Halsey isn’t gonna be the pop star she’s supposed to be

The expectations are clear: sequin crop top, sugary lyrics, pastel mass appeal. But Halsey doesn’t give a sh*t.

Halsey

Halsey swears her fans think of her as a friend from camp, which is kind of absurd coming from someone with more than 15 million Instagram followers, two Grammy noms, and a handful of hits that have nabbed top spots on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

But after 10 minutes of chain-smoking together (yes, she tweeted last year that she’d quit her decade-old habit; also yes, she’s a human being and quitting things is hard) and comparing our questionable tattoos, I nearly forget I’m not here to just shoot the shit in a cool mid-century bachelorette pad with, um, a girl I know from camp.

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‘I’m pretty regular’

‘I’m pretty regular,’ she shrugs, as we huddle around a picnic table next to a swanky ’60s-style pool. A huge deer monitors us silently from the forest. Jersey native that she is, Halsey’s unfazed. ‘I’ll sometimes look at other artists who seem so larger-than-life and wonder, Am I not supposed to be here?’ This, again, from a 24-year-old who could retire right now with 10 multiplatinum singles to her name, who was honoured by the Songwriters Hall of Fame at the same age as when most people are still working their first-ever office job. Imposter syndrome is real, people!

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PEGGY SIROTA

In the eventual Halsey biopic, you’ll get the record-scratch, freeze-frame, You’re probably wondering how an artsy misfit from New Jersey became one of the biggest names in pop! voice-over moment somewhere around here. Ashley Frangipane—a melodious name that sounds even better in a strong Jersey accent—was raised in various blue-collar Garden State towns by her dad, who managed car dealerships, and her mom, who worked security at a hospital, along with her two little brothers, Sevian and Dante. (Sevian has been her date on a few red carpets; Dante’s voice appears on an interlude on her 2017 album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom.)

As a kid, Halsey was more AP student than a rebel without a cause. That is, until the subsequent—and well-documented—chaos of her teenage life. There was the thwarted attempt at art school; the psych ward stint and bipolar disorder diagnosis at 17; the starving artist years in Brooklyn where she couch-surfed and made minimum wage; the heroin addict ex who lived off the Halsey Street subway stop (the street was part of the inspo behind her stage name) and is the subject of “Ghost,” the first song she ever wrote, which blew up on SoundCloud and changed her life.

Halsey
PEGGY SIROTA

Will the real Halsey stand up?

She’s now at the tail end of four straight years of criticism over which version of Halsey is the real one. Besides her seriously deep wig closet, she has a thing for genre-hopping (this year, she’s collaborated with the Korean pop group BTS, the rapper Juice WRLD, and her much-buzzed-about ex-boyfriend, Dominic Harrison, better known as the messy-haired British rocker Yungblud), posed for a sexy Playboy spread, and spoken up about her commitment to reproductive rights.

People are always asking her things like, ‘Are you a crazy, rambunctious bad girl, or are you an activist, political, fund-raising philanthropist?’ ‘Like, how fucking immune are you to the human experience?’ she laughs in disbelief. ‘Sometimes I want to have really good sex and sometimes I want to save the world, and sometimes I might try to do both in the same day!’

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PEGGY SIROTA

Still, she says, she’s a Libra—meaning she just wants everyone to love her, even at her most incorrigible. ‘That’s the problem: I’ll do what I want, knockdown everyone in my path who says I shouldn’t, and then when people don’t like it, I’m like, “Why?!”‘ she admits with a grin. ‘When I made ‘Nightmare,’ there were people saying, ‘I don’t think this is the move. You just had a number one song and now you’re gonna put out this weird, political song that’s not safe.’ Well, yeah, that’s why I’m gonna do it.’ She’s talking about her latest radio smash, part of her ‘Marilyn Manson–inspired goth record’ phase. If ‘Nightmare’ is any indication, with its howled lyrics about trampling the patriarchy, the vibe of her forthcoming album is primal scream from the soul.

Feeling herself again

Lately, she’s starting to put together a book of poems. (‘It’s ironic having to explain to people that I’m a poet,’ she says wryly. ‘It’d be like talking to Michael Jordan about baseball and saying, “Oh, you’re gonna try basketball?”‘) She’s always been a big reader, but these days, she’s particularly obsessed with books about female artists who’ve been undermined because of their proximity to famous men: ‘Mary Karr! June Carter Cash! Zelda Fitzgerald! Jackson Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner—brilliant fucking painter!’ Too bad she was overshadowed by a husband who plagued her with all ‘his cheating and bullshit.’

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PEGGY SIROTA

And, *ahem*, as for all that: In the midst of last year’s messy split from G-Eazy, Halsey remembers feeling not at all herself until the moment that zapped her back to life. ‘I was doing Good Morning America and I’m in a blonde wig and white patent-leather outfit, twirling around while I’m going through a heinous breakup,’ she recalls. ‘I look down and there are these two girls, one with pink hair, one with blue hair, septum piercings, cool as fuck, still loving me, probably knowing what a weird time I’m going through. I looked at them, looked at myself in my sparkly Britney Spears outfit, and went, Ohhh no, they deserve way better than this. If those girls can be that brave in who they are, then I owe them better than this homogenized bullshit.’ (Check out the clip on YouTube. There’s something almost indescribably sad about the performance—until the very end.)

‘But hey,’ she continues, casually peeling off the last of her photo-shoot fake eyelashes, ‘if the worst thing that’s happened to me so far is I wore dumb clothes and dated a shitty dude, I think I’m doing all right.’

For more on Halsey pick up our December 2019 issue, on newsstands on 25 November, or click here to subscribe.