Jesy Nelson: abuse has cruelly silenced one of pop's few unfiltered voices
I first interviewed Little Mix in 2012, not long after they’d won The X Factor, the first girl band to do so. At that point they had one song to their name – a beige, contract-fulfilling cover of Damien Rice’s Cannonball they would later disown – but were on the brink of unleashing their first of many top-tier singles, the clap-heavy, effervescent empowerment banger, Wings. As an avid reader of Smash Hits as a kid, I had brought along a biscuit tin (Lady Gaga lunchbox) of torn-up questions, and suggested each member – Jesy Nelson, Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards and Leigh-Anne Pinnock – pull one out at random. It was a test in a way: had they been media-trained into pop cyborgs by Simon Cowell’s Syco label, doling out rote platitudes, or were they proper, say-what-you-think superstars in waiting?
The room was full not just with the band but their PR team and various Syco employees. “What does love smell like?”, one of them read out, innocently enough. “Cock!” squealed Nelson before disintegrating into hysterics as everyone’s eyes darted around the room assuming the interview was over. No one said anything. “Actually it’s sweat,” she concluded, her smile as big as her hair.
Like Mel B in the Spice Girls or Sarah Harding in Girls Aloud, Jesy Nelson – who has left the group to focus on her mental health – was Little Mix’s perpetual hype person, often the focus of attention during performances through sheer passion and determination. That it seemed to mask a deeper vulnerability just made people warm to her more. She clearly had, for want of a better phrase, the X factor. If people weren’t going to take the band seriously then she’d be the one to force them into submission, often while wearing a leotard and knee-high boots.
Tellingly, when they finally won a Brit award in 2017, Nelson drunkenly recalled Harding’s famous acceptance speech in a backstage interview, slurring “it’s about time” with the swagger of a Gallagher while her bandmates tried to keep a straight face. She stood out because she’d managed to transpose her personality – a hard-won, suffer-no-fools swagger with a dose of messy Essex charm – into the pop arena without losing who she was. Interviews were often punctuated with random impressions – who can forget “balegdah”, a meme for the ages – or sidetracked by gossipy tangents. When I last interviewed them in 2019, they’d recently split with Syco and fallen out with Simon Cowell. That particular topic was very much off the table. When I asked about it anyway everyone went silent, the same eyes darting around the room again, before Nelson piped up. “So this is what happened ...”
And yet there’s a sad inevitability about Monday’s announcement that Nelson is leaving. In a pop culture where misogyny is still rife, with a woman’s very silhouette given such narrow parameters for acceptance, if you stand out a target is placed over you. During her time on the X Factor live shows, when she wasn’t fine-tuning her trademark husky vocal on stage, she was often shown in tears, the face of bullying at the hands of online trolls who marked her out as different, ie not pop-star thin. In last year’s Bafta-winning documentary, Jesy Nelson: Odd One Out, she was disarmingly honest about her resulting mental health issues, recalling how on the day the band won the show she was in tears, having read a Facebook message referring to her as ugly and suggesting she deserved to die. In 2013, she attempted to kill herself shortly after returning to the X Factor stage, her new slimmed-down appearance causing another wave of online abuse. In 2018, having tried to own and celebrate her body via the band’s Strip single and its accompanying video showing the band naked, daubed in the insults they’d endured, Piers Morgan used his national TV show to dismiss the move as a publicity stunt.
Nelson would refer to him as a “twat” live on BBC Radio 1 days later, but you can only puff out your chest and pretend it doesn’t hurt for so long. The abuse came in waves from all directions, and was often repeated back at Nelson for a quote, because fighting against poisonous trolls had become her default stance since she became famous. Nelson helped make the dialogue around mental health much clearer, much more honest, but when you become a symbol the person underneath can sometimes get lost. “I find the constant pressure of being in a girl group and living up to expectations very hard,” read Nelson’s typically honest departure statement. “There comes a time in life when we need to invest in taking care of ourselves rather than focusing on making other people happy.”
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.