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Lizzo has a mouthful of diamonds. It’s edible glitter, actually, painstakingly applied to her tongue by an obliging makeup artist as light spills in from the high winter-bright windows of a Manhattan photo studio.
But it still feels like a nice metaphor for the past year in the life of the artist born Melissa Viviane Jefferson — one that saw her spend seven weeks atop the Hot 100 with the sleeper smash “Truth Hurts,” storm festival stages from Coachella to Glastonbury, earn an astonishing eight Grammy nods, and almost single-handedly redeem the staid reputation of a certain small woodwind. (If “twerking flautist” had any history as an internet search term before she came along, it was a vanishingly small one.)
Please just don’t call her an overnight success. “Everybody says that and I’m like, ‘It took 10 years to get to this point!’” the 31-year-old Detroit native tells EW, lounging on a long gray couch in a plush hooded sweatshirt and Chanel slides. “Mainstream success happens very fast, and that’s why people think it’s overnight… But it’s cool, y’all are going to discover my discography, dig deeper,” she says with a laugh. “You’re gonna see some pictures of me back when I was wearing $20 wigs.”
It is fair to say it wasn’t very long ago — before the radio saturation of “Truth Hurts” and “Juice” and “Good as Hell,” the spangled cameo alongside J. Lo and Cardi B in the hit film Hustlers, the collaborations with Justin Timberlake and Missy Elliott, the ubiquitous Absolut ads that find her twirling in a strawberry-print bikini — that Lizzo Inc. was still a comparatively DIY operation. More than a decade spent hustling in Houston and then Minneapolis as a member of various R&B-oriented groups only honed her ambition, if not her bank account.
So did a childhood where, she recalls, “I read a lot. I wanted to be a scientist or an astronomer, and then I wanted to write, like, the Great American Novel. I spent a lot of time in my room. I had a very, very vivid imagination, and I think that is the thing that helped bring out the performer in me.” If it’s hard to square visions of that little indoor cat with the brash, tongue-wagging glamazon showcased on her wildly popular Instagram (@lizzobeeating, 6.6 million followers and counting), the singer is happy to disabuse the idea that fame came easy or friction-free.
Scattered throughout the highlight reel of her seemingly unfiltered life — a whirl of awards shows, avocado-print panties, and outrageous memes — are moments of stark vulnerability, and exhaustion, too. Above all, she’s unfailingly honest about the struggle it sometimes takes to maintain her designated crown as the queen of body positivity: “I try to be as real as I can on the internet, because the thing that people liked about me in the first place is that I’m TMI. So if I want to send a picture of my ass on my story or lay in a tub of Skittles naked and post it on my grid, it’s so cool that I have the power to do that.”
Still, she clarifies, “Self-love isn’t being delusional.… Every day I have to remind myself to look in the physical mirror, the emotional mirror, the spiritual mirror. But I don’t go, ‘Do I look like this model or this actress?’ I have to hold myself to my own standards. So am I the Lizzo that I looked like last year when I was on my juice cleanse and working out six times a week with my trainer? No. But am I a bad bitch? Yes!”
If her truths are more nuanced than social media leaves room for, and the realities of her day-to-day life infinitely more complicated, it’s still a message that resonates across a wide swath of fans — from the junior-high band geeks who celebrate what she’s done for their instrument (“The flute community is loud and proud,” she hoots) to the middle-aged dads who dance like nobody’s watching at her shows.
And she is ready to bring 100 percent that bliss: “There’s a lot of anxiety in society. I’ve suffered from it, and it’s awful, it’s debilitating, I know what that feels like,” she says, shifting forward in her seat. “And now I think there’s a new wave of people just leaning towards seeking joy…. The apex of positivity, I don’t know where it is, but I hope this is just the beginning because I got more.” She leans back again, cackling. “There is a lot more where that came from.”
Weird, wild, good as hell: More words from Lizzo on her 2019
Taking on her first movie role in Hustlers: “Hustlers was a big f—in’ deal for me. The director, Lorene Scafaria, she wanted me to be in the movie, and we were trying to get the schedules worked out. My friend Mette is in it, and I just wanted us to be in a movie together so bad. So I was really really really pushing to be in it, and it finally worked out that I had one day in my schedule. I did a show and I flew there that night on a red-eye, I filmed my scenes and I flew back to the tour the next day. I was sick as f—, I had to get, like, a B-12 shot in my booty, but it was all worth it.
It’s such a good movie, too. The cast is great, the acting is great, the music was great, it was beautifully shot. I was in a good-ass movie and I’m proud of that — a fire-ass movie, and I hope it gets all the Academy Awards so I can go to the Oscars. [Laughs]
Meeting Justin Timberlake: “He actually popped over my shoulder one night at the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame [ceremony], that’s how I met him, and I was like “Justin get out of my face! I don’t need this right now, I’m already dealing with Patti Labelle and Missy Elliott and Da Brat, I don’t need you to add to the list of reasons why I’m about to shit myself.’ And he was like ‘I love your album,’ and then he started singing “Jerome” to me. Girl, I almost took Jessica Biel’s man. [Laughs]
But we made a couple cool songs in the studio. He’s kind of a master of vocal performance. He’s worked with the greatest, and he is the greatest at vocal production, and I was like, ‘Damn, vocal produce me, JT!’ It was fun. I hope them songs come out, they’re good.”
Reaching the top of Billboard‘s Hot 100: “You know, I’m not gonna lie to you. When I got No. 1, I was in New Orleans and we were working on my tour and I was so stressed out. I was so not happy with where the tour was at that I kind of felt a little numb. I was going through it with my friends, it was kind of a darker time for me, and then that news hit and I felt like there were people that I needed to be happy for and people I needed to be excited for, myself included, but I didn’t exactly know how to get to that place.
But funny enough, when ‘Truth Hurts’ hit no. 7, I think I was in Germany, and I cried like a baby. I called my mom and I was like [makes sobbing noise]. I lost it, I fully celebrated and went crazy, because to me getting in the top 10 was something that I didn’t expect, and didn’t think would ever happen.
No. 1 was different though because to get there there’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of hard work, a lot of people involved working their asses off, and you kind of can feel the pressure and the momentum building. And the crew [on tour], because they felt that, they threw me a little surprise after rehearsal with this New Orleans jazz marching band and this #1 cake and they were like ‘surprise!’ And I felt so bad. I just went on these motherf—ers, and then they surprise me with a cake! [Laughs] But it was fun, it was good, it was perfect.“
Signing on for her Absolut ads: “Honey. [Singing] ‘It ain’t my faaaaault.’ I’m on a billboard…in a bikini…for vodka. It’s lit! I told myself a few years ago, ‘I’m gonna be a sex symbol,” and this is definitely checking the boxes.” [Laughs]
Collaborating with Missy Elliott: “The first time we met I was so nervous. I was like, ‘It’s Missy Elliott! I’ve looked up to her my whole life. What am I supposed to do, do I bring a gift?’ And she was just so funny the first time I met her — she just made me laugh, she has the best stories and she’s so genuine. Her smile is so infectious, and she smells gooood. [Laughs]
They say don’t meet your idols but like, nah, meet Missy Elliott if you can, ’cause she doesn’t disappoint. She’s everything and more that you would expect from meeting a legend. It’s just so cool to be in a position where we’re creating music together and she’s encouraging me and I get to tribute her at the VMAs — like real childhood dream level shit. It’s wild.”
Being “f—boy free”: “I kind of feel like a fraud when I say that now! Onstage I’ll be like, ‘I’m f—boi freeeeee!’ Bitch, no you’re not! You just dealt with one last night. But my bullshit detector, it’s very strong, and it’s only gotten stronger with time. You know, I let these dudes think they doin’ something, I really do, because I think it’s entertaining. But you gotta know why people are in your life. They say women know within 20 seconds, we’ve detected someone’s energy and their character. And, for me, sometimes these guys, I immediately be like, ‘I know what you’re gonna do for me and I know what I’m gonna do for you.’ Sometimes I look at a guy I can see my whole life with him, children, house, all of that. But that never works out. It’s when you can see the future, that’s when it turns into a [making sad trombone noise] wha-wha.”
What’s next in 2020: “We’re in the roaring ’20s, darling, so exciting! I don’t know, I think that my 2019 really set me up for the next decade. Like there’s a lot that’s possible, and there’s a lot that’s achievable, and there’s a lot of dreams beyond my dreams that I don’t even know what’s gonna happen. Like how could I have expected Hustlers, or this cover, or any of the covers? Whatever I get, I want to hold it down and make sure that it’s always authentic, true to myself and fun. I just want to have a lot of fun in the next 10 years. I want to create things. I have a lot of shit in my head that I want to make real.”
For more on Entertainment Weekly‘s 2019 Entertainers of the Year, the new issue will be available at select Barnes & Noble stores starting on Dec. 20, and all newsstands Dec. 26-27, or you can order a copy now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.