q & a
“I’ve Forgiven My Younger Self”: Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall on 10 Years of Pop Magic
In 2011, four girls were offered the chance of a lifetime—to form a group and participate in the first season of the British version of The X Factor. 10 years later, Little Mix—Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards, and Leigh-Anne Pinnock—is the among the most successful bands in the world, with enough top singles and chart topping albums to make them one of the best-selling and highest-charting girl groups of all time. To this day, the accolades keep coming—from Best British Group at the 2021 BRIT Awards (the first time an all-girl band has won), to being immortalized in life-sized wax at Madame Tussaud’s in London. Today, the band releases Between Us—a greatest hits compilation album celebrating a decade of pop music magic. The album celebrates Little Mix’s groundbreaking work, but for Jade Thirwall, it is first and foremost a glittering thank you note to fans. “It’s about reminding everyone exactly who Little Mix is,” Thirlwall told Interview over Zoom, “And why our fans fell in love with us in the first place.” Despite spending the last decade in the spotlight, the 28-year-old pop star, who hails from the northeast coast of England, cannot believe how her life has transformed. To mark the album’s release, Thirlwall took a moment to reflect on the last ten years—from being kicked out of a London hotel for stealing a lamb shank, to forgiving her younger self, and of course, to changing the face of pop music.
ERNESTO MACIAS: It’s been over a decade since you’ve been making music. You have a couple of accolades under your belt as a solo artist, and many as part of Little Mix. 10 years as a girl group, a new CD coming, and I just learned recently that you spent 100 weeks in the official UK singles chart top 10. That’s record-shattering. When you hear all these things, what comes to mind?
JADE THIRLWALL: Icons, darling. I think it’s incredible, for not only a pop act, but a girl band to have been around for 10 years and to have achieved all the things we’ve achieved. It still blows my mind, it honestly doesn’t sink in properly, ever. I’m so grateful for each day of it, and am honestly still genuinely loving it. I think back then, when I was first put in the band, I knew it was special — it almost felt, as cheesy as it sounds, like fate. I just had a good feeling about it, but I never thought it would be this big.
MACIAS: You’ve just released a new album, a celebration of 10 years of making music—how would you describe the album?
THIRLWALL: Exactly that. It’s all of the biggest hits, including some of our favorites over the years, as well as five new tracks, which we wrote early this year. I don’t know of any girl bands that have done 10 years without any breaks. It felt right to make it more of a “greatest hits” moment. It feels really special—only the legends can say they’ve had a greatest hits album, or have enough of a catalogue to create that. It’s going to be a huge celebration of Little Mix, and a massive thank you to our fans for supporting us for this long.
MACIAS: You said there are five brand new songs that all three of you wrote in this album. How would you describe those songs?
THIRLWALL: I think they’re pure pop excellence. It was important for us, with those additional tracks, to be unapologetically pop. Because I think that is a strength. Over the years, we’ve gone through so many phases in the music industry [and] we’ve managed to stand the test of time, and I think that’s because we never back down on who we were and we never changed for anyone. It all came from us. I think, in the industry at the minute, pure pop is having a bit of a comeback. I think there was a period where maybe people thought it wasn’t as cool. I don’t know. I honestly don’t understand why sometimes people get their back up about bubblegum pop or pure pop, and have this sort of snobbery about it, as if it’s not as credible. I’m like, “Hun, if you could write it then go ahead—and you obviously can’t, so we’re here to do that and we’re going to give it to you and you’re going to love it.”
MACIAS: You better.
THIRLWALL: Last year actually, in hindsight, it kind of helped in a way. I think with lockdown and stuff, everyone was creative and feeling good, you know, people wanted music and melodies that made you sing along and lift your spirits. Lady Gaga released Chromatica last year, and that was a godsend album for me. [It] really helped me through that period and helped create that love again for absolute pop and I’m so here for it. The new tracks on the Between Us album, are about reminding everyone exactly who Little Mix is, and why our fans fell in love with us in the first place.
MACIAS: It’s palpable that you want to make pop music for pop fans. And speaking of fans, you have a lot of them around the world, but I want to ask you— Little Mix, and you as an individual, are seen as legendary LGBT+ allies. That’s something that the community doesn’t take lightly. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to the community, and what that means for you?
THIRLWALL: I think, as the years passed, it became more and more apparent to me that we had a huge LGBTQ+ fan base. That initiated the ally journey, and making sure that the fans felt like they had an artist that they can look up to who said, “It’s okay to be yourself.” If you’re going to benefit from a fan base, you have to show them exactly that you support them and you stand with them, no matter what. So that’s kind of what we’ve done.
I would say, up until maybe five years ago, I was what I would call a “basic bitch” ally. As in, I would go to the gay bars, I was there, doing the thing, and I was obviously an ally of some sort, but I wasn’t doing enough to advocate or really show what allyship truly meant. That kind of dawned on me, the more I received letters from fans or DMs and social media messages, and that helped spur me on to do it properly: to be more of an ally-activist, work with the right charities, say more, and use our platform for the better. I feel like I can always be better, so I’m constantly trying to learn more about history. Around the world, we have fans in territories where there still needs to be a lot of progress—for me, coming from an Arab background, it’s really important to show fans that they have somebody to fight for them, and give them something to embrace and love, and help them feel good about themselves.
MACIAS: Speaking of representing people who aren’t always represented, especially in the music industry, I know you have mixed heritages. Do you think about the weight of representing different cultures in the position you’re in?
THIRLWALL: Absolutely. When I first got thrown into this, I was only 18 years old, and I was still unsure about who I was. Growing up, I was around my Yemeni family a lot—my grandad is Yemeni and he was always a big champion of that culture. He passed away when I was 13, and it almost felt like part of my identity left with him. I was in a predominantly white area in a predominantly white school, and so I just did my best to fit in that environment. When I got put in the band and moved to London, I was very scared. I was scared of promoting my heritage, because I had hardly seen any positive Arab representation in the U.K. media. That scared me a little bit, of being proud of who I was, and even to this day, I carry a little bit of shame and regret… But I’m making up for that now, so it’s never too late to become the person that your younger self would have looked up to.
MACIAS: Who did you look up to growing up?
THIRLWALL: I mean my idol, apart from Diana Ross, was Princess Jasmine. She was literally the only Arab representation I could see on TV. Even today, if you have mixed heritage, there definitely is an identity struggle there—not being white enough, Black enough, or Arab enough, and trying to understand what that would even mean. I still have moments where I struggle with that internally, it’s the conditioning I’ve absorbed over the years. I hope my fans know that I’m working on that every day. I’ve forgiven my younger self for struggling with that, because it wasn’t necessarily her fault that she was so conditioned to feel like white is the most beautiful.
MACIAS: Now, I’m going to ask you some questions that Andy [Warhol] used to ask people back in the day. Do you dream?
MACIAS: Showers or baths?
MACIAS: Is there anything you regret not doing?
THIRLWALL: Being in America more as a group, and [not] embracing my heritage sooner.
MACIAS: What was your first job?
THIRLWALL: It was as an usher in a theater.
MACIAS: How old were you?
THIRLWALL: Probably like 13. I was very young actually, and I don’t think I actually got paid for it because I was too young, but it was something to do, I suppose.
MACIAS: Part of the journey. When do you get nervous?
THIRLWALL: Every time I go on stage.
MACIAS: What do you do to calm the nerves?
THIRLWALL: I have what the girls like to call a panic poo. I do a lot of breathing, [and] a bit of meditating usually does the trick.
MACIAS: Why can’t it just be magic all the time?
THIRLWALL: Honestly, hun, you tell me, because I am living in my own fantasy daily. Get into it.
MACIAS: What did you have for breakfast?
THIRLWALL: Toast. Pretty boring, it’s a pretty bland breakfast.
MACIAS: What are you reading right now?
THIRLWALL: I am just finishing The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye, which caused a bit of a stir on Twitter. But I don’t give a fuck, so read it.
MACIAS: Where do you dance?
THIRLWALL: In the bedroom, darling. Everyday. I dance every day. It’s so good for you, everyone should dance every day.
MACIAS: Who’s your dream date?
THIRLWALL: My boyfriend, Jordan Stevens.
MACIAS: What do you think about love?
THIRLWALL: I think love is something that you have to give yourself first before you can give it to others.
MACIAS: What’s the craziest thing a fan has ever sent you?
THIRLWALL: Oh God. I’m trying to think if there’s anything creepy.
MACIAS: Or sweetest…
THIRLWALL: Oh well, actually one of the craziest things—somebody paid for, you know those planes that fly across the sky and have a banner on them?
MACIAS: They paid for one for you?
THIRLWALL: Yeah, I was at a festival and then all of a sudden everyone’s like, “Look up,” and it said, “I love you Jade” in the sky. A fan paid for that.
MACIAS: That’s pretty wild. What is one dirty secret you can share with us?
THIRLWALL: It’s a bit grim actually but I very rarely wash my hair. That’s the key to these luscious locks.
MACIAS: What’s your favorite movie?
THIRLWALL: The Truman Show.
MACIAS: Are you interested in furniture?
THIRLWALL: I love furniture. I like to sit on things. Who doesn’t like furniture? I think the older I get, the more like it, which is definitely a sign of getting older.
MACIAS: I feel you on that deeply. What kinds of clothes do you like?
THIRLWALL: I’m a very all-or-nothing kind of girl. I’m either super casual, cute androgynous, like tailoring or tracksuits, or a full-on drag queen. There’s no in-between.
MACIAS: Do you have a TV?
THIRLWALL: No, not in my bedroom I don’t. It stops me from watching shit TV in bed.
MACIAS: What do you love about New York City?
THIRLWALL: I think the vibe, mostly. The people. It’s like London, but friendlier.
MACIAS: Do you think Americans have good taste?
THIRLWALL: In fashion?
MACIAS: Just in general.
THIRLWALL: I mean, I personally believe London has better taste.
MACIAS: Do you keep a diary?
THIRLWALL: I do, I do.
MACIAS: Do you write in it every day?
THIRLWALL: I try to, because I’m a very forgetful person, so I like having memories written down.
MACIAS: What are you most proud of?
THIRLWALL: I am most proud of the empire that I’ve built for myself.
MACIAS: Do you get eight hours of sleep at night?
THIRLWALL: No, I’m a terrible sleeper.
MACIAS: How many hours do you think you’re getting?
THIRLWALL: Probably like four to five.
MACIAS: How many hotels have you been kicked out of?
MACIAS: Was it your fault?
THIRLWALL: It was actually back in the day, I got accused of stealing a lamb shank. It’s a very long story, but it resulted in me being thrown out of a very posh hotel in London and being put up in a shithole instead.