How Little Mix Mastered the Pop Machine in Seven Years
We spoke to the pop group about mega-fame, the #MeToo movement and what it felt like getting a shit ton of money overnight.
All photography by Cieron Magat
I'm lying on a sofa with my eyes closed. Some very loud music is playing through my headphones. It’s a bouncing, maximalist pop track with lyrics about loving your body and jiggling your tits. When I open my eyes, I am not in my own flat like I usually am in this scenario. Instead, Little Mix’s PR is smiling expectantly over me, his face lit up by a carousel of TV screens which are playing non-stop music videos around us. “The girls want to know your thoughts,” he mouths ominously, gesturing towards my headphones. Before I can reply, though, I’m being ushered through the glossy corridors of the Sony offices and into a side room, where Little Mix are bundled together like a pile of limbs and styled hair.
First, some backstory. Little Mix won The X Factor in 2011 – back when it was still a viable pathway to success – and have gone on to make an estimated £12 million. They’ve released four albums, with another one on its way, smashing records previously held by The Spice Girls. They’re also the first British “girl band” to have experienced this sort of mega-fame under the glare of social media. While it might have once been fine to release some catchy songs and shout “girl power” a lot, pop groups are now expected to be shining bastions of wokeness and liberation on every social platform, while also not upsetting the Radio 1 normie mum crowd and weekend tabloid readers. It’s a weird balancing act – but one that Little Mix appear to have mastered.
Now aged between 25 and 27, I had expected the four of them – Perrie, Jesy, Leigh-Anne and Jade – to be weary, maybe even a little exhausted, like they have been in previous interviews. Instead, I am greeted by a chorus of enthusiastic screams. I later find out this is the first piece of promo they’ve done in ages.
“I love your dungarees!” Jesy tells me, before turning to Perrie, who is in the middle of gossiping about another musician’s recent wedding. “You should have seen his suit, it was exactly how you’d imagine,” she’s saying, sipping tea from a mug like someone’s camp mum. As soon as I turn the recorder on, though, it’s all business: they swivel their pristine, highlighted faces towards me and calmly await my line of questioning. They might come across like every single girl from your school in the home counties, but at this point, they’re also professionals.
When they first won The X Factor, though, they weren’t so well prepared. In fact, they weren’t prepared at all. “We were so self-conscious when we first started out,” Jesy tells me. “We were thrown into it without any expectations, we didn’t know what was going to happen, we didn’t know we were going to get abuse hauled at us for the way we looked. It was actually scary. It was horrible.” Perrie nods: “I didn’t know – none of us knew – the stuff that would come with [fame], do you know what I mean? We love performing – that’s our favourite thing in the world. But everything else… We didn’t know we’d get scrutinised, or hated for wearing a crop top and skirt; we didn’t know any of those things.”
If they could go back, I ask, what might they have told themselves? How could they have possibly prepared for what was to come? There’s a pause, and then Perrie leans in: “I would have said, ‘you’re not ready, go home’.” The others laugh, shifting in their chairs. “I’m being deadly serious!” she says, “We were all so young – we were between 16 and 18. Is that a bad thing to say? That’s not a bad thing to say, is it?” she glances at their PR, who shakes his head. She continues: “The idea of being a pop star to me was singing and being loved and idolised and signing autographs and being rich, and as selfish as it sounds, I wanted that. I didn’t want something mediocre. I wanted to be ambitious. But at the same time, I think at the age of 16, auditioning for something that my mum forced me to do… I didn’t feel ready.”
It wasn’t just the fame they weren’t ready for, but also the absurd amount of money that filled their bank accounts overnight. Each of them come from regular families, in regional towns – so this wasn’t wealth they were used to being around, let alone knowing what to do with. They were given an advance immediately after winning the show, and Jade tells me most of hers was gone within the first few months (“I went to Marbella, lived the dream, didn’t save a penny”). Perrie went to the Apple shop and bought all her friends and family laptops. Jesy splurged on clothes. “Do you remember when we got paid for the Marks advert and we thought it was so much money?” she asks the others. “I remember going to All Saints with my mum and sister – All Saints is really bloody expensive – and I was like, ‘I can shop in All Saints!’” Perrie laughs: “I remember going to Primark with my mam and going crazy.”
Without knowing whether their popularity would suddenly wane, they swiftly rented the best flats they could find in London, and shared them two and two. “Me and Jess had a fuck-off penthouse in Putney,” remembers Leigh-Anne. “It was fucking sick. We come from nothing, so we appreciate everything.”
Do they still have moments when they’re like… ‘wait, what am I doing here?’ “No,” murmurs Perrie, “It’s been too long for that.”
To truly understand the success of Little Mix, we need to first rewind two decades, and look at the Spice Girls. Much has already been said about how the 90s girl group revolutionised British pop. Earlier this year, ex-Music Week editor Selina Webb put it like this to The Guardian: “The tried and tested way of breaking a band was to get excited about the music first, but with the Spice Girls, you got excited about them as people first.” They were relatable and charismatic, and they released a string of huge, evergreen pop hits – it was about that combination and order. As pop critic David Sinclair wrote in his 2007 book, Spice Girls Revisited: “By the time they were ready to face the world, there was a sensational chemistry at work between the five Spice Girls, founded on a genuine bond.”
Little Mix followed a very similar trajectory. When they were put together on The X Factor, they came across as funny, raucous and warm – the sort of girls who might hold each other’s hair back while vomming in a club toilet, or throw their vodka spritz over some shitty guy who'd wronged one of the others. Clearly aware this group were giving off that same specific energy which appeals to young British girls in particular, SYCO quickly sent them to work with some of pop’s most wizard-like producers – TMS, Future Cut, Steve Mac, Xenomania, Jon Levine among others. And then came their onslaught of catchy pop hits, and then came some more. Songs like “Wings”, “Shout Out To My Ex”, “Black Magic”, “Touch” and “Salute” had mammoth choruses, silky harmonies and lyrics about love and empowerment. The blueprint had been repeated, and its delivery was a success.
But The Spice Girls were 20 years ago, and Little Mix are a very different band – especially now. For starters, there’s the way in which each band’s fame manifested. When I interviewed Mel C a couple of years ago, she told me that the hardest part of being launched into the spotlight was how it coincided with the rise of the British tabloid press. “The Spice Girls were a real turning point for celebrity [culture] and we were criticised constantly; lies were written about us,” she said. “I think as a young person, just reading about yourself is really hard, especially when it's based on an image made up of opinions. It was really difficult and confusing for me. Like a lot of people, in my early 20s I was really vulnerable – I didn't know who I was or who I wanted to be, I was just feeling my way."
Speaking to Little Mix today, their comments on fame sound extremely similar to what Mel C was saying (Jesy: “No one wants to see nasty things written about themselves, everyone’s got feelings – you’re not a robot, you’re a human.”) But they’ve also been at their peak for nearly twice as long, and they’re older. They tell me they’ve developed coping mechanisms as they’ve reached their mid-twenties. It still hurts to read articles that focus on their bodies, or comments that aren’t true, but it’s about managing the noise. “I’m personally more accepting of myself now. I'm enough just being me,” Leigh-Anne says. Jade agrees: “For me, it’s even been just the past year. I don’t know if a switch happened… but it felt overnight. All of a sudden I’d see an article online about how rotten I looked and instead of going to the comments to see what people were saying, I’d just think, ‘Look a bit shit there, not really arsed, I’m now going to eat a cookie.’”
Little Mix also come from a different generation to their predecessors. It’s no longer considered enough to release empowerment anthems for women, you’re expected to be educated in what you’re advocating. This is ultimately a positive thing – if you’re releasing songs with lyrics like “Ladies all across the world / Listen up, we're looking for recruits… Representing all the women, salute, salute” it makes sense that those words would be held up to the light. One look at the backlash against artists like Taylor Swift, Lily Allen or Miley Cyrus – who have been accused of cultural appropriation, or using LGBTQ people as props in the past – show that conversations around pop music and feminism have progressed since the 90s, when it was enough to spout some catchy slogans that you could print on pink tees and sell for cash. But there’s an immense pressure that exists within that evolution, too.
In answering these subjects Little Mix often turn to Jade, who has a way of expressing herself with particular clarity and conciseness (though they all do). She explains how, when they first started out, they were careful not to speak too overtly for fear of controversy. “We were scared to say the wrong thing, basically,” she says. “We didn’t want to talk about something if we felt we weren’t truly educated in it. But there’s a change that comes with age, and also learning more about what’s going on in the world. I think we’re all doing that more in general, about the things we’re passionate about – whether it’s women’s rights, LGBTQ issues or Black Lives Matter. All those things that once we would have been scared to touch on. But it’s okay to be passionate about something, and speak up against something if you don’t agree with it.”
“We do want to educate ourselves, and learn about these things, and help people,” says Leigh-Anne. Jade continues: “Because as a pop star, you are in a bubble. We’re on the road all the time. We don’t really watch TV. Sometimes we’re a bit naive to what’s going on around us.” For one of their videos, for a new song “Strip”, they spoke to different women to gain a more intersectional perspective, so it wasn’t just their voices in the clip. “We spoke to someone who does the Daughters of Eve foundation, which helps those who have gone through female genital mutilation. We spoke to Christine, a woman who runs a charity for breast cancer, we spoke to a trans model.”
The others are nudging Jade now, whispering for her to tell me about something called “Woman’s World.” For a moment I think they’re referring to that Kate Bush song, but it turns out they’ve got a track on their new album which goes by a similar name. “So we wrote this song when the whole #MeToo movement was coming about,” Jade says, putting her tea down on the table. “You know… I was so angry about what was going on. It was important to write it with Jez, [a songwriter] who’s a man. It holds an important message. We haven’t written anything that’s too controversial before, and now we’re starting to write things that are slightly more honest. We want to be a bit more ballsy and say ‘yeah, it is hard to be a woman’.” What are the lyrics like? She reels some of them off: “If you’ve never had to struggle to be heard / you haven’t lived in a woman’s world.”
Our conversations on the way women are sometimes treated aren’t all deadly serious, though. When we chat about that time they performed revenge anthem “Shout Out To My Ex” on The X Factor in 2016 and promptly got called “hoes” and “strippers” for wearing some clothes and having a nice time, there’s a ripple of genuine laughter. “Lil slaaaags!” shouts Jade. “‘Little Mix in bondage prostitute outfits!’... I’m not going to lie, it is usually a male journalist. I’ll always check.” Perrie grabs the others, her face suddenly a picture of mock concern: “Yeah, to be fair guys, I don’t know why we spend weeks and weeks working on harmonies and choreography, when really no one cares – they’re just writing about our outfits.”
Just as I think our conversation is coming to a natural end, Leigh-Anne leans forward and looks me in the eye: “But… what did you expect from us? I’m curious about what you think.” Jesy untucks her feet from beneath her and joins in: “Yeah, from those four songs that you heard. Is any of it what you expected?”
I think back to the songs I was listening to on the sofa, before our conversation. They were anthemic, full of hooks, but also very American-sounding in their flow and intonation. Some of them could have been Beyonce tracks from 2008. “I don’t know if I had any expectations. I don’t know how to answer that question,” I reply, unused to being put on the spot.
Leigh-Anne leans back, vaguely unsatisfied. “Maybe people just generally don’t know what we’re going to come back with,” she shrugs. “Maybe they have no idea. What did you think about ‘Woman Like Me?’ You haven’t mentioned that one… I want your honest opinion.”
I tell them it wasn’t my favourite, I liked their track “Strip” more. The lyrics – about body positivity and embracing parts of yourself that you can’t change – felt positive. I like the idea of young teenagers hearing those words and absorbing them. The fact there’s a band like Little Mix – loud, funny women, with pop songs that make you want to stomp down the street and kick wheelie bins over, pop songs that give you a sugar rush – is a valuable thing.
“Yeah, OK,” Perrie says, mulling over my answer before Jesy jumps in: “But did you like ‘Strip’ more because you feel like it was interesting to write about, or did you like listening to it as music, because, like, it’s what you prefer listening to?” They snort, hearing themselves. “Now we’re interviewing you!” says Leigh-Anne.
This is what it’s like hanging out with Little Mix. They’re outspoken and expressive, antsy and easily bored, empathetic and also just figuring their shit out, like the rest of us in our twentites and beyond. “I’m sorry can we stop because I really need a wee?” says Jade. “I do too,” says Perrie, and then we’re all clambering for the door and everyone’s waving goodbye.
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