The very nature of pop music – glossy, aspirational and larger-than-life – hasn’t historically made it a very welcoming place for frank discussions about mental health, and the undeniable toll that a life lived out in the public eye can have on artists.
Pop stars, we’re led to believe, shimmer their way through life in a glamorous series of perfectly choreographed dance routines, leaving a trail of glitter in their wake. While we normies struggle not to burn our toast every morning, pop’s megastars effortlessly perform the splits, scale multiple octaves with ease and breeze through the day in a series of haute couture costume changes. And yet, behind the scenes, the pressure of being constantly watched, scrutinised and picked apart must be immense.
This week, this same pressure grew too much for Jesy Nelson, who announced that she was leaving the girl band Little Mix after nine years, four Platinum albums and four Number One singles. Her leaving statement was surprisingly forthright, and addressed her reasons directly without euphemism. “The truth is recently being in the band has really taken a toll on my mental health,” she wrote in a post on Instagram. “I find the constant pressure of being in a girl group and living up to expectations very hard.”
We have seen this narrative unfold time and time again: whether it’s young artists like Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus – who both shot to fame in their early teens – being torn apart as they grow up in the bright glare of the public eye, or pop stars like Demi Lovato or Britney Spears being hounded by paparazzi at the very moment where they need space to recuperate
And in the age of constantly switched-on social media, the existing pitfalls of stardom have only worsened. Constantly, there’s pressure to keep fans entertained with a polished, and meticulously curated version of real life. Pop stars must somehow be relatable while maintaining boundaries and privacy – but not too relatable, remember, because unlike us mere mortals, they must also be flawless role models who never make the wrong call. This is an especially tough tightrope to balance on in an age where everything and anything can be filmed on a stranger’s phone. It’s surely exhausting.
Unsurprisingly, contending with all of this often becomes too much for artists – and when they do make the difficult decision to step away from fame, we rarely see taking space to focus on mental health given as a reason. Usually, exit statements cite things like ‘artistic differences’, or simply feeling like it’s the right time to move on – and of course, this might sometimes be the truth. Often, though, there’s more going on behind the scenes. Artists don’t owe us any explanation – and should they wish to keep their reasons for bowing out private, that is their decision and it should be respected.
This is also why the particularly candid nature of Jesy Nelson’s leaving announcement stands as something of an anomaly, especially in the pop world. “Her bandmates, meanwhile, posted to express their full support. “We love her very much and agree that it is so important that she does what is right for her mental health and well-being,” they said on Twitter.
It seems pertinent, too, that Little Mix were originally formed on The X Factor in 2011. Reality TV as a whole is not exactly famed for looking after its contestants’ wellbeing, and the nature of the show’s live show format piles immense pressure on fledgling acts to deliver week after week. In the past, the show has been accused of exploiting aspiring singers for cheap laughs. Several times, The X Factor showed footage of Jesy crying after reading hateful comments about herself online. “People are writing a few nasty comments, and obviously it got to me a little bit,” she told her bandmate Jade Thirlwall in one such moment, filmed at the contestants’ house between live shows. She went on to speak about the way that reading misogynistic messages about her body heightened existing insecurities.
When Little Mix won The X Factor, the abuse continued, and eight years after the group’s victory, Jesy appeared in her award-winning BBC documentary Odd One Out, during which she looked back on the night they won the competition. The 2019 film saw Jesy discussing the effect that bullying and online abuse has on people’s self esteem and mental health. “I remember thinking, how have I just won The X Factor, and all I want to do is go home and just go back to being a barmaid?” she said.
Jesy Nelson is not the first hugely successful artist who has been affected so severely by living her life in public while being subjected to body-shaming and online abuse – and unfortunately she is unlikely to be the last. Earlier this year, Billie Elish also called out the unacceptable expectations which are placed on women in music in particular in a powerful live monologue. It was immensely troubling to see the irresponsible, congratulatory air of certain publications gushing over Adele’s reported body ‘transformation’ this year. Elsewhere, Demi Lovato, Taylor Swift, Kesha and former members of The Spice Girls have all spoken about their experiences with disordered eating.
There’s no questioning Jesy’s decision to take some time for herself. Yet it remains a huge shame that things have come to this. Little Mix’s most recent album ‘Confetti’ – their first record after cutting ties with Simon Cowell – was their best and most consistent work to date. Jesy herself isn’t just a gifted performer; she’s an entertaining and charismatic star who stands out from beige, unimaginative chart-fodder with an honours degree in media training.
In Little Mix, Jesy brought us surreal impressions – honestly, who can forget the cultural force that was “balegdah”, her panicked outburst when she was challenged to do a Jamaican accent in a TV show. In general, she takes a refreshingly brazen approach to interviews, and is a dependable source for gold-cast quotes that could liven up the dullest of award ceremonies. “It’s about time, in the words of Sarah Harding,” a slightly tipsy Jesy quipped, quoting the Girls Aloud member, after Little Mix won their first BRIT Award in 2017. “It’s gonna look wonderful on our mantelpiece.”
She’ll be greatly missed by Little Mix fans, but by choosing to be so honest about her reasons for leaving, Jesy Nelson has also achieved something hugely important. Backed by the unwavering support of her former bandmates, she and the group have set an important precedent where a person’s wellbeing comes ahead of keeping up appearances just to keep the cash flowing.
Still, there remains a daunting amount of work to do when it comes to properly supporting artists’ mental health and stamping out misogyny in the music industry. In stepping down from one of the world’s most successful girl groups, Jesy has offered an example that the rest of the industry would do well to learn from.