Still teenagers when they were catapulted to fame, superstardom came at a price for Little Mix. They open up to Francesca Babb about the soaring highs and crashing lows of the past nine years.
It is the end of our YOU cover shoot, and I am facing the lesser-spotted sight of a barefaced Little Mix. Wet wipes swipe back and forth across their faces and, as the foundation departs in a deluge of coffee-coloured tissues, Jesy Nelson and Leigh-Anne Pinnock, both 29, and Jade Thirlwall and Perrie Edwards, both 27, visibly relax into their tracksuits and boyfriend jeans, shoulders dropping as they settle into themselves. I’m so used to seeing them contoured and camera ready that I assumed full glamour was their happy place. But perhaps the real Little Mix are not the war-paint-and-leotard-clad pop stars we’ve spent almost ten years watching grow up, but rather the four women they have become behind the glare of the spotlight. It’s those four women that I’m intrigued to meet.
Since winning The X Factor nine years ago, there have been highs – selling over 50 million records globally, a significant percentage of which were self-penned, and creating enough accompanying make-up lines and merchandise to keep them and their families comfortable for the foreseeable future (recent reports suggest they have earned a combined £28.5 million to date). But there have also been lows – perpetual picking apart by both the public and the press, bullying and vitriol from online trolls. The most extreme cases of which led Jesy to attempt suicide during Little Mix’s early days in 2013 (she regards a tweet from the controversial Katie Hopkins – ‘Packet Mix have still got a chubber in their ranks. Less Little Mix. More Pick n Mix’ – as the ‘pinnacle point’ for her depression) and pushed Perrie into an ongoing struggle with anxiety.
Fame has changed them. In some ways they are still youthful and silly – dropping phrases into conversation that wouldn’t be out of place in a playground – yet, in others, they are wise beyond their years, diving headfirst into battles on feminism, race and mental health. They’re fun enough to be light relief, smart enough to inspire a generation struggling with the pressures of youth and social media even before a pandemic was thrown at them, and ballsy enough to leave Simon Cowell’s record label because they didn’t feel he had their best interests at heart.
‘It’s never really been a cruise, has it?’ Jade ponders, a copy of social activist Bell Hooks’ 2002 feminist theory Communion: The Female Search For Love in her hand (not for show, I might add; when I ask her about it, she is well versed in its content). ‘It’s either been a really big high, or a really big low.’
Jesy, who has found herself the target of some of the cruelest contempt from the world outside Little Mix, agrees: ‘Some of the best times, some of the worst times.’
Comments on her weight, her looks, her place in the band, comments that she should take her own life, all led her into a deep depression and the aforementioned suicide attempt. Her documentary last year, Jesy Nelson: Odd One Out, revealed her journey through it all and, while harrowing, it is essential viewing on the realities of growing up in a world dominated by social media.
‘Before we got in the group, I never looked at myself and thought, “I don’t like that” – I don’t think any of us did. I never thought, “Oh god, I’m fat”, and then we got in the industry, and we all started wanting to change things about ourselves. It’s so sad. There are things [in the past] I definitely wish I hadn’t done,’ she says, referring to the suicide attempt, in which she took an overdose after a two-year battle with depression and an eating disorder. ‘But would I be the person I am today if I hadn’t gone through all of that?’
‘There was a time when it was worse than it is now,’ adds Leigh-Anne, who has increasingly used her own Instagram channel to vocalise her experience of racism, both overt and underlying, throughout her time in the band. ‘I guess we’re taking steps forward, but I fear for my [future] daughters…’
‘It makes me not want to have a kid,’ agrees Jesy. ‘Those insecurities that we all have now because of social media, imagine having that embedded in you as a child?’
Before you write them off as four very lucky girls ungratefully complaining about a lifestyle so many dream of, I should point out that they are fully aware of the paradox of their privilege. I suppose the point is, it’s not too much to ask to not be bullied to the point of hospitalisation as a by-product, is it?
‘Little Mix has changed our lives for the better, and our families’ lives, and we have achieved so much,’ says Perrie.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ agrees Jesy (a warning I will hear repeatedly throughout our hour together, perhaps thanks to almost a decade of their quotes being blasted out of context for click-bait). ‘I’m not going to sit here and say we’ve got a terrible life, because we haven’t, but I do think our innocence was taken from us.’
It’s a while since the girls last did any press. Lockdown saw a halt to any activity they had planned, including the launch of their new talent show, BBC1’s Little Mix: The Search (in which they, well, search for a new band to mentor and join them on tour). But the time apart has not diminished their ability to finish each other’s sentences and jump to each other’s aid. It has, it seems, been really rather good for them and allowed them to come back fired up for the release of their sixth album, Confetti, which came out this week. ‘It was needed,’ agrees Jesy. ‘We’re never not with each other and we’re always busy. Our mornings start early, we finish really late.’
Being at home has meant more time spent with their families, with Jade even starting her own show on MTV with her mum Norma. Called Served!, the self-filmed series saw the pair interview celebrity drag queens and challenge each other to cooking competitions. ‘I love drag culture,’ she says, ‘and me mam was by herself in lockdown, so I thought it’d be something nice to keep her entertained.’
‘Your mum could be on Loose Women,’ Leigh-Anne muses.
‘Imagine our mams on a show!’ shrieks Jade.
‘Nobody else would get a word in edgeways with my mam,’ laughs Perrie.
‘Ooh, when Debbie goes off on Twitter,’ says Jade, of Perrie’s mum’s habit of weighing in on comments from haters. ‘My mam will text me, have you seen Debbie’s been going off on someone!’
It is interesting that all four talk frequently about their mums throughout our chat, and yet there is no mention of fathers. While their mums often appear on Instagram, a sighting of Perrie’s dad on her 23rd birthday was extremely rare. Perhaps the Little Mix dads’ absence in the narrative is because the four girls were predominantly raised by their mothers (all of their parents separated when they were younger), and another reason the group’s bond is so tight. Little Mix are each other’s wall of arms, their own personal bodyguards. Jesy, they unanimously agree, is Scary Mix (although I find her a delight), which is interesting given her own inability to bat off other people’s words.
‘When it’s you on your own dealing with something personally,’ Jesy says, ‘It’s completely different. You feel so vulnerable alone, but we are a force when we’re together.’
It’s not hard to see, in today’s social-media obsessed society where there is little retribution for cruelty, why four attractive, successful young women, with attractive, successful young boyfriends (two footballers – Perrie dates Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Leigh-Anne is engaged to Watford’s Andre Gray – while Jade is with Rizzle Kicks singer Jordan Stephens and Jesy is going out with Our Girl actor Sean Sagar), who seem to be living a dream life have found themselves at the heart of a whirlwind of vitriol. There was the infamous spat with Piers Morgan, in which he mocked them for posing naked but for the insults that have been hurled at them painted on their bodies. He accused them of using sex to sell records and called them ‘foul-mouthed, talentless, clothes-allergic little dimwits’, which is not how I find them to be.
‘I take Piers with a pinch of salt,’ Jesy says, rolling her eyes. ‘He does it to cause drama, so I take no notice. When we won The X Factor, we didn’t look like a generic girl band: we’re all different shapes and sizes, we didn’t dress sexy, so immediately everyone was, “What’s this?”’
‘Usually, when you see a girl band, they’re perfection, they have six-packs – and we didn’t,’ continues Jesy. ‘People saw us as kids, so even though we’re now women, people still think of us that way, so when we come out on stage in leotards, they think, “That’s disgusting!”’
‘One Direction didn’t get the s**t we get, because they’re men,’ states Leigh-Anne. ‘It’s like, “They’re four girls, let’s come at them”. As soon as it’s girls, they think, “Oh you slag.”’
‘When it’s men, it’s celebrated, but the minute women sexualise themselves and feel powerful doing it, we’re told to rein it in,’ adds Jade. ‘We’re conditioned to think that women are there to be these innocent and pure beings and the minute you step out of that, it’s carnage.’
Little Mix, however, are not scared of embracing that carnage and of sparking a debate. For their show The Search, Jade describes how it was important for them to set the tone on respect when each new person auditioned. ‘Because we are small women, it’s important to show people that they need to respect us, that we know what we’re talking about and we need to be listened to,’ she says.
‘There’s no nastiness,’ continues Jesy about the show, which has been praised for modernising and freshening up the age-old TV format. ‘There’s no making anyone feel uncomfortable for entertainment.’
They also insisted a large part of their budget be dedicated to looking after the contestants’ mental health, understanding, first hand, the pitfalls of talent shows.
The Search is not their first attempt at diversifying their talent. As a group, they have LMX make-up line and also a perfume, Style By Little Mix. Subsequently, they have become expert businesswomen, refusing to make the mistakes of pop groups past, so often left completely penniless at the end of their careers.
‘I remember walking into an early label meeting and saying, “This is who we want to be, this is the campaign we want, this is the imagery we want,”’ says Jade. ‘We knew our brand from the get go and we very much steered that ship.’
It’s a long way from their (as Jesy puts it) ‘working-class backgrounds’. Since joining the band, each one has bought their mum a house and, while their tale is not entirely rags to riches, the jump from Primark to Prada in recent years has certainly been significant.
When it comes to business, Perrie describes herself and Leigh-Anne as the ones who will often seek a compromise in difficult situations, while they send Jesy and Jade in when deals need to be made.
‘Jesy’s the badass,’ Perrie laughs. ‘Whenever I’m scared, I’ll stand behind her. She’s the one who puts her foot down in a boardroom full of men and says, “It’s going to be this way.” But we pick our battles. We don’t just argue about every decision – it’s when we feel we have to.’
‘Nobody could say that we are difficult, and if they do, they’re lying,’ says Leigh-Anne adamantly. Adds Jesy: ‘We know what we want, and we know what kids want.’
Little Mix have lived over a third of their lives in the spotlight. They’ve seen how things work, how things don’t, and they’ve learnt how to cope with it all. The lows may have been spectacularly low, but the highs have surpassed any of their expectations. Their story is not your classic fairytale, but it’s one they have learnt they can write their own ending for. If the Little Mix I meet today is anything to go by, I wouldn’t expect that ending to come any time soon.
Little Mix’s new album Confetti is out now. Their movie LM5: The Tour Film will be in cinemas nationwide on 21 and 22 November.