The breakout popstar of 2019, Lizzo is intent on lifting us up with her feel-good tunes and love-yourself attitude.
If you’ve ever run yourself ragged with work and making sure everyone else is OK, you’ll know what it’s like to forget to look out for yourself. This is where Lizzo, down the line from her home in LA, is at when she speaks to Stylist.
To say that Lizzo’s life – and her sleeping patterns – have changed dramatically this year is an understatement. Work has included the small matter of Juice, an 80s-tinged earworm released in January that has ripened into the song of the summer. The singer, rapper and flautist followed that with Cuz I Love You, a hook-laden album’s worth of odes to body positivity and self-empowerment.
The songs, she has said, are for big black girls like herself, but everyone else is welcome to drink the “medicine”. On social media, Lizzo’s posts regularly celebrate every bit of her body, often in the nude, always with a sense of fun. Her beloved instrument, Sasha Flute – named after Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce alter ego – has its own Instagram account (@sashabefluting) with 235,000 followers.
Sasha, and her owner, are ascending. And Lizzo wants to elevate girls like her, too. On Juice, she sings: “If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine.” At summer festivals she peppered her fun, upbeat performances with uplifting nuggets of wisdom. She finished her Glastonbury set by telling the crowd: “If you can love me, you can love your goddamn self.” She then got them to repeat her mantra: “I love you. You are beautiful. You can do anything.”
Lizzo did not always love herself. For a long time, Melissa Jefferson (the nickname Lizzo sprang from Jay-Z’s song Izzo) couldn’t square all the things that made her so great. At 14, in school in Houston, she formed her first rap band, Cornrow Clique. She also played the flute in the school marching band, listened to Radiohead and wore Uggs – boots her classmates thought made her “too white”.
At college, studying the flute (of course) she couldn’t make all the different parts of her identity – her body, her blackness, her refusal to be boxed in – fit together so she dropped out. “It wasn’t easy,” she says now. “We are not given the opportunity to be completely self-loving as we were born to be. So yeah, it was a journey.”
The path led Lizzo to Minneapolis, where she found her groove in various bands and then as a solo artist. After two indie-ish albums, she was signed to Atlantic for her major label debut, which hit the US top 10 earlier this year.
In the meantime, Lizzo learned to love herself. And sharing that experience has seen the world come around to her way of being. She didn’t have enough women to look up to when she was younger. Now, one of the few, Missy Elliott, has collaborated on her single Tempo.
Lizzo didn’t see herself represented before. Later this month, she’s in Hollywood film Hustlers and her platinum-selling single Truth Hurts is being talked up as a Grammy contender. Most significantly, she’s doing this while lifting us up, too. All rise, please…
Is the Glastonbury mantra one of your own?
Yeah, it’s a little thing that goes a long way on a daily basis. I’ve heard people felt a little silly saying that to themselves but then it started to change the way they spoke to themselves. We speak to ourselves so terribly sometimes. If I’m writing something and I mess up, I’m like, ‘I’m so stupid’. It’s second nature to call myself dumb for something that doesn’t deserve that.
Was it hard to learn to love yourself?
Yeah. It’s hard for everybody who isn’t there. Still, every day is up and down. You know, I’m not there yet.
Does the music keep you going?
Using music as therapy is in my nature. I definitely just laugh or cry. I use humour for coping; my music reflects that. My music is funny even when it’s really tragic. It always has a silver lining. I used to be anxious and pessimistic and now I practise on lowering my anxiety and am very optimistic.
What do you do to lower your anxiety?
I personally didn’t realise how shallow my breathing was when I was nervous. Breathing is a really important tool in mental health. When I am anxious, the first thing I do is breathe deeper. I look up and see, oh shit I was holding my breath the whole time, which is kinda scary.
How do you practise self-care?
When things get crazy, I like to bring it back to me and ask: what did I eat today? Did I have enough water? [Laughs] And if I am not feeling myself, I like to dial myself up just for me. Take a nude or play around with make-up and try to feel pretty, just for a second. Because I am a giving person and I always worry about the external [stuff], like my job, the first step is bringing that love back to me.
What does a nude do for you?
It makes me feel beautiful. I look at my body as art. It doesn’t mean you have to post the nude. You can delete it. But if you can create this beautiful shape in the buff and look at it and appreciate yourself, it does wonders for who you are. We like to put on a lot of things that cover up, clothes that put a waist on us. I used to cover up my arms with long-sleeve shirts and shit [laughs] but now if I can appreciate myself naked, I can appreciate myself any way.
How does make-up make you feel?
It makes me feel good. But I don’t like to cover up. I like to keep it natural, which is why Stay Naked from Urban Decay was so integral and helped me give my skin a natural finish.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve done in the name of beauty?
When I did Ursula [she tweeted a video dressed as the Little Mermaid villain, singing Poor Unfortunate Souls], I glued my eyebrows down. My make-up artist drew one on top. I was like, this is wild.
Is there one tip your make-up artist gave you that is key?
Always build a lash. Whether I’m wearing falsies or building it out, I love having a lash on my face. It frames my eyes beautifully.
Is there a book, album or film that changed your life?
It’s so hard to answer that because my life has changed so much. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was a great album. That changed everything for me and what I knew about women who rap and women who sing and women who know how to do both. It’s a masterpiece.
Who are the women who empower you?
I was always surrounded by strong women growing up. My best friend group was three or four girls, and my mom and my sister and me were three girls. Missy Elliott, Beyoncé, Destiny’s Child. They all still inspire me.
At Stylist, we’re campaigning for greater, better representation of women in media. What one change would you like to see?
There are times I’m on set and I’m a big black girl and I have big curly hair but on the other side of that camera, it’s just a bunch of white dudes. I wonder if we can’t be more diverse? Wouldn’t a black girl know how to get my angles? Wouldn’t a big girl know how to get the lighting? Aren’t we just as qualified? We shouldn’t just be the subject; we should be behind the cameras, producing and styling. And not just black women but different kinds of people. Shake it up back there!
Your life has changed so dramatically. How do you stay true to yourself?
I’ve had the same people around me for a long time. My best friends have been working with me since 2010. These are people that know me well enough to tell me if something is not cool. It’s hard to lose yourself when you have people there constantly as a beautiful reminder of who you are.
What’s been the best thing about this year?
Reaching more people with music that makes them happy. There’s a lot of darkness in this world and the fact these songs have guided people through depression and abuse and assisted them in getting out of it is incredible. I can’t even believe it.
Lizzo is the face of Urban Decay Stay Naked foundation, £29.50, urbandecay.co.uk
Photography: Ted Emmons