It's 9am on a Friday morning and Little Mix are right on time. Jesy Nelson arrives on set first wearing a leather jacket and jeans. She’s all smiles and handshakes. Next up is Leigh-Anne Pinnock, who is teetering on hangry (been there) and orders a Joe & The Juice. Then comes Perrie Edwards with her Pomeranian, Hatchi, trotting obediently at her feet. And finally Jade Thirlwall breezes through the door. It might not sound particularly noteworthy that the UK’s biggest girl band are punctual, but trust me, in the world of pop cover shoots, it’s a rarity.
I last met Little Mix four years ago, just after the release of their double- platinum-selling album 'Get Weird'. They were tired after endless promo, they were stressed and they were an hour late. The four of them spent most of the morning hidden away in their dressing room.
Today things are different. Beyoncé plays on the speakers (their request), occasionally pierced by Perrie’s cackle, and they excitedly look through the rails of clothes and chat away to our glam squad, stylist and photographer.
Four years ago, they were still learning how to cope with their relentless schedule and all the scrutiny that comes with being in the public eye (Perrie had recently split from Zayn Malik). Now, however, they’re all staring down the barrel of 30 years old, have found security in their careers and a way of being in a group while still preserving their own individuality. In short – they’ve found their groove. And it suits them.
Not that it’s been an easy few years. Yes, they’ve sold over 50 million records globally, but in 2018 they split from Simon Cowell’s record label, Syco (he put them together on The X Factor in 2011, which they went on to win). Cowell has claimed he could no longer work with Little Mix’s management. "It was really hard," says Jesy. "Horrible." Last year Jesy also spoke candidly in award-winning BBC documentary Odd One Out about attempting suicide after online trolling saw her fall into a deep depression.
And let’s not forget that spat with Piers Morgan after the release of their video for 'Strip', where they appeared naked with abuse they’ve received painted on their bodies. He called them "talentless, clothes-allergic dimwits". Jesy called him a "silly twat".
Some things, I’m pleased to see, have not changed. Jesy is still very much the band’s spokesperson; Perrie is the loud one; Jade is quiet and thoughtful with a wicked sense of humour; and Leigh-Anne is straight-talking. Their love for one another is still clear, which is probably why, nearly nine years on, they’re still together – unlike the ghosts of girl bands past that have come and gone before them.
Right now, the four of them are genuinely excited about what they do – this year they’ll launch their new TV talent show for groups, The Search, and their sixth album. Most of all, there is an incredible friendship there. Here’s what they each had to say about it, and about their last decade in showbiz...
Leigh-Anne is facing a conundrum. She’s looking forward to Little Mix’s tour, but her work schedule means that she never sees her boyfriend. “It’s going to be epic,” she smiles. “[But] I feel like I don’t have a normal relationship. I live with my boyfriend and still don’t see him.”
Leigh-Anne, 28, has been dating Watford footballer Andre Gray since 2016. “The team stays in hotels before matches, so if they have two a week I don’t see him. It’s insane. If I had a normal job I’d see him more.” She sighs, “It’s got its pros, as it stays fresh for a long time… it’s a thing I have to accept.”
Do they have to work harder at their relationship? She nods. “Every year I have to fight for a week off in June. We work for the whole year; we don’t really get that much time off.” Of having their entire year blocked out, she adds, “At least it’s financially good.” The Sunday Times’ Young Rich List 2019 cited the band as being worth £45 million. “We know what’s coming. There’s no worrying.”
The hard graft and lack of downtime is a sacrifice she is willing to make. Leigh-Anne was on a gap year when she applied for The X Factor. Last year she launched her own swimwear line, In’A’Seashell, and believes that being business-minded has been key to the band’s success.
“We are businesswomen. As a group we’ve got our shit together. We know what we are doing, what we want... I don’t think we’ve ever done anything that’s half-arsed. That’s just not Little Mix.”
To look at Leigh-Anne’s Instagram, you would assume she is extremely body-confident, but this hasn’t always been the case. “Being in a girl band, the first thing I did was compare myself to the other girls,” she says. “Jade and I wanted nose jobs. I can’t believe I thought like that. I love my nose. I think it’s age as well – you just have to learn to love yourself more.”
They’re one of the biggest music acts of our generation, but it hasn’t been an easy ride for Little Mix. Here, they open up about love, lost friendships and learning to accept themselves...
For someone who has experienced some of the lowest points in her life over the past decade, Jesy Nelson is strong. Strong and also gracious – she apologises when I tell her that her documentary, Odd One Out, made me cry. Jesy is not the one who should be apologising.
Last year the hour-long show documented how bullying by online trolls made her take an overdose. The night Little Mix won The X Factor, one troll said, “You are the ugliest thing I’ve seen in my life. You deserve to die.”
At first she was scared that the documentary would make trolls attack her more. “I thought, ‘If I can’t turn this shit experience into a positive one then why did I go through it?’ That’s why I wanted to make it. I was shitting myself. I thought it would make people troll me more and cause even more of a backlash... It’s been the complete opposite. I put myself in a really vulnerable place, but now I’m glad I did.”
It’s hard not to like Jesy, 28. She’s warm, she says “shit” a lot and is incredibly considered when she speaks. It’s sad to think that appearing on a reality-TV show, and all that comes with it, impacted her mental health so much. “It was a crap time in my life,” she says. She was working as a barmaid in Dagenham when she applied for The X Factor. “I never got to enjoy [the process] like [the other girls] did. But I wouldn’t be here without it.”
Receiving such a positive reaction to the documentary has “absolutely” helped to boost Jesy’s confidence, but she still struggles. “Honestly, I didn’t like one thing about myself. I will never lie and say I absolutely love myself now. There are still things I’m working on. [But] I am 100% better than I was before.”
Last year Jesy started dating Love Island’s Chris Hughes, who appeared in her documentary. Has he been instrumental in her healing process? “Definitely,” she smiles. “He’s just a very positive person. Chris is in a world of his own. He’s not normal. Everyone who meets him says, ‘I’ve never met anyone like him.’ It’s cute.
I think, ‘I’d love to be in your head.’ There [are] no cares or worries. He’s just in Chris land.”
What’s more, the trolling has stalled. “Weirdly, we don’t get it as much now,” she says. “When people know you’re vulnerable, they do it more. When people know that you don’t really give a shit, they just think, ‘What’s the point?’ They do it for a reaction. We get the odd one but we don’t get offended by it.”
I ask her what she misses most about being anonymous. She chuckles, “I miss coming out of a club and if I want to be an absolute mess, being an absolute mess. We can’t do that. We have to think, ‘Is there going to be a pap there?’ There is so much to think about 24/7. You can never let yourself go. I want to go on holiday, eat shit and let my belly rolls out without worrying that someone’s taken a sneaky photo. You’re always being judged.”
“He’s such a little gremlin,” shouts Perrie. She’s talking about her dog, Hatchi, who has spent the day scavenging food from the entire Cosmopolitan team and is now asleep on her lap snoring. This is Perrie: loud, open and funny. I can’t imagine anyone not warming to her. But soon after The X Factor, she found herself very alone.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends,” she says. “Which is shit. I feel like as soon as I made it in the group, I lost everybody.” Did people betray her? “A bit of betrayal, a bit of bitchiness.
It’s harder when you’re in the [music] industry, because you don’t have the time any more and a lot of people don’t understand that. It works both ways – I can’t make all the effort and have this mad career. The people who are in my life now are the ones who matter.” In a cockney accent she adds, “It’s quality, not quantity.”
It must have been extremely overwhelming aged 18, having never really left South Shields, to suddenly find her every move under scrutiny. “When we were younger we were so confident. Then when we got flung into the industry we began to get self-conscious and started criticising ourselves because other people were doing it.”
Perrie had hang-ups about everything from her teeth to her freckles. “Every time I got papped, my teeth would look buckled at the front. I hated them. I got braces.” Now she doesn’t worry so much. “I’m just more confident... We’ve come out of the other side and we’re like, ‘Who gives a shit what other people think?’”
Like Leigh-Anne, Perrie is dating a footballer, Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. “My boyfriend only lives in Manchester, but it is like he lives f*cking ages away [Perrie lives in London]. As soon as we get a day off, the thought of having to drive to Manchester is an effort. But because I want to make it work and I absolutely adore him, I just grin and bear it. It’s hard.”
The fact that Little Mix’s diary is always planned out two years in advance doesn’t help. “It’s nuts. I like opening up the diary and seeing blue – which is a day off... I always say to management if we haven’t got two days off back to back, I won’t see my boyfriend.”
This year won’t be any different. “I don’t know how we’re going to juggle it. We’ve got a TV show, a summer tour, rehearsals, a new album, music videos...” She shouts, “Haaa!” at the top of her voice. “It’s all worth it once we’re on tour. I love being in my bunk. As soon as it ends and I’m not around everyone, I hate it. I have to surround myself with my whole family because it just feels weird to constantly have everybody there and then nothing. It feels like you’re naked.”
When she’s not working, Perrie likes to hole herself up at home. “When I’m around my friends and family in my house and I’ve got my boyfriend there I’m the happiest person alive. There is nothing better than having people around you who make you feel special, make you feel calm, make you feel normal.”
Little Mix may be idolised by people worldwide, but Jade is proof that even pop stars doubt themselves. Having split from her long-term boyfriend, musician Jed Elliott, last summer, she’s now back on the dating scene (she is off to meet someone after our shoot) but she is still plagued by insecurities about her figure.
“I [always] felt like a boy next to everyone [else]. I didn’t have a very womanly shape and I’ve got no tits. I’ve kind of grown into myself a little bit now but I used to want a boob job. I [felt] that I wasn’t sexy enough in the band. I still have that complex now when I go on dates. I think, ‘Am I woman enough for someone?’ which is silly.”
Jade is, in some ways, the quietest member of the group, but she’s definitely not shy. She’s funny, telling me about loving her “fashion tits” (she’s an A-cup) and how she likes to be at home with her flatmate because “we can sit there farting and eating shit”.
Jade, 27, does get serious, however, when I broach the topic of their split from Simon Cowell. He has since called them “the hardest-working bunch of girls I’ve ever worked with”. “He’s not wrong,” she says. “Our label switchover was quite dramatic. [It] was probably one of the hardest parts of our career, but it was necessary. It came at a bad time, as we were releasing new music. We were so close to the people that were there with us every day...” How do they cope? “We’ve got each other. We’re very understanding when one of us is going through something.”
Jade sent fans into meltdown in January when she posted a photo of herself in the recording studio. With a sixth album on the way, does the need to be constantly creative ever get too much? “There’s a lot of pressure, and every time you do an album you’ve got to top the last one. It’s hard because when you’re at the top, you’ve got to stay there.”
Some days she admits that the band will sit there all day unable to come up with lyrics. “There’s probably more of that than good days. You always know because I’ll go, ‘What time is our taxi?’ You don’t want to upset anyone so it’s really awkward, but it’s even more awkward sitting in a room with people all day and you can’t write a song!” What would they do if one of them wanted to leave the band?
“It’s all or nothing with us,” says Jade. “We are sisters so if one of us left, that would be it!” With so many plans on the horizon, and an exciting year ahead, we can’t see that happening any time soon.
◆ Little Mix The Search starts on BBC One this month; their summer tour begins in Falkirk on 26th June
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