"OMG, is that Halsey?" asks the young reporter next to me, craning her neck. We’re working the red carpet at Los Angeles’ MTV Movie Awards, and the piercing shrieks of teens and a staccato assault of camera flashes indicate that yes, the 21-year-old musician is making her way along the carpet. She looks downright stunning in coral shorts, a sequined bra, and matching jacket, her close-cropped hair its natural dark brown. Ensconced by a small entourage of publicists, Halsey bobs and weaves down the line of journalists vying for her attention, but throws her arms around me when I introduce myself amid the chaos. “What does your button say?” she asks immediately, pointing to the pin on my denim jacket. “Winona Forever. Ooooh, I love that! My merch used to say ‘Rap Game Winona Ryder.’ She’s my style icon.” As quickly as she drops this nugget of info our conversation’s over. There are too many fans to hug on the other side of the carpet, not to mention a performance to give. With a promise that we’ll see each other again soon she moves on, and the arrival of celebs like Tyler Posey and Chris Pratt elicit a new round of frenzy.
Within the hour, Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain introduce the rising star to the Warner Bros. studio lot stage, where she struts around in a strappy leotard and dramatic white cape as if she were born to do so. With fake snow floating in the air, she launches into a tune that’s featured in The Huntsman: Winter’s War. “I’m headed straight for the caaaaaaaastle…,” she sings to a crowd that’s singing right along with her.
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“I literally black out when I do red carpets because it’s the most terrifying and anxiety-ridden fucking experience of my entire life,” says Halsey a week later when we sit down for lunch. We’re on the patio of a restaurant at a golf course in the Southern California desert, and the musician looks decidedly more casual in a crop top and baggy distressed jeans. One of her only accessories—besides her long, pointed nails—is a Coachella wristband. It’s the Friday of the iconic Indio music festival’s first weekend, the day before Halsey’s scheduled to perform.
It’s hard to believe the self-assured pro I met at the Movie Awards was terrified, but she had good reason to be: It was only her second red carpet experience ever. And the fact that she walked directly from there to a performance watched by 3.5 million people would make even a veteran pop star nervous. But that kind of leap is par for Halsey’s course. Less than two years ago she was better known as Ashley Frangipane, a run-of-the-mill broke cool girl, couch surfing with friends around New York, unsure of how she was going to pay for her next meal. “There were definitely points where we’d be like, ‘We dead-ass can’t eat,’” she recalls, as we order salads, fish tacos, and beers.
Just a few weeks ago she moved into a house on a hill in L.A.’s Sherman Oaks neighborhood and invited those same friends to come live with her. It has a swimming pool and an “insane” view, Halsey says: “I keep just waking up and being like, ‘Is this my house? Is this really my house? Are you sure?’”
In a few short years Halsey’s gone from being a New Jersey teen with a popular Tumblr to one of the music industry’s fastest rising stars. She’s sold out a headlining show at Madison Square Garden, performed with Justin Bieber on the Today show, and released a gold album, Badlands, that reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts. She’s amassed 2.3 million followers on Instagram and 1.4 million on Twitter, the kind of audience that warranted a call from Twitter when she decided to temporarily quit a couple of months ago. Halsey, whose name is an anagram of Ashley and a nod to a subway stop in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, has basically been on warp speed to stardom.
“I was like, ‘Maybe my friends’ll like this,’” Halsey says of “Ghost,” the dark pop single with eerily intimate lyrics that she put up on SoundCloud in 2014. Overnight, record companies came calling, and before long she signed to Astralwerks, released an EP, Room 93, and headed out on tour with the likes of The Weeknd and Imagine Dragons. “Walk onstage in front of 20,000 people in an arena opening up for fucking Imagine Dragons, you think to yourself, There’s a possibility that I can’t do this. That I go out there and I fucking choke. But ‘no’ is not an option,” she says. “Rolling with the punches has become my mantra.”
Performing for 20,000 people is not something Halsey could even fathom as a kid in small-town New Jersey. “I grew up in a pretty chaotic household,” she says. “Both of my parents are very, very emotional people.” They’re also very young, and Halsey says her relationship with them has always functioned more like a friendship. “That was an actual existential crisis for me in middle school, being like, ‘Why don’t my parents feel like my parents?’” she jokes, holding her head in her hands for exaggerated effect. The tattooed 1 and 7 on the middle and pointer fingers of her right hand catch my eye. “That was a pretty pinnacle time in my life,” she says of her 17th year. “I went from being a little kid to, like, a very weathered adult in a year,” she says. “I got kicked out of my house, I traveled the whole country by myself, I found out I had bipolar disorder, I dealt with a sexual assault.… That year was like Murphy’s Law, man.”
She was also dating a guy who was using heroin. “I had never even gotten drunk when I was 16, and a year later I’m watching someone shoot up in their living room.” That experience, in part, inspired “Ghost,” a song that demonstrates the openness the artist is willing to share with the world, and one that’s helped forge a fierce bond with her fans.
It’s also one of the first things Dan Reynolds, the lead singer of Imagine Dragons, noticed about her when his band was looking for someone to bring on their Smoke + Mirrors tour. “It’s especially hard right now in this world of social media to speak your mind because the world just jumps all over you for anything,” he says when we chat by phone. “She had a voice from a very early stage in her career, which is huge. She’s gutsy.”
But being gutsy makes Halsey a lightning rod for criticism. Nearly everything she does elicits a response, whether it’s business, like her M.A.C collab, which prompted calls of hypocrisy (“It’s not tested on animals, and I’m not even vegan!”), or extremely personal (“People can be shitty, like, ‘Oh, she talks about bipolar disorder for attention’”). Even simply shaving her head of the long locks she’d often dyed bright blue garnered online vitriol. “I saw thousands of tweets from kids who were like, ‘Yeah, that’s it, I don’t want to be her fan anymore,’” she says. But shaving her head was more than an arbitrary aesthetic decision. It was a purge—shedding a symbol of femininity. “Hair has also been a big indicator of racial issues in my life,” says Halsey, whose father is black. “It’s one of the ultimate symbolic struggles for women of color. Shaving my head was important to me because I needed to be able to prove that I could still love myself if I did it.” Now “straight white dudes,” as Halsey calls them, clog up her comments, telling her how ugly she looks with short hair. “I’m like, ‘That’s cool dude,’” she says with a laugh. “I really could not care less about what you think.”
But caring less is still something she struggles with. Underneath the swearing, sarcasm, and bravado is a very tender heart, a writer’s soul. “I would get into [the comments], and I would be like, ‘Why do you fucking care?’” she says, her voice lilting emphatically. “Also, what are you going to do? There are some things I have the power to make a difference in, but people being mean on the internet is not one of them. If I stood up and turned my whole career into a fucking campaign to end cyberbullying, I would get cyberbullied for that.”
That mix of strength and vulnerability comes through her music as well. “[Her voice] is so powerful, but it feels like there’s something fragile about it,” says Skrillex when we speak on the phone. It’s why he handpicked Halsey to duet with Justin Bieber on “The Feeling,” one of the Purpose tracks he produced. Since then the two bonded during Lollapalooza’s South American run, going to baile funk parties in Brazil and watching dubstep together (see Skrillex’s Instagram for a seriously adorable video of them doing the Macarena onstage during one of Zedd’s sets). It was on tour that they started collaborating, something they’re heading back into the studio soon to finish. “She’s not fighting to climb to the top with a sound that’s already there—she created her own style,” he says. “You can hear emotional lyrics, but really well written emotional lyrics, and no one—Rihanna, Katy Perry—is doing it like that. She’s in her own lane, it’s really sick.”
Halsey’s salad sits in front of her mostly untouched; she’s too busy regaling me with stories and opinions to eat. She’s charged up for sure, but she hasn’t exactly had a minute to chill out for at least 12 months.
“She seemed a little bit scatterbrained and nervous,” says Reynolds of the first time he met Halsey. “Truly, chain-smoking cigarettes. But as I got to know her it’s actually a really lovable quality. It’s not that she’s nervous, she’s just got a million things going off in her head,” he says. “I’m sure people who follow her on Instagram are like, ‘Oh, this girl is so pretty.’ But when you meet her in person, she’s just got so much depth and intelligence and charisma. She’s like a really beautiful nervous wreck, is the best way I can describe her.”
If there’s a day that would warrant being a nervous wreck, it’s this one. Halsey first attended Coachella a year ago, with her now ex-boyfriend, Norwegian musician Lido (who produced Badlands), when “no one knew who the fuck I was,” she says. This year, everything’s different. She’s planned every element of her performance, down to the costume. “I drew the sketches myself and sent them out to designers. I’m a control freak,” she admits. When I ask if she’s always been that way, she drops her fork with a clatter and widens her eyes. “No. Oh my god, no. My parents don’t know who the fuck I am anymore. I never did homework, my room was a fucking mess, I didn’t care if my clothes were dirty. I was the most loose, lazy, completely fluid, lucid gypsy woman,” she says. “I just became such a, forgive me, but such an anal retentive this past year, because I got something that I was scared to lose.”
It’s a shift that caused her a lot of anguish, ratcheting up her social anxiety. She was beating herself up because she was afraid she wasn’t fun anymore. I can see the wheels spinning in her head as she tells me this, but her heightened sense of awareness can have a positive effect as well: Our lunch ends unexpectedly when a last-minute costume-tailoring situation arises. But Halsey takes it in stride—letting go of perfection is a work in progress. “My new mentality is like, ‘That’s just what you look like. You’re a little dirty and kind of messy and you’re never ever gonna be perfect like all these other pop stars and just fucking take it or leave it and go put on a really good show.’ That’s what I’m trying to tell myself,” she says, before hugging me goodbye and throwing a double peace sign on her way out of the restaurant.
On Saturday at Coachella, as the sun sets over the dusty field and Australian rocker Courtney Barnett ends her set, the crowd disperses as a new one works its way to the stage. These are the festgoers who came to see Halsey, so dedicated that they’re jockeying for a place that will get them up close and personal long before her set is scheduled to start. A guy wearing shorts, no shirt, and a bandanna around his neck asks everyone in his vicinity if they’ve seen her before. “It’ll blow your mind,” he says, miming an explosion near his temple. A girl behind me turns her phone’s camera on herself and her three friends, a flurry of fringe and bangles and flowy skirts. “I’m so excited!” she squeals.
Finally, purple lights click on, flooding the dark stage. The first notes of “Gasoline” play and Halsey steps out in an impressively high-cut white leotard, her eyelids sparkling with glitter. It’s a dramatic entrance that kicks off an equally dramatic set, complete with pyrotechnics, a sexually charged performance with a gravity-defying pole dancer, and a surprise appearance by Brendon Urie from Panic! at the Disco, which Halsey describes onstage as the “band that changed [her] fucking life.” The two sing her hit single “New Americana,” before launching into Panic’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” The crowd loses its mind, much like Urie did the first time he saw her perform. “I was just blown away by her presence,” he says. “She has this really strong walk and she knows exactly where she wants to be. Every word has a strong meaning behind it. To me that’s really powerful.”
The following morning at my Palm Desert hotel, the free cook-to-order breakfast line is full of bleary-eyed Coachella-goers. As I wait for my pancakes and scrambled eggs, I eavesdrop on the table nearest mine as they debrief their weekend. A guy wearing a snapback asks his tablemates to declare the best show they’ve seen so far. “Halsey,” says the girl sitting next to him, the remnants of a gold foil tattoo clinging to her forehead. “Hands down.”
I relay this story to the singer when we meet up later in the day. It’s sweltering and we’ve taken shelter under the tents of the VIP area to the left of Coachella’s main stage. She’s wearing a blue camo halter top and the same distressed jeans she was wearing on Friday. “Really?” she asks. “That’s nice to hear.” She’s more subdued today, still processing her personal critique of last night’s performance despite the fact that reviews christened it as “star-making.” The singer tells me the second weekend’s performance will be better. “I care about my shows so fucking much. If I play a show and it’s not the best show anyone has ever seen, it’s not good enough for me,” she says. “I’m like that with everything. If I’m not the best person you’ve ever had sex with, we need to do it again, like, I need to fix it.”
It’s hard to tell whether she’s joking, but the singer’s overt sexuality is a big part of the Halsey package. In an industry that has a history of sexualizing young female artists, you can tell that Halsey totally owns this aspect of her performance. “I started off the bat as a very sexual artist. I wasn’t like a Disney kid-turned-bad girl. America didn’t have to let go of their sweetheart,” she says. “A lot of it is just trying to be a sexual person in a way that I think is healthy, honest, celebratory, encouraging, and unapologetic.” She’s been open about her bisexuality, another thing strangers see fit to comment on. “People will say, ‘Halsey’s pretending to be bisexual to get more album sales.’ I’m like, wow, goddamn, it is incredible that we live in a fucking year where being queer helps you sell records,” she says with a laugh, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Like, that’s a pretty wild development in the music industry.”
It’s also one of the things that’s dominated her narrative, whether she wants it to or not. “It’s like, Who is Halsey? Halsey’s a singer, Halsey’s bisexual, biracial, and she has a mental illness. That’s meeee, that’s how you sum me up in a nutshell,” she says with an exasperated laugh. “I’m so much more than that. I like to cook and I paint really well, and I play eight instruments. I write, I’m well traveled, I have so many more experiences and talents and interests than these things that I’ve been condensed into.”
We’re interrupted by a girl who has her iPhone out. “Are you Haysley?” she asks. “Yeah, I’m Halsey,” she corrects the girl before posing gamely for a photo. It’s a funny flipside of fame that she has a sense of humor about. “We joke around all the time like, I’m the biggest artist in the world that no one’s ever heard of,” she says, cracking a smile. “Like, I can show up to a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden and they’ll still probably spell my name wrong on the marquee.” Of course notoriety has its upsides, too. The night before, Halsey met Katy Perry at a Jeremy Scott party. “She was like, 'Finally, I’ve been trying to meet you.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you’ve been trying to meet me for a year, I’ve been trying to meet you for 10,” she recounts with a laugh. “I love her so much. I think she’s an incredible businesswoman.”
A week later I catch up with Halsey again, this time by phone. She’s at a tattoo parlor in Williamsburg, preparing to get inked with four symbols from one of her favorite books, The Little Prince. In a few days, she’ll attend the Met Gala, as sure a sign as any that she’s arrived. It’s raining, but it feels good to be back, she tells me. “I complain a lot about feeling too big. Like I’m too loud or too talkative or too anxious or unpredictable. I’m like that scene in Alice in Wonderland where she’s in that tiny room and her body’s giant, poking out the windows and the doors,” she says. “New York is just so busy and stimulating that when I come here, I feel like I’m the right size.”
It’s fitting that I find her back in the city that launched her career, where putting a song on SoundCloud snowballed into a juggernaut pop career. But Halsey reminds me that she’s more than just numbers. “All people want to talk about is the math, the ticket sales and the Twitter followers and the favorites and the views and the album sales,” she says. “We can talk fucking metrics if you want, I know all about them. But underneath all of that is something really genuine and authentic. Something you can’t explain with math.”
And she’s right. There’s something underneath. Her fans feel it. The crowd at Coachella felt it. It’s the real explanation, however ephemeral, for how fast and far she’s come. Or, in her words: “Imagine I’ve got a rope tied around my waist, OK? And behind me is a really heavy one-ton block of steel. I slowly started picking up speed, and now I’m fucking running as fast as I can, and this block of steel is trailing behind me and if I stop it’s gonna slam into me and kill me. That’s how I feel,” she says excitedly, so I know it’s not a bad thing. “I just need to keep going.”
Hair: Serena Radaelli at Cloutier Remix using Kérastase Paris Nutritive Magistral. Makeup: Lottie at Streeters using Tom Ford Beauty. Manicurist: Whitney Gibson at Nailing Hollywood using Marc Jacobs Enamored High Shine Polish in Gatsby and Cora.