Masked Singer Cricket star Lemar on 20 years of fame and his 'last chance'

February 18, 2024
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Lemar is delighted to be back touring again for the first time since the pandemic.

Lemar is delighted to be back touring again for the first time since the pandemic. (Image: John Phillips/Getty Images)

“When I started, there wasn’t YouTube, there wasn’t Instagram. In the old days, the advice was: ‘Don’t be seen, keep some mystery’,” Lemar tells me. “Now there’s no such thing as overexposure.”

That’s certainly true right now, as it’s been revealed that he starred as Cricket on the 2024 Masked Singer series.

It’s somewhat disconcerting hearing the British soul star harking back to “the old days” of 2003 when his unbroken two-year run of Top Ten hits began. Over Zoom, he appears almost unchanged from the boyish 24-year-old who reached 2002 final of Fame Academy, the BBC’s answer to ITV’s then-new Saturday night ratings overachiever Pop Idol.

“I don’t want to sound old, but the world has changed,” he adds with a cherubic smile. “When people come to a show now, they film it on their phones and the whole thing’s online before you’ve even left the building… The amount of content and extra stuff you need to do now daily just for social media is an eye-opener.”

Londoner Lemar, 45, is clearly delighted to be back touring again for the first time since the pandemic. He hit the pause button on his career after his 2015 album, The Letter, peaked at 31.

After a disappointing 2018 appearance on Dancing On Ice – he was voted off after four weeks of consistently finishing in the bottom two – he was so far off the grid that his 2023 album Page In My Heart was hailed as a come-back. It was his highest charting album since his noughties heyday.

Lemar Masked Singer Cricket rumours

Lemar Masked Singer Cricket rumours (Image: GETTY/ITV)

Lemar performs at BBC Radio 2 In The Park 2023

Lemar performs at BBC Radio 2 In The Park 2023 (Image: Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Lemar’s tour resumes with 10 shows around the UK in April. “There’s nothing like standing in front of an act live onstage and being moved in some very deep way,” he says. “It’s almost a carnal feeling. Once you’re in front of someone and they’re hitting it, that’s something that can’t be replicated.”

Entertaining the audience is his priority. “They want to hear some old tunes? I’ll definitely be giving them that. With some stuff from Page In My Heart and a few other things I’ll probably sprinkle in as well.”

He’s also joining the Sister Act musical alongside Beverley Knight in March. “I’m trying to tick a lot of boxes,” he says more than once.

Lemar is joining the Sister Act musical alongside Beverley Knight in March

Lemar is joining the Sister Act musical alongside Beverley Knight in March (Image: PH )

“I think Covid taught us that if something can happen, it will happen, so you have to be versatile. It also gave me a kick up the butt with regards to seizing the moment, carpe diem.”

Lemar’s father David, who is 83, became seriously ill during the pandemic. The singer admits “trying to juggle that, it was hard… Once you start taking care of an older person, you do realise how short life is, and you get the message: ‘What are you waiting for? It’s now or never’.”

Born in 1978, to Nigerian Pentecostal ministers who had emigrated to North London in the sixties, Lemar Obiki was a shy, churchgoing schoolboy who grew up singing Jackson 5 songs with his three older brothers and sister. He sang his first solo in a gospel church in Tottenham when he was 15. He was becoming adept on piano and guitar and had begun to write his own material.

Most of all though, he could sing. Boy could he sing! Lemar didn’t need people to tell him he had a great voice – a touch of Marvin Gaye here, some Luther Vandross there – but everyone that heard it told him anyway.

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Lemar with fellow Fame Academy finalists Sinead Quinn David Sneddon

Lemar with fellow Fame Academy finalists Sinead Quinn David Sneddon (Image: Mirrorpix)

“Singing has never been something we’ve made a fuss of,” his mother, Edna, once said. “The children have always sung, since they were very young. It is a natural part of our lives.”

A-levels in physics, chemistry and biology earned Lemar offers of university places. When he turned them down to tour as the opening act for Destiny’s Child, “We argued and argued,” his father recalled. “But he had to go for the thing he wanted most.”

If talent was God-given, fame was harder to find. Seven years of slog “playing everywhere and getting nowhere” culminated in an ill-starred record deal with BMG and the now forgotten single, Got Me Saying Ooh.

At the time he auditioned for the BBC, Lemar was working as an accounts manager at NatWest in Enfield. Fame Academy was his “last roll of the dice.” Coming third led to a five-album deal with Sony Music who knew Lemar’s sultry 2.0 version of the Al Green classic Let’s Stay Together was the one thing most people would remember from Fame Academy. It still is.

Sony paired their hot new signing with their best writers and producers and a year later the dam burst. Seven Top 10 singles, three co-written with Lemar. He recalls “those special times when you’re experiencing everything for the first time. Staying in nice hotels, meeting new people, seeing new places. Stuff you can’t believe.”

But he adds, “As time goes on, you tick all your boxes, you’ve won all your awards, performed with your heroes. You naturally lose a little bit of that buzz, although you still have a passion for it.”

Three multiplatinum albums in the UK and a host of Brits and MOBO awards, all ensured Lemar’s star shone brighter and for longer than almost any other singer to have emerged in the past two decades worth of ‘reality’ TV talent shows.

“Talent shows have always been around,” he points out. But real talent outlasts them.”

Lemar at the 2003 MOBO Awards Nominations

Lemar at the 2003 MOBO Awards Nominations (Image: Dave Benett/Getty Images)

Yet the taste of success has not always been so sweet. Mum Edna died of breast cancer in 2003 just weeks before his first hit Dance (With U) reached Number 2. Listening to Eric Clapton’s eulogy to his lost son, Tears In Heaven, brought him “clarity,” he says; he vowed that in future he would “write songs as moving as this”.

He still considers himself a Spurs-supporting North Londoner, but allows that where he lives now, in nearby Hadley is “slightly more Hertfordshire”.

It’s a quiet suburban home where he can lead a nice quiet suburban life with his wife Charmaine Powell and their two children, Nyiema, 15, and Uriah, 13. This is Lemar’s reward for over two decades of success.

“It’s a short life, you blink and it’s gone. In the first 20 years, you’re trying to figure out who you are, in the next 20 years you’re trying to figure out how to be stable, and in another 20, people are calling you old.

“So you’ve got to stay on it and live your life, enjoy everything, spend the knowledge, spend some love, and keep on learning.”

Page In My Heart is out now. Lemar stars in Sister Act alongside Beverly Knight, Ruth Jones and Lesley Joseph from March 15t to June 8

 



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