Johanna Bennett from Thorney has the kind of lifestyle many of us fantasise about, supporting her international rock-star boyfriend. But Johanna still has her feet on the ground and a place in her heart for Peterborough, as Ben Davis found out.
Most of us have spent an idle moment dreaming of dating an international rock-star or Hollywood heart-throb.
It’s many a girls’ fantasy to be waltzed down the red carpet at awards ceremonies to the pops of a thousand paparazzi flash bulbs, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.
For most of us, it will remain just a dream, but for Thorney girl Johanna Bennett (25), it has become reality.
Johanna now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with long-term boyfriend, Kings of Leon lead guitarist Matthew Followill.
When they’re not travelling the globe on sold-out tours, Johanna and Matthew divide their time between their LA home – which is worthy of a feature on MTV’s Cribs – and their Nashville residence.
The Evening Telegraph caught up with Johanna, who is currently in New York while Kings of Leon record the follow-up to their 2008 number one album Only by the Night, to find out how it all began.
“I met Matthew in Bournemouth in July 2007, at an after-party of a show they did there”, Johanna said.
“We got on really well and Matthew invited me to travel to Spain with them later that month. I rang my mum and said “This boy wants me to go to Spain with him” and she said, “Of course you should go”.
“I think my parents trusted me to make the right decision. They have always allowed me to be independent – they were worried I’m sure, but were only ever super supportive.
“At first the situation was quite intimidating. I just jumped in and prayed it worked out. I thought if nothing else, at least I would have a good story to tell.”
The relationship moved on very quickly and Johanna ended up going back to Nashville with Matthew after the band’s European shows.
At first she split her time between there and home, but it was difficult to maintain a long distance romance, so in October 2007 Johanna moved to America.
“Life in the States is great,” she said. “Culturally the two countries are similar so it was easy to adjust. Some of my friends here, such as the band We Are Scientists, have played in Peterborough a few times, so they know where I’m from which is nice.”
Although at first Johanna moved to Nashville, the touring schedule of Kings of Leon meant she lives out of a suitcase for much of the time.
“We are never in one place for more than a few weeks at most, either by choice or through Matt’s work” Johanna said, “It’s often tiring, and when I’m in a foreign country the time difference means I can’t call my mum – that’s when I get lonely. But I can’t complain, I know I’m really lucky.”
Johanna was already no stranger to the limelight and the strains of a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
While she was studying psychology at Goldsmiths University in London, she was friends with many up-and-coming musicians and artists who populated the local social scene.
It was during this time she met the Arctic Monkeys front man Alex Turner outside a bar.
“We got into this really intense conversation and then Alex called me the next day, and we started seeing each other,” she said.
“I went through a lot of the ‘firsts’ with Alex and his band’s career. It was very exciting at the time, but it felt normal to me, and you just take each day as it comes.
“It was my first experience of that lifestyle, and it was odd being at university with my tutors asking me questions about my boyfriend and the Arctic Monkeys.”
Johanna co-wrote the lyrics with Alex for one of the singles, Fluorescent Adolescent, from the Arctic Monkeys’ second album. The track reached number five in the UK singles chart.
“Alex and I were on holiday, and he asked me what I thought of this line he had just written. It went from there with us trading lyrics backwards and forwards until it became the song.
“Alex finished it off at his home in Sheffield, and I was surprised when it was used as a single, but of course I was pleased.”
The royalty cheques from that single meant Johanna was largely able to support herself without the need for finding an occupation. “Sadly it’s not the ’70s any more so I didn’t become a millionaire, but the song did well, so I did well,” she said.
The inevitable strains of the Arctic Monkeys’ touring schedule and Johanna’s commitment to her studies took its toll on the relationship and the two parted, but they remain friends.
The experience, though, prepared her for the challenges she currently faces as a girlfriend of one of the biggest rock bands on the planet.
“I learnt a lot of the rules of the road, and you travel so much it’s hard to have a real home, so certain hotels you regularly visit can become a home,” she said.
“I get terribly home-sick and I ask my mum what the new shops are in Queensgate. But I do get to come home and visit my family whenever the band stops off in the UK – so it’s not too bad.
“It is hard losing that day-to-day bond with close family and friends you’ve known for years, but you just have to try harder at staying in touch.
“I have a few British friends over in LA so it’s nice to be able to relate to them. Just recently the Klaxons were there recording their new album, and they were my neighbours at university, so it was great to catch up with them again.”
Although Johanna has been fortunate enough to travel the world, she still has fond feelings about this area.
“I can honestly say that the countryside around where my parents live near Thorney is some of the most beautiful you will find anywhere,” she said.
Growing up in the Fens, Johanna had ambitions of becoming a writer or continuing with academia, but she has surrendered these dreams in the pursuit of her current life.
“I really am very happy. I have a great guy and an amazing family. Perhaps in the future I’d like to return to my studies, but if Matthew needs me to support him then that’s what I’m happy to do,” she said.
“As a child I always imagined staying in Peterborough. No one tells you that one day you might leave. I never thought that I, who went to Alderman Jacobs in Whittlesey, would be squeezing in between Rihanna and Quentin Tarantino at the Grammys, but everyone comes from somewhere.”
Despite meeting plenty of A-list celebrities, Johanna often finds it more funny than impressive.
“Fame is an amazing thing to study, it’s incredible being around famous people without having the burden of fame yourself. I will always be the funny looking “friend” in paparazzi shots,” she said, laughing.
One of her most memorable encounters was with hip-hop star and producer Jay-Z.
“I don’t really drink but he was lining up shots and I got very drunk,” she said. “I embarrassed myself by badly reciting his lyrics back to him!”
Encounters like these can be thrilling and good for dinner table anecdotes, but Johanna and Matthew prefer the quiet life and staying out of the limelight.
Although Kings of Leon are a huge global success, Johanna is thankful that Matthew rarely gets approached by his fans and they are able to lead a relatively normal life when out together in public.
“Matthew isn’t too big into the idea of being a celebrity. He loves to fly fish and he wants to come and fish in Peterborough when he has time.”
Johanna’s journey from the laid-back Fens to the Hollywood high-life has left her former classmates astounded.
Joseph Cornell (24), who used to take the bus with Johanna from Whittlesey Market Place to Wisbech Grammar School, told The Evening Telegraph: “It’s crazy to think that someone I used to sit next to in double geography is now in that situation.
“I saw Johanna on YouTube leaving the MTV Video Music Awards with the stars of High School Musical, it was quite funny and surreal to think she is now hanging out with Hollywood A-listers such as Zac Efron!”
Johanna isn’t sure what the future holds. She hopes to settle down and start a family when the whirlwind wanes, but will have to wait and see. “I would have loved to have done my Masters by then as well, to finish my studies and see where it takes me,” she said.
Whatever Johanna ends up doing, she has been on a journey from the familiar Fens to the land of fame and fortune. She has experienced things that would be the envy of many young people, all while keeping her feet firmly on the ground.
Kings of Leon factfile
Kings of Leon are from Nashville, Tennessee, and consist of three brothers and one cousin.
The band are named after the three brothers’ father, ‘Leon’, who was a preacher in the deep south.
Kings of Leon have released four studio albums, the most recent two both reached number 1 in the UK album chart.
Their biggest worldwide hit, ‘Sex on Fire’, went straight to number 1 in the UK singles chart, and is the second most ever downloaded single in UK chart history.
More about the Kings of Leon online: www.kingsofleon.com