Behind closed doors in the house of Usher
He may be on a colossal global arena tour, but as Charlotte Cripps finds out, R&B star Usher doesn't go far without a few home comforts...
Friday 18 February 2011
Backstage in a corridor at London's 02 Arena, Usher greets me, accompanied by his burly bouncer, and quickly whisks off his shades. He looks fresh faced at 32 and is wearing a black leather jacket and fingerless gloves. I assume this is his stage gear, but he looks at me as if I am mad.
The American R&B star, who picked up two Grammy awards at the weekend, is giving me a special guided tour behind the scenes, including his dressing room, before performing here as part of his worldwide OMG tour.
We take a stroll past metal containers full of outfits – even one crater full of toys for his two young sons – before we arrive at the 02's stage, where we look at about 15,000 empty blue seats, that will be filled later.
"I don't mean to sound arrogant," says Usher, "but no, I don't get nervous before a show. As a young kid of eight years old, I remember having visions of playing to a sea of people."
Continuing through the rabbit warren of corridors to the canteen, he then gobbles up a chocolate profiterole and orders some falafel. We pop into his massage room, which has an inflatable ice bath and a hot tub. He recently "dislocated a shoulder" and "popped a rib", he says, during the America tour, so he takes good care of his body.
In his wardrobe room, seamstresses are busy sewing. He points to a row of leather jackets and trilby hats. Then on to his dressing room, filled with his own furniture.
He sits down on a cream sofa, behind an antique wooden trunk used as a coffee table. "It makes me feel at home – not just a place of work," he says. "That's why when I first met you, I said, 'Welcome to mia casa'."
On the table is a gold skull piggy bank, which belongs to his three-year-old son, Usher V. "He puts his coins in here. I personally painted it." There are expensive made-to-order Le Labo candles – but he won't give away the ingredients.
"You can feel it's a chilled-out vibe in here," he says, while eating some cherries from a fruit bowl. "Of course there is high energy before the show. Later we make a circle and say a prayer before going on stage."
Usher has sold over 45 million albums worldwide. He signed his teen protégé, the now world-famous Justin Bieber, to his own record label in 2009 and his own smash hit "OMG", with will.i.am, went straight to No 1 last year; but he hasn't toured in the UK for six years.
He attributes his ability to keep his finger on the pulse to "rev pop", a genre that he has invented. "Rev pop is revolutionary pop," he says. "For me it is finding a combination between international sound and soulful singing and emotion. It has a universal appeal. It means I am able to bring an entire world together."
Born Usher Terry Raymond IV in Dallas in 1978, Usher's success has been largely spearheaded by his mother/former manager, Jonetta Patton. His dad, Usher Raymond III, left the family home when Usher was one. They reconciled later in life, but his father died in 2008 while undergoing surgery for a liver problem.
Soon after his father left, the family relocated to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Usher sang in a church choir. His destiny as a singing sensation was set and nurtured early on.
His determined mother took Usher, his stepfather and half brother to Atlanta, where, at 13, he appeared on a TV talent show called Star Search. He didn't win the competition, but he was introduced to record executive "LA" Reid, who signed Usher to his LaFace label.
In 1994 LaFace released Usher's self-titled debut album with several of the tracks produced by P Diddy.
He fired his mum, formerly a medical technician, as manager in 2007, and then rehired her a few times before they finally parted professional company in March 2009. "We had a lot of success together. I would not be who I am if she had not made the sacrifices she did... But there comes a time when you need real stability. Family is important to me. I could have 50 managers who all deal with a different portion of my life, but I can only have one mother. That is why we severed business ties."
His new manager, chief executive of AEG Live and promoter Randy Phillips, was involved in arranging the shows Michael Jackson had lined up at the 02 before his death.
But despite his obvious talent as an entertainer, Usher is a businessman. His bestselling fragrance ranges, Usher He and Usher She, are sold in Macy's and Boots. His entertainment company, Raymond Braun Media Group (RBMG), signed an overnight winner with Justin Bieber, and he co-owns a top basketball team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Usher once said that he "was born to be a sex symbol". He dated TLC's Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas in 2001 for two years, before a brief fling with Naomi Campbell. In 2007 he married his stylist, Tameka Foster, the mother of his children. A mother-of-three, she was nine years his senior. The marriage wasn't popular with his teenage fans and Patton didn't turn up to the ceremony.
But in 2009, during a cosmetic surgery procedure, Foster suffered a heart attack and was put into a medically induced coma. Later that year, Usher filed for divorce.
Usher still lives in Atlanta, near to his ex-wife's mansion to be near to his children.
A few hours after we meet, Usher is showing everyone how it's done. He appears on stage like Top Gear's Stig, lifting off his motorbike helmet to reveal himself. He spends most of the two-hour show half naked, to the delight of his screaming female fans. He pays tribute to his idol, Michael Jackson, by playing the intro to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and he puts on a pair of glittery trainers, asking "Ladies and gentlemen, do I have your permission to fill these shoes?" And when the microphone drops on a cord from the rafters, and he catches it, I can't help but remember what he said to me earlier. "I only had hopes that what I saw in my dreams would become a reality. It just shows the power of words and of positive thinking."
Usher's OMG Tour runs until 24 February (www.aeglive.co.uk). His album 'Raymond V Raymond' is out now
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