Too big for her boots? Alexandra Burke’s confidence should be feted

Rebecca Nicholson
‘Everyone should have that will to want to do well,’ says Alexandra Burke. Photograph: James Gourley/Rex/Shutterstock

Alexandra Burke has been speaking up for confidence, telling BBC News that the UK has “a massive problem” with mistaking self-belief for arrogance. Burke managed not to win Strictly Come Dancing in 2017 despite consistently dancing better than all of the other contestants. There was a feeling that the audience had not warmed to her, based on the fact that viewers regularly tweeted things such as “fake” and “false” and said she had too much experience as a dancer to win a best dancer competition.

“It’s a shame that some people mistook that determination and that will to want to do well, which everyone should have in life by the way, for arrogance or anything other than what it was,” she told the BBC last week. Burke became famous when she won The X Factor in 2008, after duetting with Beyoncé, a superstar now so aloof that she doesn’t bother with interviews, issuing only new photographs, which I imagine she peels from a pile and scatters like banknotes at the feet of desperate editors. Their version of Listen ended with Burke sobbing on Beyoncé’s shoulder, before Dermot O’Leary tied a ribbon around this odd time capsule by calling Beyoncé “hun”. It feels like longer than 10 years ago.

Any hint of a transatlantic twang, they’ll be told to wind their neck in

I spent some time last week on TV sets. Both productions had female directors. I watched these authoritative, confident women taking charge of the room with an easy, warm bluntness that was efficient and necessary, and I found this to be awe-inspiring. And then I realised what a shame it was that it seemed noteworthy to me, this brilliant, gleaming confidence. It has taken me years, for example, to stop couching work emails in apologetic language, to trim the “Do you mind if we…” to “Let’s…”, to cut “Is it okay with you if I…” to just, “I’m going to…” It’s hard to break the habit, and that’s down to accepting that it’s okay to be confident.

Is it a British thing? Perhaps. We’ve always had a fondness for the underdog; we don’t like it when people get too big for their boots. You see it again and again with British successes in Hollywood, say – any hint of a transatlantic twang, no matter how many decades that person has lived abroad, and they’ll be told to wind their neck in.

But confidence is a curious, nebulous concept, and the possession of it comes from a multitude of places, whether that’s the class you were raised in, the education you received, your gender, or the workplace that surrounds you. For many, it’s innate, and for others, it’s learned. Regardless of where it came from for Alexandra Burke, I’m pleased that she felt confident enough to justify her confidence.

• Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist