He sings, acts, produces, and makes some mean fried chicken wings. But while John Legend is halfway to an EGOT and his career is thriving, his first priority—and creative inspiration—is his family.
Late last year, Legend performed “Love Me Now,” the propulsive first single off his new album, Darkness and Light, at the American Music Awards. He was decked out like a disco ball in a glittery bomber jacket and stood on a tiered riser three stories above the stage.
It was a departure for the 38-year-old. Everything was bigger and bolder—and, most notably, there was no piano. In fact, thanks to his elevation, the performance was likely the first time a national broadcast audience has ever gotten a good look at his legs.
Life is a little different these days for the artist born John Stephens, 12 years after he eased onto the charts with the retro-feeling “Ordinary People” off his neo-soul début, Get Lifted. His empire has expanded. He’s pop: pop songs; pop culture; Papa to the most famous 10-month-old around, daughter Luna Simone. His fans can now make his signature fried chicken wings with spicy honey butter at home (wife Chrissy Teigen’s best-selling 2016 cookbook, Cravings, includes his recipe) and speak knowingly about Luna’s aww-inspiring Halloween costumes. Teigen has always had an unabashedly public persona, and in recent years she’s brought Legend along for the ride.
“I think because my personality is kind of mellow and subdued, it’s good for me to have someone who is kind of the other way,” he says. “She’s energetic and passionate and has more emotion. I think she wishes I had more emotion sometimes too. But she makes me have more fun than I would normally have. I don’t think the whole thing of opposites attract is exactly right—you have to have enough in common. But the combination of the two of us is dynamic and exciting.”
Living so publicly has no doubt helped professionally as well: Darkness and Light, his sixth album, rolled out with a media blitz in December, and this year he sets off on a global tour, his biggest ever. But it’s clear that as ambitious as he is, Legend is still trying to find a comfortable place within his new level of fame.
Calling from his L.A. home on an early November morning, he speaks of the “opportunity cost” he’s been facing since adding producer, actor, activist, husband, and father to his résumé over the past few years. (You likely saw him in December’s La La Land playing against Ryan Gosling as a bandleader, a role Legend prepared for by studying with an acting coach.) When Legend commits to something, he’s locked in. “I get things done,” he says when asked for his most standout trait. “I’m good at executing, at following through.”
But there’s always something that he has to give up by saying yes to a new project. “Now that I have a family, I’m tougher on everybody who works for me,” he says. “There’s more ‘Nope, I’m not going’ and ‘Nope, I’m not doing this.’ I try to stay home as much as I can. I just don’t want to miss out on this important time in Luna’s life.”
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Luna’s upbringing will likely be substantially different from Legend’s own. He and his three siblings grew up in Springfield, Ohio, with a lifestyle that revolved around their Pentecostal church. “My grandfather was our pastor; my mother was the choir director; my grandmother was the organist; my dad was the drummer and a minister and a deacon,” he says. “So I was raised in that setting. It was strict. And very, very, very Christian.”
Though he says he didn’t carry the religion into adulthood, the lessons he learned about character endured. “My parents homeschooled us, and they literally had books called character sketches that were about what it means to be hardworking, determined, loving, patient … and how to succeed in the right way.”
The other thing that carried over from his childhood in the church was a sense of style. Let’s pause for a moment and imagine little Johnny Stephens dressed in his church suits, made just for him by his mother, a seamstress, and his father, a factory worker and tailor.
“I was a very dapper little kid,” he says with a laugh. “I grew up around people who loved clothes and loved making them. I never was a tailor myself, but I’ve been ironing my clothes since I was 6.” (The habit stuck. Teigen famously first stumbled upon Legend ironing his clothes in a dressing room on the set of his 2007 video for the single “Stereo.”)
Even now it’s clear that he still prefers a natty look, opting for blazers and suits in classic neutral colors. “My personal style isn’t outlandish in any way,” he says. And no disco-ball jackets when he’s off duty: His mom would surely notice. “She still comments on my clothes,” he admits. “For things she likes, she’ll say, ‘That’s sharp, Johnny!’ ”
His mom is not the only one with style opinions. “[Chrissy] loves it when I wear a dark suit and white shirt, open with no tie. We’ve had some good date nights with that look.”
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So between his commendable commitment to having date nights and the Teigen-inspired No. 1 single “All of Me” (“Love your curves and all your edges/Love your perfect imperfections”), it would follow that Legend is a bit of a dream partner, right?
“I’m definitely not the perfect husband,” he counters. “I try to remember to buy flowers randomly—that’s a good thing to do. I’m not as romantic as some people might think. I’m working on it.”
He laughs. “My friends certainly don’t think I’m some special guru of love.”
Photographed by Emman Montalvan; Styled by Sue Choi; Grooming: Ron Stephens; Makeup: Sydney Sollod for The Wall Group