Sade is now officially "Elle"-gant, one of the 10 most elegant women in the world, according to Elle magazine editors on two continents. Two years ago, the only way she could have attached her name to that fashion bible for the young was by subscribing to it.
"Who made the poll up?" she asks. Told it was the magazine's French, English and American editors, Sade gently dismisses their compliments. "Well, that's just three people's opinion, I suppose. Who else is on the poll?" She is amused to find herself in the same paragraph with Barbara Walters, Paloma Picasso, Lauren Hutton and Princess Caroline of Monaco.
That's pop music for you. The breakthroughs are as sudden as the ascents are dizzying. A few years back, Sade (pronounced Shar-Day, and a simplification of her given name, Helen Folasade Adu) was on the fringes of the London music/art/fashion world. She was staying poor by designing menswear, and the only sound track in her life was the one she'd hear at the hip London nightspots where she hung out.
In school, she had sometimes been called "Much Adu About Nothing," but nothing soon became something. First came the job as a backup singer in a jazz-funk band (she was turned down at the first audition). Then came a tentative move into the spotlight between sets, a cult following, a recording contract, a succession of sultry hit singles, multiplatinum sales of her debut album, "Diamond Life," and, now, a second album, "Promise," and life on the road. Sade will be on this week's "Saturday Night Live."
"We haven't stopped for a year -- writing, recording, touring," Sade says in a husky Essex accent. "It's been like water off my back, really, because I haven't time to be objective and reflective about it. Falling into situations and getting obsessed by them is a pattern for me. It happens naturally and rolls on, and I don't really notice the changes. Obviously there are certain reminders," she admits, "but I can't remember when it started, and I can't remember when it wasn't like that."
But she must, of course. When you break through radio's unimaginative borders with a smooth, cool, understated jazz-pop sound, sell six million records in 18 months, gather in abundant royalties for the songs you write and get dubbed the High Priestess of Style, you remember. You just pretend you don't.
If Sade's got The Sound, the 26-year-old Nigerian-born, British-raised singer's also got The Look: creamy coffee skin, dramatically high forehead, broad nose, thick arched eyebrows, piercing luminous eyes, sensuous lips. That look is at once distinctive and close to exaggeration, almost too much of several good things. Thin and taut, she projects a tensile strength that will stand her in good stead as long as she's in the pop business.
Still, Sade's so occupied that she wants to spend this day in pursuit of one simple pleasure: having her hair washed. "It explodes if I wash it myself," she moans. "Takes about three hours to comb . . . "
The speaking voice is a raspy contrast to the velvet-smooth singing instrument. Resting in her hotel suite before her first Washington concert -- only her third in America -- Sade's encircled by cigarette trails. Maybe that's what gives her music such a smoky sound.
"It's souly, it's poppy, it's jazzy," she says, "at least that's what everybody else says. But music isn't to intellectualize or talk about, it's to listen to and feel something from. You can't describe things you really care about, because you're too much a part of it."
Cool, sophisticated, hypnotically supple, Sade's style does not arrive unannounced -- one can hear intimations of things to come in the work of Steely Dan, Martin Denny, Sergio Mendes, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Mark-Almond and Nick Drake among others. "People seem to think that the music's sedate, but it's not," she says. "It has its own codes, and inside there are highs and lows."
Not sedate? Really?
"Compared to Meat Loaf, it's sedate," she concedes.
Sade may be a hot item here this year, but she can remember when her record company didn't even want to release "Diamond Life" in America, even after the album leapt into England's top spot in a matter of weeks. "We released it in England in either June or July of 1984 , one of the Js. But CBS thought we would be some sort of quirky band who would only sell a few records." It was almost eight months before the album crossed the Atlantic.
Having monster hits with "Smooth Operator," "Hang on to Your Love" and "Your Love Is King" started the ball rolling; Sade's video presence rolled it farther, though she says, "It is a bit depressing when somebody comes up to you in the street and says, 'Love your new video.' I think, what about the song?"
Her music can seem austere and melancholy, but in person Sade's warm and engaging -- and so striking that you wonder why she didn't take advantage of her looks when she moved to London at 17 to go to fashion and design school at St. Martin's College.
"Modeling's something I don't particularly enjoy doing," she says. "I was modeling when I was designing clothes. My partner and I were selling stuff on a small scale, and it was the only way to stay alive. I'd model maybe one day a week, and it would pay our wages."
She'd had no particular inclination to singing, either, despite growing up with a passion for soul and funk dance music. "I had no great burning desire to be a singer . . . Obviously I've stood in front of the mirror with a hairbrush just like anyone. But that was the extent of it."
As a teen, she took on various part-time jobs -- waitress, bicycle messenger -- before striking out, with a partner, in the world of English fashion. But designing clothes, she says, "is very difficult unless you've got massive backing behind you. You can't make things at a reasonable cost, everything has to be real expensive. I remember someone telling me that to put an extra pocket on or buttons would cost that much more. Everything was economic. It stunted any creativity, and I ended up not enjoying it really, all that penny-pinching and hard work."
The business, she says, "just died naturally. The other girl started teaching, I started singing. Then that took up more and more of my time, and I became obsessed and engrossed by it. I never want to draw another pattern as long as I live."
In England, even more than in America, style can be a vehicle to pop stardom, though it doesn't necessarily exclude substance. Sade's seductive sound -- '80s torch singing or British Easy Listening, depending on your vantage point -- was very much divorced from dominant pop trends, and her mysterious charisma quickly made her a favorite of that country's powerful music press.
But she's not keen on being pigeonholed as a torch-song revivalist or an extension of the cool jazz vocalists of the '50s, either.
"I don't like pop singers from the '50s," she says emphatically. "I like Ray Charles, Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, Smoky Robinson, Aretha, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell. They're not just singers -- they're clever, brilliant technicians, great performers. Most are very singular. They can't really be imitated, and they're not imitating anybody else, either."
Sade has gotten her share of film offers, but at this point, she says she's not really interested. "I associate films with music but not singers and acting, necessarily. Maybe I'll be good at it, but maybe I'll be terrible. I've got too much to do, and I belong with the band. I can't just turn around and say I'm gonna go be an actress now . . . We could get a lot better and we should get a lot better."
If she's not buying, that hasn't stopped people from trying to sell her. "That's part of the machine that we belong to," she says resignedly. "However big or small the company, there's always somebody there who wants to make money out of you . . . Things are done on behalf of you that you don't approve of, that have got nothing to do with you and it's too late to stop, but, oh, how I do try."
"I try my hardest not to read press about me," she says. "I only get upset, or hurt or angry." Which doesn't stop her from collecting clips. "I put them in a box at home, and some day, when I don't care any more, I'll get them all out and read them and have a good laugh."
Or provide one, as she did in Boston, when she left her hotel room in an elaborate disguise, the key element of which was a wig to cover her distinctive forehead.
Her band was waiting in the lobby, and "I walked out of the lift, and they didn't recognize me. I thought it was brilliant, it was going to be fine, so we went out shopping."
Within five minutes, a crowd had gathered.
"Plastic surgery is the only answer," Sade laughs.