A conversation with Halsey is a lot like the SlingShot ride at the amusement park. First, we ease into things, like we’re slowly craning backward at the beginning of the ride. We muse about getting closer to age 30, and whether that actually means anything. We trade tricks for growing a short hairstyle past the awkward, between-the-chin-and-shoulders length. (My method: protective styles. Hers: nonexistent, hence her buzz cut.)
Then, it happens. We wander to the topic of music videos and photo shoots that lack inclusive casting, and we’re off—flying straight up into the air at 60 miles per hour, tethered to Halsey’s rapid-fire stream of consciousness and a healthy helping of F-bombs.
“I get a casting sheet and I’m like, ‘Where the f–k are the not-white people?’” she says. “And everyone goes, ‘Ohhh. Sorry!’ And then they open up the casting. And I’m like, why the f–k do I have to—why do I have to say something? Why don’t I just get sent a sheet that is diverse and inclusive? Why do I—why? Why do you see how far you can push it until someone’s gonna complain?”
For a second, her intensity makes me forget that we’re not in some meeting with her team, up in arms over a photo shoot that has failed their diversity requirements. In reality, Halsey and I are talking on the phone. It’s disappointing, since today is an achingly beautiful 90-degree Friday in Los Angeles, but necessary given the spiking COVID-19 cases in the city. Still, Halsey’s got me fired up over a non-existent casting sheet, even through our slightly fuzzy connection.
“We’ve pulled shoots and covers,” she continues. “Tens of thousands of dollars from having to f–king redo s–t because there hasn’t been enough inclusivity for us.” Then, a brief pause. The SlingShot is descending. “There’s definitely a fine line between being inclusive and tokenizing, so you have to be really careful about the way you approach that as well—never making someone feel like they’re filling the space of ‘Mandatory Person of Color.’ Because that experience is so f–king alienating for that creative, and you don’t want them to feel that way, either.”
This seems to be how Halsey’s mind operates. Some unfathomable idea jolts it to action, then it makes a hairpin turn to account for the other extreme, too. Perhaps it’s the Libra in her, and her astrological sign’s never-ending quest for balance. Or perhaps it’s because she knows firsthand how life, like many things, can drastically swing from one side of the pendulum to the other, having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 17. She’s biracial and bisexual, two qualities that come with their fair share of pendulum-swinging. Then, of course, there’s the fact that she transformed from Ashley Frangipane, a Tumblr-famous musician who couch-surfed around Brooklyn, to Grammy nominated alt-pop star Halsey seemingly overnight.
“I put my first record out when I was 19,” she recalls of 2015’s Badlands, a synthy, dystopia-themed album that proved she didn’t need a traditional radio hit to earn a headlining world tour and double-platinum certification. “When we're 19, we have this idea of, ‘This is who I am, and this is who I'll always be.’ And we're wrong.” That 19-year-old was a blue-haired, chain-smoking Jersey girl with no filter, earning her a spot alongside the likes of Lorde and Lana Del Rey as what the media referred to ad nauseum as “female pop rebels.”
Her second album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, offered a little more bisexuality and a lot more vocal range, but not much more of Halsey’s personal narrative. Like Badlands, it’s a concept record, heavily influenced by the tale of Romeo and Juliet—both Shakespeare’s and Baz Luhrmann’s versions. “I'd been hiding behind concepts, which can be a brave artistic choice,” she says, “but it can also be kind of cowardly, in a way, because the words never come from your mouth. They come from the mouth of an unknown protagonist.”
When her story was told, it was often filtered through interviewers’ interpretations, which didn’t always quite hit the mark. (No pressure, right?) Not to mention, she saw firsthand how audiences can get attached to the versions of young female artists that they first meet, disregarding the fact that pop stars, mature and reinvent themselves like everyone else. All of this has prompted a new mission statement from Halsey, who declares in the middle of our call: “I have grown up a little bit. And I need to tell you how.”
When the time came to record her third album, last year’s Manic, she took a different approach. It was the first album that put Ashley’s—not Halsey’s—thoughts front and center, sans fantasies and fountain kingdoms. “I just wanted to make a record that felt more stream of consciousness, like I was talking to my fans,” she says. “I had a whirlwind of two-and-a-half years or so in between my second record and Manic. Everything ran away from me, and I didn't get the chance to sit down with my fans and pull them by the hand, and be like, ‘Okay! Here is really what's going on. Here's how I feel, how I think, and what I've been experiencing.’”
As the album tells it, she’s much more self-aware than that blue-haired 19-year-old. (Her Jersey-ness is still present every time she says “awl-so” or “ayund,” however.) The biggest lesson she’s learned about herself is the importance of boundaries in her professional life, especially given how many times she’s burned out. These limits are necessary for her personal life as well: “Graveyard,” the third track on Manic, is a touching but concerning admission that she’d follow a lover down all their “darkest roads” if she doesn’t stop herself. As it turned out, after years of impassioned romances and absorbing the excited energy of tens of thousands of fans on the road, she had become somewhat dependent on interacting with other people.
She also might be psychic, considering that this revelation would be shared by virtually everyone on Earth not long after Manic’s January 2020 release, when the coronavirus pandemic required us to isolate in order to stay healthy. Getting a head start on this epiphany did not help Halsey, though. “I completely spiraled,” she says of adjusting to quarantining, which left her completely alone, with the most free time she’s had since 2014. “I went from waking up and someone text[ing] me a schedule of everything I'm doing that day, every single day, to being home and being like, ‘Am I gonna rewatch Euphoria for the fifth time?’”
While it did give her time to reconnect with friends and family, it also gave her a reality check about her music career. “This industry is not something that is promised to me,” she says, noticeably quieter than before. “I don't know when the next time that I'll step on the stage is, to be completely honest with you. I hope it's soon. I have a tour that's scheduled and I wake up every day hoping it doesn't get canceled. But I know it probably will.” Yet another prediction; exactly one week after she says this, almost to the hour, she announces the cancellation of the Manic World Tour.
“It breaks my heart not knowing when I'll get to do the thing that I love again,” she continues over the phone. “It makes me wonder, am I losing really important years?” She pauses. I can sense that signature turn in her thoughts coming. “But also, if that is true and I ended up only getting to have a couple, I would take having a couple over having none any day.”
It’s hard to believe that her “important years” could be over any time soon. That’s not just because of her countless mind-blowing accolades, but also because she’s just damn talented. Even with her disgust at “Hustle Twitter” pressuring people to be productive during quarantine, she hasn’t exactly been twiddling her thumbs lately. She won over country music fans through her Coyote Ugly-inspired duet with Kelsea Ballerini at the CMT Music Awards. She hosted a video series with Bernie Sanders to prepare fans for the presidential election. She became a New York Times best-selling author with her poetry book, I Would Leave Me If I Could. She started developing The Player’s Table, her television production debut, which sees her working alongside Euphoria actress Sydney Sweeney on a teen murder mystery that will explore “privilege and intersectionality, and the intersectionality of privilege.”
And, of course, she released her makeup line, About-Face.
For over two years, Halsey’s been working on her foray into beauty. The launch collection boasts highly-pigmented lip and eye colors, along with highlighters that rival her trademark performance look: glowy cheekbones that can be seen from nosebleed seats. “I'm exhausted with this industry of Instagram filters,” she explains. “It's gotta be damaging to your brain to constantly be looking at yourself through an altered lens and being disappointed with what your face actually looks like. I know what that feels like because when I first started getting publicity of some kind, I would go out and [paparazzi would] take pictures of me. I can't control the angle. I can't control the lighting. I can't control if it's my good side or my bad side. The pictures would come out and I would just have to look at them and go, ‘Okay. That's what I look like.’ I don't get to change it. I have to make peace with my face…That's what I want About-Face to be: loving and appreciating what you look like.” She hopes her line inspires all her followers to embrace their inner artist and go outside their comfort zone. “I want young people to feel like they're brave enough to leave the house with, like, lime green eyeshadow and black lipstick on,” she laughs. This mindset of defying conventional norms is rooted in Halsey’s own approach to beauty and how she chooses to do her makeup and wear her hair in her daily life. “I have a pretty good idea of what my ‘prettiest’ look is, by social standards, but it doesn't mean it's what I want to look like,” she muses. “I definitely don't think that my most ‘Hollywood’ look is when I have a bald head, but it's when I feel the most confident.”
While About-Face and Manic are entirely separate creative projects, it’s easy to see a parallel between the makeup emphasizing one’s honest appearance and the album’s candid portrayal of Halsey’s thoughts. I Would Leave Me If I Could fits neatly into this picture as well, letting her express herself without the pressure of preconceived notions. “Everything changes when you're Halsey and saying it, instead of a writer,” she explains, “because then people are projecting years of every slutty outfit I've ever worn, or every guy I've ever dated, or every tweet I've ever tweeted, every song of mine they've ever heard.” The experience of writing and curating the poems, some of which are older works that inspired some of her lyrics, was freeing: “It made me feel like what I look like doesn't bastardize what I have to say. That made me feel confident, and I really loved doing that.”
Halsey once joked on Twitter that God made her and declared, “lmao and then she’ll create a new persona every 6 months.” However, this recurring theme of stripping back the layers behind which she hides—be they makeup, metaphors, or a stage name—feels less like the backstory of a temporary character and more like the makings of an entirely new era, in which Halsey takes the backseat. Her goal in her current projects isn’t to promote herself, but to amplify “lesser celebrated members of our community,” she says between bites of a salad that she can’t resist any longer. One such project is the Black Creators Fund, through which Halsey provides Black creatives with a platform and financial support.
It was an idea she had been toying with, but after participating in peaceful Black Lives Matter protests last summer at which police tear-gassed and shot rubber bullets at the crowd, she was spurred to do even more. “I wanted an opportunity for people to look at a database of amazing Black creatives, and see art that people of color had made in a time where you couldn't log on without seeing bodies on the internet,” she says. “That was the first thing. The second thing goes back to the amount of times that I'd been trying to hire a Black stylist, or a Black director, or a Black photographer and had been told that they can't find anyone, and me being like, ‘You're full of s–t.’”
Her excitement at the influx of submissions by artists was mixed with another feeling: dismay. “The submissions that were coming in were from some of the most incredible creatives I've ever seen in my life,” she says. “People who, full-on, should have had high-paying, salaried, full-time jobs. People who make creatives I've worked with look completely mediocre. And that's what made me sick. Sitting there, going through submissions, going, ‘If you were white, would have had a job yesterday.’”
It’s a sad story she knows well, having recognized early on how differently her white mother and Black father are treated. “Privilege was undiscussed in my household, but [it was] an understood, unspoken thing,” she recalls, citing how duties like communicating with landlords were relegated to her mother because “everyone was more likely to help out what looks like a young single white mom than a young Black guy in his twenties trying to get a place.”
Sometimes the bias was unavoidable, however, since one of the few traits Halsey hasn’t inherited from her father is his skin tone. “You see a young Black man, and we’re in a pretty impoverished area of New Jersey,” she says. “He's with this little white baby. And things don't always go down civilly. My dad finds himself in situations often where he's having to defend himself, or facing police intervention picking me up from preschool, or taking me to the doctor or to get my hair done.” Even in recent years, Halsey has had to end relationships because of people’s unwillingness to accept their unconscious biases against her dad. “Those things are unforgivable for me at this age,” she says.
While she does what she can to chip away at the weighty, nuanced subject that is race in America, being a white-passing woman invites complicated interactions. On one hand, some white people feel more comfortable talking to her about race because “they don't feel like I'm going to attack them or assume things—and that's a whole other problem in and of itself,” she says. On the other hand, she’s not qualified to participate in every conversation about blackness. And she’s okay with that. “I recognize how fortunate I am for my complications and my struggle to be that I'm not Black enough, because not being Black enough has never denied me anything in life,” she says, taking her time with her words. “The shortfalls that I have amongst my own communities are negligible compared to the experiences that I could be having if I wasn't white-passing.”
As she sees it, her best approach is to take advantage of her massive audience to elevate voices and provide resources. “It's just about, f–kin’, knowing what matters in life,” she resolves.
The poignancy of Halsey’s statement will not hit me until days later, when she posts a carousel of images to her Instagram. In the first photo, she’s sitting against a satin white and lilac backdrop with her knees tucked beneath her, wearing a rainbow-colored crocheted bikini top that draws your eyes directly to her pregnant belly. During our conversation, she doesn’t mention her relationship, much less the fact that she's expecting a baby—cause for celebration, given that Halsey has been open about her desire to become a mom and how having endometriosis has complicated that journey. However, while Halsey and I lament over the phone about the pandemic robbing us of a precious year of our twenties, she does indeed drop an easter egg about her priorities for the next chapter of her life.
“Approaching that 30 benchmark, it’s like, ‘Okay, what do I want to accomplish in my career? And [don't I] want to start a family?’” she says. “People are going to be like, ‘She cares so much about her career, she's going to die alone.’ Or if you decide to get married or start a family, people are like, ‘She really could have been something if she would have just focused on her career.’ Everyone has a specific opinion about what you do by the time you hit a certain age. And now there's the added pressure of having years taken from you, right? Like, ‘Oh, man. I'm not winning.’ So if you're not gonna win, you might as well just do whatever the f–k you want.”
I await that hairpin turn in Halsey’s thoughts, expecting her to acknowledge the difficulties of putting her wants first when she risks media misinterpretations, public scrutiny, disappointed fans, or perhaps even regret. The turn never comes.