Performing for 20,000 people is not something Halsey could even fathom as a kid in small-town New Jersey. “I grew up in a pretty chaotic household,” she says. “Both of my parents are very, very emotional people.” They’re also very young, and Halsey says her relationship with them has always functioned more like a friendship. “That was an actual existential crisis for me in middle school, being like, ‘Why don’t my parents feel like my parents?’” she jokes, holding her head in her hands for exaggerated effect. The tattooed 1 and 7 on the middle and pointer fingers of her right hand catch my eye. “That was a pretty pinnacle time in my life,” she says of her 17th year. “I went from being a little kid to, like, a very weathered adult in a year,” she says. “I got kicked out of my house, I traveled the whole country by myself, I found out I had bipolar disorder, I dealt with a sexual assault.… That year was like Murphy’s Law, man.”
She was also dating a guy who was using heroin. “I had never even gotten drunk when I was 16, and a year later I’m watching someone shoot up in their living room.” That experience, in part, inspired “Ghost,” a song that demonstrates the openness the artist is willing to share with the world, and one that’s helped forge a fierce bond with her fans.
It’s also one of the first things Dan Reynolds, the lead singer of Imagine Dragons, noticed about her when his band was looking for someone to bring on their Smoke + Mirrors tour. “It’s especially hard right now in this world of social media to speak your mind because the world just jumps all over you for anything,” he says when we chat by phone. “She had a voice from a very early stage in her career, which is huge. She’s gutsy.”
But being gutsy makes Halsey a lightning rod for criticism. Nearly everything she does elicits a response, whether it’s business, like her M.A.C collab, which prompted calls of hypocrisy (“It’s not tested on animals, and I’m not even vegan!”), or extremely personal (“People can be shitty, like, ‘Oh, she talks about bipolar disorder for attention’”). Even simply shaving her head of the long locks she’d often dyed bright blue garnered online vitriol. “I saw thousands of tweets from kids who were like, ‘Yeah, that’s it, I don’t want to be her fan anymore,’” she says. But shaving her head was more than an arbitrary aesthetic decision. It was a purge—shedding a symbol of femininity. “Hair has also been a big indicator of racial issues in my life,” says Halsey, whose father is black. “It’s one of the ultimate symbolic struggles for women of color. Shaving my head was important to me because I needed to be able to prove that I could still love myself if I did it.” Now “straight white dudes,” as Halsey calls them, clog up her comments, telling her how ugly she looks with short hair. “I’m like, ‘That’s cool dude,’” she says with a laugh. “I really could not care less about what you think.”
But caring less is still something she struggles with. Underneath the swearing, sarcasm, and bravado is a very tender heart, a writer’s soul. “I would get into [the comments], and I would be like, ‘Why do you fucking care?’” she says, her voice lilting emphatically. “Also, what are you going to do? There are some things I have the power to make a difference in, but people being mean on the internet is not one of them. If I stood up and turned my whole career into a fucking campaign to end cyberbullying, I would get cyberbullied for that.”
That mix of strength and vulnerability comes through her music as well. “[Her voice] is so powerful, but it feels like there’s something fragile about it,” says Skrillex when we speak on the phone. It’s why he handpicked Halsey to duet with Justin Bieber on “The Feeling,” one of the Purpose tracks he produced. Since then the two bonded during Lollapalooza’s South American run, going to baile funk parties in Brazil and watching dubstep together (see Skrillex’s Instagram for a seriously adorable video of them doing the Macarena onstage during one of Zedd’s sets). It was on tour that they started collaborating, something they’re heading back into the studio soon to finish. “She’s not fighting to climb to the top with a sound that’s already there—she created her own style,” he says. “You can hear emotional lyrics, but really well written emotional lyrics, and no one—Rihanna, Katy Perry—is doing it like that. She’s in her own lane, it’s really sick.”