Flashback – Anastacia: ‘Men would say I looked like a sexy librarian, which was gross’

Anastacia in 2000 and 2021. Later photograph: Pål Hansen/The Guardian. Styling: Andie Redman. Archive photograph: Getty

Born in Chicago in 1968 and raised in New York, Anastacia Lyn Newkirk is the multiplatinum star known for her mezzo-soprano voice. Anastacia became one of the best-selling female singers of the early noughties with her debut album Not That Kind – featuring the career-defining I’m Outta Love. She went on to release six more albums and had No 1 hits in more than 20 countries. She was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in 2013, 10 years after the first, and has the heart condition supraventricular tachycardia. Her 20th anniversary tour, I’m Outta Lockdown, arrives in the UK in autumn 2022.

This was taken in 2000, and I’m almost positive I was in France, promoting something. Looking at it now, I see a little cherub face and a girl who did her own hair and bought her own clothes. In my head I looked really fancy in my shrug, princess fur and T-shirt. And those white pants! I thought white was the colour of fancy people.

I didn’t get signed to a label for a long time because I didn’t fit in. It was the era of Britney and Christina and there was nobody to model myself on. In the end, not fitting in was also the thing that got me signed. My A&R guy embraced who I was and understood how to bring out the best in me in terms of the way I liked to look and sound. It was a journey getting there, though. When I was trying to get a deal, people would say, “Can you sound more like Celine?” I tried. I even tried to sound like Mariah, but couldn’t hit her high notes.

I looked different, too – I wore glasses. Men who were trying to pick me up would say stuff like: “Oh – you look like a sexy librarian!” which I thought was gross. With a tint in the lenses, though, I felt cooler. Photographers would say: “You need to take them off” and I said: “If I take them off, I literally can’t see you. The whole world looks like it’s covered in Vaseline.” So I always kept them on. If you don’t stand up for yourself, nobody else is going to.

Because my career took off in Europe first, I never felt that sense of validation, as if I’d proved everyone wrong. Every time I’d come back home, I would just be a person walking down the street. I’d arrive at the airport and be like, hey, where’s my car? There were no bodyguards with me the minute I got off the plane.

One of the most delicious moments of my career happened in New York, though. Elton John is my total idol and we were introduced in 2000. He told me he was filming a show at Madison Square Garden and asked me if I’d duet Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting. At the end of the song, he got down on his knee and kissed my belly button. I was like, “Wait, what am I supposed to do here? He’s a Sir.” I ran off stage when the song was over and screamed backstage. Did that just happen? Did I sit on a piano stool with Sir Elton John and jam out?

When I was 12, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. It frightened me as I’d never had a boyfriend and I thought: Oh my god, I have a scar [from a stomach operation] and no one’s going to want to get close to me, because it’s just not a pretty disease. There were a few interesting guys who would say: “Oh is that a caesarean?” I’d be like: “Yeah! It was a sideways baby.” But over time, I got used to the scar and started showing my abs. I ended up embracing my body so much that I went full monty, wearing the bare minimum of what I was allowed to show on screen, basically from the ribcage down.

It became a talking point. I didn’t care when male presenters made references about my body, as I never felt they were more powerful than me. I totally didn’t feel objectified. I was like – my boobs are freaking amazing and they’re huge! But you touch them? Then you have a problem.

Guys goggle and ogle all the time. That was [American broadcaster] Howard Stern’s character. He is very sexual as a person on his show, but in reality he is such a nice guy. And Jonathan Ross was the same. You get him on camera for his talkshow and he turns into a character, it’s something for the boys. Plus, it’s hard to forget that they’re there when I displayed them like that. Of course, those guys should probably have the decorum not to mention it, but I never saw myself as being invaded in any way.

If I hadn’t gone for a breast reduction in 2003 I wouldn’t have found out about my cancer until much later, but it was barely in its first stage. Plastic surgeons don’t ask for a mammogram, they normally just go in and do their job, but mine did. I was lucky, but the diagnosis was shocking, and my career was at one of its highest points. My first thought was: wow, is this how I’m going to die? I thought I’d go in a plane crash.

I never stopped writing during treatment. But when I started radiation, it made me tired, forgetful and lifeless. It was torturous when I’d have an idea and it would leave my brain before I had time to get it down.

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The second time [in 2013], I had a double mastectomy, which was really tough for me to bounce back from. Doctors removed muscles from my back to rebuild my breasts, so certain postures are difficult, and I have terrible neck issues. Rather than dwell on it, I’ve decided my job is to pass on a message to other people: don’t freak out, go get mammograms earlier than the doctor says. Go check out that thing you’re worried about so that we can have you around longer.

I don’t think any woman really thinks their body is the best thing in the world. There’s always stuff you want to change. But as I’m getting older, I understand there’s nothing I can do to stop the ageing process. It’s tough for women – the 50s were bad with all the bullet bras and strapping yourself into corsets – but nowadays with all these filters on social media, I think it’s even worse. At the same time, I see the really young generation coming out with so much confidence and diversity: “I’m they/them and I have green hair – accept it”! And they’re 12. It’s exciting – we need those kinds of rock stars out there.

I don’t even know how many surgeries I’ve had in my life. But every time I’ve gone through crap, instead of feeling like it’s an obstacle, I see it as a detour. You may have a longer road to get to where you want to be, but trust in the universe and have faith that it’ll lead to something great. Find hope in a terrible situation and just keep going.