Dua Lipa is wiggling her “dancing thumbs,” decorated with delicate Keith Haring drawings, in my face. The 20-year-old singer had her digits inked by LA tattooist du jour Sean from Texas while shooting the video for last summer’s “New Love.” She might have the late NYC artist’s iconic figures branded on her skin, and she’ll readily profess a love for Haring’s contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat, but this nascent pop idol’s interests cut across the artistic spectrum. She swerves without pause to gush in appreciation for Pink and Nelly Furtado before dropping the most uncool name in pop’s recent canon: Joss Stone. “My God, I loved her. She had the muthafucking hits when I was growing up!” she exclaims. It’s endearing.
Minutes earlier, Dua Lipa (pronounced Leepa) had sashayed in, all Bambi eyes, plump pout, and six-inch buckled platforms. Wrapped in a disgustingly fabulous, floor-length, magenta faux fur coat, she greeted me warmly before collapsing on the couch backstage ahead of soundcheck. It’s late November, and the 20-year-old is taking the stage for the first time—in front of 500 people at Konzulát in Berlin, Germany (she was supposed to make her live debut in Paris the week of the terrorist attacks). A heady summer of steadily increasing buzz off the back of the disarming pop of “New Love”—a song about ditching a tired romance—turned hotter this fall when she released the glossily anthemic “Be the One.” Since that video was uploaded barely three months ago, it has accrued three million plus views on the force of Dua’s pleading voice and the powerful, cavernous production. She’s the perfect example of a Generation Z, internet-reared star-in-the-making, a singer whose huskily confident tones belie her years and whose songs have taken flight online before they’ve been tested by the rigors of the road.
Born in London, Dua returned briefly to her parents’ native Kosovo (Dua translates as love in Albanian) at 13. She came back to her hometown just before her 16th birthday, with a promise to her parents that she would stay in school. Working shitty jobs to pay rent, she attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School, whose famed alum include Adele and Amy Winehouse, part time. There, the precocious teen began her first forays into music, following in the footsteps of her father, who was also a musician. Where budding singers in the mid-2000s made a beeline for MySpace to upload songs in the hopes of being discovered, at 14 Dua was logging onto Instagram, developing a presence she continues to studiously maintain.
A self-confessed magpie with an eye for the most colorful garments, she shares bright snapshots of her own while admiring the eccentric style of fashion’s favorite nonagenarian, Iris Apfel. These days her sartorial flair is distinct, girlie with an added edge, carefully documented through candid selfies, glossy photoshoots, and behind the scenes snaps of Dua in glimmering tiaras, shiny dresses, ornately adorned jackets, and thigh high boots.
“I lived and breathed London and hung out at Camden Market buying dodgy fashion like everyone else,” says Dua of her early fashion influence. “But when I was first uploading YouTube videos of me singing naff Joss Stone covers, I wasn’t too aware of how I looked.” But like any savvy singer these days, how you present yourself is entwined with your appeal, and she cottoned on quick.
When not singing covers into her webcam, Dua networked her butt off as a teenager, working the door at Mayfair nightclubs and fearlessly thrusting demos at anyone who would listen. Next came a fortuitous stroke from the X Factor brush: Without having to go through the ups and downs of actually being a contestant, she ended up starring in the 2013 commercial for the tenth season of the series. This hustle led to wider exposure for the little known singer, and she was swiftly snapped up by the same managers who rep Lana Del Rey.
Since then Dua’s spent a lot time in the studio, honing her songs with producers like Emile Haynie (Eminem, Lana), Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt, and Koz (Kendrick Lamar, Madonna). It’s been a whirlwind year for Dua; this one night stop in Berlin follows endless trips to and from LA and to Sweden for studio sessions, promos, and shoots. But it’s paying off: With just a few songs to her name right now, Dua has already caught the attention of authorities like the BBC, who named her to the longlist for their closely watched Sound of 2016 award, and “Be The One” even snuck its way onto Billboard’s Emerging Artists list upon its release. Her debut album is set to arrive this fall.
While her music is all bouncy, perfectly mixed radio fodder on first listen, Dua’s tunes are, on closer inspection, fierce, red-blooded, and a little racy. Her lyrics are sexual and self-aware: The currently unreleased “Bad Together” talks about about great sex, while “Hotter than Hell” dissects a toxic relationship. And her voice offers a casual, easy emotiveness that draws listeners in. On the straightforward “Be the One,” a desperation crawls into her voice as she intones, “I was wrong / Come back to me, baby, we can work this out. Dua herself highlights the honesty of her music, drawing a comparison to Nelly Furtado’s debut record.
“Furtado said it straight up: look at ‘Shit on the Radio’ right before ‘I’m Like a Bird’ on that first album!” says Dua. “The sex and the attitude was always there, way before ‘Maneater.’ No matter what people say, whatever Nelly Furtado or Pink put out, I will always love it. I admire Debbie Harry, Anna dello Russo. I like unafraid women.”
As for her own fans, Dua says they’ve been, “very sweet. They’re all my friends.” It’s one of a handful of comments she makes that is perfectly sincere and yet perfect official fanbase gold-dust. Her openness toward and enthusiasm for her fans is reciprocal: There seems to be a small legion of them already. At the Berlin show as the clock edges towards 10 PM, they wait impatiently and excitedly. When Dua eventually takes the stage, she’ll talk to them as though each is her best friend, lying next to her in bed.
Theatricality plays a part in her performance, and she’s not afraid to show off her commercial appeal: The impact of her dabbles in drama school is apparent, and her show is not only soulful but outrageously streamlined and oozing confidence. It also bears an air of nonchalance and improvised candor. She speaks openly to the intimate audience in a kind of purr. She’s seductive in her relaxed manner—less frantic and eager to please than her Kosovan counterpart Rita Ora, yet still exuding polish.
The set draws to a close with a song called “Last Dance.” The latest single off her forthcoming album, it’s an ode to homesickness that bear traces of Rihanna in its swagger and tone. There may have been a wistfulness in the music as she sang the words “holding nothing back like it’s our last dance,” but they also carried a hint of prophecy: Dua Lipa’s putting herself out there with plainspoken appeal. That’s clear when we’re hanging out backstage and I ask, in true pop star magazine style, who she would kiss if she could kiss anyone.
“Is it weird that I’ve got a little crush on Ricky Gervais?” she asks me back. “I’d give him a kiss.” Just when you’re intimidated by the girl with niche art-inked thumbs, she brings it back down to earth. But that’s reflected in the way she handles the idea of meeting her idols: “What if it never pans out the way you’d hoped?” Dua Lipa shies away from pop that intimidates and embraces pop that relates, that fascinates instead.
Alexandra Hayward is a writer living in Berlin. Follow her on Twitter.