High-quality braided hair extensions are scattered on the floor of Lily Allen's suite in New York's Carlyle Hotel, and there's a bottle of Moët on ice monogrammed "L.A."
"I assume they thought they were sending it up to Lily Aldridge's room," Allen says. Actually she mumbles out of the side of her mouth like an old-timey gangster, because a crouching makeup artist is hard at work on her face. Her team is prepping her for the Met Gala, to which she's wearing a Chanel gown. Just another day for a chart-topping pop star -- but not for Allen, at least not for quite some time. She just dropped her newest album, Sheezus, after a five-year marriage-and-momhood hiatus following 2009's It's Not Me, It's You. Right now, glamming up in a hotel room across an ocean from her family, she seems ambivalent about her comeback, sighing, "I miss my daughters incredibly. They're at that age where I go away for two days and they completely change." (Allen's daughters, with her non-famous carpenter husband Sam Cooper, are Ethel, three, and Marnie, two.)
Her debut album, Alright, Still (2006), was a slice of life from a frank, sassy and honest 21-year-old girl with a Myspace account, getting hit on by gross guys at the club and indulging her schadenfreude after a breakup. Looking at the Billboard Top 100 charts from that year and 2009, it's clear that Allen's first two albums paved the way for more young female pop stars with actual personalities. But Allen's like that hard-partying girl in college you lose touch with and then a few years later see on Facebook as a wife and mom with photo albums called things like "David's Birthday Party!!" The only person who wasn't surprised was Allen herself: "Having kids and a husband early was definitely my intention."
Lily wears a coat by Hockley and earrings by Cartier.
Based on Sheezus's track list, it was a great call: she's kicked the substances ("What I like the best is how you can keep me on my toes / Staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose," she sings about her husband on the Cajun-y "As Long As I Got You"), her married sex life is better than her single one was (the giddy, heavily auto-tuned "L8 CMMR," to appear on the second Girls soundtrack) and she loves domestic life for the most part (the early Vampire Weekend-sounding "Life For Me"). But after a couple years off the grid, she was ready to come back. She yells over the whirr of the hair dryer: "I needed something to do with my days, and singing and songwriting are the only things I really know how to do!"
The chutzpah that shot Allen to stardom at 21 hasn't faded at 29. Earlier, I was sitting on a couch outside her room to wait for the interview ("She's having a bath"). Eventually Allen emerged and began putting her Spanx on, during which nobody bothered to close the door all the way. So, awkwardly enough, the first glimpse I got of Allen was actually a topless one. And if that's the first sentence that's grabbed your attention, then the first Sheezus single, "Hard Out Here," was written for you.
The reception to the video for that catchy single, intended as a blazing indictment of the body-image scrutiny that the media places on mainstream female pop stars, was the first major indication that a lot had changed since 2009 -- although Allen's tendency to provoke controversy hadn't. People thought that Allen's use of women of color as dimepiece-style backup dancers, while she was fully clothed and singing about not having to use her body to get ahead, had negative racial implications.
Allen's own statement in her defense included a depressing and contradictory justification for appearing fully clothed in the video: "If I was a little braver, I would have been wearing a bikini too, but I do not and I have chronic cellulite, which nobody wants to see." Not quite the balls-to-the-wall, this-is-my-weight body positivity you'd hope for. As for the race issue: "I didn't foresee it," she said simply.
The truth is, something can be an on-point response to the double standards of men and women in mainstream music (balloons in the video spell out "Lily Allen Has a Baggy Pussy," a parodic reference to "Robin Thicke Has a Big Dick" in 2013's "Blurred Lines" music video) while unintentionally illuminating other problematic double standards ("Don't need to shake my ass 'cause I've got a brain," Allen sings as four non white women wordlessly booty-dance behind her).
I ask her if she's ever been pressured to diet. "I'd rather not talk about that." Allen is in the school of celebrity feminism whose members at first say they're not and almost immediately afterward change their tune. In March she told English men's mag ShortList, "Feminism. I hate that word because it shouldn't even be a thing anymore. We're all equal, everyone is equal." "Of course I'm a feminist," she said to The Debrief a few days later, claiming she'd been misquoted.
Top photo: Lily wears a dress by McQ, shoes by Alberto Guardiani, earrings by Chanel and rings by Solange Azagury-Partridge. Bottom photo: Sunglasses by Natasha Morgan, earrings by Cartier and rings by Chanel and Solange Azagury-Partridge.
When the inevitable backlash hit, Allen tweeted at a blogger who'd jumped into the fray: "I deal with sexism and misogyny every day, I'm patronised on an hourly basis, so excuse me if your article has fucked me off." But she resists the touchy-feely idea that she writes message music. "I kind of hate having to explain my songs," she tells me. "They should be self-explanatory; they're not meant to be grand statements. When someone asks what was the idea behind 'Hard Out Here,' it started out with [the lyric], 'I suppose I should tell you what this bitch is thinking,' and then built from there. I've never thought, 'I wanna write a song about the injustices that women face in the music industry.'" But she did. She may not talk the talk, but she walks the walk. That's more important than labels.
Allen slams Internet culture, specifically the sausage fest of music blogging, in "URL Badman," calling out their snobbery and misrepresentation. "I'm a London white boy repping ATL / Keyboard warrior that can't spell / I don't like you, I think you're worthless / I wrote a long piece about it up on my WordPress... I don't like girls much, I think they're kinda silly / Unless of course they wanna play with my willy." Even though the word "feminist" never enters the picture, Allen displays a sharp eye for patriarchal bullshit. The song was inspired by "the toxic nastiness [of the Internet], the anonymity, the need now to feel if somebody makes a mistake, they should have to... it's like a scrum to get that person to be ashamed, or something, and I just hate that."
Facing an open window, she drags on her e-cig in the makeup chair as her hairstylist clips her bangs to the side with a barrette. She looks just like Veronica from the Archie comics trying to be Margot Tenenbaum. She says that she has a surprisingly intense fear of performing if she thinks too much about it. "I'm kind of in denial about it, and then suddenly I'm onstage. I never let anyone introduce me onstage, because I'm so terrified of being booed. I just walk out. It's always fine, but..." She trails off.
The title single of Sheezus finds Allen tentative but ready to jump back into the arena:
Been here before, so I'm prepared
Not gonna lie though, I'm kinda scared
She namechecks her competitors, the most powerful ladies in the game right now.
Ri-Ri isn't scared of Katy Perry's roaring
Queen B's going back to the drawing
Lorde smells blood, yeah, she's about to slay you
Kid ain't one to fuck with when she's only on her debut
We're all watching Gaga, L-O-L-O, haha
Dying for the art, so really she's a martyr
The second best will never cut it for the divas
Give me that crown, bitch, I wanna be Sheezus
The lyrics were made out to be a Mean Girl move by the press, but they're more like Kendrick Lamar's infamous 2013 verse on Big Sean's "Control" -- a call for everyone to step it up, be worthier competitors. It's a kind of camaraderie, almost. But women who do the same aren't allowed the luxury of multiple interpretations, says Allen. "You can listen to those lyrics and decide it's me calling out all those people or me praising all those people. It depends on the listener and what kind of person they are."
What's it like when she runs into one of them at an event like tonight's? Not that weird, actually. "I sent Rihanna "Sheezus" a month ago. She loved it, thought it was hilarious. She said, 'Maybe don't send it to Gaga,'" Allen says, droll as hell. Some of the women were less than thrilled about their mentions -- a week before the Met Gala, Allen had a Twitter feud with model Jourdan Dunn over "Insincerely Yours," in which Allen says she "doesn't give a fuck" about Dunn.
Allen says she doesn't give a fuck about a lot of things, but sometimes it's hard to believe her. "I don't wander around wondering what people think about me," says Allen with a glimmer of vulnerability. "I hate to think how people do think. So I don't want to think about it."
Lily wears a dress by Louis Vuitton and earring by Cartier.
Instead, she has a tendency to preemptively criticize herself before other people have the chance to. She agreed with a Twitter hater who called the Sheezus singles "docile pop rubbish" and says to me that her songs are "dumb pop" no fewer than three times. "Hard Out Here" comments on what she perceives as her unattractive post-baby body before the American press gets a chance to. And on "Silver Spoon" she dares you to hate her for her privilege: "So I went to posh school / Why would I deny it? / Silver spoon at the ready so don't even try it." During our interview she says things like, "I think I sit amongst artists. I don't know why we have to separate female artists." On "Sheezus," she sings, "I'm ready for all the comparisons / I think it's dumb and it's embarrassing -- " but then she goes ahead and does it herself, satirical or not. It's like Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect explaining that she calls herself Fat Amy "so twig bitches like you don't do it behind my back."
I ask her why she thinks women are pitted against each other. "I don't think it's real. That's something being created by the media to make things more interesting, and I think that's always happened." She asks an assistant to order up a vodka soda with lime, her usual. "I find it very interesting that nobody asks me about Kanye, or Drake, or A$AP Rocky [all of whom are also mentioned on the album]. I feel like that makes my point."
On April 26, at a London club called G.A.Y., Allen performed a campy lip-sync to "Drunk In Love" that people interpreted as throwing shade at Beyoncé. She tweeted afterward that each time she's performed at that venue, she's done a parodic homage to a different pop star: "Only one person can tell you what my intentions are, and that would be me." She called the accusations "so fucking boring."
Her upcoming show at the Highline Ballroom, the first in the States in five years, sold out immediately, and she's more ready to perform than ever. "I was really intoxicated onstage [earlier in my career]. I have more energy now. Also I work out. I do smoke the odd cigarette, but mostly I smoke these things --" She holds up the e-cigarette. "So my lung capacity is better. After a show, I have a couple drinks and then go to bed. [I used to] have a couple of drinks, and then more drinks, and not go to bed. But I've got kids now."
One week later, the Highline Ballroom is so packed that you can barely get a beer. The show opens with Miley-esque cartoon visuals: baby bottles filled with pills, a cheeky acknowledgement of her new life. Allen jumps right into "Sheezus" and then trills in that posh accent: "Did you miss me, New York?" She gets a loud confirmation.
Styled by Richard Sloan at Saint Luke • Makeup by Mary Greenwell at Premierhairandmakeup.com • Hair by Halley Brisker at Jedroot • Manicure by Michelle Humphrey. Creative Direction by Aimee Phillips.