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"It's funny because I tried on a wig the other day where both sides were the same length and it did not feel like me," laughs Ava Max, referring to her trademark 'Max Cut' - a shoulder length bob on one side, long and flowing on the other. So distinctive is her white blonde hairstyle - arguably as famous as the international dance pop anthems from Max's hit 2020 debut album Heaven & Hell - I wonder how she manages to go anywhere unrecognised. "It's fine, I wear so many bucket hats," she explains. "I have a bucket hat in every colour!"
Max, 27, is chatting to me from her home in Studio City in Los Angeles and while the hair is an obvious talking point, the rest of her style today is surprisingly low-key for a pop star who once donned a superhero costume for the MTV Video Music Awards and is often compared to Lady Gaga ("we're both theatrical and we like to wear crazy outfits" she nods). She's wearing a dress from a small Venice Beach boutique under a black Brandy Melville t-shirt and a pair of Converse for a look that's, "sporty but girly. It has to be a bit of both," she muses. "Maybe a few albums down the line I will shave my hair. But only half! Because duality rules my world."
Those who have followed Max since she first exploded on to the scene three years ago with the infectious 'Sweet but Psycho' (a song that's now been streamed over one billion times) will be familiar with this concept. Because like her hair and her style, it's the duality of Max's music that ultimately makes her stand out from the crowd. Her first album Heaven & Hell was even divided into two sides - empowering anthems and darker melodies - to explore the light and dark sides of emotions and the highs and lows of life.
When we speak, Max is about to join Maroon 5 on tour for four of their US stadium shows. She hasn't toured for over two years and has been tucked away in the studio working on her (as-yet-untitled) second album since the beginning of this year. She is reluctant to give too much away about the forthcoming record as the release is still some way off but duality is a given. "It will make you dance and cry at the same time," she points out.
One thing's for sure, the single 'Every Time I Cry' (released in June 2021) is a taste of things to come. "This next chapter is more vulnerable and this album couldn't be more personal," she says. So what has she been writing about? "Relationships," she says. "They are never perfect and I wanted to write about that and how it's normal to feel a little confused. It's about working through it, if you really love someone."
It's an interesting focal point given Max has always remained tight-lipped about her own relationship status. "It's a very confusing time at the moment," she laughs when I ask if she is currently single. "Let's just say I'm not good at love. I love a lot, but I guess I haven't nailed it yet."
Sounds like the song-writing process has been a therapeutic one? "It has! It kind of just came out of me. I wasn't even planning on making the album super personal but everything I was writing was about what I was going through, and it happens to be so relatable."
Relatability is key to Max's appeal. Her achievements - a record deal in 2016 when she was just 22; a spot on the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2021 - might sound impressive on paper, but her journey to global fame has been riddled with challenges.
Born Amanda Koci in Wisconsin and raised in Virginia by her opera singer mother and pianist father, Max's Albanian parents fled their country for the US after the fall of communism in 1991. "When they got to America with my seven-year-old brother, my mom was pregnant with me," explains Max.
"They didn't know how to speak English, didn't have any money, and took on three jobs each. I can't even comprehend how they did that. They just sacrificed so much for my brother and I that now I'm like, 'anything you guys want!'."
Max was thrilled to be able to buy her family a home in The Valley, not far from where she lives in Los Angeles. "People are like, 'you must be so happy, you're making money,' but I don't see it that way. Money to me equals being able to help other people."
The impact of seeing her parents struggle has had a profound impact on how Max has approached her music career. "I know it sounds cliched but I don't give up. I'm like, 'I have to make it, not only for myself, but for my family'. They gave up so much, so I can't quit. Quitting is not an option. I guess maybe that's why I made it..."
There have been plenty of times Max, who adopted her stage name Ava, aged 14, when the family relocated to Los Angeles to give her a stab at a music career, could have given up. In fact, she wrote the single, 'Who's Laughing Now', in retaliation of how she was made to feel when attempting to start out in the music industry as a teenager.
"I met so many writers and producers back then and no one would give me the time of day," she recalls. "They would laugh in my face and be like, 'you're never going to make it'. It was really tough, I'm not going to lie. I didn't know if I was going to make it or not, I just knew this was the only thing I loved to do."
Moving to South Carolina when she was 15, enrolling in a high school (after years of home schooling) and attempting to have a normal life only brought about more misery.
"I got bullied a lot because I was the new girl in high school," she says. "I've never told this story before but this boy asked me out so we hung out at his parents' house. He tried to kiss me and the next thing, there's a bunch of cheerleaders outside the window laughing in my face. The boy was like, 'I don't want to be with you! I was kidding!' It made me stronger though. Every time I cry, I get a little bit stronger," she laughs, acknowledging her recent single.
Joking aside, how did she overcome a situation like that? "At the time I thought my world was ending. I'd cry to my mum and be like, 'we have to leave because I don't want to be here. It doesn't feel like home at all.' At one point I was contemplating just hiding in my room and not going to school. It was a sad year. But I grew from it. I grew fast."
Two years later, Max was back in L.A, throwing herself back into music but sadly experiencing the darker side of the industry. "I had to find my own way and figure out how to meet songwriters and producers as I knew no one," she recalls. Once she found her way into a studio, Max would write and record demos only for producers to blackmail her with them. "They would play games with me because I was just like this little girl in there. It was like, 'if you do this, I will...'"
So it was sexual harassment? "Yes. It's hard to even say it in an interview," she sighs. "I was given NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) to sign but I never signed them. You've got to watch out for sexual harassment in every workspace because it's there, and you've got to be careful. Now, I'm surrounded by incredible people but back then, no-one knew me or had my back... "
The turning point in Max's fate was meeting Canadian record producer Cirkut (who has worked with everyone from Rihanna to The Weeknd) at The Chateau Marmont in 2014. Max was having a drink with a girlfriend, Cirkut was celebrating his birthday; Max sung him 'Happy Birthday' and the rest, as they say, is history. "We started working together in a studio and became the best of friends," she gushes. "He executive produces all my stuff now and he's everything to me."
As for the future, headlining a world tour is on Max's bucket list along with collaborating with other artists. She loves Rita Ora, Bebe Rexha, Dua Lipa and recently wrote a song for her new album with Charli XCX. "I didn't know her until I was in a writing session with her and I was like, 'wow, you're just like the nicest person on earth.' You never know how people are going to be."
Above all though, she wants to continue releasing empowering anthems. "That's my number one goal," she explains. "It's important to uplift people. When someone is down and they put on the radio and they feel better? That, right there, is everything."
How does the singer who empowers everyone else, lift her own spirits, especially in these challenging Covid times? "I've had my ups and downs," she admits. "At the beginning of quarantine I was so fearful I was even scared to walk outside. I was disinfecting all my groceries. I was freaking out.
"That messed up my mental health because it tossed everything I thought I knew about the world up in the air and caused a lot of uncertainty. I know people who have lost their jobs and houses and it's just devastating."
To combat her low periods, Max writes down five things she is grateful for every day and listens to her favourite music. "When my heart is racing with anxiety, 'SOS' by Rihanna is the one song that helps me out," she says. "I also walk outside to get fresh air, drink lots of water and watch early 2000s comedy films. I like anything with Drew Barrymore or Ben Stiller in it!"
Social media can present mental health challenges, even when, like Max, you have 2.3 million Instagram followers and nearly 5 million subscribers on YouTube.
"Some days I'm all in and I post a selfie because I've woken up feeling grounded, like I can conquer the world but then other days, I won't feel pretty and I'll compare myself to girls who've had loads of plastic surgery," she says. "People say 'don't compare yourself' but it's impossible sometimes. You go down an Instagram hole."
See? Relatable, even down to her social media use. But Max, we now know from how she's handled her challenging past experiences, is also wise beyond her years. "There are a lot of trolls," she sighs. "My friends and family sometimes text me negative things they've seen and I'm like, 'no, don't send me this! I don't want to know.'
"I'd rather just focus on the positive. I've always been like that. I'm a scaredy cat. I'm like, 'is that going into a negative place? I can't read it!' I run the other side from negativity." Scared, yes, but also brave. Duality definitely rules Ava Max's world.
Fashion Editor: @kristeningersoll
Make up: @kaleteter
Global Deputy Editorial and Brand Director: @chloekai
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