The Rise of Usher

Photo/Jim Wright

With sales of more than 50 million albums and the hit show “The Voice” to his credit, Usher’s star is shining brighter than ever

Usher’s washboard abs are a set of stomach muscles storied in legend and song that seem to be chiseled from volcanic rock. They even impressed Sugar Ray Leonard.

The former multi-belt boxing champion was visiting the training facility where music superstar Usher—that’s Usher Raymond IV on his driver’s license—was working out in preparation for his role in the upcoming movie, Hands of Stone. The film is a biography of former boxing champion Roberto Duran, with Usher playing Duran’s greatest opponent, Leonard. The boxing legend liked what he saw.

“He jumps rope better than I do,” says Leonard, now a popular boxing commentator. “For an actor or a singer to play a fighter, it’s about commitment. When he was hitting the speed bag, I saw that he had that commitment.”

And then, of course, there were those abs.

“He had an eight-pack,” Leonard marvels. “I only ever had a six-pack. He was cut up big time.”

Sitting in his Atlanta home, the 35-year-old Usher returns the compliment, marveling about the day Leonard came to watch him train (and give him tips). “He’s 58 and he looks 29,” Usher says. “What is the recipe for that? Staying happy, I guess.”

Happy? On this late May afternoon, Usher is practically beaming, still basking in the glow of the finale that week of NBC’s “The Voice.”

In his second season as a coach, Usher wound up coaching the season’s winner, a soul singer named Josh Kaufman. It was the first time in the show’s six seasons that a singer coached by someone other than Adam Levine or Blake Shelton had won the show.

“For me, it was a reminder that people don’t participate only because of their voice—it’s the dream,” Usher says, reclining in a room whose walls are filled with contemporary art and whose doors open out to a terrace, allowing him to use it as a smoking quarter. “It’s Josh’s talent, but it’s also our coaching.” He laughs, adding, “And I get bragging rights as the one who won, after six seasons of it ping-ponging back and forth between Adam and Blake.”

“The Voice” is a talent competition in which four established music stars/coaches audition dozens of singers. They each select the ones they consider most promising, forming a team of contestants to mentor. One contestant is eliminated each week, until there is only a single singer left.

Usher joined “The Voice” to replace CeeLo Green for the series’ fourth season, then returned to replace Green again for the recently completed sixth. The time commitment meant regular commutes between his home in Atlanta (he lives on a wooded, gated property in a neighborhood in the north-central part of the city) and Los Angeles, where the show is produced.

“This season taught me that the journey was the destination, that it was about the process,” he says. “The story of each contestant is significant to the people watching. It’s a story of compassion, of underdogs. Anybody can understand making a sacrifice to achieve a goal.

“I’ve been doing this a long time but this portion of my life is about giving. I’m there to support their vision. There’s more to being popular than just being talented. There has to be more than a song.”

To read the full story of Usher, check out the October issue of Cigar Aficionado, on newsstands now.

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