flashback friday: alright still
all smiles with lily allen's 2009 cover story.
"Oh, no, it's gone!" Lily Allen says with mock tragedy, looking down at the tufts of black hair now lying on the floor. She bends over, jokingly trying to scoop them up, as if she's made a horrible mistake. Allen, dressed in a casual black-and-white leopard-print dress, bare-legged with no shoes on, has spontaneously decided to lop a good three inches off her locks at today's photo shoot. Laughter erupts from everyone present, and she stands upright in front of the mirror to take a good look. She studies her new razored bob, repeatedly scrunching it in places and then shaking it out, pausing to gaze at her reflection after each muss, chin tilted down, lips pursed, as if trying to absorb the new person staring back at her.
Today marks a big moment for the singer, as she's just beginning to do press for It's Not Me It's You, her highly anticipated follow-up to 2007's insanely popular ska-infused sing-along smash, Alright, Still, which sold almost 2 million copies. Journalists and fans have been speculating for months about whether or not she'll come back strong, but by the look of things--Allen, now in wardrobe, confidently strides out of the changing area to take her mark in front of the camera, decked in a shiny frock, black tights, and her own ridiculously high black satin Louis Vuitton wedges--she's ready to bring it. David Bowie's "Jean Genie" blares from the speakers inside the upscale photo studio in London's Camden neighborhood, and with sun streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the vibe is warm and upbeat. Although the girlish bangs are gone, the flirty prom dresses hung out to dry, and the sporty trainers and gold doorknocker earrings pushed to the back of her wardrobe, Allen's endearing cheekiness is intact--in between shots she discovers a pair of stuffed antlers in the stylist's bag and tries them on for laughs, and then unselfconsciously wriggles a finger in her right ear. But as she sultrily smiles for a picture, Allen looks calmer and wiser, the rough edges smoothed out from her stratospheric rise to fame. "When I first came around, I was 19--now I'm 23, so it makes sense," she says .
The songs on It's Not Me It's You, sound like Allen has grown up--or at least is in the process of doing so. The lyrics still have her trademark diary-excerpt quality--bitingly clever at times, almost too-cringe-inducingly literal at others--but the themes are broader. "I touch upon politics quite a lot...God, religion, relationships, age, sexism--all the non-controversial ones," Allen says, busting into laughter. Allen wrote the record with Los Angeles–based producer Greg Kurstin, who also twiddled a few knobs on a few songs on Alright, Still. The sound is fuller: a synth-based, danceable affair with sweeping choruses. "I'm really excited to see if people like me or if they are sick of me and don't want me to come back." Either way, she adds, "I'm just getting on with my life."
The daughter of film producer Alison Owen and famous British actor Keith Allen, Lily's parents divorced when she was four years old. At the time, she and her brother, Alfie, along with her older sister Sarah, were living in government-assisted housing, while their mom was just starting her career. Left with nannies, Lily remembers becoming withdrawn. "We were quite naughty kids," Allen recalls with a mischievous smirk, now curled up on a leather couch and puffing on a cigarette, the four-hour shooting marathon wrapped. "Alfie [now an actor] was really bad. I just went into myself. I was a polite, sort of cowering child. I didn't talk much; I spoke to adults but not to anyone my own age." In retrospect, she also wishes she had a little more parental supervision. "My mum had to work to support us and we lacked the attention we needed as children, which I think is one of the fundamental problems in our society. I'm not saying women shouldn't go and work for a living--that's not the answer, but something has to adjust, because children are being neglected on an emotional level and it's having an effect on the world."
In Allen's case, the neglect resulted in a constant need to be noticed, and a tendency to act out. Bounced between 13 different schools (some of them, including Prince Charles's alma mater, Hill House), Allen describes her early years as lonely andconfusing. "In the beginning, I was so insecure and felt like I couldn't make friends, so I thought the answer was to try somewhere else." As a teen, Allen, an avid grunge fan bedecked in skate-inspired baby tees and baggy jeans, rebelled. "I got expelled from a few places for bad behavior. I would just bonk off a lot--I would go and smoke...I would do anything to avoid working."
But it was at school, at age 11, that she first found her voice; she was singing along to Oasis' "Wonderwall" on her Walkman when a teacher overheard her and suggested that she perform in a talent show. She did, and to her own amazement, people really, really liked it. "I just thought, ‘Oh, this is what it's like for you to do something and get praise for it, rather doing things for attention and getting in trouble." And so she was on her way to becoming a "special person," a label she identified with her father and his famous friends growing up (FYI, the late Joe Strummer was her godfather). "I looked at my dad and was like, ‘Yeah, that's nice to have a life of people wanting to be your friend and to hang out with you." It was then that she set her sights on the music industry, and dropped out of school for good at 15. "I totally felt so, ‘Everyone hates me and I need to prove myself,' and I completely thought, ‘If I'm a famous singer, everyone's gonna love me and my life's gonna be OK.' I didn't realize that I would be opening myself up to more criticism."
And so started her fabled ascension to the top of the charts via MySpace (Allen started leaking early tracks from Alright, Still on the site as early as 2005), followed by award nominations (including a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album), and overall pop darling status, her face plastered on fashion magazines. But despite the success, everything was not OK. Allen became known for her nocturnal exploits as much as for her music, assaulting a paparazzo, publicly cutting down other celebrities, and getting so drunk that people had to physically carry her out of places. It's a wild child reputation that follows her to this day. Her latest media scandal occurred last September, when Allen co-hosted the British GQ Men of the Year Awards with Sir Elton John. She had downed a bit of champagne, and told Sir Elton to "Fuck off" while presenting an award. The two have since commented that it was all in good fun, but that didn't stop the gossip rags from crucifying her the next day. "I don't think that drinking at an awards ceremony is bad behavior. There's a reason that people go to those things, and that's because there's free alcohol and food, and it's an enjoyable night out," Allen says. "I wasn't falling on the floor drunk, like the press were saying. But obviously nothing more exciting happened, so journalists were like, ‘Let's write about Lily behaving embarrassingly.'" Allen makes no secret of how she thinks the media goes after women way more than men. "It's very sexist. All you have to do is look at poor Amy [Winehouse]," she says, referring to the relentless chronicling of the singer's breakdown. "You see someone who, at first, had a little love affair with alcohol, and it became such a huge story that it was her escapism from the whole thing. It was like, ‘My life has become so surreal and ridiculous, that now the only thing I have are drugs and alcohol.' Luckily, I've never been in that situation. I don't feel like I'm a strong enough person to have come out the other side unscathed." The excess of the party lifestyle--and how bored she is with it--is a theme she explores on the song "Everyone's at It," singing, "I'm not trying to say that I'm smelling of roses/ But when will we tire of putting shit up our noses?" And ever since the GQ dustup, Allen won't even be seen with a beverage while she's out. "I just refuse to give people the ammunition," she says flatly.
Allen has also slowed down on writing on her blog, a medium she's used over the years to candidly communicate directly with her fans. "I wanted a reaction," Lily says of her prolific posts. "That's something I've learned to hold back on, because the reaction I get isn't always a good one. I write things thinking this is how people are gonna get to know the real me," Allen says. "But why do you want people to know who the real you is, anyway? Just be you. Doesn't matter what people think. So now I'm a bit more guarded about it, which is a shame."
It is a shame, because her confessional posts were an uncensored look at a superstar's life, one that was refreshingly outspoken among a sea of whitewashed sound bites given by fellow celebrities in interviews. In the summer of 2007, she famously wrote from bed in a Seattle hotel room, in tears, about how she was feeling so unhappy with her body due to industry pressures, that she had been researching gastric bypass surgery and liposuction. However tragic, it was real--and it started a dialogue of support and raised awareness about messed up beauty standards. "I get a lot of criticism for the way that I look, and being overweight. It got to the point where I went to my doctor and said, ‘Can you put me on some diet pills or something?' And he'd weigh me and say, ‘I can't do anything because you're in the normal zone,'" Allen recalls, raising her voice incredulously. "It's not that I am anti–size zero, it's just that I'm anti the ideal--that that's what we should all be working toward." But today, Allen is feeling confident about her appearance, which she connects with a more positive outlook overall. "When you are feeling low, you feel worse about the way you look. I don't feel like that at the moment--I feel excited and happy, and I feel fine with the way that I look."
That's good news, considering Allen hasn't had a particularly easy year. In January 2008, Allen suffered a miscarriage after getting pregnant by then-boyfriend, Ed Simons of the Chemical Brothers. The couple had started a whirlwind romance in September 2007 and announced that they were expecting in December, only to separate in February after the tragedy. "I was in a very, very dark place after the whole thing happened," Allen says, her huge brown eyes clouded. "I think sometimes people forget, when they read a story in the newspaper, it stays in their head for five minutes, but something like that sticks with me forever. That was the toughest thing I've had to go through in my life." She quickly leans down and grabs another cigarette from a pack lying on the floor, lights it, and exhales while looking upward at nothing. A couple of moments pass. I ask if her and Simons are still friends, and she brightens, telling me a story about how they were hanging out at a pub just the night before with some mutual pals. She was sitting next to Simons, and Allen started egging another guy friend there to propose to his girlfriend, even offering him a ring she wears on her engagement finger from her mother. "I got a call an hour later from my publicist saying, ‘Are you and Ed getting engaged? They want to put it to print tomorrow.' That's my life," says Allen, giggling. But she's definitely single for now, and perhaps better for it, as she's been quoted in the past at "being bad at love." "I was so needy in a lot of my relationships, to the point where I would almost cause arguments," Allen says. "I would kind of want to see the passion in people, that they really did love me and that they would fight for me. So I would create these situations that were unhealthy." From her traumatic break-up with her first boyfriend, Lester Lloyd, that left her, she says, feeling suicidal and hospitalized for depression ("I had a bit of a of breakdown--it got to the point where it was becoming really dangerous, and I was quite close to death, really") to her three-year relationship with record executive Seb Chew ("We're very much in love with each other, but we know that we can't be together. He's my go-to person--if anything happens, he's the first person I call"), Allen says she's moving on. But her particular style of seduction remains the same. Asked how she first got together with Chew she says, "I got really drunk and lied to him. I said, ‘I've lost my keys and I can't wake my Mom up, can I stay on your sofa?" and he was like, "Yeah, OK." He went to go and brush his teeth, and I literally just took all my clothes off and jumped in his bed and pretended to be asleep," Allen says, cracking up. "That's also how I got together with Ed. That's the only way I can ever get together with people."
She'll have to find a new game, though, as she bought her own apartment in London's Queen's Park neighborhood last June. "It's really beautiful. It's got three bedrooms, but now one of them has been transformed into a wardrobe--It's like Cribs," she says, laughing. "It meant so much to me to move in and be settled--I feel like I'd done all that work, and been through all that stuff--and I'd come out of it having built myself a home." She describes the place as being filled with huge sofas, lots of cashmere blankets, big televisions, all her records, her turntables. "I love it," says Allen. It sounds like the perfect haven for her to chill (her idea of fun these days is "cooking for somebody I'm falling in love with, watching TV, and then having sex)" And it's an oasis of stability while she continues to sort out those still-present attention issues with her therapist. "I've found a new guy who I've been with for a few months, and he's really, really helping me," she says, hope in her voice. "I feel like it's getting better now and I'm working through it, and it's going to be OK."