Annie Lennox Says No to Retouching

Bobbi Brown
·Editor in Chief

Superstar Annie Lenox at 60. (Photo: Robert Sebree) 

Annie Lennox rose to fame when she teamed up with Dave Stewart to form the Eurythmics in the early 80s. Her powerful vocals, androgynous style, and mesmerizing stage presence turned her into an icon of the era. Lennox launched a solo career in 1992 to rave reviews. To date, she’s sold over 80 million albums, along with winning four Grammys and an Oscar.

Annie’s latest album Nostalgia features covers of classic jazz and blues hits including the song ‘I Put a Spell on You’ which she belted out with Hozier at this year’s Grammys. At 60, Annie was the oldest star that night, but it was her powerhouse performance that had people talking. Age has clearly only made Annie more amazing.

Annie has an upcoming PBS special airing April 3 where she performs Nostalgia. But beyond her life in the limelight, Annie is a passionate activist. She is a speaker at the Women of the World festival in London on International Women’s Day. She is also rumored to be one of the most charitable stars in the world. Annie has devoted herself to helping women and children with HIV and AIDS, particularly in Africa.

Not one to hold back, Annie was one of the most candid and inspiring women I’ve interviewed. Annie has a lot to say about the current state of celebrity. She revealed that she made herself frumpy to escape the spotlight when her kids were young. She also made an inspiring decision not to be retouched on her album cover. Read on to get to know the real, empowered, and incredible Annie Lennox.

Annie Lennox asked that editors not erase her wrinkles on the cover of her new album, Nostalgia. (Photo: Blue Note Records)

BB: I’m really loving your new album, Nostalgia. Congratulations on deciding to put your beautiful face on the cover without retouching. 

AL: It’s such an issue for women as they get older, especially women like myself who have been performers all our life. What are we supposed to do? I go to America, where I see a lot of plastic surgery. I have no problem with plastic surgery, but the issue is, I don’t think it’s done very well because it kind of screams at you from hundreds of yards away. It tells you: Wow, that woman’s had a lot of work, or that man’s had a lot of work. I find it disturbing. If I were going to do some work, which I mean, again, I haven’t done it yet, I might. But if I did, I wouldn’t want to end up with this frozen mask, which is Botox, which is surgery. I think, the day they get it right will be the day that you can’t really tell.

BB: I have spoken out many times about the same thing. The thing is, looking at photos of yourself photographed under HD lighting is awful. You see things that you don’t see in real life. **

AL: [laughs] That’s right. Photographs — they’re so tough, aren’t they? You know, when I was in my early 20s, getting my photograph taken with poor lighting, I’d be like, “Oh my God, do I really look that bad?” Then, all of a sudden, with photographers who had great lighting, that know how to bring out the best in you, I’d be like, “Whoa, that’s a nice picture! We all have our little vanity, you know, it’s part of being human. But if there is going to be an image that’s going to represent you, whether it’s just a snapshot or something, you want to look your best. Everybody wants to look their best. That’s natural.

BB: But I do feel that there is the beginning of positive movement happening. There are more and more women our age talking about it and wanting to project authenticity. I do think that it’s going to be an incredible gift to women when they see your album cover, because you look gorgeous, but you look real.

AL: I just wanted to represent myself at my age in a nice way, obviously. There’s lights and there’s makeup, and there’s a probably a tiny, tiny bit of manipulation here and there. But I said, “Please, I just want to look as I am.”

BB: Image is such a big part of everything now. When we were younger we didn’t have paparazzi, internet, or social media. I’m sure it wasn’t hard to be in the spotlight. 

AL: There was no such word as celebrity. Nowadays, everybody gets lumped into being a celebrity, whether you’re a serial killer or a reality star. I always thought I was a musician, you know, and a performer. It’s weird. I really get tense when they kind of dilute people down to this homogenous word that means all manner of things.

Annie Lennox was an 80s icon, but her recent Grammys performance, introduced her to a new generation of fans. Photo: Robert Sebree

BB: What’s your thoughts on makeup? 

AL: What I would say about makeup. I would say that at our stage, less is more.

BB: Yes, but a bit of mascara, a bit of concealer, a bit of blush, is needed to make us feel good as we get older.

AL: Yes, just enough to cheer us up a little bit. The process of getting older doesn’t have to be submission to becoming frail. But at the same time, we don’t have to feel desperate that we have to be young. It’s not about that either. It’s just about finding the balance within yourself, and having the right kind of attitude and a healthy approach to who you are as a human being, going through the journey of life with gratitude.

BB: I was blown away by your performance at the Grammys. I think everyone was. It was night and day, the difference when you got up on onstage and showed your incredible talent without lights, costumes, or dancers, just your powerful performance.

AL: Thank you very much. That’s a lovely compliment, but I don’t know what the fuss is about. It’s just what I’ve always done. I have always just performed, and that’s it.

BB: I heard it about it from the kids on my team, they were raving because they weren’t around when you first came on the scene.

AL: I’ve had an interesting life, because I realized when my children were born that they could have been very much under this scrutiny of what we’ve just spoken about, the celebrity cult that was starting in the ’90s. I remember one day, coming out of my house and seeing a camera lens pointed at me from across the street.  I looked at my right and there was another one. My child at that point was just in a buggy. And I turned around, and I went right back into my house. I said, “I can’t live like that.” My children didn’t ask to be followed in this way, so I’m going to try to protect their childhood, so they just don’t have to have any of that s—-.

BB: How did you do that?

AL: I just kept out of it. For a while, actually, when my children were very young, I grew my hair out. I didn’t dye it any color. I wore glasses and a T-shirt and jeans, and I just became a frumpish kind of mother, because I just couldn’t bear the scrutiny. I don’t want it. I don’t ask for it. When I perform, that’s what I do as a performer, but I don’t want to be under the limelight. And nowadays, that is such currency. You know, if you agree to do this Faustian pact of having a camera crew follow you around from the moment that you deliver the baby with your legs wide open into the world — that’s your decision. That’s your choice. But I think personally, I think it screws you up. It screws your kids up — royally. It’s truly about impact, and eventually the whole thing will unravel. I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think it’s balanced. I don’t think we’re supposed to be such exhibitionists, but there is an industry of it, because the world has an appetite for voyeurism.

BB:  I’m so glad you’re talking about it. What is your daughter doing now? Is she a model? 

AL: My youngest daughter, Tali, is 22 years old now, and she pursued some modeling. She started to get into that, and very quickly started to do some very big campaigns. But inside herself, she wasn’t comfortable with it. I mean, the money’s great, if you can make it. But the scrutiny of it, and the feeling of, you know: “Am I thin enough?” All of that made her feel unhappy. She still does a bit of modeling, but she said to me, “When people ask me what I do, and I say I’m a model, I feel devalued. I don’t like it. So, I really need to do something else.” When she wanted to pursue modeling, I was never prescriptive or like: “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” Now, she’s having her first painting exhibition in March in New York. I’m so proud of her, because she’s finding her passion. You just never know with your kids. You don’t know with their lives, you don’t know with your own life!

BB: Where did your confidence and perspective come from?

AL: From Scotland. You have to be grounded if you come from Scotland. You can’t be “above yourself.”

Annie Lennox in 1986. Photo: Getty Images

BB: Tell me about your early style, the short hair, the androgynous look, was it an evolution?

AL: It evolved because Dave and I, as the Eurythmics, were a partnership. We always discussed everything together, like how we would present ourselves. We were obsessed with it. What would be our sound, what would be our style, everything. It came to this point where we used to talk about how we felt like we were a little like — not exactly twins, but this duo. I didn’t wanted to be this objectified pretty girl, because it really wasn’t who I was. It was wonderful to wear a suit and be like Dave’s other half. It was very empowering, and it was about, “Don’t just see me as a kind of pretty, objectified kind of conventional entertainer.” There were all kinds of subliminal statements in it. It was a great way to be. It was a great way to perform. But it threw a curveball, because then people said, “Oh, she’s a gender bender,” which took me by surprise, because I had never thought of that, curiously enough. Some people thought, “Oh, she must be gay. Is she gay? Is she not gay? What is she? Is she a man? Is she a woman?” It’s so funny to put something into the cultural Zeitgeist, and it comes back at you. It boomerangs back at you in all sorts of different ways.

BB: What do you do to stay strong for performing? Do you do anything special in terms of fitness and food?

AL: For Nostalgia, I knew I had to rehearse, sing, and perform, so I had to be fit. To be frank, before I took on the work, I went on a kind of diet where I cut out sugar, bread, many, many things, and I ate high fat. So, I was eating avocado, oil, bacon, just a crazy diet. I didn’t do it just on my own, I was advised and guided. I went for the regime where you only exercise for 15 minutes, but you do it with intense weights every day. I just did it for two weeks, and I lost half a stone. I started to get stronger, and that was really a nice kickoff. I think for a lot of us, we suddenly realize, “Oh my God, I’ve put on weight, I’m quite lethargic, I’m not really exercising, so then you make a decision and you just say, “OK, I’m going to take this in hand.” The body is so wonderful. It’s such a wonderful thing, because your body will respond if you treat it well.

BB: Tell me about your PBS special airing on April 3rd.

AL: It was a complete one-off performance. I had never performed the album in front of a live audience before, or in any audience. So the filming is unique, and the performance is totally unique. PBS agreed to broadcast it, and I’m very, very proud of it. I’m very proud of Natalie Jones, the director, who is exceptionally great. I must work collaboratively with people, and Natalie was just fantastic. She has captured something so beautifully, and it will go on.

BB: I read that you are actually the third most charitable star in the world behind Elton John and Bill Clinton. That’s incredible.

AL: I think, from my perspective, I have always felt very, very passionately about the injustices that go on eternally in the world. I have had a very privileged opportunity to see things in the developing countries. As a performer, I was invited to go to South Africa to perform for Nelson Mandela as one of the musicians for his HIV AIDS Foundation over a decade ago. That was really an incredibly powerful turning point for me. I was taken into townships, clinics, hospitals, and orphanages. I saw the HIV pandemic as it was affecting women and children eye to eye. I witnessed and understood what was going on in that country, and it devastated me. I felt that I couldn’t just stand back and do nothing, so I became a very committed HIV/AIDS campaigner, particularly as it affects women and children. I didn’t see evidence of an amplified voice in the global press. It was outrageous to me that thousands and thousands of people were dying on a weekly basis, and there was not an effective response from the government at that time. I am passionate about women and children and human rights, because I feel that, as a woman and a mother. I understand what it takes for a woman to deliver a child. I understand what it takes for a woman to lose a child, because I lost my first baby, and that was just a devastation. It was a personal kind of turning point. I have had the benefits that I have inherited because of other women that went before me, starting from the Suffragette movement all those generations ago. I want to participate and contribute in any way I can, so this is what’s behind any activism or campaigning that I do.

Annie Lennox in her signature pixie cut and suit. Photo: Robert Sebree

BB: You’re an incredible role model for women. 

AL: I use my spoken voice also as a platform. We’re coming into International Women’s Day, and I’ll be speaking out. A few years ago, I founded something called The Circle, about how women can use our resources to inspire each other to become more engaged in women’s issues. Because we’re sleeping. It’s about ideas, passion, commitment, so many other things than just giving money. It’s your willingness to connect with others with issues, instead of being a passive bystander. I think that the women’s movement has so many wonderful things ahead of us. We can see great things happening. But we’ve got many, many miles to walk. I’m trying to be an inspirational catalyst for other women to say, “Look, we can do this, we can see great transformative change in the world that is a benefit to women and girls.” There are still children giving birth to children when they need to have access to sexual and reproductive health care. There are so many issues to roll our sleeves up for, like education, abuse, domestic violence, gender-based violence. Women are waking up now.

BB: That’s awesome, I’m doing what I can on my end. I’d love to hear more about it. I would volunteer in a heartbeat. It was so inspiring talking to you. 

AL: Thank you so much, Bobbi.

Watch this video of Great Performances: Annie Lennox: Nostalgia Live in Concert excerpt featuring the jazz standard “Mood Indigo,” exclusively on Yahoo Beauty. Great Performances will be the program hosting the concert on PBS on April 3 at 10 pm.

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