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Online Abuse Made Jesy Nelson's Life a Living Hell

The Little Mix singer reflects on almost a decade in the spotlight, and the depression and anxiety that stemmed from obsessively reading comments people had written about her online.

by Michael Segalov; photos by Chris Bethell
13 September 2019, 11:22am

Photos: Chris Bethell

There’s a rash on Jesy Nelson's cleavage and she wants me to look at it. "It comes up every time I talk about all this stuff," she says, smiling. The Little Mix singer is mid-way through telling me about her new BBC documentary, which aired last night, but has stopped to point at her chest. She's clearly a little nervous, and not just because this is the first interview the 28-year-old can remember doing without her bandmates by her side.

Not long ago, Jesy was sitting in a hotel room, alone, watching an Amy Schumer movie. "It's called I Feel Pretty, and it's about this girl who struggles with body confidence and the way she looks," she says. "At a gym class, she's looking at this model and just wishing she could look like that." At one point in the film, Schumer's character approaches this model and opens up about never feeling desirable or pretty; about how she wishes she could wake up for just one day and not hate everything about the way she looks.

"That moment really resonated with me, and how I felt, for years," Nelson explains, another nervous giggle. "It was like, 'Oh my god, that was me five years ago.' I used to sit and look at the girls when they were having their makeup done and think, 'What I would give to be you.' I just wanted to wake up and be someone else."

Sitting on that hotel bed, Jesy realised she no longer felt that way – and that it was time to open up to the public about what she'd been through. "That night I rang my friend Adam and asked how much it would cost to make a documentary," she says. "I told him everything. He's been with us since the beginning, but didn't know anything at all. Nobody did, really."

"In this documentary there are so many things that I speak about that nobody knows about at all. For so long I hid it all, and didn't want to talk about it because I was too scared and embarrassed and ashamed. I just so badly wanted to get away from being known as 'Jesy, the fat one from Little Mix'. Now, though, I just don't care."

I'm meeting Jesy in a secluded office at Broadcasting House in central London. In the run-up to us sitting down to talk, there'd been some suggestion that she might find the interview upsetting – understandable, given the subject – but as she talks about her unhappy memories of being on The X Factor, it's obvious she's relieved to be able to finally talk. "It feels like a weight has been lifted," she says, multiple times.

It was 2011 and a 19-year-old Nelson was sitting with her newly formed girl group in the house the reality show contestants shared, flying high. "I'm not even sure I knew what YouTube was before that night," she says, "but we were all sat around watching our performances back. It was so exciting.

While watching those performances, someone mentioned to the group that you could read comments underneath, and Jesy – assuming posts would be critiques of her singing – had a look. "Every single comment was about the way I looked: 'the fat ugly rat in the middle, how is she in the group'; 'she's disgusting'."

At that point, Jesy was carefree and confident – she'd never had any issues with her image before – and as she read the comments, surrounded by her peers, she didn't know how to react. "I felt everyone around me looking at me – they didn't know what to do," she says. "My heart… I'd never experienced anything like it." She ran to the balcony and called her mum, crying. "I said, 'I want to go home, I don't want to do this anymore.' She offered to come and get me."

In the end, Jesy decided to stay – this was her dream, and she was desperate to not let the rest of the group down. Once the production team found out what was happening they asked her to meet with them and talk. "Within a few weeks they asked me to talk about it on camera, but I really didn't want to," she says. "They told me they weren't recording when they were, and it ended up going out on a VT – me crying and explaining. I was devastated. It was bad before that went out, but as soon as that happened it was all I was known for."

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As the abuse got worse, so too did Jesy's comment-reading addiction. She couldn't stop herself from scrolling endlessly through social media to see exactly what was being said. "I'd type in to search bars things like 'Jesy the fat one', although to be honest I could just put in Jesy and I'd find it all right away." A routine formed: Jesy would wake up and dive straight into it, spending the day running from rehearsals to events, heart-broken and in tears much of the time.

"It sounds mental," she says, "but I thought to myself if I could get myself used to seeing these things, maybe it won't hurt. Maybe I'll feel better, and used to seeing it. It just made me worse, though, but I couldn't stop."

Things only got worse as the show continued – and once it was over the band became hugely successful, but what should have been the experience of a lifetime became quite the opposite for Jesy. Social media trolls made her life a living hell, and she suffered through years of anxiety, depression and self-loathing.

The documentary is a hard watch; Nelson bares all in explaining just how bad things became. She talks openly about her battle with depression, skipping work and gigs because she was petrified of what people might say about her. And then, she says, one night in 2013, after retuning to perform on The X Factor, she attempted to take her own life. I ask what was going through her head at the time.

"It was constantly knowing I was never going to be happy again," she says, "thinking this is how I'd feel forever – so what's the point? It was too painful. What made it worse is that I was in a job where I had to constantly pretend everything was amazing, constantly be in front of cameras. I couldn't enjoy it – it's not a life I wanted to live."

On tour in the USA in 2014, things once again began to spiral. The breakdowns were unrelenting, with Jesy often feeling it was impossible to make it onstage. "I'd get so anxious that people would be looking at me and talking, and I'd think they were talking about me, the fat one, saying horrible things," she says.

One evening, some of the tour's dancers sat down with her, for something of an intervention. They pointed out her obsession with social media was an act of self-destruction. Why not delete her account? "They were right, and I deleted Twitter that day," says Jesy. "Things slowly started to get better, but it was hard."

There's a heartbreaking moment in the documentary where Jesy says that however much progress she makes, she'll never again be the happy person she once was. "I know I'll never be the same as before X Factor," she says. "I was completely care free – I had no issues with the way I looked. For five years solid I've had it drilled into my head that I'm fat and ugly and look deformed. You obviously start, after a while, to believe that."

That said, Jesy is clearly doing better – she's working hard, making the best of it. "I'm confident now," she says. "It's taken me such a long time to get to a place and look at myself and think, 'Fuck yeah, I look good.' I used to hate to have my belly out in case people would call me fat; now, I couldn't give a shit. There are still people who say I'm the fat one, that I wear too much makeup. But I don't care anymore – it's about how I feel."

@MikeSegalov