She almost got kicked out because she had issues with punctuality. "I'd turn up to school four hours late," she says. "I was sleeping. I wasn't doing anything. I wasn't bunking, I just couldn't wake up." One, day, a group of teachers selected 20 of the most promising students to go on a trip to Devon to perform at a festival, and Adele overslept. The moment she opened her eyes and realized she was too late, she says, "My heart exploded in my chest. It was pretty horrible. I almost did get kicked out of the school for that. But now I'm always on time, and if I'm late it's always someone else's fault."
In her last year at BRIT, a friend posted on MySpace a three-song demo that Adele had recorded for a class. Several labels e-mailed, asking to meet her. She was unimpressed. "I thought it was some dirty Internet pervert," she says. "I saw there were e-mails from Island and XL, but I'd never heard of them so I didn't call them back." Finally, at the urging of her mother, she met with an A&R guy from XL – the indie-label home of M.I.A. – who signed her nearly on the spot.
Adele's 2008 debut, 19, was a modest success in America – it debuted at Number 56 on the album chart and then dropped – until she landed a spot performing on Saturday Night Live, in the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign, on the night that Sarah Palin appeared on the show. "I was sitting in my dressing room having my makeup done," she says, "and I thought, 'If you nail this, this could be one of those moments in a career.'" More than 14 million people watched as Adele performed "Chasing Pavements" and "Cold Shoulder." "When we did the performance on SNL, we were at Number 40 on iTunes," says her manager, Jonathan Dickins. "The following morning, we were at Number Eight. When I got off the plane in London, we were at Number One." She would go on to win Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
It was around this time that she met the guy who would become the inspiration for 21. He was 10 years older than her, and he got her interested in traveling, reading fiction like Zadie Smith's White Teeth and writing poetry. "He made me an adult. He put me on the road that I'm traveling on," Adele says. "Most of my life was my career, but I had this little side project that was us. And it made me feel really normal again, which is just what I needed. Because I was becoming a bit doo-lally – a bit fuckin' crazy."
They lived together for almost a year at her place in London before things started to fizzle. "It just stopped being fun," she says. He was artistic, "but not romantic. He never took me to Italy. I took him to Italy." She laughs. "I booked it all and took us to a nice hotel in Milan."
Toward the end, "We'd just bicker over a cup of tea or the fact that my lighter wasn't working." Her friends were happy to see him go. "They all thought he was shitty," she says. "All my friends, everyone I worked with, no one liked him, because I acted different when I was around him."
The morning after things officially ended, she was in the studio, sobbing while making "Rolling in the Deep." Paul Edgeworth, who produced that song, says, "She was obviously quite fragile and very open about what had happened. But she had fire in her belly." Midway through the album, she found out her ex was engaged. "I was absolutely devastated." She hasn't seen anyone since it ended. "I'm not ready to," she says softly. "I think I'm a bit flimsy right now. I'm not in love with him, but I love him still, ya know?"
"I have the shakes," says Adele. It's 7:30 p.m. and she's in the basement dressing room of a 1,200-capacity club near Hamburg's red-light district, wearing the same black turtle-neck sweater. She's been drinking coffee with Louis on her lap and smoking another cigarette. As always, she's got some stage fright. "I'm scared of audiences," she says. "I get shitty scared. One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I've thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile-vomited on someone. I just gotta bear it. But I don't like touring. I have anxiety attacks a lot."
How does she get herself onstage? "I just think that nothing's ever gone horrifically wrong," she says. "Also, when I get nervous, I try to bust jokes. It does work. I chat a lot of fucking shit, though." For most people who get stage fright, the nerves go away once the show starts, but for Adele, things get worse. "My nerves don't really settle until I'm offstage," she says. "I mean, the thought of someone spending $20 to come and see me and saying 'Oh, I prefer the record and she's completely shattered the illusion' really upsets me. It's such a big deal that people come give me their time."
She also has an alter ego she uses to pump herself up, called Sasha Carter – a composite of Beyoncé's Sasha Fierce and June Carter. "I was about to meet Beyoncé," she says, "and I had a full-blown anxiety attack. Then she popped in looking gorgeous, and said, 'You're amazing! When I listen to you I feel like I'm listening to God.' Can you believe she said that?" Later, "I went out on the balcony crying hysterically, and I said, 'What would Sasha Fierce do?' That's when Sasha Carter was born."
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