The life-changing call nobody knew Beyoncé made to an Australian girl
2nd Nov 2015
by GARY NUNN
A first-hand account of Beyoncé, behind the scenes.
New York City was illuminated by its skyscraper lights when Beyoncé waited by her phone. It was late, but this international call really mattered to her. And, up until now, nobody knows she made it.
Meanwhile, Newcastle, NSW was illuminated by its sunlight. The call's recipient, Chelsea James, 15, was in her bedroom when her mum got a heads-up: will Chelsea be able to answer her mobile in about 10 minutes? Somebody important will be calling it.
Chelsea had terminal cancer. Unlike other 15-year-olds, she couldn't braid her hair or tower in her first pair of heels: intense chemo/radiation when she was very young meant her hair never grew back and her height was never taller than that of an eight-year-old. This was to be her third intimate encounter with Beyoncé — but her most poignant. Chelsea had that morning been told she had two weeks to live, after a decade-long cancer battle. The call was for the two women to say goodbye to one another.
Four years previously, Beyoncé had spotted Chelsea, then 11, in the crowd when she was on stage in Sydney. At the time, Chelsea had just a one per cent chance of survival. The final few wispy strands of hair on her head blew serenely in the wind machine as Beyoncé changed the words to Halo, singing: “Chelsea, I can see your Halo – I pray you won’t fade away.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house and the video went viral, reducing Ellen Degeneres to tears when she played it on her show.
Prophetically - and miraculously - Chelsea didn’t fade away: for four more years, despite all doctors predicting otherwise. At the time, I worked for children’s cancer charity Camp Quality, which specialises in bringing optimism and resilience into the lives of kids living with cancer. When I contacted Beyoncé’s manager at Parkwood Entertainment with the prospect of a reunion upon Beyoncé’s return visit to Australia for her new tour, she phoned me immediately: “Beyoncé has never forgotten Chelsea and is inspired by the work Camp Quality does. Please bring two other children living with cancer that the charity supports, too. Beyoncé would love to meet the friends Chelsea made at one of their camps.”
Two years ago to the day, Chelsea, her mum Donna, and two other girls living with cancer – Bronte Horswood and Andrea Al Zened and their mums – walked into Beyoncé’s dressing room backstage in Sydney. Chelsea flew into the arms of Beyoncé like two long lost friends reunited. Beyoncé picked her up, spun her around and said: “You have no idea how happy I am to see you again, beautiful.” Then she turned to see the others and said “all girls and their mums – I love the fact we’re all girls together. Let’s hang out and have fun.”
Each girl had practiced a question for Beyoncé with me beforehand; I had pretended to be Beyoncé to help them with their nerves. Chelsea was funny and cheeky, persuading me to try on the wig she’d got especially for the occasion. We needn’t have worried. Beyoncé was humble, even shy and giggly in their presence, in casual trackies and a sweat-shirt — a world away from the powerhouse we were about to see on stage. “Because of the flight delays, you’re late on stage,” her manager said. “Too bad,” Beyoncé shot back. “This is important.”
Echoed in the distance, 20,000 Australians continuously chanted Beyoncé’s name with increasing hysteria as she took her time signing the girls’ journals and Hello Kitty books. Not just with her name — each received an inspirational message in the all-caps handwriting that’s part of her signature style. Beyoncé answered each girl’s question, but it was Chelsea’s that was the most profound: “The next time you come to Australia, will you see me again?”
“No” Beyoncé said. Our mouths fell open.
“Not just the next time. Every. Single. Time.” Chelsea beamed and they hugged again. Each girl was handed a “Mrs Carter Show” towel and drink. During the breathtaking performance, when she catapulted onto the centre platform on a flying fox from the front stage, we were inches away from purple cat-suited glamazon. Beyoncé remembered each girl’s name and announced they were her “little angel helpers” as they each handed her their towels and drinks. She sang with each of them, which I recorded on my iPhone.
This time around, it was Survivor that Beyoncé dedicated to Chelsea – the miracle girl who’d truly survived against all odds. Beyoncé’s manager was in the crowd next to me. In floods of tears, she hugged me and said “What your charity does is so important. If there’s anything we can ever do, call us.”
Four months later, on that special phone call, nobody knows what was said. It was an intimate moment between two women. Chelsea’s mum texted me afterwards saying “You’ve made one of Chelsea’s last days with us one of her happiest. Thank you – and keep being you.”
Just under two weeks later, Beyoncé sent one hundred white roses to Chelsea’s funeral in Newcastle. “Can we do anything else for the family?” Beyoncé’s manager asked me. “Just ask them never to forget Chelsea” her mum told me. It’s clear she truly won’t.
Since she was 15, people have tried and largely failed to get dirt on Beyoncé. Even getting an interview or candid moment is difficult. She guards her privacy, retains her dignity and composure.
A new book by J.Randy Taraborrelli, Becoming Beyoncé, couldn’t get a single interview with Queen Bey, leading some reviewers to claim her life is 'boring.'
Some suggested that Beyoncé telling an assistant to "stop it" this month proved there was a bitchiness beneath the enigmatic facade.
Those looking for aloofness or superficiality won’t find it. When she allowed three girls living with cancer to interview her, asking that no media was present so they could enjoy the moment privately, right there was the real Beyoncé: the warmest and most genuine celebrity our generation will know.
Chelsea James after the Beyoncé concert in her hotel room, without her wig.