In May 2006, 18 months into working in the fizzy world of pop journalism, I interviewed a fresh-faced 21-year-old for the Word magazine. She sucked on a fag, hoop earrings swaying, contemplating how expectations of her pop career had gone, as I put it, “from 0 to 90 overnight”. “God, I sound like such a c***,” she began, to which my eyes lit up in an instant, I’m sure. An embryonic pop star defying the idea of media training: this was new. A young woman who spoke as she wrote in her warts-and-all blog (quite a new phenomenon at the time): this was brilliant.
“First and foremost, I want to write music for young people, for young girls especially,” Lily added, clear-headed as you like. Later, I remember finding my editor’s headline and subhead a little mean: “The Sound of the (Garden) Suburbs: Lily Allen makes urban music with a difference – she’s had a life she can’t complain about.” Yes, she had media industry parents (film producer Alison Owen and actor/Britpop hanger-on Keith Allen) but I’d deduced they might not have given her the easiest of upbringings. I also knew Lily had had therapy already.
She was all over the tabloids by July. Full of my own youthful naivety, I sent her a MySpace message to say she was great, ignore the haters, soldier on, which I’m sure she never read. In some ways, those 12 years feel like no time at all, which makes reading My Thoughts Exactly a sobering experience.
There have been many brutally honest female pop memoirs in recent years – Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys; Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless – but I’ve never read one that plumbs the darkness of being a very famous woman in such depth. Allen details countless horrors, including a stalker entering her bedroom while her young daughters sleep next door, and waking up as a record industry executive is attempting to rape her. Above all, there is the unimaginable trauma of giving birth to her dead son six months into her pregnancy, having to wait 12 hours for labour to take its course, as forceps would have broken her premature baby’s tiny body apart.
Then she contracts septicaemia, which nearly kills her. The sharpness of the prose in this chapter, in particular, had me in tears. “Then the doctors put me to sleep. In the morning, we were discharged. The hospital needed the bed.” More of this writing – economical and at times devastating – follows.
Elsewhere, we find out about smaller but no less significant ordeals. Allen’s mother forgets to pick her up for a break from public school at 11 (one of nine educational institutions Allen entered before leaving or being expelled). Her father doesn’t bother to watch her first ever headline set at the 2014 Latitude Festival despite being a field away. Her early life was full of privilege despite these situations, of course: at 14, she was a lady-in-waiting in a small film her mum was producing, Elizabeth, which became huge; at 16, she got her first record deal thanks to Dad, although the “folksy” recordings came to nothing. Music, however, “opened the door into this other world where expressing yourself and what you felt or desired or longed for or loved flowed naturally into song”. This revelation became Allen’s modus operandi, and has been ever since.
Allen’s biggest hits reveal hugely personal details, it turns out. “Smile” is about being dumped by her first boyfriend, Lester, after which she took a drug overdose. Her Ivor Novello-winning single “The Fear” described how fame was warping her, despite its ironic tone. A month after the lyric “I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless” topped the charts, Allen was topless on the cover of Q.
Above everything, My Thoughts Exactly is about mental health. Allen’s psychological unravelling is unsurprising after her son’s death, the postnatal depression she suffered after having her two daughters in quick succession, the breakdown of her marriage after a descent into drink, drugs and infidelity, and the terror of having to track down her own stalker after police ignored vital evidence. It’s a book about sex entered into willingly, too, as the papers have been quick to point out: Allen’s tales of sleeping with female escorts while on tour, and shagging Liam Gallagher in a pub toilet, are tabloid gold. But this anecdote is mostly there, one imagines, for what it says about gender politics. Allen describes Gallagher calling her, begging her to tell his then wife, Nicole, that they didn’t have sex: “Oh, Liam, yes, sure, it’s all bollocks,” Allen says now, sarcastically. “Maybe it will go away and not disrupt what really matters… the people we trust who deserve to be able to trust us in return.”
The book’s final pages return to a 33-year-old woman, to whom “the worst already happened… I lost my child” trying to learn from her mistakes. It does so through the thing that first introduced her to the world: that fresh, direct voice, used bravely, with nuance and style. The book ends with adorably unglamorous snapshots of Allen as a child, returning her to the roots of the person she used to be. “I’m getting my voice back,” she says. “Here I am. Listen.” More people should.
My Thoughts Exactly
Blink Publishing, 352pp, £20
This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis