Little Mix: ‘We embrace who we are, we’re not perfect’

Little Mix are one of the biggest girl bands in the world. So shouldn’t they be having as much fun as the Spice Girls before them? Eva Wiseman finds out it’s not so simple in 2017

It was summer 2015, and Little Mix were premiering a new song live on TV when they got to the lyric, “Love isn’t fair”, and Perrie Edwards, fresh from her break-up with One Direction’s Zayn Malik, burst into tears. Bandmates Jade Thirlwall, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jesy Nelson fell gently into her, a protective hug that looked like the tide coming in.

When, soon after, Malik started seeing a supermodel, Edwards’s every move was monitored as evidence of her pain, from her “revenge body” to the meaning of a new haircut. And then, a year later, the band released a single that felt like a sharpened middle finger, called Shout Out To My Ex. “I hope she’s getting better sex. Hope she ain’t faking it like I did, babe.” The effect was that Edwards took back some sort of ownership of her story, turning it into one of female solidarity – the video shows a Thelma and Louise-style road trip, with the band prancing like delighted fauns through a purple desert.

It was this sassiness and fun I was expecting when I met Little Mix in a gap between photo- shoots, but the mood is a little… dimmer. Still, slightly glazed, they smile gamely, knackered in thigh-high boots and bronzer. Now all aged between 24 and 26, Little Mix have been working almost constantly since 2011, when they became the first group to win X Factor and the most successful British girl band since the Spice Girls. And the Spice Girls, their cultural aunties, are often invoked in interviews or reviews, even after Mel C suggested they were too provocative for her four- year-old daughter. Which led me back to Kathy Acker’s Spice Girls profile from 1997.

They “represent a voice that has too long been repressed”, suggested this experimental punk-poet, the year she died. “The voices of young women… not from the educated classes.” Concluding, Acker said they were, basically, the future of feminism. I couldn’t help but look for parallels in Little Mix.

What’s it like, I ask, what’s it like to do this job? They look at each other, and Leigh-Anne leans forward, to sum it up. “This year we’ve all bought houses, and none of us have slept in them.” She sits back. Jesy continues. “Because in the pop industry, it’s hard to pause. With pop music if you go missing for more than a year, they’ve forgotten about you.” It’s true – if they don’t post something on social media for more than a day, their fans (the #Mixers) will gather to noisily check they’re OK. “The Spice Girls could get away from their screaming fans,” says Radio 1’s Scott Mills. “What’s happened now with social media is that there’s no downtime for these artists. They have to be present on Instagram and Twitter all the time.” In a world of streaming it’s difficult for artists, especially girl bands, to make any impact. Today they are marketed as the ultimate expression of female friendship. Like Manhattan to Sex and the City, the most important character in Little Mix is (deep breath) friendship itself.

The trick to their relationships, says Jesy, is “knowing when to leave each other alone”. “Also, none of us wants to be the frontrunner,” says Jade. “The main thing though,” adds Jesy, “is that we’ve learned we are stronger together.” Perrie lets her head fall to the side. “But then, even in a group it can be the loneliest place,” adds Leigh-Anne. “Our mums came on tour and mine was baffled by it all. She kept saying in the car: ‘You just do this on your own? Don’t you want to be with people? This is so lonely!’ I guess we’re just used to it. It is a funny little world.”

Where are the cheeky Little Mix of old? The ones who, in an interview with the music magazine Beat, were asked what love smelled like, and eyes narrowed, replied: “Cock.” Simon Cowell, who heads their record label, tells me how fun they can be. “They came over for dinner once, and were showing me a film they made of the girls pretending to be in a court case. It was hilarious! I think the girls thought it too because they were all in hysterics. And then one of them, I think it was Jade, spits out her wine on to the laptop screen. And the girls just looked at each other, and then continued to laugh. That sticks in my head.”

The girls I meet today are weary. Four albums in, this is traditionally the time in a girl band’s career when they slope off for a hiatus. But ahead of them is a sold-out national tour, where they’ll perform in a different city every night and afternoon too, matinée shows for the younger fans who’ve been there since Tulisa Contostavlos mentored them on X Factor. “My biggest piece of advice,” Contostavlos remembers today, “was quite simply: ‘Believe.’ Every live show when I’d step out on to the stage holding their hands I used to mutter: ‘Believe, believe, believe’ under my breath.” Now they’re stars, she’s watching them deal with the fallout of fame. “The spotlight has its kicks and its digs. Sometimes it’s amazing and other times the world can feel like it’s caving in. It’s about weighing up the options. What am I willing to sacrifice?”

Is there any other advice Little Mix wish they’d been given? “When you’re a pop star it doesn’t mean you just get free stuff,” starts Perrie, remembering an awkward encounter at Topshop, and counting the myths off on her fingers. “Lots of money, big houses. It doesn’t mean everyone loves you.” “We are in the public eye 24/7 and we don’t get our personal space or privacy. Obviously we love it now,” Jesy adds quickly, “but we used to be a group of ‘yes girls’ who would do anything.”

“We were so vulnerable,” says Jade, who last year talked about her teenage struggles with anorexia. “We didn’t have a clue.” “It’s especially hard when you want to just be sad,” says Leigh-Anne. “If you are feeling like crap and you can’t just fucking cry, then yeah, that’s… weird.”

They allow themselves a pause before slipping into a gentle joint reverie about life as a normal person. “I love shopping.” “Imagine the kind of normal life where you could just… ‘go shopping’.” “Fill up your fridge and that.” They sigh.

Do Little Mix feel they’ve missed out on a normal life? They look at each other, their eyes whispering. “No,” says Jade. “No, it’s nice to know that we’ll do this for a few years and then in the future we’ve still got that part to come.” Perrie reminds them: “This is our frickin’ dream!” And they’ve learned, they say, how to manage the oddness.

“We were thrown into this industry without a clue about what was about to hit us,” explains Jesy. “It was just the worst thing ever. Strangers saying things about you that you didn’t even know about yourself. And you question yourself. But do you know what’s weird? I feel like now that people can sense we’ve stopped giving a shit, we don’t really get it any more. I think it’s a really sad world that we live in, with social media, where people love to scrutinise girls and women. But we set a good example. We embrace who we are, we’re not perfect and we know that. But, I know if I have kids, I don’t want them to have phones.”

Perrie groans: “Oh God, children contouring their faces, and I’m like: ‘You’re 11 years old!’ I didn’t even know what make-up was then!” “The other day I took a picture of myself in a bikini,” says Jesy, “which I’ve never done before, and for the first time ever I didn’t want to retouch it. I thought: ‘No, fuck it – this is me, and if you don’t like it, then sod you!’ I think if we all did that, the world would be a better place.”

Their fourth album Glory Days is reissued this month, in a flurry of gifs about love and reminders to “be yourself”, a phrase that, to me, has been diluted down so much it’s practically homeopathic. What does it mean to them? “In the ‘normal’ world,” says Jade, with air quotes, “you’d go to college, you’d be discovering yourself and you make mistakes and you wouldn’t be judged for it. Whereas we were in this spotlight trying to discover who we were while everyone was watching.”

“We wake up some days and feel like the most fierce people ever,” says Perrie. “But some days we’ll be like: ‘Oh my God, I’m so ugly.’ I don’t think everyone is 100% comfortable in their own skin, but we’re learning to love ourselves more and more, and that’s what we represent in our music.”

It’s a brand message that works, with more than 1 billion streams on YouTube and Spotify, and enough money to buy themselves and their mums their own houses. Although, yeah, they haven’t slept in them. “I got back from Europe,” says Jesy, “and had to pack to go again. I was looking at all of my suitcases on my floor and burst out crying. I was like: ‘I can’t do this.’ Literally I nearly had a breakdown like, ‘I need help. This is too much. I just want to be home.’” And they automatically all reach to stroke her leg.

The atmosphere is unnecessarily heavy, green tea cooling on the coffee table, so we manoeuvre away to the benefits of a life like this. “I had a really weird thing the other day,” says Jesy. “I was at the airport and this 40-year-old woman got out of her car. And she just started crying, and said: ‘I came to your concert a week ago and you girls made me the most confident I’ve ever felt in my life. Can I give you a cuddle?’ I mean, on one hand it made me really upset…” “But isn’t it weird?” jumps in Leigh-Anne, “We go from: ‘I wish I could be normal,’ to realising this is why we’re locked in buildings all day.” They grin. We all grin.

There’s a popular idea that pop stars forever remain the age they were when they became famous. “Yeah, because you’re just being looked after for the rest of your life!” says Perrie. Jesy giggles: “I always wonder, when am I going to get that ‘mummy power’ thing? When am I going to be able to touch hot things?” “We’re very childish in a lot of ways,” says Jade. Leigh-Anne snorts, remembering: “We were doing a gig in Spain and yet again had four hotel rooms that never get used. We always share a bed. So we’re all in bed together and we’ve all got wind. And we thought it would be funny to put it on Instagram. Farting on cue.”

There it is, the silliness I’d been promised. They screech with laughter. “That is so not girl-bandy!” says Perrie. “Like: ‘Whoooo come get me boys, brrpppp!’” “Did we delete it?” asks Jesy. “Did we?” No, they didn’t.

And while for another pop band that might have at least brought a wrinkle of disgust to the press, for Little Mix it is things like this that cement their “brand” in British culture. A little bit dirty, despite their manicured beauty, a group of true friends, friends for whom empowerment is a bikini pic, friends that fart. Kathy Acker saw the Spice Girls as the new voice of feminism; perhaps Little Mix are the voice of new feminism, where sisterliness is next to godliness, and Instagram is a battleground for body image debate.

Cowell boasts of their work ethic, their chemistry, but mainly their ambition. “They are really, really talented. And ambitious. Very ambitious. Very, very ambitious!” “All I want,” thinks Jade, “is to be the girl band of our generation.”

Looking at them today, I think about the last six years of manufactured scandal, of their relationships picked over by the Mail for clues as if by conspiracy theorists, of their social media management, all of it bookended with the enforced glamour of friendship, or “girl power”, the relentless tours. And something is clear: being in the world’s biggest girl band in 2017, it’s bloody hard work.

The platinum edition of Little Mix’s hit album Glory Days is released this week. They play London’s O2 Arena on 26 November


Eva Wiseman

The GuardianTramp

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