Late January, and the light is fading in a family back yard in Pearblossom, a sparse, mountain-edged town about an hour-and-a-half north of Los Angeles. Billie Eilish is standing in a meme-sized Moschino puffer jacket with sleeves to the floor, FaceTiming photographer Harmony Korine’s 12-year-old daughter, Lefty, as he holds up his phone. About 20 feet away, two pre-teen girls – the girls whose yard has been borrowed for today’s shoot – sit on the steps of their treehouse, wide-eyed and vibrating with excitement. They react how you might if your favourite pop star had turned up to your childhood home and had a go on your trampoline, as Eilish soon does, bouncing while Korine snaps pictures. Their mum reminds them to breathe.
Rewind a couple of hours, and Eilish – in an all-red XXL jumper, basketball shorts and matching red monogrammed Louis Vuitton scarf – joins me in the mini-van parked outside her house and stretches out a hand. It’s here, in a makeshift studio in her family’s modest two-bed in LA’s Highland Park neighbourhood, where the 18-year-old recorded her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, with brother Finneas, which won five Grammys just a few days prior to the shoot. Now, she’s the youngest person and first woman to take home best album, record, song, and artist of the year – ever.
Though Eilish may have ascended to the levels of fame that necessitate a towering personal security guard, Calabasas this is not. A neighbourhood case-study in gentrification, Highland Park is the kind of real LA impossibly far from the fantasy city that exists in people’s imaginations. Drive down its central boulevard and the old and new clash visibly against each other: an Instagrammable coffee shop serving ceremonial matcha shares a wall with a Latinx salon offering low-cost haircuts; down the street from a yoga studio called Namaste, a boarded-up Mexican restaurant sits with a ‘for lease’ sign flapping upside-down from its awning.
“It used to be I couldn’t walk around the neighbourhood because it wasn’t safe,” says Eilish as we hit the road. “Now I can’t walk around because I’m fuckin’ famous.”
Billie and Finneas – who is four-and-a-half years her senior – were home-schooled. Their parents encouraged creative pursuits, but Eilish was not thrust eagerly into the nearest Disney Channel audition as soon as she could talk. When she was a kid, her family did not have money, and the idea of Hollywood, the star-making industry churning away in the offices, movie lots, and recording studios a few miles across town, just wasn’t on her mind. “I never really thought about it. I didn’t know anything about an industry or entertainment or whatever,” she shrugs. “I wanted to work at Jamba Juice. So I didn’t know shit.”
In other words, no one saw this coming. Before the awards show, Finneas had expressed concerns to their mum, Maggie, about not knowing how to act when they lost. Billie, meanwhile, was filmed mouthing the words “please don’t be me” before her name was called for the fourth time. “I was sur-prised,” she says, elongating each syllable. “I was dead surprised. And I was embarrassed, dude, I was fuckin’ embarrassed. I was in front of Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey and fuckin’ Beyoncé is nominated, and I win. I was like, Nooooo…” Eilish groans, wrapping her scarf around her head. “I don’t deserve it. They deserve it.”
While it might work for her peers, to Eilish, the celeb-favourite practice of manifesting success is “super-corny and very embarrassing”. Rather than a momager-directed push for stardom, “Ocean Eyes” – the track that introduced the world to a 14-year-old Eilish as she sang with powerful intimacy about “burning cities and napalm skies” – was originally recorded because her dance teacher wanted a song to choreograph a routine to. It was a surprise hit on SoundCloud, the streaming site that transformed a series of DIY artists into unexpected superstars in the 2010s, birthing a new rap subgenre in the process.
“I didn’t know anything about an industry or entertainment or whatever. I wanted to work at Jamba Juice. So I didn’t know shit” – Billie Eilish
A deal with Interscope came swiftly afterwards, but despite major-label backing, Eilish remained something of an underdog in the contemporary chart landscape. This new pop star was an anomaly. She didn’t wear a lot of make-up, had colourfully dyed hair, and dressed in baggy, bright clothing that straddled a line between hip hop and Hot Topic. (“The only reason I did it was ’cos I hated my body,” she says frankly.) Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele, who has created custom looks for Eilish, praises her “true talent and authentic energy”, adding that “nothing about her is insincere”.
“Artists like her come along very rarely,” notes fellow fan Marina Diamandis, AKA Marina and the Diamonds, one of the female musicians Eilish cites – along with Lana Del Rey and AURORA – as an inspiration growing up. “She’s a disruptor in the very best sense.”
Take When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, an album haunted by nightmarish visions of Eilish’s unconscious. On its cover, the singer’s eyes have no pupils, her body is rigid, her hair dyed a dark blue-grey. It looks, essentially, like a tumblr remake of The Exorcist , as far as you can get from the art of …Baby One More Time, where Britney, literally on her knees, smiles sweetly up at the camera. But with her album, Eilish became the youngest artist to spend more than a week on top of the US charts since Spears and her 1999 release.
“So many people when they’re starting out are told they can’t be this, can’t do that and can’t say this – whatever,” Eilish intones while the mini-van’s blue party lights make her neon roots glow. “I guess I was really lucky not to have that.” Only in the “very, very beginning”, her mum recalls later that day, while snapping away at the shoot on her iPhone, did the label try and put her in a room with other producers instead of Finneas. “It took a while for them to kind of get it. Like, ‘Oh, we see. You guys do the best things when it’s just the two of you.’ But they did get it.”
And the label weren’t the only ones to get it: Eilish quickly built a diehard teen following. To her fans she felt, in a word, real: too much a genuine outlier for a label to have schemed up. “By her album release, Eilish embodied something already building in pop culture (that) hadn’t yet crossed over properly to pop,” explains writer Hannah Ewens, author of Fangirls, a book-length study of female fandom. “In her presentation, visuals and mood of her work, her message is to be aggressively yourself regardless of consequence or how you feel, like (an updated version of previous) rock or emo artists. The fact that her references to anxiety, depression and addiction of other people close to her are subtle makes her touch authentic, something fans are adamant she is.”
The fandom means that Eilish has been burdened with the same cross as a rare few before her: being the voice of her generation. (Her response to that charge comes with an eye-roll: “I don’t know what that even means”.) Fatalistic or realistic, for Eilish and her peers, born during the chaos that came after 9/11, it feels like the world is about to sleepwalk off a cliff. (Radical teen drama Euphoria’s opening scene – of lead character Rue’s parents watching President Bush address the fallout while cradling their newborn – nailed it.) A vegan who has never so much as smoked a cigarette, Eilish’s encounter on today’s set with a perpetually cigar-puffing Korine, the chronicler of wayward 90s youth, is a telling one. “Everyone does drugs now to the point where not doing them is rebellious,” Eilish reasons.
“(People would say) ‘Billie Eilish: rule-breaker’, or ‘breaking all the rules’, or whatever. And I’d be like, ‘What rules are there?’” Eilish continues, adding that she wasn’t consciously rejecting the aesthetics of the female artists who preceded her. “I didn’t consciously go, ‘I’m not gonna do that, I’m gonna do this.’ I (just) didn’t think of myself as being in the realm of those people. I was never comparing myself to them.”
“It took a while for (the label) to kind of get it. Like, ‘Oh, we see. You guys do the best things when it’s just the two of you.’” – Maggie Baird (Billie’s mum)
Eilish is stumped by a pervasive tendency for people to categorise her work as dark, despite her love of horror-movie visuals (take the video for single “xanny”, a sonically blown-out panegyric to her own teenage sobriety, in which cigarettes are stubbed out on her face). “I understand that most music videos are, like, looking pretty in a shot and singing the song and then there’s a guy in the video and you kiss the guy and that’s the whole thing,” she says. “(But) I’ve always loved visual shit. I’ve always loved stuff that, like, grabs you. People wouldn’t play my music on the radio for two years because they thought it wasn’t happy enough. It’s like, ‘Bro, have you heard “Run for Your Life” by The fucking Beatles?’ ‘I’d rather see you dead than to be with another man.’ That’s the hook!”
For Ewens, Eilish’s work as a mental health advocate comes through implicitly. “She’s doing what iconic rock artists before her like Marilyn Manson, Slipknot and My Chemical Romance did in the 90s and 00s,” says the writer, “by leaning into the darkness.”
“It’s something that comes up all the time: ‘You write about mental health and depression,’” says Eilish. “So does everybody else. People just write it in a different way.” But for every lyric about dreams of jumping off the Golden Gate (“everything i wanted”) or tarantula crawling from her mouth in a video (“you should see me in a crown”), Eilish matches it with a playful sense of humour. The album’s intro features the audible slurp of her taking out her Invisalign, followed by her and Finneas howling with laughter. Another track samples dialogue lifted from The Office. IRL, Eilish is far from downcast. Despite appearing as the epitome of teenage disinterest for Korine’s camera, she’s pretty goofy, skipping away to bleat happily at the goats the aforementioned family keep on their property, or loudly singing Christmas songs purposefully off-key. At one point, she fist-pumps along to “Who Let the Dogs Out” as it blasts from her own backpack with built-in speakers.
Right now, Korine is directing Eilish to take a seat at a stone picnic table with a row of bikers (in vegan motocross gear) lining up behind her. Her bodyguard, a stretch limo and its septuagenarian driver – wearing sunglasses, though the sun has long since disappeared behind the mountains – complete the tableau. As Eilish, clad in sculptural Craig Green, languidly blows on a party popper, a lurking paparazzo snaps pictures which later make their way on to TMZ – in fact, they seem to have been tailing us since Eilish left home. The accompanying article promises a first look at “The racy photoshoot!!!”
It’s one of many none-too-subtle attempts out there to generate clicks by linking the teenager’s name to something suggestive. Last year, a picture of her off-duty in a tank top (it was 34°C outside) rather than one of her usual baggy fits went viral. “I saw comments like, ‘How dare she talk about not wanting to be sexualised and wear this?!’” she says, shaking her head. At the start of this year, she posted a video of herself – or, more accurately, her head and shoulders – in a bathing suit while on holiday with friends. It was, especially if you compare it to the social media posts of other famous 18-year-olds, tame. “It was trending. There were comments like, ‘I don’t like her any more because as soon as she turns 18 she’s a whore.’ Like, dude. I can’t win. I can-not win.”
Never mind the others set on policing it, Eilish’s own discomfort with her body has been pervasive enough, to the extent that she admits she would actively avoid looking at herself. “There was a point last year where I was naked and I didn’t recognise my body ’cos I hadn’t seen it in a while,” she says. “I would see it sometimes and be like, ‘Whose body is that?’”
“(People would say) ‘Billie Eilish: rule-breaker’, or ‘breaking all the rules’, or whatever. And I’d be like, ‘What rules are there?’” – Billie Eilish
Since then, says Eilish, her self-image has improved somewhat: “It’s not that I like (my body) now, I just think I’m a bit more OK with it.” That said, the singer is hyper-aware that any change in her signature look would come with its own backlash. Before it was postponed, her new tour visuals included a film where she sheds layers while opining on her body, clothes and the judgment of others. “If I wore a dress to something, I would be hated for it,” she says on set today. “People would be like, ‘You’ve changed, how dare you do what you’ve always rebelled against?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not rebelling against anything, really.’ I can’t stress it enough. I’m just wearing what I wanna wear. If there’s a day when I’m like, ‘You know what, I feel comfortable with my belly right now, and I wanna show my belly,’ I should be allowed to do that.”
In the 2020 election cycle, Eilish is set to vote for the first time, and there’s a section on her website where fans can register. Evidently willing to put her voice and platform to use, she appeared in a video alongside Woody Harrelson urging people to recognise the climate emergency last September, and had announced plans to make her tour more eco-friendly – with water-refill stations, recycling bins, and an area where fans can learn about climate change. “I didn’t know what global warming was for a really long time,” she admits of her relatively recent conversion to the cause. “Doing more and more research and learning more about it, it’s so insane. Like, we’re gonna die if we don’t do something.”
When the realities of Covid-19 hit, Billie was also quick to educate her fans, delivering a five-minute Instagram story in March to her 57 million followers: “I’ve seen a lot of young people out in the world, all over the place, going to the club or going to the beach or just going out and hanging out, and it’s really irresponsible. Please take responsibility for your endurance of this.” It made for a stark contrast with her video post just one year before, which saw her gleefully hugging excited crowds on a trip to Milan. But she genuinely cares about those fans – as soon as she knows something, they’re going to know it too. Hers is a radical transparency, but maybe a necessary one in the strange era our newest pop stars have emerged into.
The thing is, no matter how real Billie Eilish is, people always seem to find new ways to spin fake stories about her. There’s the amateur porn film with her name on it (“You think I would be having sex on a train in daylight? With a dress on and fishnets and a fucking peace-sign necklace? Dog, come on!”), the Photoshopped DM conversations, the fake FaceTime calls and, worst of all, the IRL impersonators. Turns out, when Eilish poses for pictures in the limousine on set, an online imposter had done the exact same thing the previous day.
“People put a fuckin’ green and black wig on and go out in public and pretend to be me,” says Eilish. “They hire security and get a nice car, to be famous for a day. I think that shit is so fuckin’ annoying!” Maggie holds up her phone to show me the imposter, an actor in what turned out to be a YouTube prank. “It makes me look bad – if they’re being a dick, then everyone’s gonna think I was a dick.” Mostly, though, she’s worried for her fans. “It’s so mean. Every day I’m afraid someone is gonna do something – either fake something viral, or there’s gonna be some…” She trails off. “I don’t even know what.”
At a time when (digital) appearances can feel like reality, when scammers make headlines and even fakes are deep, it’s Eilish’s commitment to being herself that feels revelatory. She’s getting to grips with fame in public and, while previous generations of celebrities were given no option but to smile and nod, she is honest about the double-edged sword of success. “Being nobody is fire,” she reminisces at one point – before noting that she’ll “get fucking destroyed for saying that”.
Hair Mara Roszak at SWA, make-up Rob Rumsey at Greyscale using Charlotte Tilbury, photography assistants Jared Zagha, Sean O’Neill, Robbie Corral, styling assistants Marcus Cuffie, Nadia Beeman, Ogun Gortan, production Gabe Hill at GE Projects, production manager Suzy Kang at GE Projects, location manager Beau Bright at GE Projects, production assistants Dani Fernandez, Sam Osborne, JK, Tyler Ofstedahl, extras casting Tallulah Bernard at The Magnet Agency, photographer agency and production Iconoclast Image, retouching Todd Macintire at 4C Imaging, special thanks Copy That Rentals