As the 20-year-old prepares to become Glastonbury's youngest headliner, she opens up about body image, exploitation and the 'unnatural' life of a superstar.
Time warps for Billie Eilish. This year she will visit 47 cities over six months on a worldwide tour, but in many ways "it feels like I'm never moving", she says. "It feels very limbo." For most of the trip she will either be in a pod on a bus, sleeping as they drive overnight to the next city; in windowless rooms deep in the belly of an arena, where she spends most of her waking hours; or on stage surrounded by hundreds of strobe lights and thousands of screaming fans.
It is disorientating. Recently she didn't see sunlight for three days straight. To help, her tour manager brings candles to burn in her dressing room, a different scent for each continent. It gives Eilish a way to measure time and places passing.
The 20-year-old pop star's life is on pause and fast forward at the same time. "It's weird," she shrugs.
She is the youngest headliner yet of Coachella, youngest record of the year winner (and youngest solo artist to win album of the year) in Grammy history, youngest artist to reach one billion streams on Spotify, youngest to write a James Bond theme song — and to win an Oscar for it — and this weekend she will be the youngest solo artist to headline Glastonbury. But there is so much of life she still hasn't done properly: filling up her car with petrol, going grocery shopping. What is she excited by? "Uuuuh," she says. "I'm excited to play games. I love playing games. I'll play games with anybody at any time. Literally anything."
Today she is in her dressing room at the 3Arena, Dublin, while 22 trucks and six buses unload her show. Eilish is unapologetically, stereotypically youthful, without having had any kind of normal youth, sitting with her legs folded beneath her, fidgeting, then slobbing out sideways across the sofa. She talks about the price of fame and the intensity of internet surveillance. She plays with the sleeves of her T-shirt, picks up Play-Doh and squishes it and explains, with that caricatured exasperation of American youth — "ugh", "like, what the f***?", "ho-ho yeah" — how she finally feels confident in herself after three quarter-life crises before the age of 20. "It's kind of a crazy thing that a human does, touring," she says. "It is so unnatural for us as people to have such high highs and such low lows. It feels like a blur. It's like you're living five different lives at once, bonkers but amazing."
Eilish is who she is largely because of the internet. When she was 13 she recorded Ocean Eyes, a song written by her older brother, Finneas, which they then posted to the online music platform SoundCloud. It went viral, landing a management deal and recording contract. Four years later Eilish hit the mainstream with the song Bad Guy, which they recorded in Finneas's bedroom. It went to No 1 in more than 15 countries and became the planet's best-performing single that year. She was 17.
Her music defies genre; a mixture of pop, rock, electronica, hip-hop and Peggy Lee jazz, with lyrics about Xanax, climate change, Invisalign braces, self-destruction, Uber ratings and burying her friends. It is music for the generation who grew up on the internet, where irony is king and sincerity is lame. It is not ponytail-swinging pop about being a hotgirlboss but melancholic and twisted, tender and honest, music about the darkness of life — and her legions of teenage fans love it.
Today she is one of the most famous people in the world. She has 11 billion views on YouTube, 47 million monthly listeners on Spotify, 44 million followers on TikTok and 103 million on Instagram. "Every album is always received so differently," she says. "Because it's a different version of me and a different version of them [the fans] and I'm growing and they're growing. We're growing together."
With this she says there is great responsibility: "I really feel such a strong need to protect young people and young girls. It's so tough. I remember being 15 and people would say, you'll understand when you're older, and I'd be, like, what the f***, of course I understand now. It's pretty upsetting when you do get older and you're, like, 'Oh, dammit, I did not.' "
When I go to her concert later that night, the fans are fainting. Nine go down before Eilish even appears on stage. Overall the crowd are quirky and sweet, with green hair, beanie hats and skater trousers. Someone's sign reads "You saved my life". Another "I would sell my family for you". "You'll have to excuse my screaming," says the girl next to me, politely. When the concert starts she and her friends are uncontainable, throwing their arms towards her, jumping up and down.
"It's a big show for little me to have to do," Eilish tells me. But on stage she does not look very little at all, marching around with the jumped-up bravado of a boy, an electrifying sort of drag, dementedly crawling on her knees among projections of tarantulas, kicking the air in her trademark trainers while the screens behind her play footage of forest fires and droughts. "Stop," goes one lyric, the crowd of mostly girls yelling in time, "what the hell are you talking about! Ha!/ Get my pretty name out of your mouth!"
Eilish is known for her baggy clothes and upside-down version of beauty, dyeing the grown-out roots of her hair neon green. She started out like this because she didn't want people to judge her body, which she has "hated" since she was a child. She self-harmed "because of my body", she told Vanity Fair, and her body was a reason for her first depression at about 12. Today her insecurity is compounded by the constant scrutiny of the internet. On TikTok people speculate whether she is pregnant. When she was photographed going to the shops in LA in a vest top, she went viral for being "brave".
How is her relationship with her body now? "Gurl!" she says, throwing her head back. "Nowhere good. My relationship with my body has been a truly horrible, terrible thing since I was 11." This was the age she was diagnosed with Tourette's, which can be "very exhausting", she says, brought on in times of stress, manifesting in eye rolls, moving her ears and twitching her head back. "I love that my body is mine and that it's with me everywhere I go," she continues. "I kind of think of my body as my friend. My ugly friend! It's complicated. But what are you gonna do?"
Eilish is cycling through all the insecurities of youth — in front of millions. She didn't really know who she was "until, like" — she sucks her lower lip in and out — "probably the end of 2019. Then Covid made me go right back down into the spiral of, who am I?" Her tour was postponed and she went home to LA. "There was nothing happening and I remember thinking, I need to figure out who I am right now. Then halfway through Covid I felt as if I was starting to have an identity again, let's do different things, let's have different experiences. And then it happened again." Another identity crisis.
The main issue was that she felt stuck in her public identity. "Being known for the whole start of your career for one thing — she wears baggy clothes and she sings like this — it was driving me mad," she says. So she did the most punk thing she could think of: she wore a powder-pink silk corset and dyed her hair bombshell blonde, posing for the cover of British Vogue.
The internet went wild. In six minutes the photo became the fastest Instagram post to reach a million "likes". But with the praise came the criticism. "No matter what you do, it's wrong and right," she says. "Wearing baggy clothes, nobody is attracted to me, I feel incredibly unlovable and unsexy and not beautiful, and people shame you for not being feminine enough. Then you wear something more revealing and they're, like, you're such a fat cow whore. I'm a slut and I'm a sell-out and I'm just like every other celebrity selling their bodies, and woah! What the f*** do you want? It's a crazy world for women and women in the public eye."
Today, months later, she says it's hard to figure out whether she was being the person she truly was last year, when she ditched her baggy clothes, or whether she was dressing up to free herself from the person everyone thought she was. "Looking back at all of the promo and stuff we did before the album [in 2021], I'm, like, don't know who that is, but that is not me! I didn't have any time to think. I just decided who I was. I just became that vibe. And I don't know if that was necessarily what I really was feeling. I was just grasping on to anything."
She pauses. "I honestly don't feel desired, ever. I do have this worry that I felt so undesirable that I may have occasionally tried too hard to be desirable. It makes me sad to think about."
Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell was born in 2001 in Los Angeles and grew up downtown, in Highland Park. Her parents were jobbing actors with minor credits in The X-Files and West Wing. Struggling for work, her dad was a part-time carpenter on the side, her mum teaching improv. Billie and Finneas were home schooled from their two-bedroom bungalow, and could stay up as late as they wanted as long they were making music. Patrick O'Connell, Eilish's father, made this concession after seeing the success of Hanson, a Nineties pop band made up of three home schooled brothers. "I was completely swept away by these kids," he told The New York Times. "Clearly what had happened was they'd been allowed to pursue the things that they were interested in."
Eilish wrote her first song at 12 — about a zombie apocalypse. "Our mom taught us everything we know about songwriting," she says. She "graduated" at 15, taking a high school equivalency exam for home schooled kids. She was an anxious child, frightened of the dark and of monsters under her bed. "I had crippling, life-changing separation anxiety, I couldn't be away from my parents," she says. "I was worried about what would happen to them, I was worried about what would happen to me, I was worried about being forgotten."
The whole family shared a bed until Finneas was ten, Billie staying with her parents until she was 11. "I couldn't sleep by myself," she says. "If I woke up and my parents weren't in the bed and the lights were off, I would scream until they came to the door. And I couldn't step off the bed in the dark because I was certain that there were scorpions crawling all over the floor."
Sleep is still "a serious form of torture". She gets sleep paralysis and, for a period in 2018, "every dream was a terrible nightmare".
She has bought a house in LA where the furniture in her bedroom goes right down to the floor, so there's not a dark space underneath it, but she still spends most of her time at her parents' home, the same bungalow she grew up in. "I truly hate being alone, I'm terrified," she says. "I also have some stalker issues, so it's a little more freaky." Last year she was granted a five-year restraining order against a stalker who camped outside her house and sent her a letter containing a death threat. "I no longer feel safe going outside my home," she said in a statement. "Every time I see him I just want to scream." The year before, a judge issued a restraining order against another man, who repeatedly appeared outside her home and was arrested for trespassing.
The Billie Eilish show is still a family affair. She and Finneas write all the songs, design the album artwork, direct the music videos, decide on merch and choreograph the shows. Her dad, Patrick, designs the set and the lighting, and her mum, Maggie, manages the environmental impact of it all, persuading venues such as the O2 to serve entirely vegan food and campaigning for a plastic-free Coachella. Backstage in Dublin they are unflashy. Patrick is trying to fix the broken zipper on Maggie's rucksack.
"Usually when you turn 18 you go to college and leave your whole family behind," Eilish says. "And it is so nice that we all get to travel the world." What about the teenage angst and gripes and claustrophobia? "I definitely find my mom annoying but that's because she's my mom and everyone's mom is annoying. But I love her, she is like a book, she knows everything, and I'm so grateful because I don't know shit about shit. She's an actual genius about the environment. Brands aren't thinking about it, companies aren't thinking about it, but my mom is."
Outside the venue some of her fans had been camping overnight and others have been waiting at the stage door. Eilish came out earlier to hug them all and say hello. She is known for her low-key interactions with her fans, but it can feel inescapable because everything is "online". Wherever she goes, even to the shops, people find out quickly, crowds encircle her and the phone cameras come out.
"Back when it [the fame] started, I would live my life normally and then suddenly I'd be, like, 'Oooh I am being very crowded,' and I would get really overwhelmed really fast, it was very alarming," she says. "I was scared of going anywhere." There was anxiety at all the attention but at the same time she couldn't resist it. "I used to have this bright green hair and I'd dress in crazy colours and giant clothes and that was a huge inconvenience." Today her hair is dyed black, up in a messy bun. She's wearing a faded band T-shirt and black tracksuit bottoms. "I couldn't do jack shit because I was unwilling to not dress insane. Even before, I wanted people to look at me and think something. I craved this judgment, I guess. Or this criticism."
Looking back, she says, her clothes were an attempt to quieten her imposter syndrome. "I was pretending to be a celebrity," she continues. "I was trying to convince myself that I deserved it because I didn't think I did. I needed to look a certain way so that all of it made sense. So there was something I could grasp on to."
Her biggest fear was that she would live the whole of her life in a cocoon, separate from the real world and real people. "That's why it was so scary," she says. "Because I was never going to be able to do anything normal. I wanted to do all of these things in my life — like walk about and go get coffee and go to a restaurant and go to a park — and I thought I was never going to be able to do that."
Now she has found the "confidence" to go out into the real world. It requires a strategy — certain clothes, places, cars, people and timings — but she can. "This last year I've been so much more opened up to the world of 'doing things'," she says. "I don't have to convince anybody that I am something any more." No more neon hair to go to the shops, no "thousands of necklaces".
When she's home, in LA, she takes baths to unwind, hangs out with Shark, her rescue pitbull, and wakes up early to ride her horse. She doesn't drink alcohol or take drugs — she never has — and has largely managed to stay out of the tabloids, though strange rumours, verging on conspiracy theories, swirl around on TikTok, such as the ones about her having a secret child or being a member of the Illuminati. Her private life is private — she is rumoured to have dated the rapper Brandon Quention Adams and, more recently, the actor Matthew Tyler Vorce, apparently now an ex. Today the subject is strictly off limits.
Writing her album in lockdown with her brother was a "profound" experience. "It was so cathartic," she says. She wrote Getting Older, the first track, as if she was telling it to her therapist. She sings: "For anybody asking, I promise I'll be fine/ I've had some trauma, did things I didn't wanna/ Was too afraid to tell ya, but now, I think it's time." And then: "Wasn't my decision to be abused." She had to take a break while they were writing it — it was too intense.
"It's really vulnerable to be putting yourself out there in that way," she says. "Here's all these secrets about me and here's all these insecurities I have and here are all the things I keep to myself."
She won't go into any detail about what happened to her or when, just that it was when she was younger. Another song, Your Power, is about abusers who take advantage of underage girls: "Try not to abuse your power … She said you were a hero, you played the part, but you ruined her in a year … How dare you?" she sings.
"There's a verse in Your Power that is about my experience and that's as specific as I'll get. The rest of it is about so many other things I've witnessed — from all these different points of view," she says. "It [abuse] does change you. It makes you feel this responsibility and regret and embarrassment. You feel guilty. You feel like it is your fault and it's because of you and you started it and this and that. And you're, like, but wait, I didn't, though, because I was just a kid. We blame ourselves and usually the people abusing you blame you too when it's nothing to do with you. Especially when you're young and your brain isn't developed and you don't know what is right or wrong."
When you realise, in hindsight, that an interaction or a relationship wasn't what you thought it was, it "drives you crazy," she says. "The worst part is it can happen to anyone. It doesn't matter how vigilant your parents are, it doesn't matter how smart you are, it doesn't matter about your judgment, it can just happen to you and you have no control over it. It's crazy. Cray-zee. And a lot of the time people who have that ill intention seem to be really charming on the outside, they can be charming to your family, they can make a really good impression on your friends. And they take advantage of that."
Later on, after performing Your Power, just herself and her guitar in the middle of the vast stage, she stops and speaks quietly to her Dublin audience. She tells them how important the song is to her and how important it is to protect young women, and suddenly she looks so very small and so very brave, 20 years old, having survived whatever she survived while being watched by so many millions of people.
Eilish has always wanted to be a mother — she would "rather die" than not have kids, "I need them" — but she also "dreads" it. "The older I get, the more I experience things, I just think, uuggh, what am I going to do when my kid thinks that this is the right thing to do and I'm, like, no, it's not! And they won't listen to me."
It's a "scary" time to be young in America at the moment. We are meeting in the aftermath of yet another Texas school shooting. "Why is it OK to be scared to go to school?" she asks, throwing her arms up in exasperation. "You go to school and be prepared for a life-changing traumatic experience or dying. What? Who? Where is the logic there?"
Eilish still has that brilliant righteousness of youth, the disbelief at what the grown-ups are doing, the pure rage of the fight, so often patronised as naivety. But there is also a sense that she is more settled. "In the past couple of months I feel far more solid in who I am," she says, folded up on the sofa. "I feel different now, like I'm desirable. I feel like I'm capable of being as feminine as I want to be and as masculine as I want."
On this tour, she says, she is making a particular effort to go outside, sneaking into a city when she can, getting some natural light each day. Even though she "hates the summertime. I hate heat and I hate sunlight, bright shining sunlight. Literally every single June of my life has sucked. I hate June. You know why? Gemini season," she throws her head back laughing. "It's a cursed period of time. But," she continues, holding her forefinger up with mock authority, "we're rewriting it. We're going to have a great month. So I'm putting up dreamcatchers and doing some spells, because f*** June. And July."
Written by: Megan Agnew
© The Times of London