In an exclusive interview, Generation Z’s top pop star talks about body image, over-exposure to fans and what she misses most about being famous.
Billie Eilish makes me nervous. She called, as arranged, on time — 11 p.m. in Los Angeles — but she admitted she wasn’t quite ready to say, “It’s a mess, I’m so sorry!” Her pale face and platinum hair loom on the phone screen, surrounded by darkness. Her head is at a funny angle and. oh my God, she’s driving, her cell phone obviously balancing on the dashboard of the car.
Help! I don’t want to inadvertently cause the death of one of the most gifted and valuable pop stars in the world; to watch a generation-defining musician at the top of his game crash his car.
“Girl, crashing isn’t about me! I’m not that kind of person,” Eilish says, half laughing, half straining. “I went to my brother’s for a swim and to check on his dogs because he’s away, and now I’m going to my parents’, I promise, it’s not far away.
Okay,” I say, still nervous. But what is that squeaking sound?
“It’s my dog – he sleeps in the other seat and weighs 70 pounds, so he makes the car beep because he’s not buckled up. I’m buckled in, look,” she says, showing me. “The beeper is really perfect for this call, isn’t it? And now the car wants to connect my phone to Bluetooth. That’s great,” she says, almost to herself, her sarcasm instantly familiar to any parent of a teenager.
Such a pompous attitude is forgivable, because Eilish is a teenager, albeit one of the most famous in the world. Now 19 years old, she’s been a music veteran for six years, ever since she and her older brother, songwriter Finneas O’Connell, professionally known as Finneas, recorded the track Ocean Eyes for her dance class. She uploaded it to SoundCloud, where it racked up several thousand listens and almost instantly secured her a management deal. At her first gigs, she had to sit outside on the sidewalk before the performances, and they wouldn’t let her inside because she was underage. But within a few months something happened: in 2017 her EP Don’t Smile At Me caused a furor among young fans, and a year or so later Wish You Were Gay and Bad Guy ripped her into the mainstream. Ailish’s intimate, breathy vocals combined with a driving beat, her rolling eyes, bloodshot nose, blue-haired look in the video and the coup de grace in the lyrics (“I’m the bad guy … I could seduce your father”) lifted her into the stratosphere. (“Yeah,” she sang.) She was 17 years old.
Her first album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” released in 2019, went multiplatinum and earned her five Grammys; she won two more this year for the theme to the still-anticipated Bond movie “No Time to Die” and the single “All I Wanted.” She was three dates into a massive world tour when the lockout hit, so she and Finneas used that time to write a new album.
“It’s not a Covid album, but for the first time in four or five years, we had free time to actually write songs, without anyone’s direction or deadlines or pressure. It was great because I don’t write fast,” Eilish says. Her voice is deeper than one might expect. “We were in such a mood that I enjoyed it.” She pulled over to the curb to let her dog (Shark, a pit bull) lay on the floor of the car. As she speaks, she holds her phone at different angles; there is no standard video call etiquette here – her phone is an accessory, a witness to her life. “Ask me questions!” – she says, coming to her senses. A few seconds later, she’s back behind the wheel. “My parents’ house is literally five minutes away!” – she shouts.
Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell is a full life, in every sense. After rocketing from cool indie artist to enormous global fame, her second album Happier Than Ever is out, and she’s working hard to promote it. Everyone wants her, from the press to her fans (88 million on Instagram); she recently admitted that she cries at the number of photo shoots she has to participate in. She is huge all over the world; every move she makes, official or photographed, is clickbait. Her fans are people of all ages, but young fans especially admire her. She says it’s because of her fans that she does what she does – “I wouldn’t want to do any of this if they weren’t involved,” she tells me – but they also analyze her every move, switching between admiring her and informing her where she goes wrong.
Among the latest grievances is her choice of boyfriends: her ex, rapper Brandon “Q” Adams, wasn’t nice enough to her; her alleged current boyfriend, actor Matthew Tyler Worth, has used racist and homophobic language in the past: At age 13, she once sang along with a racial slur in the lyrics of Tyler, the Creator (she apologized, saying she had no idea what it meant at the time; plus, no heat for Tyler, mind you); her music video for the recent single Lost Cause, in which she seems to be having fun at a sleepover with other young women, is “queer bait” because she is straight. The culture of withdrawal, where one wrong move can send you to social Siberia, seems impossible for anyone, but especially when you’re young, famous and growing up online. “Ooooh,” she says of online trolls. “These people don’t do anything. I say do something with your life! Go out. Find yourself a hobby.”
Lost Cause, with its general hilarity, is a bit of a departure for Eilish, who has long presented herself, at least in the videos, as an outsider. Nonconformism is her appeal: her music uses experimental production, hiding her soulful voice by appearing close to the microphone or using Auto-Tune. Her lyrics reveal the lives of teenagers that pop music usually ignores: not only the intensity of her romantic love, but also her strange fears and silly jokes; her fantasies of revenge, unspeakable sadness, fixated drama and obsession with life. In her lonely videos, she soars like an obsessive, crying black tears, lighting cigarettes. In photos, she stares into the camera without taking her eyes off her face. She has Tourette’s syndrome, and when she’s stressed, she tics, shakes her head, opens her eyes wide, as if she wants to expel something crawling in her brain.
Teenage girls, as an audience, have been a target for adults ever since pop music was invented. Eilish has shown them to be far weirder, cooler and more enthusiastic than adults ever thought they were, detailing the fickle moods and defiant characteristics of modern teenage life. But now she’s becoming an adult. Will her fans be able to let her evolve?
To my relief, Eilish now parks her car in her parents’ yard, “The driveway is so small, and my car is just a tank.” I know her car is a black Dodge Challenger given to her for her 17th birthday by her record company. And I also know that her parents’ house is a shabby, detached bungalow filled with the trash of years of family life. I know all this because Eilish likes to have her life documented — home videos when she was little and recently in a picture book from childhood to the present — though, as she will tell me, there are limitations.
She scurries around the house, saying hello to her parents, laying down on the bed and leaning her phone against something. After a while I realize it’s a mirror, because she starts brushing her fringe.
Although we begin by talking about her album themes – there are basically two: one is “fuck you” for old flame, the other is a call to people for the way they treat young women – we soon start discussing body image. Eilish likes to play with fashion and is constantly changing her style-she remembers making the deliberate decision at the age of four or five to go out in her panties over her pants-but she tries her best not to be too concerned about her appearance.
Some people are so insecure that they never move in a weird way or make a weird face. It makes me so sad.
For a long time, her aesthetic guidelines were conflated with gothic (colored hair, house spiders, Babadook) and hip-hop (baggy shorts, hoodies, Louis Vuitton), and eventually she dyed her hair black with neon-green roots, painted her nails claw-like, wore a neon-green top and shorts.
Her new look is less cartoonish, though it still feels a bit dressy: Marilyn Monroe’s blonde hair; soft beige and pink clothing; references to 1930s Hollywood and the French boudoir. Since this is Eilish, there’s a twist (big sneakers, above-the-knee socks, a huge new dragon tattoo on her lower thigh). She introduced this style in British Vogue in May, where she looked off the cover, defiantly dressed in a corset, instantly confusing those who previously praised her for covering herself. Today, beneath the glamorous platinum fringe, she wears a baggy Eazy-E T-shirt.
“Ever since I was a kid,” she says, “my dad and I always talked about a certain type of person who is so insecure, or hyperactive and shy, that they never move in a weird way, don’t make a weird face, because they always want to look good. I’ve noticed this, and it makes me very sad. If you’re always standing a certain way, walking a certain way, combing your hair a certain way… It’s such a loss to always try to look good. It’s such a loss of joy and freedom in your body.”
This loss of freedom is more likely, of course, if you’re a young woman. Eilish recently released a song, Not My Responsibility, which is included on her new album: it’s a spoken word, in which she questions why her physique is perceived by others as provocative, whether she’s covered up or not. “The body I was born with, isn’t that what you wanted? If I wear what I am comfortable with, I am not a woman. If I throw off all the layers, I’m a whore.” And in Your Power, a song about older men preying on younger women with a punch to the gut hidden in the most beautiful melody, she talks about how horrible the behavior of those who are “provoked” by such young women can be. “You ruined her in a year, don’t pretend it was hard… She slept in your clothes … now she has to go to class.” “It’s an open letter,” she says, “a general statement. I’ve had several people I’ve thought of in this song, which is sad, I know. But it’s not all about one person. Some lines have nothing to do with me, it’s just things I’ve seen or things my friends have gone through.”
Another song on the album has a similar theme of challenge: “OverHeated refers to all the people who promote unattainable body standards,” she says. “It’s perfectly okay to do work, to do this, to do that, to do the things that make you feel happy. It’s just when you deny it and say, ‘Oh, I accomplished all this on my own, and if you just tried harder, you could achieve it.’ It makes me furious. It’s so bad for young women – and boys, too – to see that.”
She knows from experience in the music industry that most of the perfect Insta images are unrealistic. But it still affects her. “I see people online who look like I’ve never looked before,” she says. “And then I think, ‘Oh my God, how do they look like that? I know the ins and outs of this industry, I know what people use in pictures, and I know that what looks real can be fake. And yet I still see it and say, “Oh my God, that makes me feel really bad.” I’m very confident in myself and very satisfied with my life… I’m obviously not happy with my body,” she adds casually, “but who is?”
On stage, I disown my notions of my body. Then the paparazzi take pictures of me, and everyone says, “Fatty!”
She takes a small jade roller and runs it across her cheek as she speaks. It surprises me that she’s “obviously” unhappy with her body, but Eilish can’t be honest if she’s not; she’s responding in the moment. And in fact, despite her huge social media presence, she often seems disguised. Her style is so distinctive that it has become camouflage. (Her green-and-black look can be ordered online as a costume; several of her friends and her mother dressed up as Eilish for Halloween 2019; Eilish herself dressed as a ghost.)
She used to do dance and thought it would be her career until she suffered a serious hip injury at age 13. We talked about how dancing makes you feel, how it excites you. She used to love jumping into mosh pits, “freedom and independence,” though she hasn’t been able to since 2016. “Even if you have a lot of people around you in mosh pits, you’re alone. Nobody knows who you are. That’s what I really loved. I miss mosh pits.” Before her concerts were really big, she prided herself on creating mosh pits at them-“Once I created seven!” – But some of her fans were too young and didn’t know what to do.
She still connects with that physical wildness, usually when she’s onstage – though she has to chase away negative thoughts to do so. “When I’m on stage, I have to disconnect from thoughts about my body,” she says. “Especially because I wear clothes that are bigger and easier to move around in without showing everything – they can be very unflattering. In pictures, they look like I don’t even know what. I just completely separate the two. Because I have such a terrible relationship with my body that you wouldn’t believe, so I just have to separate myself from them… And then you get photographed by the paparazzi when you run to the door and you’re just wearing something and you don’t know you’re being photographed and you just look the way you look and everyone says, “Fat!”
How strange, I say, when your body is dissected like that.
“Yes! I mean, we only need our bodies to eat, walk, and poop. We only need them to survive. It’s just ridiculous that anyone cares about bodies at all. Like, why? Why do we care? You know, when you really think about it?”
She’s smoothing her bangs. “Why do we care about hair? Why does everybody hate body hair so much, but we literally have a huge amount of hair on our heads, and it’s, like, cool and beautiful. What’s the difference? I mean, I love hair and I do crazy things with my hair. I’m as guilty as anyone else. But it’s so weird. If you think about it a lot, you can go crazy.”
Eilish does think a lot and is involved in all the visual representations of her work. She directs her own music videos and thinks in a filmic way: both she and Finneas have synesthesia, and she sees images when she creates music. I ask her about the new song Oxytocin, which reminds me of dark clubs at three in the morning. What color does she see when she sings this song?
“When we were composing it, some images flashed in my head,” Eilish says, thoughtfully rolling the jade around her neck. “The color of what was in my brain during the creation of this song was dark, but at the same time it flashed yellow.” She pauses. “Honestly, the images I had of Oxytocin were just sex. That’s all. All different kinds, and styles, and colors, and places. That’s really what was on my mind. Sex.”
She has another thought. “It means that whenever I sing it on stage, I have to think about sex,” she says and chuckles. “I don’t have a problem with that.”
Eilish speaks absolutely on the level; not deliberately provocative, but frank and straightforward. She was homeschooled and has always had the characteristic, common to many homeschooled children, of being on par with adults. She expects respect because she has always received it at home.
Her parents, Patrick O’Connell and Maggie Baird, both part-time actors (O’Connell starred in “Iron Man” and “The West Wing”; Baird in “The X-Files” and “Bones”), play a huge role in her life; they had to do it because she needed a guardian until December 2019 in order to have a career. Whenever they are interviewed, they come across as sensible and loving people who have built a team around their daughter, allowing her to basically be who she is and express herself the way she wants. Eilish’s privileged position doesn’t prevent her from experiencing the trauma of modern young life — she’s suffered from depression and cutting herself — but she can talk about her feelings without venom. “I try very, very hard to be pleasant to work with,” she says. “Sometimes people can be big idiots, and you have to say, ‘Hey, you’re acting like an idiot.’ But I never throw things or yell at anybody, ever. I like working with people.”
Eilish is by nature very outgoing; she chose rapper Denzel Curry as her supporting actor because they get along so well. And although she lost many friends when she became famous, she has a couple who have supported her throughout time: she met Drew when she was nine years old; Zoe when they were three years old. Zoey went with her on her last tour, and Drew is mentioned in one of the songs on her new album. Fame has forced Eilish to change her life, though she struggles to keep some aspects the same. She now has her own place, but she still likes to spend the night at her parents’ house.
“I don’t like being alone,” she says. “I like having anonymity or autonomy, but when I’m alone, it just makes me sick. I hate it. I have a lot of stalkers,” she says seriously, “and there are people who want to do me wrong, and I also get scared of the dark and what’s under the beds and couches. I have a lot of weird, irrational fears. That’s why I still go to my parents’ house a lot. I just love my parents, and I really like it here. It’s very comforting.”
Eilish thinks she’s most like her father-“he and I are alike”-a soft, warm man who can have a hand in anything practical (he made the big red A-frame for the cover of her Don’t Smile At Me EP) and is now a carpenter and lighting director on her tour. “Our personalities are just very similar, we have similar body language and the way we talk to people and listen to people. My father also has tics, and I have Tourette’s syndrome, which is more severe than his.”
Eilish’s tics appear when she is tense; her emotions are showing. I wonder about her anger: where does it go with such a stressful life? “I do horseback riding,” she says, “and that gives a lot of adrenaline and requires a lot of energy, and it’s exhausting. It’s a big stress reliever for me. I’ve become less angry and emotional since I’ve gotten back into it.” She laughs. “My family, my God, makes me so angry. I’m surprised: they seem so close. “Oh, my family is like everyone else’s. There’s anger – and love, so it all evens out.”
Eilish is going through a strange period in her life right now; because of the pandemic, she hasn’t been able to enjoy a full adult life. She turned 18 in December 2019, and she’s still too young to drink or smoke in California, though she does neither. “For the last two years, I haven’t been able to do the show. Before that, I was always with my parents, going with my family and doing what they did or what my crew did. Now I would love to put on a balaclava and at any festival where I was performing, just go out into the crowd. It would be so much fun!”
She gets off the phone and goes to the bathroom. Is she going to pee? “No way!” She pulls out her floss, goes back to the bed and starts brushing her teeth: first interview for me. At home with Billie Eilish, it’s a relaxed activity, akin to chatting with a FaceTime buddy.
Half of me wants to tell the fans everything because I consider them friends. But I also really want to live in lockdown.
We talk about the climate emergency, the fires in California. She’s vegan and cares about the environment, replacing the usual photo shoot rider with a long list of “green” standards. She doesn’t think we take the climate crisis seriously enough anywhere. “The fires haven’t gotten to me yet, but it always makes me a little angry,” she says. “I hate it. It scares me. I wish people didn’t care about global warming, because I feel like I’m the only one who does. So, I don’t know. If we die, we die. And I think that’s probably what’s going to happen. The good thing is that the world will survive. The world knows what it’s doing. The world is just saying, “Guys, if you don’t do something to maintain this relationship…” You know, “If you don’t pay your rent, you’re gone, and I’ll live without you.” A world without problems will kill us all. I’m just saying.”
She turns to Shark, who is lying on the bed next to her and dozing. Will he wake up if she offers him chicken? “He’s vegan, but look,” she says. “Sharky, do you want to eat?” Sharkey opens his eyes.
She makes me laugh. She’s so charismatic, so funny. Naturally gullible. No wonder her fans are thrilled. I ask how hard it is for her to maintain boundaries between them. “When it comes to fans,” she says, “it’s hard. I don’t even know where to start. I really don’t know how to maintain boundaries.” She sighs. “I’ve had such a good relationship with the fans from the beginning, and they’ve literally been my number one priority. Half of me wants to tell the fans everything – every thing I think and feel, every person I meet and every feeling I have – because I think of them as my friends. But at the same time, I really, really want to live solitary. So it’s difficult.”
When she was young, she was a Justin Bieber mega-fan herself – a real whitewash, not wanting to live with him. RJ Cutler’s documentary “The World’s A Little Blurry” about her has a touching moment when she meets Bieber and can’t talk (he’s now her friend who gives her advice). Social media, which she once adored, has become more challenging as her fame has grown.
“With social media, I can’t use it as much because it will live there forever,” she says, “and everyone but the fans will see it, too. So it’s annoying. It’s like if you want to whisper a secret to your friend, but while you’re whispering it, there’s a microphone in his ear, and it’s broadcast to 80 million people. You know what I mean? That’s exactly how I feel. I have a need to tell fans these things and talk to them, and I did it because it was a very small number of people when I first started. I used to tell whole stories about things that happened and laugh at them, and it became kind of an inside joke to the fans. But then those stories never go away.”
And because of Covid, she can’t connect with her fans any other way — she usually performs at concerts, which is her favorite thing to do — so their interest has become even more fierce, and she’s more distant than ever. She understands their love, but she wants to live, too. Can she somehow talk to them about music, art, hopes and dreams without revealing everything else?
“It’s just ridiculous, because as a fan, I would never talk about what someone did because it’s none of your business,” she says, getting a little annoyed. “It’s literally not your life. You don’t know any of these people. Nobody knows me, and I don’t know anybody. It’s nobody’s business. Why the fuck do people care so much? And I don’t think they care about it online. With trolls, I think they’re just bored, that’s all. I don’t understand that. I don’t know when it became about everyone’s personal life. My God, it makes me so angry.”
Eilish picks up the phone again, wanders around the room. It’s past her bedtime, a young woman in her childhood bedroom, fiddling with her hair and her phone, telling her stories to people on the Internet. What does she want them to know?
“I think I want them to understand that … just as you change, and your opinions, feelings, likes, dislikes and knowledge change over the years, so do mine,” she says. “Everyone is guilty of looking at celebrities and not realizing that they’re just people. But they are. So it’s a classic ‘do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.’ Because you’re just a human being like everybody else.”