Call her a reluctant siren. Sade, the singer whose first two albums have reached the national Top 5, is also gathering raves for her distinctive looks, and the sudden adulation has left her a little bewildered. “I don’t think I’m classically good-looking,” she says. “In fact, I think I’m a bit strange looking. I mean, my forehead sits on top of my head like a large grapefruit.”
That hasn’t stopped fans from adopting the sultry songbird as this season’s main squeeze.
The other big surprise in Sade’s life is that her career has gone from zero to platinum in only two years. In 1984, Sade (pronounced SHAR-day) and her band released their first LP, Diamond Life, in Britain. She didn’t expect that her smooth, supper-club sound—critics have compared her with jazz greats Nina Simone and Astrud Gilberto—would find more than a cult audience. “I thought my songs wouldn’t sit well on the charts,” says Sade. “The band and I just wanted to make a good record, one that none of our friends would be ashamed of. It wasn’t the fame that attracted us, it was the notion of having something on vinyl, a real record.” Contrary to her modest expectations, Diamond Life spawned a couple of hit singles—Smooth Operator and Hang On to Your Love—and has now sold more than five million copies worldwide. Her follow-up LP, Promise, released in October, has risen to No. 5 in the U.S. and produced another hit single, The Sweetest Taboo.
“I certainly never expected things to reach this scale,” says Sade, 27, who’s reaction has been to try to keep her public persona as low-key as her music. She gives few interviews and is a missing person on the club party circuit in London, where she lives. She indulges a taste for clothing that is elegant, not flamboyant—a description that applies equally well to her performing style. “People have criticized me for not being dramatic enough onstage,” she says. “I only do things that come naturally. Anyone can stick their arms out, dance around, pretend to cry. I’d feel embarrassed doing that. We try to preserve our dignity.”
She traces her unease with pretension to her working-class British roots. Born Helen Folasade (whence “Sade”) Adu in Nigeria, the daughter of a Nigerian father and a British mother, she returned to England with her mother after her parents split up when she was 4. Most of her growing up was in a town northeast of London called Holland-on-Sea, where her mother married a butcher. “Holland-on-Sea was not a great place for a young person, because 50 percent of the population was over 65,” recalls Sade, who nonetheless found a group of kids who shared her interest in jazz and funk music. They hung out together and hunted down clubs that catered to their musical tastes. “We weren’t trying to be rebels, we weren’t making a statement,” she says. “It’s just that we all had a similar working-class background, and whatever we got didn’t come easily. If anyone had a car or access to one, we shared it, shared the expense of driving 50 miles to find a decent club where we could dance. Nothing was put on a plate for us.”
The turning point in Sade’s life came after she moved to London in her late teens to study fashion and design at St. Martin’s School of Art. A friend who had a band and needed a new backup singer asked her if she would like to audition. She did and was rejected, only to be hired two weeks later when the band couldn’t find anybody more suitable. “I never had aspirations to become a singer until I was actually onstage singing,” says Sade. She moved from backups to solos and to co-writing songs with saxophonist-guitarist Stuart Matthewman. When she began to develop a following, the band took on her name.
Although Sade has grown to like the idea of being a singer, she claims she is not now and never wants to be a rock star. “The mere notion is abhorrent,” she says. “If you’re a rock star, then you can’t be a human being, you can’t invite your friends over to the kitchen and just communicate with them.” She rates that an important pastime. “I’ve got dear, dear friends that I’ve known for a long time, good friends who care every inch of the way,” says Sade (who recently split from her former beau, British journalist Robert Elms). “Those friendships are important to me, especially when I have to put up with photographers climbing trees to take pictures of me at home or stalking the parks waiting for me to walk my dog.”
Snoops who do penetrate her privacy aren’t likely to find out anything very startling, she says. Although she has made some concessions to sudden wealth—including a flat in north London and a ’58 Wolseley sports car—she believes she’s winning the battle to maintain a private life. “I’m me, just the same as me 10 years ago,” says Sade. “And I plan to keep it that way.”