LIZZO Is Entertainer Of The Year

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Surely, in the year of our lord 2019, you know who Lizzo is. I mean, even if you don’t think you know, girl—you know. Her song is in that Walmart commercial with the dancing cart people, and another one is in an ad for GrubHub, and I swear I was watching a football pregame show and heard strains of the piano riff from her song “Good as Hell” twinkling in the background. She’s on the soundtrack at your Zumba class, her voice is blaring from the headphones of the guy across from you on the train, and your daughter is locked in her bedroom scream-singing, “I just took a DNA test/ Turns out I’m 100% that bitch,” from Lizzo’s No. 1 hit, “Truth Hurts,” in her mirror right now.

But right now, Lizzo, 31, is with me—literally—tucked away in a studio on a dead-end street on a warm December afternoon in Dallas. I didn’t get dressed up, because what does a regular person wear to meet Lizzo? I don’t own any diamond-encrusted booty shorts or full-length feather coats. Is it even legal to introduce yourself to Lizzo while wearing yoga pants you bought two years ago at Kohl’s? She, meanwhile, is head to toe in Gucci, hair laid and lips glossed, flanked on either side by her gorgeous glam team. Lizzo is everything you want her to be: loud, fun, effervescent, all the synonyms you can use for the words loud, fun and effervescent.

And I want to know everything: Can she still run to the store in her pajamas to buy groceries? (No, but she’s always had them delivered, even pre-fame.) Can she walk through an airport without a dozen giddy wine moms throwing themselves in her path while shouting her lyrics at her? (She travels with security now. People can be weird.) Also: How do you ask someone, Why them, or Why now, without making them want to punch you?

But I have to ask: Why was this the year—after nearly a decade on the road, performing shows for next to nothing, living in your car, being your own hype man—that you racked up more Grammy nominationsthan any other artist? “I’ve been doing positive music for a long-ass time,” she says. “Then the culture changed. There were a lot of things that weren’t popular but existed, like body positivity, which at first was a form of protest for fat bodies and black women and has now become a trendy, commercialized thing. Now I’ve seen it reach the mainstream. Suddenly I’m mainstream!” She laughs. “How could we have guessed something like this would happen when we’ve never seen anything like this before?”

She’s right. Lizzo does represent something new. Her sound is relentlessly positive and impossibly catchy: bangers that synthesize pop, rap and R&B, with hooks so sharp it feels like they’ve been in your brain forever. Her lyrics are funny, bawdy and vulnerable: reminders to dump whatever idiot is holding you back and become your own biggest fan. (Even the viral four-second clip of her in a rainbow dress saying, “Bye, bitch!” and cackling as she rides away on the back of a cart is superior to many artists’ entire musical output this year.) Attending a Lizzo concert feels like worshipping at the church of self-love, if your preacher was a pop star living joyfully in a big black body, delivering a sermon of self-acceptance that’s as frank as it is accessible. At a time when Instagrammers are shilling flat-tummy tea or pretending to eat a giant cheeseburger, Lizzo sells something more radical: the idea that you are already enough.

That is particularly appealing this year, with the Internet a scary toilet, measles somehow making a comeback, and everyone just meme-ing themselves through it because no one can afford to go to therapy. In 2019, Lizzo was a beam of light shining through doom and gloom, telling us to love ourselves even if the world doesn’t always love us back. We needed her.

“Who is that glamorous fat bitch?” It was summer 2014, and my homegirl and I were squinting at the shattered screen of a busted iPhone in an empty grocery-store parking lot like two losers. She’d pulled up one of Lizzo’s music videos, knowing that keeping up with new music is hard when you’re not a Cool Teen. We tried to block the glare from the lunch-break o’clock sun as we watched this babe with bejeweled nails dancing with a shirtless dude in the desert while rapping. “Minuscule to me, I’m a big deal to you; I picketh thee off, like a bug betwixt my shoe.” I paused the video, my jaw against my chest. “Did she just say betwixt?” I’m in!TIME Entertainer of the Year: LizzoLizzo is the defining star of 2019—not just for the music she makes, but for what she represents. She talks to TIME about her role models, nude photos and a dream career.

In 1989, when I was young and outcast and looking for even a shred of representation to make me feel less weird and alone, my options for fat-black-lady role models were Nell Carter, Marsha Warfield, and Shirley Hemphill from What’s Happening!! Imagine the kind of adults who are going to grow out of kids with access to Lizzo. Now that she’s a megastar, everything she does is news—especially her tendency to post nude photos, which she does frequently and with great enthusiasm. “I think it’s healthy to have a relationship with your naked body, even if no one ever sees it,” she says. “But I’ve always felt the need to share it.”

Seeing her body as I’m casually scrolling through Instagram is like a shot of emotional adrenaline. Open my largest vein and pump that photo of her naked in a bathtub filled with Skittles directly into it. It feels revolutionary, even now, to watch a fat woman love herself so openly. We’ve been conditioned to expect the “good fatty”—the “Excuse me, I’m so sorry, look at me eating a salad!” kind of fat girl who feels like she has to perform some sort of disordered eating to get love, let alone fame. Lizzo loves her back rolls and doesn’t care whether you do too. (Though you should!)

Lizzo performs with her dancers in London on Nov. 6

Lizzo performs with her dancers in London on Nov. 6Chiaki Nozu—WireImage/Getty Images

While it may feel like Lizzo is suddenly everywhere, she’s actually been grinding for over a decade. Born Melissa Jefferson in Detroit, she’s a classically trained flutist (instead of becoming a quiet first chair of the Minneapolis orchestra, she plays the flute onstage in a bodysuit while hitting the shoot) and rapper (plus singer!). Growing up, she says, she was always called “different.” “And different was not a compliment back then.” (Lizzo is a combination of an early nickname, Lissa, and Jay-Z’s song “Izzo.”) As a young artist in Houston, where she moved when she was 10, she recorded and performed constantly—Lizzo was in an electro-soul duo called Lizzo & the Larva Ink and then an all-female rap group, the Chalice, which appeared on a 2014 Prince song. Her road here has been long. Lizzo has toured as a solo artist since 2013 and been signed with Atlantic since 2016.T

Then, this spring, her self-empowerment anthem “Truth Hurts,” originally released in 2017, appeared in the popular Netflix movie Someone Great and went on to top the Billboard Hot 100. She performed in front of a giant inflatable butt at the Video Music Awards and carried a tiny Valentino purse down the red carpet at the American Music Awards, spawning a million memes. Her third album, Cuz I Love You, earned her eight Grammy nominations. Each moment helped cement her as the defining entertainer of this year. It also made her a bigger target. “I have to bite my tongue on certain things,” she says. “When people challenge my talent, they challenge whether I deserve to be here. They challenge my blackness. I’m like, ‘Oh! I can easily just let your ass know right now in 132 characters why you’re f-cking wrong.’”

In general, I reject positivity. I’m a lifelong pessimist whose Spotify playlists are all called, like, “Songs to Cry To” and “Life Is the Pits.” And yet even I, a hard-hearted monster, have found it hard to resist Lizzo’s aural sunshine.

Part of what makes Lizzo so relatable—and so important—is that even as she preaches self-empowerment, she’s candid about the struggle. This year wasn’t easy for her. “From March to … now!” She laughs. “I was experiencing a little bit of unhappiness. I was not happy with the way I felt to my body. I didn’t feel sexy, and I didn’t know when it was going to end. There were times when I would go onstage and be like, ‘Y’all, I’m not going to lie. I’m not feeling myself.’ Sometimes I’d break down and cry. Sometimes the audience would just cheer to make me feel better. I was getting sick a lot. I was like, What the f-ck is going on? I need to fall back in love with my body.” She’s working on this, along with the newfound pressures of celebrity, in therapy. “I didn’t want to be famous,” she says. “I wanted to be like Brandon Boyd from Incubus! I just want to go to the farmers’ market.”

It’s a good reminder: omnipresent as she may be, Lizzo is just a person who feels like garbage sometimes and lives on the same actively dying rock hurtling through space as the rest of us. She’s not a walking inspirational infographic. She knows that part of being enough means acknowledging your imperfections. Which is why it’s such a relief to know that she gets down sometimes—because I know when she gets back up she’s going to bring us with her. Bye, bitch!