The old house in the countryside that Lily Allen bought, after several years of fame, was at the end of a long, private track. Hugged by the land, in its own little valley of the Cotswolds, in the heart of England, it felt to her "like the end of the line", a safe place for her and her fiance, Sam Cooper, to retreat from the chaos of the music industry and start a family. She chose the paint colours with care, hung beautiful art on the walls and invited US Vogue inside for a photo shoot, with its reporter describing it as somewhere that Mrs Tiggy-Winkle might have lived.
It was also the house that Allen would one day walk out of, into what she now describes as “torrential, biblical rain”, to take off all her clothes, lie naked on the ground and howl. Her baby son, George, had died just weeks previously, while she was giving birth to him, six months into her pregnancy. “I don’t even know where that came from. I just found myself there, outside,” she says quietly, remembering that day. “Despair,” she murmurs. “It was horrendous.”
Why bring this up now? Because Allen publishes a memoir, My Thoughts Exactly, today, and if it seems things can't get any worse than weeping into the elements in the wake of her son's death, they do. It is an unflinching, unputdownable book – unless you're Allen's mother, the film producer Alison Owen, who had to take a long break halfway through reading it. (Both Allen's parents come out of it quite badly – her father, the comedian Keith Allen, more so.)
Some of the details leaked to tabloids: Allen's allegation of sexual assault against an unnamed record-industry executive, for one
Some of the details leaked to tabloids: Allen's confession of sleeping with Liam Gallagher when he was married to Nicole Appleton, for one. Allen's allegation of sexual assault against an unnamed record-industry executive, for another. And then there are the times when Allen was lost and lonely and paid a woman to have sex with her, while her husband and children were on the other side of the world.
I tell Allen that, reading the book, I was shocked. “Were you?” she asks, sitting in her open-plan living room with its big, colourful sofas and bottle-green walls, straightening out a bunch of flowers that are bothering her. (She once trained as a florist.) It’s the same London flat her stalker broke into one night in October 2015, intending to slit her throat, while her tiny children were sleeping in the room next to hers. Security measures have been added, but the flat still feels homely and is modest in size. An assistant is at the kitchen table, a publicist on another sofa, both quietly getting on with other work.
Allen is unfailingly calm while discussing the book. She sometimes flicks through her phone as we talk, replying to texts, but if she’s nervous she doesn’t show it. She comes across as a self-contained unit; friendly enough, sometimes giggly, but never gushing or trying to impress. Like many celebrities who have been through the wringer, there is a certain solitude to Allen, an energy that can mean she remains alone in a room full of people and noise.
She seems curious and perhaps amused by my shock. “Why?” she asks.
Where to begin? Soon after George's death Allen became pregnant again, and married Cooper in a bit of a rush. Her daughter, Ethel, was born needing surgery, and was unable to feed properly for eight months. (Allen pumped breast milk to no avail, giving it all away.) Marnie, an unplanned second daughter, came soon after. Realising she had taken too many years off from being a pop star, and couldn't afford the crippling dream-house mortgage any more, Allen recorded an album, 2014's Sheezus, to mixed reviews. The tour to promote it took her far from her husband and children, whose scheduled FaceTime calls she started to miss, because she was getting low, and also because she was getting high. Bandmates and managers started quitting in droves, and eventually Allen became so deranged, partly due to the cocaine and diet pills, that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin tried to stage an intervention on a cliff top in Malibu. And it doesn't end there.
Why would you choose to expose yourself like this, I ask: you’ve written about the pain of growing up in the glare of the tabloid spotlight – you must know full well this book is going to catapult you straight back there.
"Yeah, but only for about 10 minutes," she says. "It's not going to run and run, is it? People's concentration spans are even less than they used to be." She laughs, but I'm not so sure. She admits she had planned to turn off her phone and disappear during the book's release, but in another strange twist of fate (her life is full of them) her latest album, No Shame, has been nominated for the Mercury Prize, whose winner will be announced tonight. So she can't. She's delighted about the Mercury, and, in any case, this book isn't really for her, it's for her two daughters, now aged five and six.
"So if I drop down dead tomorrow, and they Google me – or they'll live with their dad then, who'll have a different version of events – I wanted to have something out there. My story, from my perspective. And that's not to say that mine is right or Sam's is right… This is just how I felt at the time."
Allen discusses her own death quite matter-of-factly, as if it's something she has seriously contemplated. It is worth noting that a decade ago, when she was at the height of her mid-20s fame, not a day would pass without the tabloids feasting on the exploits of Allen, Amy Winehouse or Peaches Geldof; it is also worth noting that Allen is the only one who has survived.
READING HER BOOK, you find out that she nearly didn't. The Sheezus tour in 2014 – the first after retiring to be a rural, cake-baking mum – was a particular low. "The dichotomy between going back to work as a pop artist and being a mother to two very young children wasn't something I could examine with any distance or objectivity," she writes. "It was right inside me. It was my waking, daily reality and I found it blinding."
She tells me she hadn’t been around any babies before having her own – didn’t know any. “And neither of my parents was particularly good at parenting, so it wasn’t a skill set that I had,” she says. “I sort of assumed it would all just happen naturally. And it didn’t. And I think that was the trigger for my postnatal depression. My whole childhood I’d been dreaming of this two point four children, living in the country – everything was just going to fall into place, and I’d be this perfect mum. And it didn’t happen.” She is speaking very quietly now. “I was very shocked and disappointed.”
Alone on tour, suffering from postnatal depression and smothered grief, Allen tried cheating on her husband with other men, tried starving herself, but, as she writes: “Nothing seemed to reach or satisfy me. I remember waking up one morning in those dark days thinking, ‘Maybe it’s time for heroin, because nothing else is working.’ ”
She was expensive. High-class hookers are. I didn't care. I just wanted her to help me feel something. I was at my lowest ebb
Instead she hired a female sex worker from an agency, who visited three or four times. She writes: “She was expensive. High-class hookers are. I didn’t care. I just wanted her to help me feel something.” Was there any relief in sex that was so transactional? Allen says she doesn’t think so, then somewhat mind-bogglingly explains she got the idea to hire a sex worker because she was reading a book about addiction and shame. She had thought you could get hooked only on drugs or drink or food, “and it planted a seed, like, ‘Okay, there’s a whole other realm of f***ed-upness I can get into’ ”, she says.
She isn’t ashamed of it; she isn’t proud, either. “I was at my lowest ebb.”
Did she want to get caught? “Um.” She pauses. “No. I was pretty brazen with all my behaviour. I think I just didn’t care.” She thinks a bit more. “Actually, maybe I did want to get caught. Maybe I wanted Sam to rescue me. I wanted him to find out about these things and say, ‘Enough is enough. You’re coming home.’ ”
I ask her what Chris Martin said to her, because I sort of long for him and Paltrow to stage an intervention in my life, too. Allen bursts out laughing. She had been so drunk at a Halloween party at the home of the actor Kate Hudson that she accidentally headbutted Orlando Bloom and knocked herself out. Chris Martin drove her home and invited her to Sunday lunch. "I just went over to Gwyneth's house in Malibu for lunch. And they've got this amazing garden that goes from the top of the cliff down to the sea. Chris was so full of energy, he grabbed me and was, like, 'Come on! I want to take you for a walk.' I was, like, 'Okay.' He's very sweet for taking the time."
Throughout this dark period the children were at home in England. When Allen talks about, say, feeling emotionally neglected by her father as a child, she can shrug with a cool detachment, like someone who learned early to turn herself into an emotional brick wall. But when I ask about the separation from her children, her face falls. “With Ethel being as ill as she was, you know… It was just not perfect from the outset. It was really hard. Being away from her. And Marnie was not planned in the slightest, so it was very…”
Had there been any time simply to grieve? “There was a bit of space between George dying and Ethel being born – 13 months. I did do grieving, but you don’t really know when that grieving process is over.”
She and Cooper divorced, but not before he made her tell him about every single infidelity, because he needed to hear it all. They agreed to break up while sitting in a dark corner of their favourite Italian restaurant in the summer of 2015. As she describes it in the book, “We were both miserably sad. We were both in tears. We both felt some kind of relief.” There is no question that their love for each other was very real: she writes about the way they used to talk to each other when they met, and how he promised to look after her if she’d agree to calm down.
But by November 2015 she was trying to sort her life out alone. She met with a man whom for legal reasons she calls Record Industry Executive. (She wanted to name him; her publisher’s lawyers said no.) Pretending to want to help her get clean, he got her drunk on tequila. The next day she had a bad feeling; she didn’t remember getting home, but she decided to write it off. She met him again for work, drink was involved, and she woke up to find him trying to have sex with her in a hotel room. Again, Allen felt compelled to write it off, but she also went to her lawyer in London and signed an affidavit saying what happened.
Allen explains that she was offered a gig promoted by BBC Radio 1 where one of the executive's artists would have been present, "so I had to turn it down. Because I didn't want to be around him. And I got punished by Radio 1, with no airplay for my next single, Trigger Bang – I just couldn't tell them why I couldn't take the slot." She is keen to stress that she isn't the only artist who has been through such things, saying the music industry is "rife with sexual abuse".
In Hollywood, the death of the studio system, with actors no longer tied to restrictive deals with a single company, has partly fuelled the #MeToo movement – women are freer to speak out. Yet many women recording artists remain contractually tied to their labels: Allen is still on a five-album deal she signed with EMI more than a decade ago for £25,000, or about €28,000. ("Ten more songs to go," she says cheerily, desperate to release her own music and own all the rights.)
“I don’t know how much money I’ve made, don’t know how many albums I’ve sold,” she says. I find this odd; she seems clinically well-informed about other areas of life. She explains: “When I start to think about money I get that feeling I used to get with parking tickets – anxiety in my stomach.” She doesn’t spend the way she used to, “but I think my spending in the past was part of my addictive tendency, so I was trying to escape myself: ‘No, I’m not Lily – I’m the sort of person who can spend 10 grand on a ring!’ ”
ALLEN WAS BORN in 1985 to Alison Owen, a bookish and bold woman who became a successful film producer, and Keith Allen, a comedian who became good at getting wasted at the Groucho Club in Soho, in London, usually with his friends Damien Hirst, the artist, and Alex James, the Blur bassist and, now, cheesemaker. They were young, chaotic parents, and Keith left when Allen was four; there were other women, but the main impression you get from the book is that he left them for the Groucho. Allen and her brother, Alfie, would sometimes stay the night in the club's guest rooms.
Meanwhile, their mother had issues of her own. When Allen was about eight she found Owen in her bedroom with empty vodka and pill bottles around her, crawling along the floor, saying, "The house is shouting at me to get out." Rehab swiftly followed and she cleaned up her act.
Keith, however, continued, resulting in a cocaine-related heart attack at Glastonbury Festival when Allen was 14 and loosely in his care. She visited him in a makeshift hospital bed – and the next day in his caravan on the festival site, where he was snorting cocaine with his mates again.
Allen attended a variety of schools, leaving without a GCSE – no Junior Cert, in other words. In the book she protests that her famous family didn't get her where she is today ("That's what got to me: this assumption I had it easy, that I just snuck in the door"). But not everyone manages to land an early job in a TV company run by their godmother, Henrietta Conrad. She admits she got her first, very early record deal through her father, but it was a disaster: they tried a few folky songs that didn't really suit her, before London Records threatened to sue her, Allen writes, for a staggering £3.6 million, or €4 million, for breach of contract. She was 17.
By the age of 21 Allen was signed to EMI, but, finding they were too busy with Gorillaz and Coldplay, she built her own following on MySpace, with songs such as Smile, LDN and Nan You're a Window-Shopper. I vividly remember coming across her there, this little pigtail punk riding a bike in a sundress, writing blog posts that were funny and vulnerable and rabble-rousing. The songs were catchy as anything, rude but also sweet, and actually sounded like London in the 21st century.
I think one of my big struggles with being famous in my early 20s was that there was a constant running commentary telling me who I was
Fame came quickly, because pop desperately needed her. Two years later I interviewed Allen for another newspaper. It was a meeting that would usually last one hour, except she was so busy that we were given only nine minutes. The editor still put her on the front page. I wonder, now, how this sudden stardom fed into her addictive personality.
“I think one of my big struggles with being famous in my early 20s,” she says, “was that there was a constant running commentary telling me who I was. So for somebody who didn’t have a sense of self, who was desperately trying to find out who they were, to have people going, ‘You’re this and you’re worthless and you’re a piece of shit’… you believe it.”
She does regret some of the media beef she stirred up, though, and says her public feud with Cheryl Cole – the pair traded playground insults for several years – was fuelled by nothing more than sexual frustration. "Sorry Cheryl," she writes in the book, before throwing a curveball – "I was angry because I hadn't come yet" – and recommending her favourite vibrators. So let me get this straight, I say: when you were singing all those songs about relationships and bad sex, being lambasted for your frankness, you hadn't even put your hands down your own pants?
“Oh, I had had a go,” she says. “But I felt funny about it. It’s like what I said about not having a sense of self – when I started doing it I had to tell myself, ‘You deserve this, this is Okay.’ It was an effort to get to that point.”
Of course, Allen being Allen, just in time for the new book she has a new feud – with Nicole Appleton from All Saints, who was married to Liam Gallagher at the time of their one-night stand on a flight to Tokyo.
Earlier this year Appleton tweeted a warning: "One day our paths will cross @lilyallen!" Is Allen worried? "Yeah, I'm terrified," she deadpans, rolling her eyes. (You can see why the comedian Harry Enfield, Allen's stepfather for a few years, is said to have based Kevin the Teenager on Allen and her siblings.)
The book is genuinely terrifying, however, when it comes to her stalker, a man called Alex Gray, who has been detained indefinitely under the UK mental-health Act. Allen writes in some detail about her fight for justice after he broke into her flat; she says the police wanted to write it off as a burglary, even though in their interview tapes Gray clearly said he planned to put a knife through her face. She did the research, realised he was the same man who had been stalking her both online and off for many years, and hired a lawyer.
“There were six months between him being arrested and the court case, so if he’d only been found guilty of burglary, he’d have been released, he would have come straight here, and he would have killed me. There are no two ways about it – that was his intention, 100 per cent. I saw him in court [behind a screen] when he got up and started smashing the f***ing glass.”
IT WAS HER BOYFRIEND, Daniel London, aka the grime MC Meridian Dan, who got Gray out of Allen's flat. After a roller-coaster decade she has ended up in what seems like a very happy, healthy relationship. She agrees. Dan is quite different from her husband, who went to Harrow School and hangs out with aristocrats: he grew up on a council estate in Tottenham, in north London. "And it does feel pretty normal. We might go to, like, the boxing, or go out for dinner sometimes, but we don't go out out at all. And we're both musicians."
Before she got together with Dan her video for the single Hard Out Here was called out for racism, for the way it portrayed her, clothed and presiding over her near-naked black and Asian backing dancers. Her memoir is full of scores being settled with people – she has so many bones to pick it's a wonder the book doesn't rattle – but on this topic she now takes full responsibility. "After I got called racist I started reading lots of black feminists online and learning about intersectional feminism, realising how much worse it is for other people. I was consumed by it for a long time." She thanks the internet, without which, she admits, "I probably wouldn't have seen any of those black women's responses to the video. I would have just carried on, and I'm grateful for it."
In recent years she has spoken out in support of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party – "All I know is that Conservatives aren't interested in helping anybody but themselves get richer" – and the Grenfell victims; she subscribes to the theory that the real death toll has been covered up. As for her BBC news feature in the Calais refugee camps, in which she was shown tearfully telling migrants, "I apologise on behalf of my country," she feels the BBC set her up, because she was in such a mess at the time, and apologises in the book for crying on telly. I tell her I don't see why she has to. "I know, but that's the power of the press and Twitter and bots – they make you start censoring yourself and second-guessing yourself."
Dan also has a young child from a previous relationship, and she says he is brilliant with all the kids, having the natural skills she feels she lacked. Plus, he has never touched drugs. “I say to Dan quite often, because he’s not an addict – when you put your face down to do the first line of an evening, you’re not, like, ‘Yeah, in nine hours I’m still gonna be sitting here chatting shit!’ You’re not, like, ‘This is gonna be great.’ You do the first one because you’re running away from yourself, and the reason you’re up 14 hours later is because you know that your self is right behind you. So I keep on carrying on, because she’s right there. She’s coming to get me.”
As for protecting her kids from the modern world, Allen doesn't have the answers. "My daughters are already too worried about the way they look, their clothes. It's only a matter of… hours before they're asking for Wonderbras for their Instagram accounts. That shit terrifies me. Although I kind of rate the Kardashians in a way, because they're the first example of women who have taken ownership of their bodies and profited from it. That's the real reason so many men hate them."
But the Kardashians make other women so obsessed with their bodies, I say. What would you do if you found diet pills in your daughter’s bag?
“Depends on the diet pills,” Allen says, then explodes with laughter. “I’d be, like, ‘Do these work, hon? Pick Mummy some up on the way home from school.’ Oh, I dunno – f*** knows. I haven’t got a stock answer. It depends which one of them and what mood they’re in, who their friends are and what they’re reading. I don’t think one size fits all.”
At a time when Instagram is full of yummy mummies showing off their falsified, sponsored lives, it’s remarkable to hear a mother say she doesn’t know what to do, and that she has messed up. Exposing yourself as a work in progress seems brave; Allen is recovering from several things, and the fantasy of perfection is one of them.
Today she is drug-free, even though Narcotics Anonymous meetings didn't work for her, but she does drink. She came off antidepressants a few months ago. She says she has had so many diagnoses she isn't sure what mental-health issues are even hers. "Post-traumatic stress disorder, postnatal depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, attachment disorder. You name it, I've had it all. Are they all symptoms of one thing? It's a little bit like religion: it gives you something to believe in."
She still sees "the same shrink as when George died", and he really helps – in fact, he has read the book and says it's the best depiction of codependency – Lily with men; other relationships within her family – that he has read, which she is chuffed about. I ask if her father is going to be pissed off. "Welcome to the club," she says, meaning he can join her in the land of the annoyed. (He recently told the Daily Telegraph that he hadn't read the book, adding that he was very proud of her but that father and daughter are both "poultices. We bring out poison".)
Her mother's verdict on the book, she says, is, "It's your truth, darling." But they are still close, living five streets from each other. Alfie, an actor who has been in Game of Thrones, is hardly in the book, although I did enjoy the story of him, as a child, meeting Princess Diana and telling her his willy was caught in his zip. But the two siblings have a pact not to discuss each other in public.
Some family traditions remain strong: Allen is proud that her daughters are bookworms, like their grandmother. “They absolutely adore reading,” she says. “Ethel’s pretty good, but Marnie just looks at the pictures and makes up the words. It’s very sweet. She’ll probably be quite a good songwriter. We’ll go to the park and then they’re, like, ‘Can we go to the library?’ I say, ‘Yeah, sure!’ They just want to immerse themselves in books and sit on the beanbags.”
Her own current favourite book is Matt Haig's Notes On A Nervous Planet, about anxiety. After reading it she deleted her once-busy Twitter account. It has since been reactivated for an assistant to tweet the odd bit of promotional news, but it's not Allen, and the trolls can't get to her. For now. But now the book is coming out, and the whole crazy cycle of attention is going to begin again. I have a feeling that she's going to enjoy it. – Guardian
My Thoughts Exactly is published by Blink Publishing