Jesy Nelson is having her photo taken. For the first time in her career, it’s all about her. She is no longer one quarter of the hugely successful girl group Little Mix. Nelson is about to release her first solo single and she says she is happier than she has been in years. But you wouldn’t know it: she looks painfully self-conscious, unsmiling and anxious.
Photos done, she disappears to change clothes. When she returns, she’s unrecognisable. Dressed in black T-shirt, leggings and platform trainers, Nelson is all smiles; warm, giggly and uninhibited. I tell her I’ve never seen such a contrast. She laughs. “When I’m in front of a camera, I don’t know what to do. The other three girls would be in the weirdest positions and look fabulous. If I did it, I’d look awful.”
Social media is like a drug. Every day, I’d type in ‘Jesy Nelson fat’ or ‘Jesy Nelson ugly’, and read what everyone said about me
In 2019, Nelson made a powerful documentary about her life with the “other three girls”, called Odd One Out. She talked about how she had always compared herself with the other members of Little Mix and found herself wanting. The origins of her low self-esteem went back to the very formation of the band on the 2011 series of The X Factor. She had auditioned successfully as a solo singer, but the judges decided she was better suited to being in a group. She was teamed up with other solo entrants – Leigh‑Anne Pinnock, Jade Thirlwall and Perrie Edwards – to form the girl group Rhythmix, which was later renamed Little Mix. They went on to win that year’s series. But during the show, Nelson was trolled horrifically on social media. “The first thing I read about myself was, ‘Is it me or does that girl look disabled?’ The next one said she really looks like a rat. And the next one was, ‘God her face looks deformed,’” she tells me. “When you’ve never had any issues with your face and then realise people are saying these things about you… ” She trails off. “You think if everybody is saying it, it must be true.” The night Little Mix won The X Factor, Nelson, then 20, wept and wished she was back home with her mother.
Little Mix on The X Factor in 2011, from left: Perrie Edwards, Jade Thirlwall, Jesy Nelson and Leigh-Anne Pinnock. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
Over the years, the trolling intensified. In the documentary, Thirlwall says: “We just had to watch this amazing funny person become like a broken doll. It was horrible.” After Odd One Out aired, it seemed inevitable that Nelson’s days in the band were numbered. She missed a few public appearances and was absent from some sections of the video for Sweet Melody, released in November. A month later, she announced she was leaving the group to look after her mental health. She had hit rock bottom; today she explains just how bad it was.
Our conversation starts with a guided tour of her many tattoos. On her upper arm it says, “Music is the strongest form of magic.” “It really is,” she says. She has been obsessed with music and dancing since she was a little girl. Who were her heroes? “Missy Elliott,” she says instantly. “She is the queen. I would come home from school and the first thing I’d do is put on MTV Base and study Missy Elliott’s videos. She always had this little girl in her videos and I so wanted to be her. I loved what we did in Little Mix, but it wasn’t necessarily music I would listen to myself. The music I love is old school R&B and hip-hop.” Her new music reflects her own tastes. “That’s what I grew up with and what I always wanted to make, so now I am making it, it feels amazing.”
Nelson, 30, is the second youngest of four children who grew up in Essex. Her parents separated when she was five, and the kids were brought up by her mother, Janis, a police community support officer. Nelson attended the Sylvia Young theatre school, where she specialised in dance. Astonishingly, she says she had only once sung publicly before The X Factor, when she was eight.
Jesy wears jacket and trousers: Guy O’Sport, from Ninetyfly. Shoes: Vivienne Westwood x Melissa, from Archivesix Studio. Rings: Swarovski, Mi Manera Jewelry, Acchitto. Styling by Toni-Blaze Ibekwe. Photographer’s assistants: Melinda Davies; Z Perou. Hair: Christopher Southern using GHD. Makeup: Heidi North at The Wall Group using Nars. Photograph: Perou/The Guardian
Which takes us to the next tattoo – XIX.VIII.XI. “That’s the date we first got put together on The X Factor – 19 August 2011.” She moves down her body, pointing with a finger. “Then I’ve got one on my leg that says ‘A tiger never loses sleep over the opinion of sheep.’ It basically means I couldn’t give a shit about what people think about me any more. If you don’t like me, then ta-ta.”
I assume it must be a recent tattoo about self-empowerment – a two-fingered salute to the haters. She smiles. No, she says, actually it dates back to the earliest days. “That was at the beginning of Little Mix.” Did she really believe she was a tiger? She shakes her head. “I wanted to believe it. Now I’m genuinely in the best head space I’ve been, but back then I used to pretend I was. I was actually like a little lamb. I do believe as you get older you learn not to give a shit.”
Maybe. Listen to Nelson tell her story, though, and it seems anything but a linear progression towards self-belief. As a little girl, she says, she was perfectly at ease with herself. In her early teens she was bullied and developed alopecia. By her late teens, she was working at a bar in Romford, east London, hugely popular and loving life. “Before I got into the industry, any of my friends and family will tell you I was the most confident person. Then it all fell apart.”
On The X Factor, she got through the audition on a 3-1 vote. Gary Barlow, who was head judge in the absence of Simon Cowell, gave her a big thumbs down. “Gary hated me. He was like, ‘Oh Jesy, I found that audition terr‑i‑ble. Your voice is very gen-e-ric.” She does a great impression of Barlow’s monotone. Even though she hadn’t expected to progress, she was devastated by his reaction. The judges couldn’t understand why – after all, she’d just got through to the next stage. “I said to my mum: ‘I’m not coming back on X Factor, I’m never doing that again.’ Dermot [O’Leary, the presenter] was like, ‘Why are you crying, you got through?’” Maybe this was a sign she was too sensitive for the business. “Maybe,” she says quietly.
She says The X Factor did nothing to support her when the trolling started. “When I was struggling, I didn’t feel there was anyone I could talk to. We were like babies: Perrie was 17, I was 20. I’m hoping that programmes like this are now taking more responsibility. It’s so important because nobody prepares you for what you’re about to go through.”
When I was struggling, I didn’t feel there was anyone I could talk to. Nobody prepares you for what you’re about to go through
What should reality shows such as The X Factor provide by way of support? “I think they should have a therapist there and – whether you like it or not – while you’re in that process you have to go and see them.” The week after we talk, ITV announced there would be no further series of The X Factor, which ran for 17 years.
Little Mix was the second most successful act to emerge from The X Factor, after One Direction. The group developed a reputation for poppy hits about empowerment, independence and confidence; they spoke about sisterhood and girl power. They have had five No 1s in the UK (their first two singles, Cannonball and Wings, followed by Black Magic, Shout Out To My Ex and Sweet Melody). There were 30 Top 40 singles; all six albums have made the top four in the UK (with the first two, DNA and Salute, reaching numbers four and six respectively in the US charts); and they are the only girl group to spend 100 weeks in the UK Top 10. I ask Nelson when she was happiest in the band. Her answer leaves me flabbergasted.
On stage with Little Mix in 2017. Photograph: PA
“When we first got put together, before all the TV stuff. We were all living at Perrie’s mum’s pub in Essex and, I think for all of us, it was the most magical time. It was so new and we didn’t know what was going to happen. We’d just dream about what we thought it was going to be like. We’d all go to Camden and buy matching outfits. There was no bad. It was all good.” This was before episodes had aired, before anyone knew they existed? “Yeah, but don’t get me wrong. I still wouldn’t change my journey – it’s made me who I am today.”
Is there always going to be one person in a group who feels “less than” the others? “I really do believe that. I would be very shocked to hear of any band where everyone felt equal. I don’t think that’s possible, because you’re always going to get compared; who they think looks better, who they think sings better. There’s always going to be one person that people think is weaker.” When people attacked her on social media, was it always about her appearance? “Yeah, it was never about my singing or my dancing. It was always about how I looked.”
Lockdown was the happiest I’ve ever been. I was isolating with my best friend, and I’d not felt inner happiness like that for a long time
To be fair, Nelson isn’t the only one who has struggled. In May, her bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock made a documentary, Race, Pop & Power, in which she talked about how her blackness made her “the least favoured” member of the group. She said that she felt “like I have to work 10 times harder and longer to mark my place in the group because my talent alone isn’t enough”.
Nelson’s relationship with social media is complex, as it is for so many people. Alongside the abuse came adulation. In the early days, Little Mix’s management said they all had to get on to platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to boost their brand. While Nelson has experienced shocking abuse, she also has an army of supporters (8.2 million followers on Instagram) hanging on her every word.
Things reached a nadir in 2013. Nelson says she was addicted to social media; she couldn’t resist reading what the trolls were saying, even though she knew it would make her unhappy. She convinced herself that there was a logic to it – knowledge was power and she was arming herself. Now she knows just how unhealthy it was. “It’s like a drug. I was reading it every day. The minute I got up it was the first thing I did. I’d type in ‘Jesy Nelson’ and then ‘Jesy Nelson fat’ or ‘Jesy Nelson ugly’, and read what everyone said about me.” That’s terrible, I say. “Yes. I was trying to mentally prepare myself for what was to come, and get used to what people were saying about me.”
Jesy wears corset and trousers: Robert Wun. Shoes: Gina. Necklace and bracelets: Giovanni Raspini. Rings: Mi Manera Jewelry and Boho Moon. Styling: Toni-Blaze Ibekwe. Photographer’s assistants: Melinda Davies, Z Perou. Hair: Christopher Southern using GHD. Makeup: Heidi North at The Wall Group using Nars. Photograph: Perou/The Guardian
She became terrified of going out, and her absences were noted by the press. “When it was in the papers that I wasn’t turning up to work, it was just, ‘Oh, Jesy’s not well,’ but really I was hiding away. I didn’t want to get papped because I’d got so insecure about the way I looked. There were times I didn’t want anyone to look at me. I felt everybody hated me. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, and it consumed me.” She started referring to herself as an “ugly rat”.
Magazines often featured her, and there were only two topics – she was gaining weight or losing weight. The more she read about herself, the more she went on extreme diets. It became a vicious circle of self-loathing. “I’d only eat a packet of ham for a day or drink Diet Coke for a week and not eat anything. And then I remember, getting to my skinniest at one point, I went on the Daily Mail website, which I was obsessed with, and there was a pap picture of me and the headline was about me losing weight. All the comments were about ‘Oh my God she’s far too skinny, she looks awful,’ and I remember feeling so happy because that’s all I’d ever wanted.” She pauses. “Now I look back, it’s mad. I went to see a therapist and she said, ‘You know that’s an eating disorder, don’t you?’ I never realised just drinking Diet Coke for a week was an eating disorder. My manager said, ‘Jesy, you’re so tiny, you’ve got body dysmorphia.’”
Did the girls tell her the same thing? “Yes, all the time, but it didn’t matter to me because everything I read was the opposite.”
I was having these panic attacks out of nowhere. It got to the point where I thought, this is too much – I need to come out of this now
In November 2013, Little Mix returned to The X Factor for a guest visit. At this point, Nelson had already been criticised for losing too much weight. After their appearance, rightwing rent-a-mouth Katy Hopkins tweeted: “Packet Mix have still got a chubber in their ranks. Less Little Mix. More Pick n Mix.” Nelson knew she shouldn’t let anything Hopkins said get to her, but it did. “I thought, what is the fucking point? I’m literally starving myself. I’ve drunk Diet Coke for a week and I’m still getting called fat. I went into a really dark place and did what I did.” She took an overdose and was taken to hospital.
Her mother was devastated. “I think she felt like a bad mum – that she didn’t know how bad it was. She was really disappointed in herself, which absolutely crushes me, because there was no way Mum could have known it was that bad unless I’d sat down and spoken to her about it. Mum wanted me to come out of the group. My mum, still to this day, would rather me go back to being a barmaid than doing this.”
Perrie Edwards, Jade Thirlwall, Jesy Nelson and Leigh-Anne Pinnock with their mothers at the Brit Awards in 2016. Photograph: Getty Images
Her brother, a property developer, said she should stick it out and things would get better. “He’s a tough cookie, and I’m really glad he did say that because I wouldn’t be here now if I’d quit.” She means that if she had left Little Mix back then, she doubts she would have gone on to have a solo career. “He knew I was stronger than that and it was just a phase that I could get through.”
For a while things did improve. She deleted her Twitter account – for Nelson, the most aggressive of social media platforms. Meanwhile, Little Mix continued to enjoy great success in the singles and albums charts. But in 2018 a spat between their management company, Modest!, and their record label, Simon Cowell’s Syco, resulted in a transfer to RCA, another label under the Sony Music umbrella. Nelson says Little Mix were the collateral damage. “The incident that led to us leaving the label was nothing to do with us as a band. It was to do with other people that worked for us. We didn’t want to leave.” For once her language becomes a little cautious. She laughs and says it’s at times like this that she misses having the girls around her.
Nelson thinks the move to RCA was disastrous. “It was just a bit shit because we loved our whole team. When Little Mix started out, and for a long time, we were very authentic. We’d go in and write together, but as we got older and changed label, we lost heart in it a bit. We were given songs and I hated them. I was like, ‘I don’t want to be on them – I don’t like the song.’ I don’t ever want to be an artist that puts out something I don’t believe in.”
Then came the pandemic and lockdown, which proved life-changing. “I feel really bad saying this, but in lockdown it was the happiest I’ve ever been. I was isolating with my best friend, and we just pissed around and laughed every day. I’d not felt a true inner happiness like that for a very long time.”
Jesy wears jacket by Versace, from Ninetyfly. Styling: Toni-Blaze Ibekwe. Photographer’s assistants: Melinda Davies, Z Perou. Hair: Christopher Southern using GHD. Makeup: Heidi North at The Wall Group using Nars. Photograph: Perou/The Guardian
Last October Little Mix returned to work to make a video for the single Sweet Melody. “In lockdown I’d just become a little porky pig and eaten whatever I wanted, and then they’d sprung on us two weeks prior, ‘Oh, you’ve got a music video.’ I got in a panic because I’d put on weight.” The panic was exacerbated by the styling for the video. “They were like, ‘You’ve got to wear a bikini!’ Obviously, I don’t have to wear it, but I knew I couldn’t be in a video with the other three wearing a bikini and me in a dressing gown. I got in such a state about having to lose weight in two weeks and wear a bikini. I went back to work and was really down about myself.”
In the end, she wore a corset while the others displayed their midriffs. Nelson was often dressed differently from the others in videos. For example, while they wore white, she would often wear black. “I never wanted to wear white because I thought white made me look fat,” she says. “So I’d wear black and there would be this constant joke online among fans: “Oh, someone forgot to tell Jesy about the white memo.”
Just before Little Mix appeared on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge, Nelson had a panic attack and Perrie Edwards had to take over her part. She’d had them previously, but never performance-related. “I was having these panic attacks out of nowhere. I couldn’t understand what was happening. It got to the point where I thought, this is too much – I need to come out of this now.”
I know there are people who think I’ve let the other girls down, and that I’m so selfish, but it was really affecting me mentally
Nelson has been calm, but starts to cry. “I did the music video and had a panic attack, and it was pretty mental that day. God, I haven’t really spoken about it and I’m getting upset. Sorry.” She brushes her tears away. “After the video I just got back in a really dark place and ended up back in hospital. That was when my mum said, ‘No more.’” The tears are still falling, and she grabs another tissue. “I had already decided. Then the girls spoke to Mum and said, ‘We think Jesy should come out of this now. She has to look after herself.’” So in the end it was their decision as much as hers? “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah. I know there are people who think I’ve let the other girls down, and that I’m so selfish, but I do think there comes a time in life when you do have to be selfish and look after yourself, and it was really affecting me mentally.”
What added to the hurt, she says, is that there were people who made it clear they were glad to see the back of her. “Certain people on my team didn’t care.” She comes to a stop. “I’m not talking about the girls. There were people on my team who knew how I was feeling and didn’t give a shit. They just weren’t bothered.” She means management? “Yep. There was an energy when I walked into a room. I felt there were certain people on my team who just didn’t want me to be there.”
I ask whether her unhappiness has made it tough for the girls over the years. “Of course. Course. We’ve all had our own problems. But it’s never nice to be around someone who’s down and doesn’t want to be there. As much as I needed to come out of it for myself, I didn’t want to keep putting three other people through that as well.”
Now Little Mix is a trio, two of whom are pregnant. Does she think the group will stay together? “I reckon they’ll look after their babies, go off and do their own things for a while, then make a comeback together. I think they’re just as sick as a three. They’re still doing it for girl power. I still love them to pieces. They were like my sisters.” Has she been in touch with them? “No, not as much. Not now. I think we all need time. It’s a big thing that’s happened.”
In March, three months after leaving Little Mix, Nelson announced she was going solo and had signed a deal with Polydor. While the reaction from fans was positive, the trolls were back in force. They claimed she had used mental health as an excuse and had always planned the new career. For the only time today, she sounds defensive. First, she insists, she was in no state to plan a solo career when she quit. Second, she had never ruled one out. “What I’ve said about a million times is that I never said I’m coming out of the band to never be in the public eye again. I said I’m coming out of Little Mix because I could not deal with the pressure of being in a girl band, not that I can’t deal with the pressures of being in the spotlight or being famous.”
It’s eight years since she deleted her Twitter account. Nowadays, she says she tries not to read the negative stuff, and if she does she can cope with it. “Hand on my heart, it’s like water off a duck’s back now.” I wish I could believe her. She still seems sensitive to pile-ons. In May she was accused on social media of “blackfishing” – a term used to describe white people who have altered their appearance to the extent that they look racially ambiguous. “I would never want to offend anyone, and that was really upsetting. I wasn’t aware that’s how people felt.” She sounds bewildered by the allegation.
In the 2019 documentary, Jesy Nelson: Odd One Out. Photograph: BBC
This time round, Nelson says, she’s determined not to succumb to the snipers. She believes she has found her voice in more ways than one. In addition to speaking out about bullying, she feels she’s testing herself vocally. “In a group, you never really get to show off who you are because you get allocated a part. So now I’m doing this, I get to sing how I want.”
Nelson’s sent me one of her new songs called Boyz. It is R&B influenced, with an element of hip-hop thrown in for good measure (including a sample from P Diddy’s Bad Boy For Life.) In the song, co-written with producers Loose Change, she calls herself out for being attracted to bad boys.
Actually, she says, it’s not quite so simple when it comes to relationships. “All but one treated me so lovely, like a princess. But a year down the line I get a bit bored and they become my friend. I’m always more attracted to someone who keeps me on my toes, which sounds mental, but that’s what excites me.”
Part of me feels I should be single for ever because in relationships you have to sacrifice so much
Over the past year she had an intense on-off relationship with actor Sean Sagar. He moved into her Essex home before the third lockdown, then they broke up; they unfollowed each other on Instagram in March. I ask if Boyz is dedicated to him. She laughs. “I don’t feel I’ve dedicated it to him. With my ex, it was the first time I’d been with someone where I wasn’t in control. I fell madly in love with him.” Was he controlling her? “Let’s just say it was nothing like how I’d been treated before. I thought that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be kept on my toes and have that chase, and hand on my heart I don’t ever want that again.”
Going solo, she says, seems to suit her. “Part of me feels I should be single for ever because in relationships you have to sacrifice so much. I like waking up and knowing this day is just for me and I don’t need to worry about anyone but me. I’m really not looking for a relationship any more.”
Perhaps the problem is that men just aren’t that great? She beams. “I wish I liked women, I really do. I said that to my sister the other day because she’s gay. I said, ‘Jade, I wish I loved women,’ and she was like, ‘Well, just try it – you never know.’ And I said, ‘No, I love men too much.’ I just love the way men smell, I love muscles, and women don’t have that, do they?” Some do, I say. “Ha ha! I’ll never rule it out, I’ll just say that.”
For now, Jesy Nelson is going to focus on herself. “I feel you only get one shot to make your impact as a solo artist, so I’m going all guns blazing. I don’t want people to be, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ or ‘I expected her to do that.’ I want people to be, ‘Fuck my life, she’s here!’”
I remind her what her bandmate Jade Thirlwall said about her becoming a broken doll. Did she recognise that? “Yes!” If she was a broken doll then, what is she now? “Now? I am a dolly that’s been put back together again. I’m not going to say I’m a new dolly; I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m not insecure any more, I’m the most confident person ever,’ because that would be bullshit.” If she’s going to stay healthy, she says, it is vital that she’s honest with herself – and her fans. “I still have my insecurities and I probably always will, but it’s learning how to deal with them and accepting them. I still have days when I get down, but I’m definitely not broken. That’s for sure.”
Jesy Nelson’s debut single will be released in the autumn by Polydor Records.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.