If I was looking to hire a rug, I'd hire you tomorrow”.

“You can’t,” agrees Lewis, noting that Cowell has ditched the nasty TV persona these days. “I feel like he's changed as a person anyway; he's become a lot warmer,” she offers.

The pair’s relationship has had its ups and downs since Lewis signed a £1 million recording contract with Cowell's Syco Music in 2006. Fast forward to 2014 and she had parted ways with the label due to creative differences in relation to her fifth studio album, later revealing in an open letter to fans that she felt extremely depressed around the time of her departure and that she was threatened with should she leave, news would leak that she had been dropped. She’s happy to report that they are on good terms now; Cowell even bought his former X Factor protegée’s Hidden Hills ranch in 2020.

“I actually was in touch with him a lot the past few weeks,” she points out. “He asked me to come and perform on America’s Got Talent with this artist that he really loves called Putri Ariani. He’s still very much in my world. We'll always have that connection because that period of time around The X Factor was such a big thing to happen to me, and I think also for him as well,” she considers. “We both went on a ride together, so we've always had quite a good relationship.”

The X Factor was such a big thing to happen to me, and I think also for Simon Cowell as well.

Only three series into The X Factor, Cowell had never crowned such a promising winner as Lewis, and it was clear that a post-show career would flourish, if handled correctly. Lewis broke records from the start: her winner's single – a cover of Kelly Clarkson's A Moment Like This – broke a world record after being digitally downloaded more than 50,000 times in less than 30 minutes. 

It also became the coveted UK Christmas number one single that year, selling more than the entire Top 40 combined. Despite being released at the tail end of December, it became the second best-selling single in the UK that year.

For Lewis, the show was nothing but life changing, plucking her from obscurity and thrusting her into the face of the nation, who tuned in religiously every week. When Lewis won, it attracted the show's then-highest ever audience of 12.6 million.

“When I went on the show, obviously, it was huge,” she says. “The year before, I was one of those people that got my takeaway on a Saturday night and sat in front of the TV with my friends and my family to watch the show. It was almost like a British cultural thing. Then being on the flip side of that, actually getting on the show…” she trails off, changing tact. 

“I've always obviously wanted to have a career in music, it was something I was pursuing, and I was pursuing a lot of different avenues, and this, for me, was one of those avenues. It was the one that kicked off.

“I wanted to have a career in music, but I wasn't prepared for the other side of fame and people recognising you,” she adds, unprompted. “I would go out in my area and have cars beeping at me, people running up to me and shouting at me from the cars, shouting at me from the house. It was so crazy, especially when I first got off the show because I just went back to my house. It was mad! 

"People were knocking on the door; it was very crazy, and I wasn't prepared for that. But it was something I just had to adapt to. When you're part of something that's so huge, you have to lean on the support around you, and I did, luckily, have a lot of support. I've got a really solid foundation with my family, and my brothers are really supportive and very protective.”

I would love to do a duet with Mariah Carey. She is the absolute Christmas queen.

Lewis’ four-octave talent was undeniable, and the idea that she might not win was absurd. During the live final, she duetted with Take That, after which lead singer Gary Barlow warned Cowell, "You’ve got a big responsibility. This girl is probably 50 times better than any other contestant you have ever had on this show, and it’s your responsibility to make her the best record you can.”

His words resonated with Cowell, who, in an effort to get it right, did not rush her debut. Spirit was released the following November following Lewis signing a £5 million five-album contract in the US with Clive Davis' record label, J Records in an apparent first-of-its-kind partnership on both the song and producer selection. The wait paid off. Spirit became the UK’'s fourth-fastest selling album of all time and is the best-selling debut album by a female artist in the 21st century. 

It includes the singles Bleeding Love (the world's best-selling single of 2008, nominated for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 51st Grammy Awards, and British Single of the Year at the 2008 Brit Awards), Better in Time (nominated for the Brit Award for British Single) and following a much-praised Radio 1 Live Lounge session, a cover of Snow Patrol's Run (becoming the UK's fastest-selling digital-only release at the time).

You have the peaks and the troughs. One moment everything is massive, then the next moment, there's nothing.

Lewis' second album, Echo, also went to number one in the UK, followed by 2012’s Glassheart, which fared slightly less well at number three. At the suggestion of Cowell, Lewis’ next album was to be a Christmas album. Christmas, with Love was met with positive reviews, yet was Lewis' lowest-charting album to date. 

Despite this, it was certified Gold by the BPI within four weeks of its release, and has since become the 13th best selling Christmas album in the UK. Chart position be damned, it was among the 20 biggest-selling Christmas albums of the century, largely driven by the growing popularity of the single, One More Sleep – more on that later.

Her first record away from Syco Music was 2015’s I Am, which debuted at number 12 on the UK Albums Chart. Lewis hasn’t released an album since (although a handful of singles followed), turning her attention to acting. 

She appeared in a supporting role in the ‘80s-inspired 2014 musical film Walking on Sunshine and made her Broadway debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats playing Grizabella, (performing the musical’s showstopper, Memory), and was cast in a recurring role in the 50 Cent-executive-produced TV series, The Oath. Lewis has also featured as a judge on various music talent shows, and in an unlikely pairing, recently voiced a character in Snoop Dog's children's series, Doggyland.

“I'm actually shooting a film that I wrote in January,” she says on the subject of embracing different opportunities. “I came into the music industry at quite a young age; my 20s were very much in the spotlight, and I was still finding myself and figuring out who I am. You have the peaks and the troughs,” she says of adjusting to post X Factor life and the immediate rush of attention and commercial success. 

“One moment everything is massive, then the next moment, there's nothing. You have to be adaptable, I think, and just take the highs and the lows. That's life, really. I'm just living it in a little bit of a different way.”

Alongside her music career and Coffee and Plants venture, Lewis is a passionate humanitarian and animal rights activist working with organisations such as The Prince’s Trust, RED, MTV Staying Alive, Teenage Cancer Trust, Sports Relief, WWF, Humane Society, World Animal Protection and the sanctuary she herself runs, Hopefield Animal Sanctuary.

“Now, I'm at an age where I've got my baby and know myself a lot more,” she says of what she chooses to dedicate her time to these days. “It's a new chapter and a new feel. It's funny reminiscing back about how much has happened and how much my life has changed. Starting a family is a whole different phase,” she smiles.

With AI, part of me is terrified about it, but part of me is excited.

Lewis may have broken the digital download record in 2006, but the music industry has changed a lot since then, as has the way artists’ market themselves to stay relevant. Is Lewis on TikTok?

“Do you know what? The only reason I'm on it is because of my goddaughter, who showed me how to use it,” she admits. “When I did The X Factor, there was MySpace and a bit of Facebook. Then there was Twitter, so I went through all of that. You had to be tweeting all the time, and then there was Vine. There's been so many iterations of social media throughout the years. 

"I do wonder what it’s going to be like when my little one is 11,” she ponders. “Where are we headed? Like with AI, part of me is terrified about it, but part of me is excited. I have very mixed emotions about it all.”

On the subject, head over to YouTube and listen to AI-Lewis sing covers of Beyoncé’s Halo (passable), Britney Spears’ Everytime (decent) and Rihanna’s We Found Love (abysmal). One only has to look at the recent actors’ strike to sense the concern entertainers have about being replaced by AI.

“Let me tell you something,” she says conspirituality, “my dad has been sending me AIs of me singing. It's so weird, because obviously some of it sounds like me, but I hear it and with some of the placements, I'm like, ‘I would never sing that in that way’. It's really scary because it's taking away…” she pauses, regroups. “It's cool when you hear it, but it's scary because if it becomes better – I don't think it's there yet – but if it becomes better it can really take over the artist. It's like, ‘Well, what are you going to need the artist for?’ or you're gonna question, ‘Is it them, is it not?’ 

"At the moment, it's very unemotional. You can't take that away – that we have a soul, we have emotion. AI technology doesn't have that, it can’t replicate [it]. I'm a big believer in energy and feeling things, and I don't think that you can get the same feeling and that same connection from something that's AI. It can sound cool, but there's something very off about it – clearly – because it's a robot,” she laughs. “Anything that requires personality or real creativity, I don't think we can leave that down to AI.”

One More Sleep took a while to build momentum. Now, I hear it every year.

One More Sleep

Queen of Christmas, Mariah Carey, has officially declared “it’s time”, and in a nod to her own Christmas defrosting meme, began the inevitable slide into the festive period, and with it, her inescapable 1994 single, All I Want for Christmas Is You.

“She is the absolute Christmas queen,” Lewis agrees. But does Mariah know her, asks Headliner? “I don't know if she knows my song,” she admits, twigging the reference. “I don't know if she's heard it. It would be very cool if she had. Obviously I would love to do a duet with her at some point. Growing up, that was the big tune. My mum would play her Christmas album all throughout the year, it was always on in the car,” she laughs, thinking back. “Literally, that CD – just playing Mariah Carey's Christmas album. It's wild.”

Headliner pauses to ask if Lewis has also been made into a meme? “I don't think I've been made into a meme,” she contemplates. “Although after Bleeding Love came out, people kept thinking that I was saying ‘a banana’,” she recalls. 

“There was something about the lyrics where a lot of people thought that I was saying, ‘You cut me open like a banana,’ or something like that. That was going around for a while! But I don't think I've been a meme yet…there’s still time.”

The advent of music streaming has led to renewed success for Carey’s single, which annually – unstoppably – re-enters charts worldwide, and in 2013, Lewis released her very own modern festive classic, One More Sleep, which peaked at number three. 

The following year it limped into the charts again at number 80, and at number 83 the following year, and then disappeared into Christmas song purgatory. Things changed in 2017. Just like Ms Carey, the power of streaming and inclusion on Christmas playlists has seen the song soar into the top 20 again every year since. Today, it’s officially one of the most streamed Christmas singles in the UK.

“Wow,” she says, genuinely taken aback to hear the song's chart journey since its release. “I can't believe that was 10 years ago. I remember releasing the album; it was something I was really proud of. We did this Motown-inspired, very soulful album and we wanted this fun Christmas song. I really wanted it to do well – of course, you always want your songs to do well – you want it to connect with people. 

"I was happy with the release, but the year after that it started to die down. I was one of the first – not the first artist to do a Christmas song, clearly not,” she corrects herself, “but a new Christmas song. Not a lot of artists were putting out Christmas records at that time, it was more really old Christmas songs that would come back."

"It was just before people started doing it again, so it died down a bit, and I remember being quite disappointed because I was really, really proud of the album. I also really wanted to perform it and I didn't get a lot of opportunities [to do that] in the few years after that.

Christmas, With Love died down and I remember being quite disappointed because I was really proud of the album.

“But then it started naturally, on its own, coming back around. That's what I love right now about music: that as artists we can have songs and share them, and it might not get to people straight away, but it has the chance to keep living and maybe connect later on down the line. 

"Some songs are just like that; they take a while to build momentum, and One More Sleep was one of those songs that just took a while to build momentum. Now, I hear it every year; I hear it when I'm shopping or when I'm in Boots,” she smiles. “It honestly lights me up when I hear a song come on. It's really beautiful that people have connected to it because I really poured my heart into that whole album and that whole process. 

"It's lovely that people enjoy it and that is part of a lot of people's Christmases now. As an artist, that's what you want: to be able to share music that helps people, heals people, that spreads love and that brings a bit of comfort.”

I'm excited to get on stage and share the Christmas music because I haven't really shared that live before.

Lewis is currently preparing for her Christmas, With Love 2023 tour, which will include, naturally, One More Sleep.

“We're in the full swing of arrangements and getting all of the production and the creatives together, so we’re in full swing, Christmas tour mode,” she nods. “I'm excited to be on tour. I was supposed to go on tour last year, but I got pregnant and I couldn't as I had the baby, so we pushed it back to this year. I thought I might have to cancel it at one point, because I didn't know if we could push it back or if we got all the venues again. 

"I’ve wanted to do a Christmas tour for probably six years now, so the fact that it's finally happening… I'm just really excited to get on stage, see the fans and share the Christmas music because I haven't really shared that live before. I definitely feel like there's going to be some surprises,” she teases, choosing how much to reveal. “There's going to be some different arrangements that people can expect. There's going to be songs that people haven't heard me sing live before, so it's gonna be a really surprising show for people.”

It’s only a few more sleeps until the tour starts, and with that, Lewis leaves to head back into rehearsals, sharing that she will be home in the UK for the festive period, which she’s equally as excited about.

“I'll be here with the baby and family, so it will be a nice Christmas at home with everyone, with a proper English roast. I make the best gravy as well,” she adds, which despite her staggering achievements in music, is the only thing she comes close to bragging about during the interview. 

“I'm Guyanese and Welsh, so I mix the flavours. I use a lot of West Indian spices, but I use the traditional gravy that we have in Britain, but I put Caribbean spices into it,” she enthuses. 

“Let me tell you, everyone that tastes it says, ‘This is the best gravy I've ever tasted’. So I'm just sayin’,” she grins, setting the record straight on where she stands on having Christmas dinner at lunchtime vs. dinner time: “I like to have my roast pretty late, around three or four, and then we have a light tea. We build up the hunger, you know? So we can go in and go crazy.”

Tickets for Leona’s Christmas, With Love 2023 UK tour are on sale now via and

Photos 5 & 7 by Mike Rosenthal.