Little Mix on Piers Morgan, body shaming and Simon Cowell

They are the bestselling, Brit-winning pop stars who defy the girl group rules. So why is there so much commotion surrounding their new campaign?

“We’re not used to being dragged into all this drama,” giggles Jade Thirlwall, one quarter of the UK’s biggest girl band, nay pop band, Little Mix. “We’re getting it from all angles at the minute.” She is referring to the campaign for the band’s fifth album, the bluntly titled LM5, which has seen them dragged into the public spat between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B via the album’s first single Woman Like Me; part ways with Simon Cowell, the man whose talent show The X Factor birthed them in 2011, and his label Syco; and fall foul of ham-faced Twitter troll Piers Morgan over the feminism behind their recent empowerment anthem, Strip, and its accompanying naked photoshoot – in which their skin was daubed with the myriad insults they’ve received. At one point Jesy Nelson, very much the band’s mouthpiece, called Morgan a “twat” on Nick Grimshaw’s Radio 1 show. “Mate, it’s mental,” says Thirlwall, in summary.

This, it turns out, is the point when Little Mix make the risky shift from sugary, poptastic girl band to a group of young women well-versed in post-2013 Beyoncé. While their first self-penned single, Wings, was all about empowering young fans in general terms (“Don’t let what they say keep you up at night”), the Daily Mail-referencing, trap-infused Strip – inspired by a tabloid story attacking Thirlwall and Perrie Edwards’s looks – is a reflection of the experiences of four mid-twentysomethings trying to emancipate themselves from the focus of the media microscope. “We wanted to channel our anger [at the story] into a positive song saying: ‘Oh fuck off, this is me, and I’m going to love every single part of me and if you don’t like it sod off,’” roars Nelson when we meet in a London hotel suite in mid-November, the day before LM5’s release. Next to her sit Edwards and Leigh-Anne Pinnock, the three of them dressed-down, makeup-free and surrounded by the detritus of a lunch heavy in avocado. The absent Thirlwall has had a family emergency, but we speak later on the phone.

The photoshoot for Strip.
Bare necessity: the photoshoot for Strip. Photograph: Rankin

Prior to our chat I had been told they wouldn’t talk about the split from Syco (they’re now signed to RCA) or a bizarre Simon Cowell interview in which he’d suggested the fall-out was to do with Woman Like Me (“They didn’t want to record it,” he said). Without mentioning the X Factor overlord by name I ask if they didn’t want it be the first single? Silence. One by one, their eyes dart in the direction of their PR sitting in the corner. “No. OK, so … ” Nelson begins. There’s a short discussion about whether this is something we should be getting into. “So this is what happened,” Nelson continues, taking it upon herself to ignore the mood in the room. “We so wanted to write a song like Strip and were so passionate about releasing it as our first single. We’d co-directed the video, we’d done the [naked] photoshoot, so we were excited. Obviously when Woman Like Me was put on the table, in our heads Strip was going to be the first single, and [Woman Like Me] didn’t feel exactly like what we’d sing about,” she says, referencing an original version written solely by Ed Sheeran and Jess Glynne. “So we went in, tweaked the lyrics, changed the production, and got Nicki on it, which was an absolute dream. We didn’t despise it at all. It’s a banger.”

Even that dream Nicki Minaj collaboration almost turned sour. Lifelong fans of the Beez in the Trap hitmaker, the band were rattled when Cardi B claimed, via now-deleted Instagram videos, that she had been first choice to feature on the track. The band retaliated, posting a screenshot of an old WhatsApp chat mentioning Minaj as their sole choice alongside a caption that read: “Sorry Cardi hun but this is the T, we’ve always wanted the QUEEN”. To really underline the shadiness, it then had “no shade” written in brackets. I suggest the use of “hun” was the icing on the cake. There is a chorus of cackles, before they look sheepishly at each other. “People kind of assumed we were taking sides because of the way it was worded but we would never pick sides,” says Edwards. “We’d never want to tear Cardi B down, it’s not about that, it was more that she said something that wasn’t true.” When I speak to Thirlwall a week later she reiterates that point. “We just wanted to state the facts,” she says. “Everything’s OK now … I hope.”

We talk about the Strip furore that erupted shortly after the album’s release. “It’s not about sexualising yourself; it’s about having a voice and speaking out and being brave enough to stand up to people,” she says. And then along came Piers Morgan (on Good Morning Britain he asked: “What is empowering about this? … It’s using sex to sell records”). “Yeah, right on cue,” she laughs. “What was amazing, actually, is that we haven’t had to say much [to him], as women have rallied together and defended us,” she adds, referring to tweets from the likes of Ariana Grande and Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui. Does she have anything to say to Morgan now? “I mean, he’s, you know, ugh … I don’t want to dwell too much on it, and he doesn’t deserve a line on it because he’s obviously loving it.”

Rewind to a more innocent time, a Sunday in mid-October to be precise, and Little Mix are kicking off the LM5 campaign in the labyrinthine corridors of London’s Wembley Arena. They’re running 15 minutes late for their 1pm call time on the red carpet at Radio 1’s annual Teen awards, an event it feels as if they’re slowly outgrowing, and the gaggle of photographers are getting restless. Suddenly, Little Mix appear, dressed head to toe in variations of black business attire. Gone, for the time being at least, are the leotard-based outfits Mel C once criticised for being “too provocative”, and the beaming smiles that accompanied playful No 1 hits such as Black Magic and Shout Out to My Ex. Once the flashbulbs are off, however, they click into schmooze mode, goofing around on live radio with host Matt Edmondson and partaking in an on-camera Halloween-themed interview involving questions plucked out of a pumpkin.

We meet briefly, sandwiched between a stairwell and the disabled loo. They’re meant to be doing last-minute rehearsals ahead of their debut performance of Woman Like Me, but have time for a quick hello. It’s 2pm and they have been here since 8am. At one point, a bored-looking Thirlwall balances a bottle of water on her head, while the others organise themselves into height order. Suddenly they are engulfed by people – radio pluggers, PRs, thick-set security guards, a constantly primed glam squad – and shuffled off to prepare for the show.

Little Mix.

Based on pop’s unwritten girl band laws, Little Mix should have announced a hiatus by now, one that involves a smattering of TV presenting, a tell-all book and, for one lucky member, a few weeks in the Australian jungle come November time. Their last album, 2016’s Glory Days, however, was their first to shift more than a million copies in the UK, while Woman Like Me became their 13th Top 10 hit. This year, they will turn their attention fully to the US, where their popularity has been on the wane (2012’s debut DNA peaked at No 4, while LM5 has so far reached No 40). “That’s our main aim: we really want to crack America,” Nelson says. “We’re willing to put the work in.”

That desire to prove people wrong has always been part of their, ahem, DNA ever since producers on The X Factor told them there was no point putting them through to live shows as viewers didn’t vote for girl bands. Expectations were so low that the paparazzi would shout “see you on This Morning, girls”, referring to ITV’s preferred dumping ground for discarded contestants the morning after live shows. The only people who seemed to believe in Little Mix were Little Mix themselves. “We set our goals very high from the start,” says Pinnock, slumping further into her hotel armchair. “We wanted dolls, we wanted bed sheets, we wanted makeup, absolutely everything, and obviously these things kept being ticked off.”

They also wanted the ultimate in music industry credibility: a Brit award, something they achieved in 2017 when they won best British single for Shout Out to My Ex. They also got to open that year’s show. “I cried when I found out we were performing,” laughs Nelson. “Oh my God,” shrieks Edwards. “Do you know that was one of the best moments of my life. I’d just fallen off my bike cause I was mortal and I’d split my head open a bit.” She senses confusion. “Did I ever tell you this?” The other two look shocked as Edwards rattles through the story: she was on holiday in the Maldives, she’d had “one too many Jack Daniel’s” and went over her handlebars and cracked her head on a tree. “I was a mess. My friend checked my head and was like: ‘Babe, just to let you know you’re bleeding,’ but I was reading me emails and was like: ‘I don’t care! I’m performing at the Brits.’”

With Tulisa on The X Factor.
Glory days: with Tulisa on The X Factor. Photograph: Ken McKay/TalkbackThames/Rex

We talk about LM5, the title. “That’s literally what the fans were already calling it,” says Nelson, matter-of-factly. A week before our interview, at a Julie Adenuga-hosted Apple Music event in east London – essentially the authentic flipside to the Teen awards – in which they performed stripped-back versions of their hits with an all-female band, they’d mentioned a different working title, one I’d noted down as “Wine and Wet Wipes”. “Ha!” shouts Edwards instead of actually laughing, a time-saving device they all use. “Wine and Makeup Wipes,” corrects Nelson, “but I hated it”. “It sounds like an Amy Winehouse album title doesn’t it,” adds Edwards. They’d also said that the creation of LM5 was lubricated by a healthy dose of alcohol. “It definitely helped,” Thirlwall tells me later on the phone, “and gave me the courage to sing about things I might have been scared to touch on before.”

As well as Strip’s self-empowerment, the album also touches on feminism (Joan of Arc), female friendship (the Destiny’s Child-esque Told You So) and, on the Thirlwall-penned Woman’s World, gender politics. “I remember years ago I did a political tweet and got absolutely annihilated by mostly male MPs who were furious that a pop star had an opinion,” she says, referring to her expression of sadness at the 2015 air strikes in Syria. “Now I feel more confident to write about things. With Woman’s World, I remember getting in the studio and the whole #MeToo thing was happening and I was really angry. I started talking about my mum and how she was always seen as less equal even though she worked just as hard as the men around her. I thought it was about time we did a female empowerment song that was very specifically about what was going on in the world.”

Thirlwall isn’t the only one who has felt emboldened to tackle issues head-on. In a recent interview, Pinnock discussed how she felt “invisible” in the band, and was told early on by Beyoncé’s creative director, Frank Gatson, that as a black woman she’d have to work twice as hard to make it in the music industry. “I’ve kept it in me for seven years and it just felt like such a weight was lifted when I said the words,” she says now. “There is such a problem with racism, so to actually just say it and have so many people of colour message me and thank me for saying something … ” She trails off. “I remember when I used to cry about it to my manager I used to be like: ‘Why do I feel like this?’ and she’d never say it, and I’d never say it. It was really strange. Now, though, oh my God, I’m so proud of this skin.”

We chat about the band’s favourite songs on the album, specifically the head-knocking R&B banger Forget You Not, a song Edwards partially leaked in October after filming footballer boyfriend Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dancing to it. It’s a shame it’s only on the deluxe edition, I say. “No it isn’t,” snaps Edwards. “It is, babe,” soothes Pinnock. “No it isn’t,” maintains Edwards. This goes on for a few minutes. “You’re winding me up,” she continues. “I’m fucking fuming.” People will buy the deluxe, though. “Well I hope so because it’s got one of my favourite songs on there! That wasn’t the final decision.” The tension is diffused with a quick-fire Q&A. Favourite girl band of all time? “I can’t decide between Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child,” says Edwards. “Same,” says Nelson. “Growing up Spice Girls, but musically it was TLC and Destiny’s Child,” adds Pinnock. Thirlwall, meanwhile, goes with the Supremes, citing Diana Ross as her favourite girl band member ever. What five things should any good girl band have, I ask. “Friendship, unity, passion, drive and sass,” Nelson, Pinnock and Edwards say, almost as one. Thirlwall takes her time. “Friendship. Loyalty. Ambition. Talent,” A pause: “And balls!”

LM5 is out now


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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