Lizzie Marvelly: 'I've started to develop a real sense of who I am'

By Kim Knight

Lizzie Marvelly is the musician who has finally found her voice. She talks to Kim Knight about being young, female and opinionated.
Singer-songwriter, and columnist, Lizzie Marvelly. Photo / Doug Sherring
Singer-songwriter, and columnist, Lizzie Marvelly. Photo / Doug Sherring

Lizzie Marvelly has a painting of two giant zebras hanging above her bed. At Christmas, her dad gave her a bottle of single malt scotch. In December, it was a year since her friend killed himself. She bakes pies.

"Yes." Marvelly nods, reading this random list of facts about her life.

"Yes.

"Oh. Yes. My friend ..." (There is a catch in her smile. Breathe. Recover.)

"Yes, yes, I do bake pies."

Marvelly doesn't think it's weird that someone she has never met could know these things about her from a 20-minute trawl of her Instagram account. She doesn't think it's weird that men and women her age routinely take - and share - photographs of themselves with no clothes on.

"We take photos of our food! Why would we not take photographs of everything else? My generation has had so much visual stimuli.

We've spent our whole lives taking photographs of everything."

Marvelly has never done a nude selfie. The 26-year-old instigator of the "My Body My Terms" campaign that featured stripped-down celebrities speaking out against sexual violence and revenge porn was always, she says, "too scared".

"I had a publicist when I was 16," she says drily. "I had a very different experience of teenagehood from most people. The stakes were higher for me, and that's probably what stopped me doing that."

Marvelly is best known as a musician. At 18, her first album was a self-titled pop-classical release that made her a household name in households that liked that sort of thing (and cemented a goody-two-shoes reputation in households that didn't). Her most recent single, last August, was a co-write with hip-hop DJ and producer P-Money and it featured in the Stan Walker film, Born To Dance.

She is still a musician, then. But according to her publicity material, she is also a writer, a public speaker, a charity ambassador and - this is new - an activist. The thing that currently keeps Marvelly busiest is villainesse.com, the website she launched a year ago last week, which tags itself "no filter, no bullshit media for young women".

She still sings the national anthem at rugby games (catch her in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Dunedin this month) but she also writes songs about domestic violence and New Zealand Herald columns about sexual harassment in the music industry.

On her Twitter account, she tirades in equal measure against the Henderson High School uniform debate ("Like, how about we tell anyone who thinks they might decide to rape a girl wearing a short skirt not to rape? This is NOT HARD, GUYS") to her neighbour who can't sing Celine Dion ("Can hear someone singing My Heart Will Go On somewhere. A semi-tone sharp on the money note. Why am I being punished?").

Last month, she spoke at TedX Auckland on the need for better sex education and, two days after this interview, she was scheduled to present to the public relations industry. Need a 20-something perspective? Marvelly is the go-to millennial.

"Who am I now? I'm a product of all that's come before. I started in the music industry when I was 16 and my whole life has really been a learning curve. When I was at school, it was expected that I would go on to university and become a lawyer or something. I was on a scholarship at King's and that was the expected path. Then, when I was signed with a record label it was like, 'okay, that life is out the window'. Who I am now is someone who has experienced all of that and has lived quite a bizarre life, in some ways."

She grew up with gossip media. Wear this, don't eat that. "All that pressure that's on young women.

I think I finally got to the end of it, and went 'hang on, this is bullshit'. If there is one thing I can do for young women it's to try and provide them with some alternative, or some discussion that says you don't have to buy into this, because you are beautiful and wonderful and no one's really got it all figured out."

Sitting in Auckland's Mezze bar, Marvelly is both beautiful and wonderful. Lip gloss, not lipstick. A classic Tiffany bracelet. An order of English Breakfast tea. Poised. Pretty. Demure. And she's just said this: "You've got young men, some as young as 11 and 12, accessing hardcore porn, where it's oral sex and anal sex and cum shots and all sorts of really aggressive dominant acts ... no one wants to talk to those boys about what they're seeing because they don't want to acknowledge they're seeing that in the first place. We need to engage in these discussions. And with men who perhaps victim blame, or minimise what women go through, we need to call those narratives into question, not shy away from them."

Marvelly has always had a voice. Finally, she is not afraid to use it.

Her iwi is Te Arawa, her hapu is Ngati Whakaue. She is an only child, born and raised in Rotorua by her Princes Gate Hotel-owning parents Brett and Vlasta. She took up the piano, aged 3 and remembers writing her first song with a friend when she was 6. In her mid-teens she won that scholarship to King's and moved to Auckland as a boarder.

"How do I put this? It was like being a fish and then having to walk on land. It was pretty full on. There's no easing you in there. Bang! That's it.

"But it really galvanised my sense of justice, being exposed to such privilege. It made me think back to the kids I'd been at Rotorua Girls' High with, and Glenholme Primary School and Rotorua Intermediate and the lives they'd lived. They're just completely different planets.

"I felt very grateful to be there, but I was also aware there were so many other amazing kids who equally deserved that level of education and those opportunities. That sense of 'this isn't really fair' started to percolate. It was the first time I'd had that comparison."

Privilege is something Marvelly thinks about plenty. "I'm Maori, but I have fair skin, I don't have to deal with anyone discriminating against me. I'm a woman, which is sometimes not great when it comes to privilege, but I'm educated and I've so many opportunities . . . it's my responsibility to use these things for good, and not to abuse them."

And, arguably, she's always been a bit like that.

Anna Schlotjes met Marvelly when they were 5-year-olds learning ballet. "She was the teacher's pet and I was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I remember her trying to tell me how to do the barre exercise right so the teacher wouldn't make me do it in front of the class until I got it right."

But her favourite memory of Marvelly was at high school: "We had a group of five very close girlfriends. Obviously we had girl dramas. But instead of being allowed to ignore each other and bitch about each other behind each other's backs like normal people, she made us sit down, have a meeting, discuss what we were all feeling and come to a resolution. I hated it at the time!"

How about we tell anyone who thinks they might decide to rape a girl wearing a short skirt not to rape?
Lizzie Marvelly

Marvelly doesn't see herself as a peacemaker - more of a bull in a china shop. "I get myself into trouble ... I've started to develop a real sense of who I am and what I'm passionate about and what's important to me. Being in my 20s and being online means there is no filter for that sort of development."

At high school, her nickname was "Little Miss Perfect". At high school, she developed an eating disorder. "There was so much pressure to be thin.

I grew up with the Kate Moss heroine-chic, rake-thin kind of thing. I think a lot of my generation have kicked back against that and gone 'that's my body and it's beautiful and f*** you advertisers who are trying to tell me to be skinny'."

She worries though: "There is, at private schools in Auckland, I still see it now, a lot of very thin girls and I don't think that's a biological coincidence. I don't want to leave this at the media's doorstep but I checked my own privilege the other day when I realised that in most of the photographs we used on The Villainesse, I could not find someone bigger than a size 10. I could not. When those are the images young girls see ..."

Marvelly made a record that went gold in five days. She also spent 14 months on the anti-depressant Citalopram and three years in therapy. Her own experience with depression and the suicide of her friend 18 months ago, "have really made me want to try and help in any way I can".

The goal: "Minimise the stigma; make depression not a dirty word. The thing that I find just so devastating is there is help there. If you can just reach out, it does get better. When you're on that knife edge, if you can just step back ..."

That law degree never happened, because she did English and psychology instead. "Part of the reason I did psychology is that I am the kind of person who is like, 'if it's going to get me, I'm going to get it'.

I was the kind of kid who would fall off the swing and then go back and hit the swing.

"I was very hard on myself. And when your internal narrative is negative towards yourself, it doesn't make life particularly easy."

She did journalism papers so she could understand the other side of the media machine that shaped public perception of her. "When I was very young, I was framed as this overachieving straight-A student, which I was, but ... it's hard when you're personally dealing with things and then also trying to figure out who you are and also be talking to journalists. In the last couple of years, I've been very much who I am. I've been very straight-up."

Like that time recently when she wrote about sexual harassment in the New Zealand music industry for the Herald: the manager with his hand on her thigh; the musician with his tongue down her throat; the married colleague pressed against her back as she waited to go on the stage.

At those moments, she says, she would feel physically paralysed - but her brain would flip into overdrive, with scenario after scenario. And afterwards?

"You feel like 'this just keeps happening, it must just be part and parcel of it'. But that's not okay. I want to make that point. It's not okay.

"After that column a lot of people reached out and said it's not just the music industry. Totally. But what makes it worse for music is there's very little structure, there's no human resources department, a lot of the events are late at night, there is a lot of alcohol involved, there are massive power discrepancies and also there are artists who are being created into brands and objectified in that way, and that doesn't help with making sure people understand this is actually a human being."

Marvelly was related to the late Sir Howard Morrison. The Manaia pounamu she wears was a gift from him; they toured when she was in her mid-teens and she says, back then, he and musicians like Frankie Stevens watched out for her. But at 18, she'd moved overseas. At 19 she was managing herself.

"I didn't have that support mechanism around me."

Those years were, "a bit of a blur".

Marvelly used to be afraid of her own politics.

"I think I spent a lot of time second-guessing myself - what will people think if I do this?"

When Peter Wadams (better known as P-Money) told her that her songs didn't match her strong opinions, she knew he had a point. "I was scared to write things that were a little bit more political or controversial. Now, I look at it as a box of paints. I can paint a really pretty picture and I paint my broken heart out, or I can paint some challenging and expressive piece."

Back on that very first album, she had actually written a song about Nia Glassie - the horrifically abused 3-year-old from Rotorua who died of her brain injuries in August 2007.

"I look back on that now and I think I was quite young. It is an 18-year-old's take. But I'd stepped away from that, and I'd been too scared to go back down that road. I was really restricting my creativity ... I think I was scared of maybe repercussions or things being taken out of context."

I've started to develop a real sense of who I am and what I'm passionate about ... Being in my 20s and being online means there is no filter for that sort of development.
Lizzie Marvelly

Now, she says, "I feel more liberated to just write about what's going on in my head.

This entire past year, in fact, "has been like a year of yes".

The Villainesse turned a year old last Friday, the same night it contested the best blog category at the Canon Media Awards. The My Body My Terms campaign made international news and now Marvelly wants to launch stage two.

"I really want to talk about sex education. It is so massively important that consent training was added into the curriculum but then not made compulsory. We have the worst sexual violence statistics in the OECD. What is going on here?"

And then she answers her own question:

"Some parents really don't want to think about this stuff. It's really scary ... it must be completely terrifying to have your kids accessing all this stuff you've got no personal experience of.

"I love my parents, and they were the best parents they could be, but when I was a teenager learning about sex, there was this taboo. And also it was bad for girls to have sex. That societal message came through pretty loud and clear to me. There was a lot of fear about it, and I've had to kind of deal with that in my sex life, to dispel some of those things."

Like her website says, no filter.

Jo Raj, Villainesse's deputy editor, says Marvelly would be "really embarrassed" to think of herself as a role model.

"I think over the years, she's probably been typecast as the pretty, classical music singer who gets wheeled out to sing anthems at football games. But the fact that she's found this voice and gets her point across really well ... that was part of the ethos of The Villainesse. Where are the young female voices, where are they being heard? Where are the voices telling our young girls, especially, that being a Kardashian isn't a life goal?"

On the internet, Marvelly has been called a feminazi and a slut. Her trolls tell her she is stupid and she should stick to singing. That she is not even a full Maori and anyway-who-do-you-think-you-are and why are you wearing a bikini in a magazine story on body confidence?

And yes, some days it upsets her. But it doesn't stop her. Because she knows she is in the place she wants to be right now.

"When you're trying to be someone you're not, then it's really exhausting."

- Canvas

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