Amy Winehouse doesn’t know it, but her legacy helped save my life

Her refusal to live quietly had a big impact – years after she died – on a quietly suffering 20-year-old university student

Sam Hancock
Friday 23 July 2021 14:35
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<p>Amy’s older brother, Alex, said his sibling ‘would have died eventually, the way she was going, but what really killed her was the bulimia’</p>

Amy’s older brother, Alex, said his sibling ‘would have died eventually, the way she was going, but what really killed her was the bulimia’

Today, on the 10th anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death, it seems pertinent to ask: what is her legacy? The answer, of course, is that it looks very different to a lot of people.

For some it’s her small but stunning studio album collection; or Amy’s Place, an east London-based drug recovery centre for women, set up by the star’s parents after she died; while for others it’s her role as one of the inaugural female celebrities who, throughout the Noughties, were hounded and bullied by the press. Personally, though, Winehouse’s legacy cuts much deeper.

When she died on 23 July 2011, I vividly remember those images of a dark red body bag being carried out of Winehouse’s home in Camden, north London. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t some diehard fan, I just recall knowing that moment would be one I’d remember for a very long time.

Fast forward to 2015, when Asif Kapadia’s controversial Amy documentary was released, I was in the throes of what would end up being a near-five-year battle with depression and two eating disorders: anorexia and bulimia.

Despite some family members – particularly the singer’s father, Mitch – later rejecting much of the film’s claims, its revelations about Winehouse’s lifelong battle with bulimia have gone on to define much of the memories people have of a sensational but worn-out popstar, destroyed by fame she repeatedly told us she never wanted. At least, that’s the case for me anyway.

Hearing how Winehouse, aged 15, told her mother, Janis, that she had found “the perfect diet” – eating whatever she wanted and throwing it up later – made my starved body come alive. Finally, someone got it. I wasn’t a freak after all, I was normal, “perfect” even. This may sound odd, considering I’m only talking about six years ago, but there were far fewer celebrities discussing eating disorders and body image then. Since, thankfully, plenty have come forward: Zayn Malik in 2016, Demi Lovato in 2017, even Elton John in 2019.

By the documentary’s end, though, when you hear Winehouse’s loved ones describe her tragic death, I realised I wasn’t supposed to feel comforted or “seen”. I was meant to recognise the turmoil she had put her body through, and what could happen as a result.

Even though Winehouse’s official cause of death was alcohol poisoning – confirmed after a second inquest in 2013 – it seems inescapable that the damage done to her body through bulimia played a part. In fact, a doctor interviewed in the Amy film describes the singer’s death as a “combination” of alcohol poisoning and the “weakened state of her body” due to an eating disorder.

I became a bit obsessed from there – shocking from someone who had an obsessive compulsive need to starve themselves, I know. I’d play Frank and Back to Black on repeat. I read up on Amy’s life, which led me to the 2013 Observer magazine interview with her older brother, Alex, in which he said his sibling “would have died eventually, the way she was going, but what really killed her was the bulimia”.

“We all knew she was doing it, but it’s almost impossible [to tackle] especially if you’re not talking about it,” he told journalist Elizabeth Day. “It’s a real dark, dark issue. Absolutely terrible.”

I’d heard all the warnings before, from my parents, doctors and therapists, but this felt different. Alex’s acceptance, his sense of inevitability, of what would happen to his sister – and, in turn, what I took to mean would eventually happen to me – frankly scared the s*** out of me. And while that didn’t mean I could simply click my fingers and make myself better, it did allow me to begin imagining what my life without anorexia and bulimia in it might look like.

As any of the 1.25 million people currently suffering from an eating disorder in the UK know, this is a huge moment, which signals something can change but only if you want it to and are willing to work hard for it every day.

I did that for the next few years, well into my twenties, until I didn’t need to anymore. I’m not saying that’s down to Winehouse, because it isn’t, that’s down to me. What I am saying, though, is her legacy lives on in a multitude of ways. There’s her music, her rehab centre, her troubled relationship with the paparazzi, plus there’s her refusal to live quietly and the impact that had – years after she died – on a quietly suffering 20-year-old university student.

So, today, I intend to celebrate the life of someone who showed me the value in beginning to appreciate my own. Here’s to you, Amy Winehouse.

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