Glamour cover story: Halsey
Halsey wants to get outside. We’re in L.A., and she’s just wrapped her photo shoot for Glamour. A few blocks away from the studio, we find Hollywood Forever, a historic cemetery and tourist attraction, and I learn she’s never been. It feels like kismet. After all, it’s not every day you get the opportunity to give a dizzyingly famous superstar a spontaneous tour of other dizzyingly famous superstars’ final resting places without a single security guard or manager in sight. Of course we head right in. There are water fountains and preening peacocks, and our footsteps echo against crumbling marble steps. I’d worried we might get swarmed by the singer’s fans, but the grounds are nearly deserted—a detail Halsey immediately picks up. “Dude, how fucking meta is that?” she notes with a sly grin. “You needed to be remembered enough to be buried in Hollywood Forever, but nobody comes to visit you. That’s so Gatsby. That is Hollywood in a nutshell.”
A beat later she adds, “If I die, please don’t let them bury me here.”
It’s not surprising that immortality is on Halsey's mind, given that we’re, you know, in a cemetery. “So there’s a Native American proverb, and it’s like you have two deaths in your life, right?” she says as we weave through the tombstones. “The first is when your physical body obviously decays, and you are buried, and you are dead. And the second is the last time somebody ever says your name.” Halsey may never experience that second death: She’s only 24, but the singer-songwriter is already a voice of her generation, so caught up in the zeitgeist that she can’t sneeze without making headlines. The challenge she now faces is every pop star’s struggle: How do you smash the charts while making art that fulfills you?
Halsey started out as a Tumblr star. After cowriting and being featured on The Chainsmokers’ number-one song “Closer” in 2016, she became a household name and built on that big break with a string of buzzy collaborations and high-concept albums to become one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Her latest single, “Without Me,” claimed the number-one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100. Now you can’t leave the house without hearing Halsey’s heartbroken wail soaring through the radio, the mall speakers, the airport terminal. It played in my Lyft to our interview—twice.
As I power-walk to keep up with her (she moves fast), Halsey tells me a little about how she got to this moment. Born in blue-collar New Jersey to an African American father and Italian Hungarian mother, Halsey says her storytelling abilities come from a combination of her parents. Her dad, a car salesman, was a people person who never forgot a face, the kind of person who bumps into old customers in the supermarket and remembers where their kids went to college. “Watching my dad be like that affected me as an artist tremendously,” Halsey says. “I have met tens of thousands of fans; I don’t forget any of them. Ever.” (Given that she has a lot of them—including 11 million followers on Instagram as of press time—I find this a bit hard to believe but let it go; Halsey’s sweet sincerity is endearing.) Her mother, on the other hand, is bipolar, covered in tattoos and piercings, and more creatively minded. Halsey remembers sitting in the backseat while her mom smoked out the car window and went on long rants about Robert Smith, the lead singer of The Cure. She ate up every word and says her mom was the one who encouraged her artistic pursuits. (There was the Christmas she asked for a violin; her dad said it wasn’t practical—“You’re going to play it for like three months and never touch it again”—but her mom found one secondhand, telling him, “We can't hold her back. We don't know what she can become.”)
Her childhood was pretty unconventional; she attended a new school almost every year until she was 13 as her parents moved from city to city, chasing the next, better job. “I didn’t have a lot of friends, and my family moved a lot,” she says matter-of-factly. After struggling to fit in with the athletic “jerks” at school, Halsey turned to art, spending most of her time designing her school’s yearbook and posting all of her work online: “I was on Myspace when I was 14, which was so inappropriate in retrospect.”
Still, she excelled at building an early online identity as a quirky, hypercreative kid with a knack for laying her emotions bare and her prolific output of paintings, sketches, photo diaries, and poetry attracted a growing following that would later help propel her to her music career. (Halsey didn’t start writing music until she was 17.) Archival footage of her early artwork is hard to find, but a recent Instagram post of an old sketchbook shows an extremely detailed moody black-and-white style. “I was putting my content out there, this projection of myself,” Halsey says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just screaming into the void.”
We turn a corner and come face-to-face with famed guitarist Johnny Ramone’s grave: a life-size replica of the shaggy-haired rocker bent over his instrument. “Holy shit, dude! This is nuts!” she cries, darting around the statue to read the messages inscribed along the sides by his famous friends. (Reading one by Vincent Gallo that says, “Please come back,” she is horrified: “Why would they do that?”)
Halsey zips off to the next so quickly she almost seems blurry around the edges. Her energy is constant, her excitement contagious—but it can flip on a dime. When she spots the tombstone of Chris Cornell [Soundgarden and Audioslave singer] a stone’s throw from Ramone’s, her face crumples. “Oh, come on, jeez, that’s fucking sad,” she says quietly. “Really, really great guy.”
Halsey pauses. “Most people would write in the article: ‘Halsey wanted to go to the cemetery because she’s obsessed with death.’ Then the next headline would be like, ‘Does Halsey want to die?’” She rolls her eyes. “Like, no man…it’s just beautiful out here.” I bring up how, at age 17, she spent 17 days in a psychiatric hospital after she attempted to take her own life. While there, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, just like her mom. “It was a lot of things happening at once, with a complete lack of direction,” she says. The episode taught her she didn’t really want to die. “Thank God I learned it then,” she says. “Given what I've been experiencing the past couple of years”—constant media scrutiny, an endometriosis diagnosis, a miscarriage, and a very public breakup, to name a few—“if I hadn’t already had my meltdown, who knows when it would have happened?”
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Learning to accept criticism or dismissal of her work hasn’t been an easy process, but that early brush with death gave her some perspective. “I have obviously been given this massive privilege and responsibility to effect change,” she says. “At the end of the day, no matter how meaningless one person might consider my art, it could have meant the world to somebody else.”
During those teen years, Halsey worked at a New Jersey music venue booking bands. She quit after graduating from high school—“I just got tired of hanging out in other people's dressing rooms,” she says—and enrolled in the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. Due to financial reasons, though, she had to switch to community college; she found that endeavor to be a waste of time, so she left and made her way to New York to try her hand at the bohemian dream.
“I was literally living on the Lower East Side in a fucking heroin den, like with all of these artists,” Halsey recalls. “It was 2014, the last year that New York was kind of bohemian.” She had started posting videos of herself singing—acoustic parody songs of Taylor Swift and One Direction, musical interpretations of her confessional-style poetry—to Tumblr and YouTube in 2012, and by the time she reached New York she’d amassed a buzzing online following. One day she posted a song on SoundCloud, called “Ghost,” about an ex. Twenty-four hours later she woke up to find that it had charted on iTunes thanks to her fan base. Halsey says the Internet and social media has been a game changer for artists like her. “When most people start a band, they beg big blogs to write about them,” she says. “But I was a big blog.” Record labels took notice, and Halsey quickly signed a deal with Astralwerks (home to artists like Sia), releasing her debut album Badlands in 2015, followed by Hopeless Fountain Kingdom in 2017.
Along with the fame came the backlash—about her race, her sexuality, her hair. When critics said in 2014 she was lying about being biracial because she looked “100 percent white,” she clapped back on Twitter, “19 years of people convinced they know more about my genetics than me.” After posing for Playboy,people questioned her feminism. (“I can show my tits in Playboy…[and] give a speech at the United Nations,” she tweeted back. “Newsflash. A woman can be multidimensional.”) She knows hating on Halsey has become a popular pastime in certain corners of the Internet and music media. “It’s a pain in the ass,” she says. “You just want to shake everybody around you and be like, ‘Why can’t you just think like me?’ And they’re like, ‘I just don’t, I’m sorry.’”
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Recently her performance of “Without Me” on The Voice featured a sexually charged exchange between her and a female dancer; when some viewers criticized it as inappropriate, Halsey blasted the backlash on Twitter, saying she was “very proud to have pissed off homophobic viewers at home who missed the message.” She’s called out Victoria Secret’s lack of inclusivity and stirred debates on whether it’s racist that hotels don’t offer shampoos for people of color. At the Glamour Women of the Year Summit in 2018, Halsey acknowledged how her outspokenness can be misconstrued, reading a poem that described herself as an “inconvenient woman” and encouraging other women to be one too.
Feeling misunderstood under the distorting spotlight of fame is a struggle for many artists. Bad reviews are too. Even at this stage in her career, Halsey feels hurt over criticism of her music—if someone doesn’t like one of her songs, she says it feels personal, like they disagree with her experience. Still, she believes writing a song is the best way to get someone’s attention. “It’s a way of making sure that people hear you, that people understand you,” she says. “Any context outside of music, I am just so sorely misunderstood. [In a song] you can’t take that thought or opinion out of context.”
Halsey’s ability to telegraph complicated emotions over a bumping pop beat is one of her music’s defining traits. “When you turn on a Halsey track, you instantly know it’s her," says producer-songwriter Benny Blanco, who collaborated with her and Khalid on “Eastside,” a single that cinched the number-one spot in the U.K. last September. "She has a way of humanizing herself that I don’t think too many pop artists do. A Halsey song is a Halsey song. It’s so poetic and wordy, but somehow so simple. You’re like, Oh! Why hasn’t nobody said that? She finds the simplest way to say things that are really complex.”
In “Without Me,” Halsey sings, “Said I’d catch you if you fall. And if they laugh, then fuck ’em all.” It marks a pivotal moment in her career: After her breakup with G-Eazy, she felt immense pressure to comment publicly because she’d been so transparent about her life in the past. She thought to herself, So how are you going to do it? Are you going to stream live and start talking about everything? Are you going to go on a Twitter rant? Are you going to flag off on him on TMZ? Or are you going to make a song? “The biggest lesson I learned was to make art, not headlines,” she says. “Because it can become quite easy, in the social media generation, to go from being a musician to becoming a personality.”
“Without Me” is about caring for someone so much that you lose sight of yourself, Halsey explains. “I call myself a collector; I collect things from people and use them to widen my artistic repertoire so that I am writing from a culmination of experiences from the world,” she says. “But I’m an imitator as well, because I’m so passionately putting myself in other people’s shoes all the time.” Being a chameleon is not always a good thing, she admits. “I beat myself up for a long time,” she says. “I was like, You’re fucking spineless. Why do you have to become everyone you’re around? Why do you have to imitate all of their interests, all of their fucking mannerisms, and their personality? Why can’t you just know who the fuck you are and be strong in that? But I realized that will never happen. So instead I started surrounding myself with people I admire and really like.”
And perhaps those people are helping her find herself. “Without Me” is the most exposed Halsey’s ever been; unlike her previous songs, it’s not part of a concept album with a fantasy narrative that she can hide her true intentions behind. The vulnerability is paying off—the track is her biggest hit to date and makes use of the lower, huskier registers of Halsey’s voice, which somehow sound wounded, angry, wistful, and defiant at the same time. Along with Ariana Grande's “Thank U, Next,” it’s paving the way for a new generation of empowered female pop stars who are taking control of their narratives, unspooling the darkness in their personal lives, and emerging with empowering, unfiltered masterpieces.
The two songs might be fighting neck and neck for number one on the charts, but Halsey says she doesn’t buy into the narrative of competition between her and Grande. “We live in a world where women are required to be so fucking original, it’s crazy,” she says. “There are so many male artists who are regurgitations of each other: They all fucking dress the same, they all have the same stylist, they all wear the same fucking clothes, they write with the same writers.”
Her voice rises passionately as she continues, “I will say one thing about my generation of artists: We are just not fucking having it. Lorde, Ariana…if you open any of our text messages at any given time, all of us are just like, ‘Yo, I love your new record. When are you leaving for tour?’ We’re so supportive.”
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Our allotted time together is coming to an end, and we realize we've been walking in circles, unable to find the exit. “We could just be bougie and call my driver,” Halsey suggests. Moments later a black SUV arrives to pick us up. Halsey slides into the back seat, humming a tune under her breath. I ask her whether her next album will continue the trajectory she’s set with “Without Me.” “When you’re 19 the only thing you care about is how the world revolves around you. When you’re 25 the only thing you care about is how the world revolves in general,” she says. “I've written a lot of inward music so far—it‘s been a reflection of me, my mental health, my experience. Then as my voice and my problems started to grow, it was like, OK, I can put this into my art. I think moving forward into this [next] record, it will be more outwardly existential, as opposed to introspective.”
In the struggle between self-promotion and self-protection many artists experience, maybe Halsey—a social media star who created a platform for herself by mastering the art of strategic oversharing—wants to keep some of herself for herself. Where she goes next is still unknown, but it’s clear that the artist wants to be remembered as someone who helped fight for change. If she succeeds, Halsey won't be that special because pop stars who are bisexual women of color not afraid to speak their minds will be the norm, not the exception. Maybe it’s OK if one day people stop saying Halsey’s name. After all, she’d hate being buried in Hollywood Forever.