In 'Idol'-like form, Leona Lewis wins big

Times Staff Writer

It's certainly a good month to be a diva.

Days before Mariah Carey is expected to storm the U.S. pop charts, import Leona Lewis has become the first British solo artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard tally, having sold 205,000 copies of her debut, "Spirit," according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Both artists, not surprisingly, have a connection to television juggernaut "American Idol," the vocal competition show that's become a consistent supplier of hits to the music industry. This was Mariah Carey week on "Idol," in which the remaining contestants tackled the songs of the pop superstar, and Lewis was the 2006 champion of similarly minded, Simon Cowell-produced British series, "The X Factor."

"A lot of people criticize these shows and ask if we'll ever find a truly international star," Cowell said. "Funnily enough, I said at the beginning of that particular year that my main purpose was to find an artist who could sell all over the world."

The soft-spoken Lewis, who worked odd jobs as a receptionist and waitress while pursuing a music career, said she was talked into auditioning for "The X-Factor."

"I had watched the show, but I never thought I was going to go and do it," she said. "But someone said I should just try it, and it was an opportunity. At the end of the day, you should take every opportunity that comes your way."

Although other winners of "The X-Factor" haven't been given a strong U.S. push, Lewis' "Spirit" has a contemporary R&B; sound that should be familiar to American audiences. Smash single "Bleeding Love" is a slow-building Whitney Houston-influenced number, and more upbeat num- bers such as "Forgive Me" sprinkle in some hip-hop flourishes.

"I first studied classical, and then went into jazz and blues," said Lewis, who cites American vocalists such as Eva Cassidy and Minnie Riperton as influences and is signed to Cowell's Syco Music.

Lewis' "Spirit" also represents the first full-on partnership between Cowell and Clive Davis' J Records. Davis has overseen the careers of many an "Idol" superstar, including Kelly Clarkson and Daughtry, but he said that Lewis' television connection was being overblown in the media.

"I've never signed anyone from 'Star Search,' " he said.

Yet Davis and Cowell designated Lewis as a star-to-be and lined up A-list producers such as Akon and Stargate for her "Spirit." The album arrived on these shores after securing a No. 1 post in Britain, where it became the fastest-selling debut when it was released in November.

Soon after, Lewis performed at Davis' celebrated pre-Grammy party in February, an event that has helped launch the careers of Alicia Keys, Mario and Maroon 5, among others.

She also received almost constant praise on the Internet from gossip blogger Perez Hilton and benefited immensely from a March appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," in which she performed "Bleeding Love." Soon after, "Bleeding Love" went to No. 1 on the U.S. singles charts.

This week, "Spirit" coasted to the top of the U.S. pop charts, easily leading the runner-up, George Strait's "Troubadour," which sold 59,000 copies. Beyond Lewis, other notable entries this week include actor-turned-singer Ray J, who lands at No. 7 (39,000 copies), and the CD release of the straight-to-Web effort from Nine Inch Nails, "Ghosts I-IV," at No. 14 (26,000 copies).

With Carey's "E=MC2" hitting next week's chart, Lewis isn't expected to repeat at the top, but her momentum shouldn't slow. Next week, she's set to appear on "American Idol."

"I feel like I'm just getting started," Lewis said. "People are just kind of hearing about me, and I hope this is setting me to do more things and have a long career."

Cowell described Lewis as "very, very, very shy."

"I don't need to name names," he said, "but you see a lot of these artists at the moment who are literally melting down in public. This girl is the complete opposite. She's a home-loving, quiet, shy person who loves singing. That's the end of it."

As for the criticism that "Idol" and its ilk put technique over artistry, Cowell has heard it. "I worry about this," he said. "I'm interested in the person as well as the talent. . . . I'm not interested in singing robots."

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todd.martens@latimes.com

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