IF you’re looking for a way to sum up Alicia Keys, the title of her latest single, Superwoman, says it all.

At just 27, the softly-spoken R&B singer is an undisputed pop megastar, with nine Grammys under her belt and more than 20 million albums sold worldwide.

Not to mention the fact that she’s just joined the ranks of Shirley Bassey, Nancy Sinatra, Tina Turner and Madonna to record the latest James Bond theme song.

But the girl born Alicia Augello Cook in Harlem, New York, hasn’t always led such a charmed life.

Born to an Irish Italian mother and Jamaican father (who split early on in her childhood), Keys was raised in New York’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen – a cultural melting pot of Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants in Manhattan’s midtown district famous for the many gangsters that once resided there.

‘‘My mother raised me, and I saw her struggle and work, and I’m not under any illusions, I know exactly what I could go right back to,’’ Keys says down the line from Belgium, where she’s just come off stage.

‘‘I saw a variety of people growing up, and lifestyles, lows and highs. I think it makes you realise right away what you want and what you don’t want. If you walk down the street and see a person nodding out from heroin, you know right away ‘I don’t ever wanna be that person’.

‘‘I think you have to be really grateful for everything you have.’’

It’s a strikingly humble attitude for someone who could easily act the diva. Since she first stormed on to the charts in 2001 with debut album Songs in A Minor, Keys has remained one of the most popular female artists of her time. Her 2004 follow-up, The Diary of Alicia Keys, went even times platinum, and her current release, As I Am, recently debuted at No. 1 in the US.

She’s also been rated highly for her acting turns in several feature films, including the recently released The Secret Life of Bees alongside Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson (Keys actually started her acting career in 1985 with a small part on The Cosby Show).

Incredibly, she also made the New York Times bestseller list in 2005 for her book Tears for Water, a collection of poetry and lyrics. But despite her overwhelming success, Keys prefers to keep her diva performances for the stage.

‘‘I’ve never been good at having things be all about just me, I think there’s more to the world,’’ she says.

‘‘To be honest, if I do more than six or seven interviews in a day, I can’t take it. I get like, if I get asked one more question about me, it gets to be too much. I think it’s really important to think of other people outside of your world, even in the littlest way.’’

When it comes to her music though, Keys is deeply introspective. Superwoman is the latest in a line of songs celebrating female empowerment, something Keys has become known for.

‘‘With Superwoman – it’s about when you’re not feeling that perfect and strong, you’re feeling kind of weak, and I think that happens in everyone’s life,’’ she says.

‘‘You’re just trying to figure it all out, and you need to know that you’re not the only one who goes through that and those troubles, they make you better, and stronger, and they make you into the woman that you are.
I think that is something we need to hear.’’

To hear her sing lyrics like ‘‘Cos I am a superwoman, even when I’m a mess I still put on a vest with an S on my chest’’ or ‘‘You could buy me diamonds, you could buy me pearls, take me on a cruise around the world, baby you know I’m worth it’’ in hit A Woman’s Worth, it’s hard to imagine Keys feeling insecure.

She attributes her self confidence to the influence of her mother and grandmother – but admits she’s not always as strong as she seems.

‘‘They’re very strong women in my life and I’m very happy and proud that I have them,’’ she says.

‘‘That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel insecure or unsure sometimes, everybody does. But I’m glad to say that I have these women who have kind of showed me how to be a woman and how to handle yourself with grace and beauty, and be a woman of your word and do your best.’’

But it’s not always easy.

Keys is no stranger to the worst-dressed list. She even has her own section on snarky fashion website Go Fug Yourself. But when asked how she copes with it all, she laughs.

‘‘It’s funny. I’m like ‘Wow, what do YOUR hips look like? What are YOU wearing?’ I don’t really live in that world, I don’t read those magazines,’’ she says.

‘‘I really don’t care. The thing that’s most important to me is finding happiness in my life. I live in an everyday, normal world, and I see what I see through everyday normal eyes. Just because we’re not all cookie-cutter the same doesn’t mean we’re all not beautiful and special.

‘‘And I feel like that message is something I see a lot around me, and it is important for me to say that because that’s how I feel.’’

First published in IE, Sunday Mail, November 16, 2008.