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Angel Olsen On Being Her Own ‘Woman’ On Her New Album

Music
Photographed by MichaelBeckert. Styled by Liz Rundbaken.

The artist has come into her own

The following feature appears in the September 2016 issue of NYLON.

Angel Olsen has the power. Of course, she’s always had it, but with the release of My Woman, she doesn’t really care about how you perceive that power. “People think they know you entirely based on the work that you project, famous or not famous,” says Olsen over lemonades in a Brooklyn tea shop. “But you still have to be a person, and wake up and go through human struggles while everybody is thinking of you as not a human who goes through those things. You’re living the life of the self that you project, in the life of your actual self.”

Olsen is disarming in person—a celebrity with the air of a perceptive, considerate, and passionate friend, discussing the difficulties of being a working woman in her late twenties, and defying the limiting expectations of the public. My Woman, her third studio album and the follow-up to 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, is demonstrative of her ability to disregard these constraints and portrays the broad spectrum of Olsen’s musical talent, which ranges from her signature folk, steeped in her superior songwriting chops, to synthy glam rock.

After the success of her last record brought Olsen to the stages of late-night television and into the hearts of an ever-growing fan base, the repetitiveness of fame and the unavoidable typecasting as a female folk singer led her to question where her hard work had landed her. “It went from the positive inertia of creating something alone in a room that no one cared about to a commercial image that you’re just living over and over again,” she says. “Despite the fact that I was doing well, and the album was doing well, I wasn’t doing well.” Naturally, her admirers viewed her through the self-absorbed lens of fandom, oblivious to the fact that even celebrities need repose. “People come up to me and they’re like, ‘You saved my life.’ Even though it’s amazing to hear that, when people compliment you in that heavy way, there is some sort of expectation. They want something back,” says Olsen. “I feel very fortunate to have fans that would say that to me, but when was somebody gonna pull me aside and be like, ‘Are you okay?’ No one was doing that.” She sips her lemonade and continues: “So I went to therapy, took a break. I just didn’t want to tour as much. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this. Maybe I should reconsider my plan.’” 

Click through the gallery to read the rest of the feature.

Dress by Simone Rocha, dress worn underneath by Valentino, Olsen’s own jewelry worn throughout. 

Ironically, it was on the road where Olsen felt reinvigorated, thanks to the camaraderie of fellow musicians on the festival circuit, such as St. Vincent, Courtney Barnett, and Mac DeMarco. “You think all these bands are getting together and getting shit-faced and there’s probably drama, and there is,” she says, “but behind the scenes and on the sidelines, there’s also a lot of community that’s being built. It was really refreshing to talk to people—even in a drunken way—about our careers, and to know that I wasn’t totally isolated in the experience. Hearing that other people were bummed, and making fun of ourselves, like, ‘I’m so famous, my life is so hard,’ really saved my career. I was like, ‘I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep doing this.’ And after that I wrote a bunch of material.” Thus, My Woman was born.

The world was introduced to the new music via the morbidly beautiful lead single “Intern,” the video for which was directed by Olsen herself and filmed with a micro-crew of friends in Asheville, North Carolina, where the singer has resided for three years. The visuals for “Intern” and its commanding follow-up, “Shut Up Kiss Me,” star a silver-tinsel-wig-adorned Olsen, invoking comparisons to “Life on Mars?”-era David Bowie. “I wanted to create my own character and be more in control of the image I project through my own music,” she explains.

Olsen’s also determined to expose the hypocritical manner in which men and women in the industry are received by critics. Although male rock stars can howl misogynistic lyrics without being quizzed on feminism, when a female artist writes her own music and names an album something even moderately gutsy, she’ll likely be interrogated about it. With that in mind, the singer is already swatting away the line of stereotypical questioning that the title of her record will inevitably conjure up. “The album is called My Woman, and people are like, ‘Are you afraid that your male fans might be turned off by this title?’ I can’t wait for the questions like, ‘So, as a feminist, your album is a feminism album?’” says Olsen with a scoff. “I can’t deny that I’m a feminist. I don’t like that it’s hip right now, because I don’t want it to be a trend. Just because it’s being talked about doesn’t mean that people are getting the picture.”

She finishes her lemonade—a fitting drink for a discussion about the limitations put on artists who happen to be women (see Beyoncé’s latest album). In spite of it all—the cages of fame, the insistence of critics on typecasting her, the archaic categorization of female artists by their gender, and her occasional bout of exhaustion—Olsen has no plans to slow down. “I did name my album My Woman, so it’s very easy for people to think all these things,” she says. “It is a really bold move, but that’s what you gotta do. I’m going to be audacious enough to say that I’m important.”

Coat by Kenzo. Hair: Peter Matteliano at Kate Ryan Inc. using Oribe. Makeup: Lindsey Williams at Kate Ryan Inc. using Dior Addict. Manicurist: Angel Williams at Opus Beauty using Dior Vernis.

Photographed by MichaelBeckert. Styled by Liz Rundbaken.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.