Lizzo glides into a meeting at her record label, Atlantic, looking every bit the superstar, trying — but not too hard — to be anonymous. Huge, black, glittery sunglasses disguise her eyes, framed by a glorious sleek mane of hair; a black cloak is wrapped around her shoulders. She ignores one outstretched hand, instead pulling the individual’s head into her bosom (she’s 5 feet 10 inches tall) for a half-hearted hug.
“I feel I’m gonna pass out,” she exclaims. “It’s so weird.” She bends over and starts yanking at her snakeskin cowboy boots. “I’m gonna take this damn shoe off!” The boots are chucked onto the floor. “I just want to be naked,” she continues, pulling down the zip on her black trousers. “But I can’t, socially.”
Those who’ve been paying attention have been aware of Lizzo at least since 2013, when her debut album, Lizzobangers, with its unique blend of pop, funk, soul and hip-hop — music that she describes as “Aretha Franklin’s rap album” — was released to rave reviews. Since then, there’s been another album, tours with girl band Haim and Florence + the Machine, and recordings with Missy Elliott and the late Prince.
But this is the year that the Houston-raised, classically trained flautist looks poised for international superstardom, with her latest single, the addictively bouncy “Juice,” playing seemingly everywhere and boasting — to date — more than 14 million views on YouTube. Rolling Stone called it a “near-perfect retro-funk nugget that would have felt just right on a mirror-balled dance floor in 1982,” adding, “If life were fair, this would be as big as ‘Uptown Funk.’” (“Life is fair … mainstream media ain’t,” Lizzo retorted on Twitter. “This fat, black girl working on it tho.”) This summer, she’s touring constantly, promoting her new album, Cuz I Love You, and come fall, she’ll play the Austin City Limits Music Festival — both weekends.
“I’ve been laying so much groundwork, but now this is the moment,” Lizzo chortles. “I have the most disgusting analogy for what I am — it’s a pimple. It’s been growing, growing, growing, and the more visibility the pimple has, the more aware you are of it. And when it pops — it pops.”
This isn’t just about the music: Lizzo has also — quite deliberately — become a poster girl for the body positivity movement, urging women of every color and size to share the confidence that she — both in person and in her work — exudes. Her 2015 song “En Love” sums it up with its lyrics, “I think I’m in love, I think I’m in love / I think I’m in love / With myself,” while her videos are packed with scenes of her shimmying joyously in a leotard, cellulite-marked thighs on full display (her back-up dancers, the Big Grrrls, are all plus-size).
She’s even in Playboy, supine in fishnet tights and a fuchsia bra. “Playboy featured one type of woman for a long-ass time — big-ass kitties with a flat stomach and white skin,” she said on Instagram, “so it’s kind of cool to be a big, brown girl in Playboy.”
“Confidence is perceived,” Lizzo says. “I come across as a self-confident person, and I might be, but I’m definitely working on loving myself, and the more I work on it, people are like, ‘Ohh, wow, she must be really confident if she loves her back fat as much as she does.’ I do love my back fat. But it’s been a journey.”
Certainly Lizzo’s rise hasn’t been straightforward. She grew up the youngest of three children in a middle-class, musical, Pentecostal family that banned all secular music from the home. When she was 9, her parents — who ran various mortgage businesses — moved the family from Detroit to Houston. Their religion fell away, and the young Lizzo began listening to a mixture of the Spice Girls, Radiohead, rap and hip-hop.
It sounds very cool, but Lizzo (a blend of Lissa, short for Melissa, and Jay-Z’s song “Izzo”) insists, with a trademark hoot of laughter, she was “so nerdy,” a know-it-all goody-goody with a passion for manga, Japanese comics and graphic novels. “It probably was real cute until I got integrated into public school in Houston,” she deadpans. “Then people were like, ‘Nooo!’”
As is so often the case, she tried to win over the cool kids by becoming the class clown. “Peer pressure gets the best of all of us — once I got a laugh out of the class, it was addictive. I was like, ‘Let’s keep making these motherfuckers laugh.’” Still, even though she started her own rap group with a couple of friends, Lizzo was always considered too “out there” to be part of the in-crowd. “The shoes I wore were Uggs, and everyone was like, ‘Ooh, why are you wearing those ugly-ass shoes?’ The next year everyone was wearing Uggs. I’m like, ‘Why wasn’t this cool in high school?’ It would have saved me a lot of pain. I would have had way more boyfriends.” She hoots with laughter. “Way more than zero.”
The lack of boyfriends thing clearly cut deep. “One boy was interested in me, but he was trying to keep it a secret. He was like, ‘Do you want to hang after school at the apartment complex across from the school?’ I was like, ‘In secret? Hell, no!’ He was cute, but not that cute.” She and her friends would gaze helplessly at the “black video vixens” on MTV, wishing they could look like them. Never did they see an image of an apparently successful woman they resembled.
Still, Lizzo was motivated by a vaulting ambition. “It was very Lady Macbeth,” she says, “which is kind of fucked up; we had to do Macbeth, and I did her little soliloquy about the damned spot, and I was like, ‘Yo, this bitch gets me!’ I was very into being the best.” For that reason, she ignored the teasing about her flute playing, which, pushed by her father, she started aged 12, quickly becoming virtuoso.
“I was the best flute player in Texas,” she says plainly. “My dad liked me to play to his friends, so I memorized [Briccialdi’s] ‘Carnival of Venice’ in the eighth grade [at age 13], which is insane. People laughed at me, but I was like, ‘Listen, y’all can make fun of me until the cows come home, but when I get this scholarship to go to college, the cows will be in my farm, and you ain’t gonna have no milk cow.’” Sure enough, she won a music scholarship to the University of Houston. But at what should have been Lizzo’s moment of triumph, things started to unravel. Confused as to whether to apply herself to classical music, rapping or simply the standard student partying, she dropped out of college and, for a while, was in a “dark place.”
“I was sad and disappointed in myself, because I’d always been so advanced in school, the golden child. So when I wasn’t successful, I was like, ‘Who am I?’ I thought my life was going to be something else, and it wasn’t happening.”
A lot of us feel the same, of course, when we realize endless hard work and box-ticking still isn’t enough to bring us to the top of the pile. “Yes, it’s heartbreaking,” Lizzo explains. You’re like, ‘All of my degrees, and I still can’t be the president? Maybe I should just go on a reality show instead.’” Living at home, she stopped talking to her family. “I was mute for a whole summer. My mom and brother would be like, ‘How are you?’ and I wouldn’t reply — I’d just go to my room.” This led to a long estrangement from her mother, which has since been healed.
But things grew worse after the rest of her family moved to Denver, leaving Lizzo homeless. For about six months, while she tried to make it with a rock band (“I thought I was going to be the next Thom Yorke”), she slept in her car, showering at the gym. Around that time, her father died. “It was unbelievably hard. It’s all a blur. Now that I’m ‘bougie,’ I wanna go back and see what I was actually dealing with.”
Much of her depression was, she says, centered on her body image and the fact she didn’t look like the Beyoncés and Nicki Minajs gyrating on MTV.
“Everyone comes to a point in their life when they’re looking in the mirror and unhappy, and you don’t want to be unhappy anymore,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how good a flute player I was or how good a writer — if you don’t like that person in the mirror, then who gives a shit? I was always woke enough to be like, ‘I don’t have to look like Kate Moss.’ But there was nobody else out there who looked like me. If there had been, I wouldn’t have had these obstacles that I needed to lose weight or change my hair or have light skin to be accepted. I would have had other obstacles, like write better songs, be a better artist, work harder — normal shit white dudes think about.”
With no money for food, she was the thinnest she’d ever been. “And still, that was the worst I’d ever felt about myself,” she says. It was then that she had her epiphany. “I remember one day being like, ‘This is it.’ Twenty-some-odd years of me believing that one day I’d wake up and be some other girl. You’re going to look this way for the rest of your life. And you have to be OK with that.”
From there, her ascent began. At a friend’s invitation, she moved to Minneapolis and began to make a name for herself in the city’s thriving — though very white — music scene. “Minnesota definitely created me, the artist Lizzo,” she says. “I purified myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka and went to Paisley Park, and here I am in fucking London.” Paisley Park was the home and studio of the city’s most famous musician, Prince, which she visited after he asked her to record on his album, Plectrumelectrum.
“Prince gave me my first big check, and I’m eternally grateful,” she beams. “The thought of working with him has always been so surreal.” In truth, the pair never actually met, but they spoke on the phone. “I told him, ‘Did you know you had a purple rain emoji?’ and he was like, ‘I do now!’” And what was Paisley Park like? “It was everything, but I won’t go into too much detail out of the sanctity. Everyone who was there knows how special it was. We were there; you can never go back.”
The gay community made up her first fanbase, identifying both with her persona as an outsider and lyrics such as, “I don’t need a crown to know that I’m a queen,” in her ode to masturbation, “‘Scuse Me,” and in the “Boys” lyric, “From the playboys to the gay boys / Go and slay, boys, you my fave boys.”
She moved to Los Angeles, where she decided to deliberately push her unapologetic stance. “Women and men kept telling me how my music had helped them be happy with themselves, so I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to be that person in the mainstream media that I once needed. I’m going to do this shit so little girls in the future don’t have to worry about body shaming holding us back.’” In 2016, she released her EP Coconut Oil, with lyrics like “I remember back, back in school when I wasn’t cool / Shit, I still ain’t cool, but you better make some room for me” that could be described as her manifesto and that helped win her a spot as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Her message, Lizzo stresses, extends to far more people than black women. “Everyone deserves to express how they feel bad or marginalized or wrong,” she explains, “because this world was made for a really specific person, and that excludes 99 percent of the population.”
Corporations were quick to latch on to such wokeness: soon Lizzo was modeling for labels such as Khloé Kardashian’s Good American.
“Just call me Glowy Kardashian, bitchhhhhh,” she wrote delightedly on Instagram. Fans were less convinced. “Sis, you let us down. You gotta discern which opps are worth it,” was a typical comment. They were even more disappointed when, last year, Oprah Winfrey used her song “Worship” in a commercial for Weight Watchers, in which Winfrey is a major shareholder. A thrilled Lizzo uploaded the ad to social media only to be met by fury from many who considered the brand “toxic.”
“Girl, I’m a black girl in America, and Oprah to me is goals, she’s like, ‘Damn!’ The ultimate manifester,” Lizzo sighs. “So I ended up in a pretty compromising situation. I’d always been like, ‘I can’t wait for her to like one of my songs,’ and then she did, and it hurt and triggered a lot of people that someone as body positive as me would have any type of relationship with an organization that a lot of women said had induced their eating disorders.”
She removed the ad and put up another message: “Let me explain to you what I was going through, and see if you have any care — ’cause I’m a human being. I’m not just like some totem on the Internet.”
“I learnt; we talked. I went through it,” she says. “I’m still like, ‘Oprah, girl, do you want me to come over? I’ll do a concert at your house!’” It seems that Lizzo’s war is at least partly won, as everywhere we’re bombarded by body positivity messages from the likes of Nike and Dove. But she’s too smart to be complacent.
“Everyone thinks things are getting better, but it’s kind of same shit, different day,” she says. “I feel we rebel against what’s popular, so because in the early 2000s and 1990s everything was so homogenized — ‘You have to be thin. You have to be light-skinned. You have to be popular’ — we were all like, ‘Nah, fuck you, you have to be yourself.’ Now everything is so diverse, which is great, but my greatest fear is we’ll end up rebelling against that and saying, ‘All these people being themselves is so lame.’ I saw it on International Women’s Day — people growing cynical, saying, ‘Please don’t use International Women’s Day to sell products.’ It breaks my heart. I don’t want us to be a trend; I want black women to be undeniable and fat women to be seen in media forever. But it’s impossible to say what’s going to happen.”
One fear would be that all the emphasis on Lizzo’s of-the-moment activism leaves us in danger of overlooking the quality of her music, which is timeless, foot-stomping fun, with the upbeat tone preventing any hint of preachiness from the lyrics. “I’m not ‘trending’; I’m a human being,” she says when asked if too much attention is being paid to the issues. “I think life can be really hard sometimes, and trying to love yourself can be really shitty. But at least when you’re with me, you’re enjoying it.”
Even if you haven’t actively listened to one of her songs, you’ve likely heard one of Lizzo’s collaborations with Big Freedia and Speedy Ortiz and Missy Elliott. Or you’ve seen one of her many widely shared Twitter videos in which she’s effervescently dunking on her haters for thinking she can’t play flute, or sageing her apartment, or twerking in front of some Hot Cheetos. Or you’ve seen her on late-night TV. Or you’ve heard her in any number of commercials. Hell, in India, you can hear the opening twinkle of “Good as Hell” about a dozen times a day, as it’s the soundtrack to a Bumble ad campaign starring Priyanka Chopra. She’s freaking everywhere.
And why would you want to ignore her? There’s a reason she’s become so popular, and that’s because she’s uninhibited — no-hangups-about-it awesome. Her hits are endlessly catchy. She’s an incredible performer. She overflows with charm. She’s unabashedly horny. There’s nothing not to love, and in many ways her fame seems inevitable. Yes, of course Lizzo is here.
But with that presence comes a lot of expectations, especially as her brand crystalizes into one of girl power, fun and body-positivity. “I’m realizing very quickly that every single one of these people want that good-energy Lizzo moment,” she says. “And that’s just not human.” She’s at the precipice of true fame with Cuz I Love You, and her natural energy and extroversion (she’s perhaps a textbook extrovert, saying, “Walking into the room I might have been tired, but as soon as I get to sit down with you, I get an energy from the fact that you actually care and you’re a human being”) might mean fans expect her to be “on” 24/7. But don’t worry: if anything, Lizzo is a professional.
It’s easy to see how her persona developed. First, Lizzo just wants this, to the point that even when she tried doing other things, they just turned into performance. “I was the fucking Statue of Liberty lady for Liberty Taxes,” she recalls, “but I looked so good that the owners were like, ‘You can’t just stand out here and spin … you have to be our ambassador.’” Lizzo, born Melissa Jefferson, began rapping as a teenager in Texas, forming the rap group the Chalice and later releasing Lizzobangers. “I guess you could call it ambition, but you know, I definitely have to do music.”
Second, Lizzo knows that her particular brand of body/black/girl power positivity is something that’s deeply needed. In one interview, she says she “made a commitment to feel-good music” largely because it was the music she needed to hear. Hits like “Good as Hell” and “Truth Hurts” position her as a fairy godmother of chutzpah, infusing listeners with the confidence to ditch their shitty boyfriends, love their bodies and do what they want (and in that particular way that black women become avatars of confidence and feminism to non-black women). Look at her Twitter — under every post there’s a torrent of “yass queens” and gifs of women flipping their hair and prayer-hands emoji. Her DMs, she says, are full of people pouring their hearts out to her about their problems and the way her songs have helped them find their own confidence. She’s a savior.
But if you listen to more than just the slick beats and the hooky choruses, Lizzo’s music tells a deeper story. She raps and sings about anxiety, about heartbreak, about her father’s death. In her song “1 Deep,” she talks about her rocky relationship with her mother: “I stopped talking to my mama for three months / No eye contact during lunch / Wasn’t nothing else around us but mountains and trees / And my guilty worthless screams, ‘What was wrong with me?’” She’s not always a bombastic, positive person, and even when she is on songs like “Good as Hell,” there’s a layer of sadness to it, the difference between telling your friend she’s beautiful and deserves better and telling it to yourself in the mirror.
Confidence is still her strong suit; Lizzo says she has a strong foundation of self-worth, regardless of outside validation. But on Cuz I Love You, she’s also trying to empower her own vulnerability. It’s born out of the latest cycle of her life: dealing with the beginnings of fame and shifting relationships.
“I think this chapter is brave, way more brave and way more vulnerable for me. And it’s exciting to explore vulnerability, because I’m known as being this, like, uber-confident woman and this body-positive, almost bombastic, braggadocious bitch,” she says. “And I’m still that, but I’m also exploring and showing a side of myself that people don’t really get to see.”
Hence crying is a theme on the record. She’s crying because she loves you, and later she cries like a girl. She’s as defiant as ever, rapping about self-love and her beautiful body, but the sad times are as obvious a part of her narrative as the good ones. On “Heaven Help Me,” she sings, “If love ain’t dead Imma kill it, ’cause it’s killin’ me.” On the particularly heartbreaking “Jerome,” she sings about coming to terms with him not being right for her, even though there’s so much about him to love. “The fact is I’m leaving, so just let me have this,” she wails. She’s saying a lot of goodbyes and letting herself feel everything that comes with that, with the knowledge that it’s all for the best — a radical act of self-preservation in a society that doesn’t support black women.
Lizzo doesn’t love to dwell on negativity, but some of the vulnerability of the new album was born out of a crisis.
“I had a really bad mental episode,” Lizzo says, one that hit as she was about to tour. She was about to go onstage, but minutes before, she found herself a mess in the bathroom. And though she picked herself up and went on stage, “I didn’t feel better after that. And that was scary. Music always saved me.” So she took stock of her relationships — how they had changed now that so many of her friends had become her employees. She took a look at how her mother and sister moving with her to Los Angeles changed their family dynamic. She asked herself why she didn’t feel comfortable opening up to the people she loved. She went to therapy. “I think I started scooping out a lot of my defense mechanisms, and I started exposing myself and being more vulnerable and honest,” she says. “I’m really learning about how to be vulnerable, but also not defenseless.”
Lizzo is amused that much of her popularity now comes from the formerly derided flute, which she’s named Sasha, after Beyoncé’s I Am … Sasha Fierce, and which has its own Instagram account with 56,000 followers. When she performed a solo on Ellen in January, it brought the audience to its feet.
“I’ve been playing that flute in 2019 more than I have for years — I’m rusty, but I still have that tone, that vibrato. I was thinking last night, ‘Damn! All that stuff papa made me memorize is part of who I am now.’ People really started to pay more attention to me as a personality with the flute. It’s my dad going, ‘I told you!’”
Despite the nascent superstardom, Lizzo lives a modest life in Echo Park in Los Angeles. “Isn’t it funny — people think you’re rich, but the people you see all over the place are usually the ones most in debt, because they owe so much money for getting that press. I don’t really live too crazy. I’m proud of my good business sense. When I got my first big check from Prince, I decided it would go for three months’ rent and buying myself a laptop. And I treat myself on food — I love food.”
What food does she like? “Bread. Cake. Fries.” Right now, she’s trying to eat “mindfully,” she continues. “It’s when you’re like, ‘Man, this cow is such a good cow; maybe this cow had friends.’” There’s a rare pause. “Actually, that’s kind of sad,” Lizzo allows. “Maybe we shouldn’t eat mindfully.”
What about a boyfriend? “Hell no!” Lizzo exclaims. Would she like one? “It’s so funny — I think I’d be such a great partner to someone, but in reality I don’t think I would. I just can’t stay attracted to one person for that long. Last night I was thinking about this one guy, missing him, like, ‘Oh my god, I just wish he was here with me,’ then I got a DM from this other guy, and I was like, ‘Aaargh!’ So in theory I think I would be a good partner because I smell good and I’m warm, but in reality I think I’m just going to be this person forever.”