State of the Arts

Even Little Mix couldn’t protect Jesy Nelson from a barrage of cruelty and misogyny

As the first successful girl group to grow up not just on TV but in the glare of social media, Little Mix were the canaries in the coalmine, writes Fiona Sturges, and Jesy Nelson has paid the price

Friday 18 December 2020 10:15 GMT
Jesy Nelson cited the ‘constant pressure’ of being in the public eye and the ‘toll’ on her mental health as a reason for quitting Little Mix
Jesy Nelson cited the ‘constant pressure’ of being in the public eye and the ‘toll’ on her mental health as a reason for quitting Little Mix (Rex Features)
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Imagine doing a job in which people constantly tell you you’re ugly. Imagine them shouting that you are bad at what you do, that you’re not thin enough, that your clothes are awful and you deserve to die. Imagine all this taking place not just in office hours but around the clock, every single day. Throughout all this, you must keep smiling and do the work because, hey, it’s part of the job.  

When, in 2019, the singer Jesy Nelson appeared in the BBC Three documentary Odd One Out, we got a horrifying glimpse of life in a hugely successful pop group. Her decision to talk about what she had endured from online trolls was courageous and, she hoped, would make life better, stripping power from those who sought to bring her down. But despite her best efforts, it didn’t work out that way. This week, Nelson announced her departure from Little Mix, the multimillion-selling band formed in 2011 on The X Factor. Nelson cited the “constant pressure” of being in the public eye and the “toll” on her mental health. The announcement comes a month after she revealed she was taking some time off from the group for “private medical reasons”. The remaining members of the band – Jade Thirlwall, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Perrie Edwards – have been swift and heartfelt in their encouragement, noting that this is “an incredibly sad time for us all but we are fully supportive of Jesy. We love her very much and agree that it is so important that she does what is right for her mental health and wellbeing.”

Last year, I interviewed Little Mix for The Independent and they were delightful. As the four of them squashed themselves into a two-seater sofa at their record company headquarters, I saw a band who were enormously protective of one another. They talked of having bonded in the strange circumstances of the group’s creation and of the “Little Mix wall” behind which they could share their anxieties. “We’ve got each other’s backs,” they said. But still, their wall couldn’t protect Nelson from the barrage of cruelty, which centred almost exclusively on her appearance.

In many ways, Little Mix were the canaries in the coal mine. They were the first successful girl group to grow up not just on TV but in the glare of social media. On one hand, it helped them connect directly with fans and control how they were perceived by the public. But on the other, it opened up the band – and Nelson in particular – to abuse and misogyny on an industrial scale.

When it started, she was 20 years old – a baby in career terms, and a young woman still trying to find her place and identity in the world. A former barmaid from Dagenham in Essex, Nelson had seemingly achieved her dreams on The X Factor, joining a band alongside three talented, like-minded women. But over the course of nine years, the dream turned into a nightmare as the negative comments kept on coming, online and in the press (Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins are among those to have publicly laid into her). Her self-confidence was soon eroded and she began to believe the insults. She became distressed about her appearance and developed an eating disorder. Her mum saw what was happening to her and cried. In the film, Nelson revealed that she had attempted suicide.

Little Mix formed on ‘The X Factor’ in 2011
Little Mix formed on ‘The X Factor’ in 2011 (Getty)

There is a grim inevitability to all this. How female pop stars look remains a depressing measure of their worth; they are seen as bodies first, musicians second. If you think things have got better through the increased female presence in the past 20 years, think again. See the glee with which grubby online trolls shared a picture of Billie Eilish recently, criticising her appearance. Last year, Eilish said that her decision to wear loose-fitting clothing was connected to a desire not to be sexualised or judged. “Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath, you know?” she said. She is 18 years old.

In the case of Nelson, combine this already toxic impulse to pass physical judgment with reality TV, a medium that has yielded a desperate succession of casualties catapulted into the public eye with little or no attention paid to their wellbeing, and you have the most egregious case of negligence.

To put this in the most basic terms, a young woman has been hounded out of her job. What is more, while carrying out her work, she has been made seriously unwell. In other professions, there are procedures and departments dedicated to dealing with such matters; there is potential recourse and a duty of care. But recent history has shown that this rarely happens in the entertainment business, and when it does it is the exception rather than the rule. When a woman becomes famous, it is accepted that abuse comes with the territory and is a price worth paying. Nelson has become collateral damage in an industry that still refuses to look after its own. This needs to stop.  

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

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