It had been a hectic week for Lizzo. She released her second major-label studio album, Special, with a five-song outdoor performance on the Today show summer concert series in over 85-degree July heat. There were back-to-back promotional appearances in New York City (where years ago, she tells me, she had her first anxiety attack, and adds that it’s always stressful when she goes to New York). Within days of the release, Special debuted at number two on the Billboard charts and the single “About Damn Time” went to number one. Now back home, somewhere in the hills of Los Angeles, she gestures to the pool and the trees and the grass outside the floor-to-ceiling glass walls and says, “I like nature.” She’s wearing a black strapless dress from her own Yitty shapewear line, long Chanel pearls, and Yitty platform slides, which she kicked off as we sat and talked. Her long acrylic nails were painted a pale pink, and her hair was dark and wavy. “It’s mine,” she said with her very distinctive, very ebullient laugh, “I bought it.”
In the nearly four hours that we talked in late July in her sunny living room, Lizzo was animated, serious, passionate, and hilariously funny. The singer-songwriter-dancer-flautist-actor and reality competition show host had just moved into her new house that week, but her belongings weren’t there yet. The empty built-in shelves awaited books and numerous awards—including three Grammys, an NAACP award, a Soul Train award, and a BET award. The only visible personal touches amidst the custom wooden furniture were two bouquets of roses and an Hermès blanket on one of the sofas.
We started to talk, and within the first 15 minutes, our conversation went directly to politics and women’s rights—specifically, the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade. Following that ruling, Lizzo donated $500,000 to Planned Parenthood and the National Network of Abortion Funds, and she had Live Nation, her tour promoter, match that with another $500,000. Political expression isn’t new to Lizzo; she’s been outspoken about police brutality and defunding the police, and she campaigned and voted for Joe Biden. “But the fact is,” she says, “I don’t know what they’re doing. I see they’re listening, but we’re in a post–thoughts and prayers society. Thoughts and prayers just don’t fucking cut it anymore.” She quickly adds, “I’m not condemning this current administration. I’m just very curious as to what kind of real steps they can take.”
So, when Lizzo asked the people at Planned Parenthood and National Network of Abortion Funds what real action she could take, the answer was money. “I know plenty of people who would have died if they hadn’t had that procedure,” she says, and while she tells me she hasn’t had a personal experience with it, she says, “It shouldn’t matter if I had a personal experience or knew somebody; it shouldn’t matter what my opinion is. Opinions is what got us in this shit in the first place—what people think people should be doing with their bodies. These days, we don’t create laws that support people having health care, never mind abortions. How about letting people have access and resources and mind their fucking business?”
“The Supreme Court has politicized law and made it a weapon against human rights,” she adds. “An overwhelming amount of people did not agree with what the Supreme Court did. It’s about power and control. It’s about white male supremacy; it’s always been about white male supremacy in this country and the people who are complicit in helping uphold it—who are a lot of white women. The women who voted for Donald Trump. The façade that ‘America, we’re all in this together.’ No, we’re not. Black people have been dehumanized so much—especially Black women. I’d like to be an optimist, but I’m a chronically disappointed optimist,” she continues. “The way Black women have been treated in this country has made me feel very hopeless. I don’t think there was a time when [we] were treated fairly and with respect. If I see hope in this country, it will come from the accountability of the people who have the privilege. As a fat Black woman, this country has never gone forward; it’s stayed pretty much the same for me.”
Melissa Viviane Jefferson was born 34 years ago in Detroit, then moved to the Alief area of Houston when she was nine. She tells me it was more country than urban—it used to be all cow farms—and yes, she says, “There’s horses. There were kids who used to ride their horses to school. On like a half day—they’d come and show off their horse.” Did she have a horse? “Hell no! I don’t like to get on top of things,” she laughs. Nothing? “Oh, well…” and again, that laugh. As a teenager in Houston, Lizzo was terrified to drive for years because she was pulled over so many times. “The police were right behind you. They follow you all the way home. I stopped at every Stop sign, I’m smiling, being pleasant, I tried to do everything right. And they follow you home, then they veer off and they’re laughing. I’ve been pulled over, I’ve been handcuffed…. They do ‘License and registration, okay, everything looks good, you’re good to go.’ ‘Ma’am, can you just step out the vehicle real quick?’ ”
She grew up in a household with her mother’s love for gospel music and her father listening to Elton John and Billy Joel. She was famously classically trained and may be the most notable flautist in popular music since Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. But, she tells me, she doesn’t think she plays the flute enough in her songs. (Two months after this interview, she played the 200-year-old crystal flute that had been owned by President James Madison. She played it at the Library of Congress and onstage at her Washington, DC, concert, and was thrilled that she made history. “When people look back at the crystal flute, they’re going to see me playing it,” Lizzo tells me. “They’re going to see that it was owned by James Madison, but they’re going to see how far we’ve had to come for someone like me to be playing it in the nation’s capital, and I think that that’s a cool thing. I don’t want to leave history in the hands of people who uphold oppression and racism. My job as someone who has a platform is to reshape history.”)
When she started to learn the flute, she recalls thinking, “I want to be the best fucking flute player ever. I was 12, but I wanted to take it all the way.” After dropping out of the University of Houston, she meandered around the city for a while, then officially moved to Minneapolis—with a stop in between to Denver to see her family, who had moved there from Houston. It was in Minneapolis, around 2011, that she seriously pursued her music career—joining rock bands (Prince invited her to perform at his Paisley Park compound one Easter Sunday). That’s when Lizzo, once her nickname, became her stage name. Her big-time success comes after at least 10 years of a lot of work, struggle, and self-doubt. Her catchy, chart-topping songs have been called uplifting and positive and most certainly danceable: Among others, her hit singles—“Truth Hurts,” “Good as Hell,” “About Damn Time”—will be staple items in clubs for a long time. But she’s had reviewers who’ve called her music corny, and I ask how she deals with bad reviews. “Don’t get me started on people critiquing art,” she says. “I just ignore them. My favorite thing is ‘You’re wrong.’ Your opinion wasn’t fact in the first place. My lyrics are so manic sometimes. ‘Cuz I Love You’ is ‘I’m going through it.’ ‘To Be Loved’ is like a panic attack. I’m doing real shit lyrically.” She goes to therapy and meditates to calm her anxiety and fear, and says, “When something good happens to me, I’m always looking over my shoulder for something bad. The years 2008–2012 had a lot of dark spots and trauma.” After the unexpected death of her father in 2009, she says she experienced “those gut-punching moments that set you up for a fear-based life. Nobody would believe that I was happy and confident all of the time. Saying words like ‘uplifting’ makes it sound saccharine and corny, but there’s a rawness to my lyrics that makes it more than uplifting.”
Disco legend musician-producer Nile Rodgers says, “Music is more than just entertainment; people are looking for nourishment to face the day, and they’re doing it to a soundtrack of great songs. Lizzo is an extraordinary artist. She’s made the last three years better with her great songs and attitude; she’s proving to the world over and over again that everything is possible.” And Oscar-winning songwriter, musician-producer Mark Ronson, who co-wrote “Break Up Twice” with Lizzo for Special, says, “I knew Lizzo was a great writer and phenomenal performer, but I wasn’t aware of how deep her musicality ran. The breadth of her range and influences is awesome.” And even though she sings about struggle and heartbreak, Lizzo says, “I’m not going to say anything negative in my music because I don’t want anything negative in my life. But I’ll speak on things that have happened, I’ll talk about hard times, and how I got through it.”
She was bullied in school and always felt “different”—although she isn’t sure if it was “good different” or “bad different.” While her schoolmates were getting into rap—which she loved, especially Houston rap—she was also listening to rock music: especially Radiohead. “It was a Black school,” she says, “mostly Black and brown, Caribbean, I had Nigerian friends.… They were all listening to what was on the radio: Usher, Destiny’s Child, Ludacris, and I was into Radiohead’s OK Computer. I kept it hidden, even when I was in a rock band, because I didn’t want to be made fun of by my peers—they’d yell, ‘White girl!’ Also, I was wearing these flared bell-bottoms with embroidery down it—and they’d say, ‘You look like a white girl, why do you want to look like a hippie?’ I wanted to be accepted so bad; not fitting in really hurt.” She adds, “My defense mechanism was humor. I became the class clown, that’s a kind of perceived confidence. And I have the type of social anxiety where I get louder and funnier the more stressed I am.”
At first she was intimidated to try to sing: “I grew up around gospel singers. I mean Jazmine Sullivan–type voices. My first singing voice was a rock voice in my progressive rock band when I was 19 or 20…very Mars Volta–influenced. That gave me the [vocal] power I’ve got now. It wasn’t until 2015 when I realized I have a very powerful singing voice with a lot of soul.” And yet, despite her early hits—2016’s “Good as Hell” and 2019’s “Juice”—and more than 7.7 billion global streams of her music, Lizzo says she still feels like an underdog. “I had to prove myself with Special that I can make good music.” Does she think she’s more grounded than some of her peers? “I don’t know how they’re doing. They could be as grounded as me or I could be seemingly grounded, or I could be flipping out. Look, I’m having a great time, but the things that I’ve experienced that I have to debunk or clarify, just by simply existing, looking like me, is an indication of progress. But it’s just the beginning of it. I was almost 30 when all this shit started popping up on me. I had a chance to fuck up as a teenager and in my 20s.… I’m so glad I had a chance to grow up and then get hit with all this shit.”
She’s close to her family; her mother, Sharie Jefferson-Johnson, went on the road early on in Lizzo’s career as co–tour manager with Lizzo’s brother Michael. Her mother says it was “the best time of my life. I didn’t know she could sing, but she always had a very distinct, powerful voice. And I knew she was going to use her voice for something.” Since her daughter’s success, their relationship has become stronger. “We talk on the phone every day,” her mother says. “I brought [her] up with good morals, so I don’t worry about her. I believe that family helps keep you grounded, so you remember your true purpose.”
Then there is Lizzo’s relationship with social media, where she engages with more than 25 million TikTok followers and almost 13 million on Instagram. Last June, after getting online backlash for including the ableist slur sp-z in the lyrics of her song “Grrrls” (…Hold my bag / Imma sp-z), she changed the lyrics to Do you see this shit / hold me back. She tells me, “I’d never heard it used as a slur against disabled people, never ever. The music I make is in the business of feeling good and being authentic to me. Using a slur is unauthentic to me, but I did not know it was a slur. It’s a word I’ve heard a lot, especially in rap songs, and with my Black friends and in my Black circles: It means to go off, turn up. I used [it as a] verb, not as a noun or adjective. I used it in the way that it’s used in the Black community. The internet brought it to my attention, but that wouldn’t [have been enough] to make me change something.” Some comedians and TV hosts weighed in: While Trevor Noah and W. Kamau Bell commended her, Charlamagne tha God disapproved of the change, and Jerrod Carmichael said artists shouldn’t change lyrics. As for the backlash to the backlash, Lizzo says, “Nina Simone changed lyrics—is she not an artist? Language changes generationally; Nina Simone said you cannot be an artist and not reflect the times. So am I not being an artist and reflecting the times and learning, listening to people, and making a conscious change in the way we treat language, and help people in the way we treat people in the future?” (Six weeks after Lizzo replaced her lyric, Beyoncé changed the same word on one of her new songs.)
Back in August 2021, two days after “Rumors”—her collaboration with Cardi B—was released, Lizzo went on Instagram Live, crying, responding to what she said was a racist, fat-phobic comment directed at her online. I ask why she bothers to look at these things. She says sometimes comments float to the top of her posts, and she won’t say specifically what the insult was because, “Then people will know what really hurt me.” But she adds, “People have been calling me fat my entire life, but that was the first time seeing an insult of how I looked, who I am, and my music wrapped into one, and it really hurt me. And if one person says it, then another person says it, it multiplies like a fucking virus. If enough people on the internet start echoing sentiments about you, it becomes part of your public persona and it’s out of your control.” She had been sitting in hair and makeup, really upset about the insult, about to tape Watch Out for the Big Grrrls (her Emmy-winning competition show that found dancers to perform with her on tour), and was overthinking it. “There’s been so many times I’ve been in glam where I’ve been sad about something, either a romantic thing or somebody passed away, or something in the news, and I’d get emotional and I’d say ‘I’ve got to take a break because I’m going to cry and fuck up the makeup.’ I had to go and do my job. So I went to the bathroom to cry about it, then I went online, because once I learn how to express myself, I need to tell that person how I really feel. I know I’m not the only person who experiences extreme negativity thrown at them from the internet—there are people in high school right now who have a whole high school talking about them, and they don’t know how they’re going to get through it. So if they can see me get through it on the level and the scale I’m experiencing it, maybe they’ll think they can get through it too.” Did it make her feel better? “Hell yeah, it made me feel better. Fuck them!” (This past August, she went teary-eyed on TikTok, watching a young Black girl dance to her number one single “About Damn Time” and said, “This is why I do what I do; this is my Grammy.”)
“You know what really gets me?” she continues, “I saw a tweet, ‘Say what you want about Lizzo,’ and I was like, what are people saying? I saw a picture of me laughing and someone said she seems to have a lot of fun with her fans. Yeah, I do have fun, because if I’m not having fun right now, when am I going to be able to enjoy having a hot, rockin’ bod, being young, beautiful, and rich?” she laughs. I don’t ask how rich, but I venture that she can pay her bills. “I can pay my bills, I can pay my family’s bills—what a blessing—when I literally could not afford a $5 Jimmy John sandwich, I couldn’t afford to buy a $2 frozen pizza. I’d have to get quarters from strangers for gas money. Hell yeah, I’m having fun. I’m celebrating every motherfucking person’s birthday [who’s] around me. I’m going hard. I’m working hard and I’m resting hard.”
When I ask if she tires of all the “body positivity” discourse, she says no, she knew what she signed up for, she knew what she was getting into. Does she feel that she’s been put in a box she can’t get out of? “I can’t fit into a box!” she laughs. “You mean if I lost weight, what would happen? Is my music and my weight so intrinsically connected that if I were to lose weight, I’d lose fans or lose validity? I don’t care! I lead a very healthy lifestyle—mentally, spiritually, I try to keep everything I put in my body super clean. Health is something I prioritize, wherever that leads me physically. Like veganism, people were like, ‘You’re a vegan? What, are you deep frying the lettuce?’ I’m not a vegan to lose weight, I just feel better when I eat plants. But,” she admits, “just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, it changes again. I eat when I’m stressed out, sometimes to the point where I didn’t realize how much I ate. Anything can be harmful, but it comforts me in a way. It sucks that we associate weight gain with the negative thing that causes it. It’s mixing this beautiful thing that’s food—and nourishing ourselves with it, but it’s the stress that’s the bad thing, not the 20 pounds. I feel very lucky because I don’t feel that weight gain is bad anymore. Nor is weight loss—it’s neutral. And food is fun. I love eating, and I have a chef now, and I’m not thinking about it. I had a brownie last night.”
What about people who feel that performing in skimpy ensembles adds to the sexualization of women? “When it’s sexual, it’s mine,” she says. “When it’s sexualized, someone is doing it to me or taking it from me. Black women are hypersexualized all the time, and masculinized simultaneously. Because of the structure of racism, if you’re thinner and lighter, or your features are narrow, you’re closer to being a woman.” Lizzo says her onstage costumes are dance leotards, which she decided to wear in 2014, because she was dancing and had dancers onstage with her. “After [Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’] it seemed like it became the industry standard for everyone,” she says. “I wanted to be like a dancer and also, it was kind of political and feminist in my eyes to have me, a full-figured dancer, wearing leotards, showing and celebrating curves and being Olympian in strength, endurance, and flexibility.” She refers to the scantily clad Josephine Baker and her banana skirts in the 1920s and says, “Movements have to evolve generationally. The culture changes. You can’t have a movement in 1920 be the same thing as it is in the 2020s. We have to match the rebellion. The rebellion isn’t even the same.”
In September 2021, she did a TED Talk on twerking—referencing the West African mapouka dance, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith—and tells me, “I think it deserved being intellectualized, it deserved to have a classical etymology, it needed an origin story. It’s a Black woman thing, it was almost printed in our DNA. It disappeared and resurfaced in the 1920s, then disappeared and resurfaced in the 1980s. It’s an almost inexplicable phenomenon. Remember Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song [1992’s “Baby Got Back”]? I like big butts and I cannot lie. To Black women, that’s a compliment. But now everybody wants a big butt.” She mentions Beyoncé’s “Bootylicious” and says, “I can’t even put into words what Beyoncé did for so many people. She was the beginning of Black women celebrating their curves—although she was on the smaller end of the spectrum—but she was our only representation. It’s wild to see the popularization of big butts, and I don’t even think this generation understands it. There’s kids stuffing pillowcases in their butt, mimicking Black women, and don’t even realize the implications of that.”
Lizzo tells me she could do a TED Talk just on the word “bitch”—which she uses frequently in her music. “When I sing I’m 100 percent that bitch in ‘Truth Hurts,’ nobody ever finishes the sentence: I’m 100 percent that bitch even when I’m crying crazy / I’ve got boy problems that’s the human in me. It’s the ‘crying crazy’ that’s [important]. Someone can make you think you didn’t hold yourself with respect, so when I say ‘I’m 100 percent that bitch,’ it’s like an affirmation. It’s a reminder of who you are. I wrote that song for people to sing it and do it for themselves. Do you remember when Missy Elliott and Da Brat took control over that word and empowered it? It’s a colloquialism now, a shout-out to Black women.”
Her mother, who brought Lizzo up in a religious home, says, “When she started out, she didn’t use profanity at all. She got the family together, took us to a therapy session, and explained to us that she would be using profanity in her songs. She prepared us for it. She was always a free spirit and didn’t like clothes, so that was not a surprise at all. She is doing what she loves to do, making her own decisions, and really helping people along the way. I’m so proud of her.”
I ask Lizzo where she is most comfortable. “In my bed,” she says. Alone? “I don’t like to be alone,” she admits. “I like to be around people.” She posts online only what she wants to post and is determined to keep a lot of her life private. But it was recently revealed—and not by her—that she’s in a relationship with Myke Wright, whom she describes as a comedian, actor, musician, and artist. She calls the “news” bizarre, because it wasn’t an official red carpet and the online photo was taken with someone’s iPhone. Still, she tells me, “I’ve known him for over six years. He’s everything. We’re just in love. And that’s it.” After the relationship became public, she talked on [radio show] The Breakfast Club about how she didn’t believe in monogamy. “Is monogamy a religion?” she asks me rhetorically. “People fight for monogamy like they pray to it every day. I am not a polyamorous person, I’m not in love with multiple partners. That is not me. He’s the love of my life. We are life mates. Do I want to get married? If I wanted to start a business with him, I’d get married because that’s when your finances come together. I like weddings. I would like to have a wedding over a marriage. I’m not thinking about sex when I think about monogamy and rules. I’m thinking about the autonomy and independence of him and me. How wonderful would it be to be this complete independent person and to come together to make two complete independent people? Not that whole ‘You complete me, you’re my other half.’ No. I’m whole, and you’re incredible too. We’re like the mirror image of each other. We’re connected. But that doesn’t mean I was incomplete when I met him.”
Many musicians have told me they miss all the “normal” things they did pre-fame: grocery shopping, going to the dry cleaners and such. Lizzo has no such regrets. “Hell no! I worked at the grocery store. I pushed carts in the winter at King Soopers (a grocery store) in Aurora, Colorado. I used to go to the grocery store all the motherfucking time. I used to get quarters and go to the lavandería to wash my motherfucking clothes. I’ve done all these things; I had very normal formative years.” She says she doesn’t know a lot of celebrity musicians and doesn’t have a lot of friends, because, she tells me, “I’ve had a pretty reckless abandon when it’s come to cities I’ve lived in and relationships and careers—leaving and moving on. There’s my family, and only a few friends I’ve held onto; SZA, Lauren Alford [her DJ], and my best friend Alexia Appiah, who I’ve known since fourth grade. There is a certain comfort being around someone who’s known you since you were nine.”
Alexia Appiah says, “It’s been a blessing to have maintained a good friend this long. I feel like once she became more popular she’s [become] way more confident and outspoken when it comes to standing up to people [who] are doing us wrong. Also, she’s more protective of her family and friends and won’t put up with disrespect. Other than that, she is still the same sweet, funny girl I grew up with.”
And according to the Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated SZA, “I was hella enamored by Lizzo and her power. We just hit it off. She’s always been a safe space for me to take my wig and my makeup off and be butt-naked and vulnerable. She’s so much fun, but she’s also serious and thoughtful. She’s got huge ‘divine mother’ energy. I’ll be crying and laying on her chest at times, but also twerking in her backyard. She’s just a gift to the earth and humanity. We’re all so blessed to experience her in this lifetime.”
Other than musicians, Lizzo says she wasn’t influenced by a lot of people, but was into fantasy and read a lot of Tolkien. She’s unsure about a second season of Watch Out for the Big Grrrls. (“We made a good thing, let it stay,” she tells me. “But that being said, I don’t know.”) She’s currently on a 26-city North American tour, and there’s an HBO Max documentary expected this year that chronicles the behind-the-scenes of her life and recording sessions. In contrast to her bold red-carpet couture (Gaultier, Balenciaga), she favors her own Yitty shapewear line for everyday—Yitty is another childhood nickname—and says she was grateful when Kim Kardashian’s Skims line came out, because it validated what she’d been trying to tell people for years. So in March of 2022, Lizzo announced her deal with Fabletics, and now all sorts of Yitty undergarments and clothes will be sold online, in pop-up stores, and in malls.
Early in her career, Lizzo performed to empty rooms but considered them “paid rehearsals.” She says she was embarrassed only once: when her mother came to see her and no one was in the audience. But her mother remembers it differently: “She did have a small fan base of five or six people,” she says, “and I was there with a few friends, so it didn’t seem empty from my perspective. I felt so proud of her unique style. I had never heard anything like it before; she sang with her whole heart and soul. Everyone there enjoyed it, we were dancing and having a wonderful time.” Lizzo adds, “I always had a very in-the-moment understanding that this was the story; this was the journey. This ain’t it. This is why a lot of people get fucked up; they’re experiencing their life as this is it, and it’s just part of the story that I’m going to look back on and remember when I played and nobody was there. But I always played my shows to the one person I could see.”
We talk about the criticism that disturbs her the most—that she makes music for a white audience. “That is probably the biggest criticism I’ve received, and it is such a critical conversation when it comes to Black artists. When Black people see a lot of white people in the audience, they think, Well this isn’t for me, this is for them. The thing is, when a Black artist reaches a certain level of popularity, it’s going to be a predominantly white crowd. I was so startled when I watched [YouTube clips of gospel great] Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was an innovator of rock and roll. She was like ‘I’m going to take gospel and shred guitar,’ and when they turned the camera around, it was a completely white audience. Tina Turner, when she played arenas—white audience. This has happened to so many Black artists: Diana Ross, Whitney, Beyoncé.… Rap artists now, those audiences are overwhelmingly white. I am not making music for white people. I am a Black woman, I am making music from my Black experience, for me to heal myself [from] the experience we call life. If I can help other people, hell yeah. Because we are the most marginalized and neglected people in this country. We need self-love and self-love anthems more than anybody. So am I making music for that girl right there who looks like me, who grew up in a city where she was underappreciated and picked on and made to feel unbeautiful? Yes. It blows my mind when people say I’m not making music from a Black perspective—how could I not do that as a Black artist?”
And she says internet criticism bothered her until she got into the “real world” and connected with Black women who told her that her music inspired them. The more her music became mainstream, she tells me, the more she started to connect with people who see her for who she really is: “Not ‘that girl, she’s always happy, it’s not real,’ but instead, ‘She’s really good and her music is good, believe her.’ That is what I’m moving into now, and it’s a beautiful place to be. I finally feel I can relax and have a cocktail.”
Hair products by Dove. Makeup products by Charlotte Tilbury. Nail enamel by OPI. Hair by Shelby Swain. Makeup by Alexx Mayo. Manicure by Eri Ishizu. Tailor, Susie Kourinian. Set design by Gerard Santos. Produced on location by Viewfinders. Styled by Patti Wilson. Photographed exclusively for VF by Campbell Addy in Los Angeles. For details, go to VF.com/credits.
A version of this story appears in the November 2022 print issue.
This story has been updated.