Alicia Keys

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Despite nearly six years in the record business, Alicia Keys seemed to shoot out of nowhere with her hit single, Fallin'. "People think you're an overnight success because this is the first time they've seen you," says Alicia. "It's just that no one ever sees you when you're heads-down and working hard in the shadows."

Alicia Keys was born Alicia Augello Cook to Terri Augello, an Italian-Irish paralegal, and Craig Cook, an African-American flight attendant, in 1981. Her parents split when she was just two, and she was raised by her mum in the tough Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood of New York. Singing since she could speak, she started piano lessons aged seven, and within two years was playing Chopin sonatas. Aged 12, Alicia entered New York's Professional Performing Arts School to study voice, dance and after her classical piano teacher said he had nothing left to show her jazz piano.

In 1996, the aspiring vocalist graduated two years early and first in her class. Despite her youth she was just 16 a scholarship to Columbia University followed, but, with a recording contract already under her belt, she dropped out of school after a month in order to pursue a singing career with Columbia Records.

The label's strategy of surrounding Alicia with industry specialists to give her a "radio friendly" sound backfired , however "All I had was heartache and headaches," she says and sparked her decision to leave the label and sign to Arista. When the company's founder and president Clive Davis (famed for discovering such voices as Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston) retired, he set up a new label, J Records, and brought the talented singer-songwriter with him.

Alicia made appearances on the soundtracks for Men In Black and the remake of Shaft, but it was her first full-fledged release, the soulful Songs In A Minor that took her to the top of the charts in 2001. Heartfelt lyrics helped set apart the youngster's output from the less-than-profound efforts of her chart contemporaries, but when asked about the meaning of her compositions, Alicia is evasive. "I'm not scared of being extremely truthful in my songs," she says, "but when people ask you about them, you have to leave something private. It's like a man. You can't tell him everything."

Though Alicia is the same age as Britney Spears, she's more often compared with classic R&B singers than her teen pop counterparts. And the Grammy winner, whose cool elegance and soul sister honesty make her a favourite with young women, says she's anything but a diva. "I hate the word," she says. "All of a sudden every singer who's successful is a diva. I'm probably the most low-maintenance, easy-going person ever... I like to have good energy and I like to call people my friends. And I like to keep it like that."

Her second album, The Diary Of Alicia Keys was released in December 2003 and immediately took the number one spot in the US Billboard chart. Alicia considers this early part of her career a "priceless moment". "Like your first kiss, it never happens again," she says. In 2005 her star was still clearly in the ascendant as she scooped four Grammy Awards.

Later releases have faired equally well. Her third album As I Am debuted at number one in the US in 2007 and went on to sell six million copies worldwide. Two years later she released The Element of Freedom, which went in at number two in the US, but became the first of her discs to top the UK album chart.

No longer just in demand for movie soundtracks the global star has now made the difficult leap onto the silver screen. She filmed her first major movie roles in 2006 alongside Scarlett Johansson in The Nanny Diaries and Ben Affleck in Smokin' Aces. She later appeared in The Secret Life of Bees with Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson.

One of America's most prodigious talents, she is also committed to humanitarian causes. She is spokeswoman for the charity Keep A Child Alive and has visited Africa regularly to highlight the AIDS endemic.

Though usually guarded about revealing details of her private life, Alicia did have some good news to share in 2010. In May she revealed she was expecting a baby with her music presenter boyfriend Swizz Beats. And there was more – the couple, who got together in autumn 2008, shared their intentions to marry later in the year.
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