A couple of weeks ago, Leona Lewis had just finished her hit "Bleeding Love" on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" when the host exclaimed, "Wow! Talk about a star is born. You're the real deal, girl."
Winfrey isn't the only one convinced by the 22-year-old former "X-Factor" winner ("American Idol's" British cousin), who has drawn comparisons to Whitney Houston. Simon Cowell, who judges both shows, and RCA Music Group chairman Clive Davis are overseeing her album, "Spirit," which arrives April 8 in the USA and is already the biggest-selling debut in British history.
"Bleeding Love," written by Jesse McCartney and OneRepub-lic's Ryan Tedder, is No. 1 on Nielsen SoundScan's digital songs chart. The song is rapidly gaining airplay at top 40 and rhythmic stations. The song spent seven weeks atop Britain's pop charts last year, and Spirit has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide since November.
That's good news for a music industry that's starving for new stars to break out, as Amy Winehouse did in 2007 with her multiplatinum, five-Grammy-winning "Back to Black."
Cowell says singles by "X-Factor" contestants often do well, but the album's success was a surprise. What wasn't surprising was London-born Lewis' star appeal.
"It was obvious from the beginning," Cowell says. Before the show wrapped in 2006, "we were starting to get calls from America from people who wanted to work with her, win or lose."
The singer, who didn't think she'd survive the "X-Factor" auditions, found that her days as a receptionist and pizza-parlor waitress were over. "I kept getting further and further along. I was like, 'Omigosh.' "
Her cover of Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This" became an instant U.K. sensation. Soon, she was on her way to the USA for a Davis-arranged showcase for such producers and songwriters as Dallas Austin, Ne-Yo, J.R. Rotem, Stargate, Walter Afanasieff, Salaam Remi and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.
"Things came so quickly when I won," Lewis says. "Going from doing music part time to doing it on this big scale was a major change."
The U.S. version of "Spirit," a blend of pop/R&B ballads and uptempo tracks, includes two new tracks -- "Forgive Me," written and produced by Akon, and "Misses Glass," by producer/songwriters Madd Scientist and Rock City. There's also a haunting cover of Roberta Flack's "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."
A former performing-arts school student, Lewis spent years polishing her craft, writing and recording songs and studying piano, guitars and voice. She says she struggled to find her way in the music industry before "X-Factor" gave her a platform.
"With a lot of these shows, people rush out an album after they win," Lewis says. "I told (Cowell) I didn't want to, and he was really supportive of that."
Comparisons to Houston, Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys are "just amazing," she says, "but I've got a lot of hard work to do."