Amidst news of Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg's horrifying pay discrepancy, and Megyn Kelly's advocation for fat-shaming women, I interviewed a 20-year-old girl. Like many of us who fall in her age bracket, singer/songwriter Jacquie Lee follows hot girls on Instagram. She internalizes subliminal "you're fat" beach body media messages. She feels immense pressure to reach perfection, both online and off. She began having anxiety attacks, which evolved into an eating disorder.
It wasn't the first time Lee and I had spoken. When we initially met, she told me she was still recovering from a skull fracture in September, and joked about losing her sense of smell. When we caught up to talk mental health in music and the global female uprising in entertainment, she told me her fracture was actually the result of a long-battle against bulimia — she had collapsed heading to a Fashion Week event on the New York pavement.
Unfortunately, it's not difficult to reconcile how someone as objectively beautiful and talented as Jacquie Lee could be plagued by such self-doubt. After a successful run on The Voice (season five's first runner-up), Lee was immediately seized upon by label executives who saw her as a Josie and the Pussycats-reminiscent, just-add-water instant pop star, forfeiting all control over her career and image in the process.
This, and her general disillusionment with the industry, is the central narrative of Lee's latest project, The Only One, an unfiltered and acerbic takedown of the entertainment industry, neatly-packaged with Lee's powerhouse vocals. The standout single from the EP, "Am I The Only One" sees Lee bravely confronts her anxiety head on — lyrically unveiling her demons to let other girls know they're not alone.
As we move into a new year, evaluating our physical and mental wellbeing in the process, I asked Lee if she wouldn't mind being bold, one more time.
I want to start with your take on Jacquie Lee's journey over the past few years, what has been the major struggle, and consequently the you lesson learned, so far?
With music, I think the major struggle has been really enjoying the present and being happy in the present, and not having the mentality of "if I get here, or when I get here, I'll be happy." I feel like in any career if you're trying to be super successful, you invest all your happiness in that point of when you're here, and when you get there you're just going to want more.
Can you see an end for yourself? Is there a moment, maybe you've already experienced it, that you see yourself thinking, "holy shit, this could be it. I wouldn't mind I had to give all this all up tomorrow."
Well, the actually past year has actually been one of those years where I've just grown a lot, mostly because my goal kind of shifted from "I need to get this done, I need to be here in the music industry, I need to be winning a Grammy." No, I think having goals for yourself is great and dreams are amazing. I think it's all positive, but you should focus more on yourself and giving yourself love and doing whatever makes you happy. Once you find that, everything else kind of falls into place. It's weird, but this year has been definitely one of those years where it happens and you're like, "Oh!"
You're so young for such wise words too. That you've already kind of come to this realization already is wild because I feel like I'm not even there yet.
I can recommend you some books.
What contributed to that shift? Was there a moment where you thought, I am doing too much or wanting too much of the wrong things?
There's been a couple defining moments in my life where I realized I had to take a step back or that my perspective has been changed on things. The first thing was when The Voice happened and I got off the show, and I always thought, go to high school, go to college, get a job. The Voice really was that moment where I was like, I can do whatever I want. There's no structure, you're allowed to dream and you can do whatever you want to do. That made me go off into my own thing.
Did leaving The Voice really throw you for a loop? Was that a real kind of crossroads for you?
Yeah, definitely because then I was 15, and that's when I really started learning what was really important. From the start, it was always, how can I get further in my career? And then I signed early on without really developing as a writer, so I was kind of like a puppet at that point. But I thought that would make me happy, because I was like, Yay I'm signed to a label. But I realized that none of that shit matters.
Were you being molded?
I mean, definitely. Since I've been independent there has been a lot less of that, but I mean, especially at a label it is kind of bizarre. Even through the A&R office, some dudes are completely out of touch with what teenage girls want to hear. Or whatever demographic you're trying to reach. These 50 year-old-men commuting to work, going home, working a nine-tofive, like, what the fuck do you know about us? I mean some people are great at their job, but it definitely weird having a lot of opinions, and you can lose yourself in the process.
How did you manage that?
I did not manage it at first, I completely broke down.
I was on the Shawn Mendes tour, and I got a text regarding someone on my team and I broke down like right in front of my guitarist. I just had a panic attack, and I never have those, it was a new thing, so I guess my breaking point was when I felt like the trust was broken in my team of people. To me, one of the most important things about this business, or any business, is having a team of people that you can trust and are there for you. Like somebody who doesn't look at you as a product, because everyone else will. And that's what you kind of sign up for. It's like, okay I'm here to be an artist, but I'm also here to make money. We all get that. But my breaking point, I would say, is moving to L.A. I fired pretty much my entire team, and just moved to L.A. with no plan.
Totally, you have to remember that you're not a pawn, you are the boss.
Yeah, you're just taking back control.
I'm curious as to what impact this had on your mental health. Was there anything you wish you prioritized or did differently during that time?
Well, I've been battling bulimia since last year, and I would say if I had a chance to do things differently, I would really work on my self-esteem and my self-love. That's where I'd focus the most, because before there were lot of people around me and pressuring me to drop weight or just superficial things that I thought would make me happy. I'm not saying that by loving yourself all your insecurities will melt away, because everyone has them and we always will. But learning how to love the things that make you different and dealing with them for me has been life changing. I'm still learning how to implement it, but it really has been life changing.
Do you feel still in the grips of it? Or have you come out the other side.
I feel like I've made a lot of progress, I honestly still struggle. But I'm close to being in recovery. It's crazy because there's so many things that go into, well for me, being bulimic, I kind of just dug back into, "How did I develop this? What lead up to it?" There's so many things that people go through without even knowing the societal pressure behind it. The media, when I really dug into it, I realized that even most of the advertisements on TV and magazines are phrased like, "How to get your perfect, dream body." And it made me think, people who want you to buy their product want you to feel like you need it. So their goal is kind of to make you fee insecure so you spend your money on what their selling.
Did you come to the realization on your own that you weren't healthy?
For the longest time, I ignored it. I thought if I ignored it for the then maybe I could black it out. I would say the lowest point was when I passed out and I hit my head and I ended up cracking my skull.
Oh my god, at Fashion Week? I remember you saying.
I thought it was just slippery!
No, I passed out. And unfortunately the fall, with the head injury, was just all a reality check for me. And another thing is that bulimia is one of the easiest eating disorders to hide in the world. 64 percent of people who have bulimia are a normal body weight. We could lie, and I want to speak up because once I strip the shame away from it and I said it out loud, and I told one person, it changed everything for me. That one person encouraged me to go to therapy, and I started going to therapy, and from therapy a nutritionist, and from there it was meditation and getting involved. My whole world jut opened up, and it was all because of one person I told.
It's amazing. They say that the truth sets you free.
It does and I think that it's something that's way more common than people admit to. I feel already that there's a change that's coming and shifting, and there's more posts about body positivity and mental health. It is nothing to be ashamed of.
There's also this movement that we've been seeing of #MeToo and Time's Up, and women coming to the forefront and banding together. Women in music have been similarly downtrodden and denigrated, because not only are they cash cows but they, conveniently, want to please everybody. Can you feel people starting to take female artists more seriously?
I 100 percent can. And it drives me crazy, because I just read about something where it was one film that needed to reshoot and this girl got paid less.
Yeah! And it just pisses me the fuck off, but it's being acknowledged and I feel that in music too in a lot of different ways. I was in a session the other day, and I'm talking about this to a dude. We were talking about the fact that men for decades have talked about "pussy," "sex," like all this shit. But if a girl does it, it's automatically kind of slut-shamed. What's wrong with a girl embracing their sexuality and being proud and singing about it? Which is why I always root for Cardi B! I think that in a lot of different ways, female music icons are doing a lot to the industry. They're helping in so many different ways.
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It's interesting that you bring up Cardi B, and I think female artists like her are really fascinating. Because to be unafraid to unapologetically express, "I'm a sexual being, I am the way I am, take me or leave me," feels very new. There's this rise of un-ladylike women. How has that kind of affected you in the way that you kind of conduct yourself and approach your artistry?
It made me more free as an artist because I just like the unapologetic-ness and the openness. It's just made me free. Like the other day, I wrote a song called "Mango." I mean, you can guess what mango is. But yeah, it's empowering. Like, fuck it. If it's true and you want to sing about it, then by all means sing about it, because guys do, so why can't girls?
It seems like male artists now are also open to having those discussions. Have you noticed a lot of this too?
Yeah I have for sure. There's definitely a shift coming. I feel it, because I read a lot of social media, obviously, I'm a millennial. I'm on Instagram, I'm on Twitter, and I just see more posts of people calling others out on their shit.
It's kind of great.
Yes there's open speech. I think we're headed to a good place.
How do you interact with social media? I know that a lot of people with large followings often struggle, feel as though they;re losing their identity. How do you navigate that?
Well, in the beginning, back towards The Voice days, when I was exposed to a large group of people, I would have a really hard time reading comments. Then I stopped reading them. Now, that shit doesn't bother me, I had to unfollow a bunch of accounts that were just bringing me down. When I first went to my nutritionist, he was like, just unfollow everything that makes you think negatively about yourself.
Just like hot girls?
Yeah, and everything that promoted, I guess, the wrong things.
I find it so interesting, female following habits. We willingly choose to engage with these ideally beautiful women even though we know that there might be FaceTune, PhotoShop, and all these things at play. We still take them at face value.
Yeah, because there's a part of you that uses that as inspiration. That's what I want to be like.
It's funny because you, Jacquie Lee, is probably that girl to someone else.
That's the funny part. We're all so fast to look at other people and point out the amazing qualities they have, and when you look at yourself it's just a struggle. Nobody is like, "oh I'm amazing," it's mostly a false confidence because you're not investing your happiness in the right places, or it's just self hate. It's hard to recognize.
Do you have a system in place when you're getting in too deep?
Yes, well I think what helped me cope has been meditation and my music. Luckily I have that. Looking back at my whole EP, it was all symptoms of what lead to my eating disorder, and I was like, oh shit. It was anxiety, being compulsive, being insecure, all these themes.
So you can literally see the stages you're going through on your EP?
Yeah, I was like, Oh shit. But I also do want to look at the positives of social media, because when I was looking up all these things about bulimia, I got connected to this non-profit called Project Heal, which is another way that i felt useful to what I was going through and to make some light of it. Getting involved and meeting other people that are going through the same things, they don't feel crazy. There's always a positive to the negative. If we weren't in this dark place, then there wouldn't be a ride of positivity and speaking up. It's taken us a while to get here, but we're getting there.
How is that performing those songs and living that again?
It's kind of the same form of therapy as writing them was. As dark of a place as I was in when I was writing them, by the end of the process I felt just free because I wasn't able to write any of my own shit before so it's kind of like putting this in the world and it being truly me. So I don't have any regrets about that.
I know that there can be a stigma coming off of reality television too, which I find another really interesting facet of the music industry.
Yeah, honestly it's always going to be something that I just embrace. Just own it, that's the best thing you can do. There is some stigma attached to it, and some people won't give you a chance because they think they already know who you are and what you're about, but it's just a challenge. I'm getting there, you know? It's a work in progress.
Have you felt, as a woman in the industry, because it is so male dominated, have you felt any discrimination? Not even in harassment as such, but have you felt--
I've had people tell me I have to lose weight, drop 10 pounds in a week, and it's kind of just bullshit. I'm not saying it only happens to women, like sometimes your image is what's the main focus for a lot of guys. But it's easy to tell a girl that sex sells so to just use her for that that. There's a difference between a woman going into an office and playing a song about sex because she wrote it and it's empowering, and a man in a higher position telling you this is what sells, so it's what you should do.
Fuck, it's so bleak sometimes.
Then of course being a girl is one thing but also being younger is just… I'm not claiming to know all of the answers at all, I'm fully aware that I know nothing, but it's just like how they talk and how you get paid, we're just finally speaking about it. Well, more of us are.
So, kind of like, Jacquie Lee, post-reality television, post-body negativity. Who is Jacquie Lee now? What can we expect?
Strong, and I will continue to write my own music. And I will continue to love myself and promote self love. That is a big thing and a big message I want to spread.
Do you feel a responsibility now, after everything you've gone through?
100 percent. I feel responsibility, and I want people to know, if they are going through anything, especially since i've gone through an eating disorder, and I still go through it, I want people to know you can talk to me, direct message me, I'm here, you're not alone, don't be ashamed, it's okay.
Photography: Justin Jackson