Having the Freedom to Express, Be Misunderstood, Be Authentic, Explore, and Understanding that Not Everyone Will Love You
Interview by Maranda Pleasant: I never idolized models or beauty queens in my childhood. I always loved the eccentric, the creative, and the bold ones. Annie was my idol as a wildly expressive woman and strong, talented artist. It was quite a moment when I introduced my daughter, Ocean, to Annie years ago in Aspen. Her passion for empowering women and her work with her HIV/AIDS foundation in Africa inspired us to get our heads out of our asses and do more in the world.
Maranda Pleasant: You really impacted millions of girls. You came out with these amazing videos when I was young. You weren’t trying to be a Barbie doll; you were a creative artist. A fascinating, edge-pushing musician.
Annie Lennox: It was a challenge because I didn’t want to be a Barbie doll. I didn’t want to be a passive entertainer. It wasn’t how I wanted to present myself. Obviously, at that time, it’s hard for me to talk in a sense of I, only I, because I was in a partnership. I was in a duo with Dave, and it was a joint vision. So whatever I was thinking and whatever he was thinking, we shared it. I want to be true to who I am. It wasn’t about fashion. It wasn’t about style. It was about having the freedom to express and be authentic and to explore and not to have to repeat oneself to go forward and to reinvent. Especially around that time, when you could make these videos. We were really getting the kind of opportunities to recreate our music and present it in a visual sense. But more than anything, I think everything about appearance is illusory. People see you, and they think they understand what you’re projecting, but actually, they have their own interpretation of it, or they put a label on you. I had a number of different labels. A lot of people assumed I was gay because I was wearing a man’s suit, and one had to learn that it’s OK, people will do that, and you don’t always have to explain it 100 percent, because they’re never going to accept what your own interpretation is. It’s all illusory. Everything is illusory. You cannot label something and feel that that is the beginning, middle, and end of it.
I wasn’t trying to be a role model for anybody. I don’t think that you can. I think that you can only be true to yourself. Nobody can live up to other people’s expectations. You will always let them down. There will always be something they won’t like about you. So you have to be quite grounded, and I don’t know what that is. Sometimes, that means being vulnerable. You say you saw a beautiful, strong woman. I didn’t necessarily always see that beautiful, strong woman, and I felt very vulnerable at times, and to be labeled as a strong woman when you feel vulnerable is a strange place to be, because then you’re, like, “Oh, I have to be strong now. But I don’t feel strong. I feel alienated. I feel isolated. I feel that things are very surreal, and they’re not authentic, and this is all just very overwhelming.” So it’s a lot more complex, in a way.
MP: I think that only when we’re vulnerable can we be truly strong. When we’re vulnerable, we’re compassionate, we’re more sensitive, we’re more feeling, we’re more intuitive. We can connect more.
AL: Tricky, isn’t it? Because vulnerable without strength is vulnerable, and being vulnerable means you can be victimized. There’s a flipside to everything, right?
I think that the thing is, all those years of creating music were trying to express something of a dark shadow, an existential angst that I have felt most of my life and still feel today, to not be overwhelmed by it. Music, in a way, is a great vehicle, a means by which one can express all these somewhat contradictory feelings. One realizes after a long time that, actually, we are contradictory, all of us. We are not consistent. We have both these dark sides and some light as well. To be human is to have a whole spectrum of these experiences that arise within us. As you get older, there will be a new challenge arising. What you thought you’ accomplished once, maybe the goalpost has shifted and it’s not what you’re pursuing anymore, because you’re not interested in that anymore, you know?
MP: When you talked about your existential darkness, you hold so much of it, but you reflect so much light. You are so absolutely vulnerable and questioning, but you’re at the same time strong, like “I’m going to do it anyway and I’m going to keep expressing.”
AL: I guess that’s true. I can’t deny that. At times, I’ve been so absolutely terrified of what I was about to do, whether it was public speaking or performance. Whatever it was, sometimes it had me really, really shaking in my shoes, and I decided that I was going to do it no matter what. And, of course, the critic is there, and afterwards, there’s this “Was it good enough? Was it really all I wanted to say?” I think it takes a lot to put oneself in a place where, you know, that thing about “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” You wonder what the driving force is that makes you want to do that and not just stay in a safer place. Whether somebody likes it or hates it doesn’t matter. I needed to do it. It was my personal challenge to myself. Not in a competitive way, but it inspired me.
MP: Can you tell me about some of the causes you’re involved with?
AL: I’m very intrigued that in this culture of reality television and celebrity—which is an enormous industry and generates billions and billions of dollars—we’re so resourceful. There are so many things that we could do to change the world in so many aspects. There are people working in nonprofit organizations, tackling the issues that we so desperately need to face, while governments fail so appallingly. It’s extraordinary, the complexity of that fact. We’re not interested to know the real heroes. We’re really more interested in the villains, actually, and they seem to thrive, and it continues to be business as usual. And the very fact that the planet is probably unsustainable with all that we’ve done to it and are doing to it, it’s an appalling piece of evidence. It shows our complacency, our lack of passion or inclination to be authentic and really understand our true values. It’s consistently depressing, but nevertheless, we carry on. There’s good stuff and bad stuff, but you continue on. I’m not prescriptive—I cannot tell anyone else what to do with their lives—and I’m a deeply flawed individual, but this is it.