Amy Winehouse, my godmother: I couldn’t talk about her for years

Ten years after the singer’s death, Dionne Bromfield has addressed the grief she couldn’t deal with at 15

Amy Winehouse and Dionne Bromfield: “Even someone saying Amy’s name to me, I would just shut down.” Photograph: MTV/Cressida Jade

Amy Winehouse and Dionne Bromfield: “Even someone saying Amy’s name to me, I would just shut down.” Photograph: MTV/Cressida Jade

 

Dionne Bromfield is leaning into the screen as we talk on Zoom, recounting the moment 10 years ago when she received the news that would change her life forever. On a sunny July day, the 15-year-old singer was waiting to go on stage. She was supporting the boyband The Wanted on tour in Wales, the atmosphere backstage fizzing with energy before each show. However, that day something felt off. People were unusually quiet, and no one would meet her eyes. Eventually, she was told something was wrong: “It’s Amy.”

Amy Winehouse, whose remarkable, all-too-brief career ended with her death a decade ago tomorrow, on July 23rd, 2011, had been the teenager’s godmother, friend and mentor. Winehouse had nurtured Bromfield’s burgeoning vocal skills and helped her break into a notoriously competitive industry. For years after her death, Bromfield couldn’t listen to Amy’s music, let alone think about her. After two albums and a stint presenting the CBBC show Friday Download, the singer, who had been marked out by many as one to watch and performed on live television with Winehouse, stepped back from music.

“You don’t know if you really want to go back there,” says Bromfield, who is now 25, of the period around Winehouse’s death. “Talking about it has just felt almost impossible for the last 9½ years. I felt like I didn’t want people to see me being weak.” But she recently had a change of heart. After years of keeping everything in, Bromfield has made a TV documentary about Winehouse to address her grief. (It is one of two about the singer this month; a BBC film looks at her life through the eyes of her mother, Janis.)

Amy Winehouse and Me is a sweet and moving look at the fairytale situation in which Bromfield found herself when Winehouse took her under her wing, and her belated efforts to mourn. It also sees Bromfield aim to return to the Roundhouse, the historic venue in Camden, north London, where Winehouse made her final public appearance alongside her. It was the last time Bromfield would see her alive. “Everything felt really, really good,” she says. “I said to her that night, ‘I’m so thankful for everything you’ve done for me.’ I’d never, ever said it to her before – I thought she just knew. But that night, specifically, I felt the need to say it. And I’m so happy I did.” Three days later, Winehouse was found dead. aged 27.

Dionne Bromfield, who is now 25, a decade after the death of Amy Winehouse. Photograph: James Fry/MTV
Dionne Bromfield, who is now 25, a decade after the death of Amy Winehouse. Photograph: James Fry/MTV

The effects have rippled through Bromfield’s life ever since. She didn’t sing for several years and threw herself into a difficult relationship. Though she says she wasn’t depressed, she had “very low times”. Friends felt she was holding back from them. Making a documentary might seem like a publicity grab, but, listening to Bromfield, it sounds as if she needed something like this to force her to address the very public, yet unspoken, trauma she experienced.

Bromfield was six when the two met. Winehouse had befriended Julie Din, Bromfield’s mother, through the Jewish community in north London. “My mum was older than her, but I think Amy liked the fact that she was a strong woman,” she says. “She tried to keep a lot of women like that around her.” As a brash 22-year-old, Winehouse was already larger than life (though it would be some time before she was really famous) and took a shine to Dionne. She loved being the subject of Amy’s laser-like focus: “If Amy really took a liking to you, she would be invested in you.”

For Winehouse, Dionne’s childlike honesty was an escape from the yes men she worked with; as a preteen, Dionne couldn’t care less that Winehouse was becoming a celebrity. “It would be, like, oh, Amy’s on telly, whatever,” she says. “I was only ever really interested in the Amy I saw around the house – the normal Amy, the Amy that would put Countdown on and be trying to do the numbers.” The pair would go for walks, hang out in the garden and cook together, to varying degrees of success. “She loved cooking. If you could get her to finish what she was cooking – because keeping her in one place was pretty hard – then oh, my gosh, everything would taste amazing. Then she would add two seasonings too many, and you’d be, like, oh, okay, this isn’t very good …”

It’s crazy to me that the simplest thing to do to get over it was just talk. All of this could have been avoided by talking

As alien as the idea of Amy Winehouse watching daytime TV might be for those of us whose memories of her are inextricably linked to paparazzi shots of her in disarray, and the much documented drug use, Bromfield says she brought out the singer’s maternal instincts. She recalls a rare disagreement over a £9 anklet Bromfield had bought. “She was ,like, ‘You cannot wear that, you’re too young,’ because of some ancient tale or something, I don’t know. She was just, like, ‘You’re not wearing it!’” Bromfield gave in, but she made Winehouse give her the £9.

When Bromfield began to show an interest in music, Winehouse leaped into the role of mentor and eventually signed the teenager to her fledgling record label, Lioness. “She would give me assignments – she would be, like, ‘Listen to this song. And next time I see you, I want you to tell me three things you’ve learned from listening to it’ – whether it was lyrics, melody, or something about the artists.” Winehouse went on to guide her on the pitfalls of the industry, ones she herself hadn’t always avoided. By signing Bromfield, she was able to shield her from the worst of it, and offer guidance that perhaps Winehouse wished she had had. She also shielded Bromfield from the worst of her addictions. “I never saw her drunk,” Bromfield says. “Never.”

Somehow, on that July night, Bromfield made it on stage. “I don’t think I’d really processed what I’d just been told. I remember thinking, Amy wouldn’t want me to be down in the dumps, I’m here now so let’s just do it. I just kind of stood there – I’m surprised I even remembered the words to my songs.” It was a far cry from three days earlier, when Winehouse and Bromfield had danced and laughed together in front of the Roundhouse crowd in Camden. For the next few months, Bromfield says, she “just existed”, keeping her true feelings hidden. In the documentary she visits her old head teacher, Sylvia Young, who tells her she wasn’t as successful as she thought. “She told me that that year [I had become] very serious,” she says. “That I’d lost a bit of the carefree side to me. It was weird hearing that, because I thought I had everything under control. I thought no one could see.”

Amy Winehouse became Dionne Bromfield’s godmother, mentor and friend. Photograph: MTV/Dionne Bromfield
Amy Winehouse became Dionne Bromfield’s godmother, mentor and friend. Photograph: MTV/Dionne Bromfield

Bromfield isn’t sure why she was so determined not to talk about Winehouse “to the point where even someone saying her name to me, I would just shut down”, but thinks it was partly because she questioned people’s intentions, and feared that they were looking for juicy details rather than actually caring about either her or Winehouse. For a while, she felt quite angry when people tried to tell her how much of a fan they had been. “It’s not like a normal death where it’s private. It’s a public thing,” she says. “I think it was that everyone wanted to know about it, which made me try to keep as much as possible to myself.”

She speaks to various people in the film: a grief counsellor, a support group for people who have lost loved ones to alcohol and addiction, and Amy’s personal assistant, Jevan Levy, who was with Bromfield in Wales when the news broke. You can almost feel the weight lift from Bromfield’s shoulders as she realises they have experienced similar feelings for 10 years. She tells Levy that she wishes they had talked sooner.

“It’s crazy to me that the simplest thing to do to get over it was just talk,” she says. “All of this could have been avoided by talking.” At the start of the film, Bromfield says her world crumbled when she heard the news about Winehouse. Finally, it seems, she can begin to remember the good times. – Guardian

Amy Winehouse and Me: Dionne’s Story is on MTV UK on Monday, July 26th, at 10pm

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