Halsey’s voice is her currency. In our August 2021 cover story, she delves into identity, relationships, pregnancy, and the road from a Jersey girl named Ashley to tattooed rock star — and she doesn’t hold back.
BY: Danielle Pergament
PHOTOGRAPHED BY: Jackie Nickerson
“I’m going to tell you something that’s going to get me fucking slaughtered on the internet,” says Halsey, “but I’m going to go ahead and say it.” She’s in the kitchen of her home in Los Angeles County. And that’s when she tells me: “I didn’t take my prenatals.” That’s it. She closes her eyes and shakes her head. Our Zoom confessional booth.
Halsey is pregnant. Really pregnant. So pregnant that by the time you read this it’s likely she will have already given birth. Pregnant Halsey is, on one hand, different from all the Halseys we’ve come to know up until now, but at the same time, not so much. Because the one thing she’s always done is change.
For starters, Halsey hardly fits the profile of someone with 40+ tattoos, four albums, two Grammy nominations, and 23 platinum singles, who also favors acid-blue eye shadow. “My favorite place is Target,” she says. “I love Target. I love Marshall’s. I love Panera Bread. I love the suburbs. It calms me down.”
She’s only 26, but Halsey has already learned the value of keeping her ego and her alter ego on a level playing field — to change without canceling your former self. “You have to remember, this is what the world sees, right? I’m the tattooed rock star named Halsey, but growing up, I was a girl from New Jersey named Ashley. I had the most basic name. I lived in the most boring place,” she recalls. “I felt really unremarkable. I graduated high school when I was 17 and we moved to New York, and that’s when I was like, I don’t want to be one of seven Ashleys in my class.”
Salvatore Ferragamo dress.
Burc Ayol top. Tiffany & Co. cuffs. To create a similar look: Fractal Eye Liner in Past Life and Fractal Eye Paint in Refract by About-Face. Photographed by Jackie Nickerson. Fashion stylist: Law Roach. Hair: Marty Harper. Makeup: Halsey. Set design: Bette Adams. Production: Viewfinders.
The emotional gymnastics it takes to transform from a suburban teenager to a rock star who packs arenas with over 50,000 people require more than a little skill — and those are moves that few people ever acquire. We are, all of us, watching Halsey acquaint herself with celebrity in real time. Her first album came out in 2015, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that the singer hit critical mass. And at the beginning of this year, Halsey released About-Face, a makeup line full of rich lip pigments, saturated eye shadows, and a few dozen SKUs dripping in irreverence.
“I went to a hibachi restaurant the other night because I was craving fried rice. We walked in and it’s dimly lit, there’s no one there, it’s in a strip mall, and I’m drinking, like, a Shirley Temple,” she says. “And I was like, ‘I feel so calm right now.’ It felt like I was in New Jersey again.”
If Ashley’s happy place is a strip mall hibachi place, Halsey’s is with Alev Aydin, her partner and the father of her child. “The judginess started from the beginning,” she tells me. “Alev and I have been really good friends for four years. And when the stars aligned, our relationship became romantic and it was pretty evident that he and I were both like, ‘Oh, my gosh! You’re the person I’m supposed to start a family with.’ A lot of people had opinions about that.” She says “opinions” as if it’s italicized, a euphemism for a far uglier word. It feels safe to assume those opinions weren’t the loving, supportive, encouraging kind.
“Nobody knew I was dating someone,” she explains. “As if people were entitled to an update, like, ‘I’ve met someone, we’re going on dates, it’s getting serious, they’ve moved in, we’re planning a child, we are having a baby, we had a baby, this is the gender….’” The corner of her life in which she is her most mama-bear self is this one: “I signed up to give my whole life away; my loved ones didn’t.”
Halsey is acutely aware of the dangers of too much attention, that fame can be a burden, and that her loved ones may be asked to bear it too. “Part of the reason it took Alev and I so long to start dating was because I liked him so much,” she says. “He was writing a movie about my life, a biopic, so we spent a lot of time together. One night we went somewhere really public together. As we were leaving, I got swallowed by a mob of paparazzi and fans and people wanting me to sign vinyls and whatever else. It was all very dramatic, like a movie scene. I looked over my shoulder and he’s being pushed away from the mob and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t even say goodbye!’ I remember sitting in the car and being like, ‘I can never see him again. I like him too much to ruin his life and drag him into all this craziness.’ ” But, she continues, “he swiftly reminded me I was being super melodramatic and he was like, ‘I don’t care. It’s not that big of a deal.’ ”
Then she pauses for a moment. “I’ve never talked about him before,” she tells me. “That’s crazy.”
There is something — many things — so unguarded about Halsey. She is intrinsically open. Maybe it’s my own maternal instinct, but it’s hard to talk to someone who isn’t cynical without wishing they will stay that way — and knowing they probably won’t.
But if anyone can do it, it just might be Halsey. Her appeal to millions of people isn’t just her voice — and her rich, breathy voice is searing in its emotion and raw beauty. People are drawn to her because she’s open about her pain, her struggles with bipolar disorder, her reproductive health difficulties (she had surgery for endometriosis), her gender fluidity, her experience as a biracial person, her extreme humanness. It feels good to root for someone who uses her microphone to spread a gospel of love and inclusion. If you don’t always know where you fit in life, Halsey’s world is an incredibly appealing place to land.
To create a similar look: Flash Color Case by Make Up For Ever.
She even tells you when she doesn’t take her prenatals. “I took them the first two months, and then the vomiting got really bad, and I had to make a choice between taking my prenatals and throwing up or maintaining the nutrients I did manage to eat that day,” she recalls. “I was on so many medications — Diclegis and Zofran and all these anti-nausea, anti-vomiting medications. I went to my doctor, crying my eyes out, and I was like, ‘I haven’t taken my prenatals in six weeks. Is my baby okay?’ I was so angry with myself. You have one fucking job! One job! Take your prenatals! Your body’s doing everything else, you can’t even do that. I felt like such a failure.”
Internet, if you’re listening, are you really going to drag a person for not taking her vitamins? Yes, of course you are, because you’re the internet. But rest assured, Halsey’s doctor gave the singer and her growing baby a clean bill of health. Move along, prenatal judges. Nothing to see here.
“When this pregnancy started, I was like, ‘You’re going to do yoga and eat flaxseed. You’re going to use essential oils and hypnobirth and meditate and fucking journal every single day.’” Then she deadpans: “I have done none of those things. Zero. None. I eat cookies and had a bagel every single day for the first five months of my pregnancy.”
There’s Wellness with a capital W that comes from flaxseed and meditation and whatever TikTok is selling that season, but I’d venture there’s another kind too. The kind that’s millennia older and rooted in the deepest pockets of our soul. Some of us are born with it — the wisdom to know who we are and total acceptance of that person. The rest of us spend our lives seeking it out, learning how to be grounded in a world full of frayed electrical cables; souls searching for the purest, most honest expression of themselves. That kind of wellness is what Halsey gives off — in her music, her persona, even across a Zoom screen.
What’s weird about Halsey, though, is that this comfort with herself comes not exactly from knowing who she is, but from realizing that none of us are ever completely sure who we are. Halsey, who uses the pronouns she and they, used to lie awake at night questioning who she was, questioning her gender, her sexuality. “I’d be staring at the ceiling, going, ‘What does this mean?’” she says. “I don’t spend that time questioning or wondering anymore. The whole thing to remember about pronouns and identities is that they’re not meant for other people. They’re meant for you to help better understand yourself.”
But subtlety isn’t always the easiest sell. “I don’t do press anymore. I did, like, two interviews for my last album, which was 16 months ago,” she says. “I just don’t translate very well in print. Even saying this is going to get me in trouble. I already know that it is.” And then, true to who she is, she says it anyway: “I think sometimes [with] women who are articulate, people read it as pretentious.”
Halsey refers to a review of Fiona Apple in which the writer said Apple sounded like “ ‘she was fingering her thesaurus.’ Oh, my God! What a terrible thing to say about a girl who was an absolute savant, a prodigy, a prodigious writer, wise beyond her years, and commercially successful in pioneering a genre on her own at 18,” Halsey says, clearly pissed off on Apple’s behalf — on behalf of all women.
In 2020, Halsey released Manic, an autobiographical album, which featured other artists. “It was supposed to be a diary of an album and I couldn’t go so far as to just speak for myself.”
Identity is an easy thing if it coalesces with what the world says it should be. But when it doesn’t — when we’re a little of this and some of that, or none of this but a lot of that — things get murky. And something as simple as a diary becomes anything but simple.
Halsey, who has a white mother and a Black father, calls herself “white passing.” “A lot of people try to write off a lot of my experiences because I present white,” she says. “No matter how many tears I’ve shed because I’m not connecting with my family or my culture in a way that I would like too, or because the waitress thinks I’m the babysitter when I go out with my family, none of that would compare to the tears that I would shed for presenting phenotypically Black and the disadvantages and the violence that I would face because of that.”
Has she ever benefitted from being white passing? “Oh, yeah,” she says, “for sure. My family has a lot of guilt about [that], but I think this is really common for mixed families. You want your kids to have an advantage in life. That unfortunately puts them in a position of denying their heritage. Then you get older, you get woke, and you go to a liberal arts college and you go, ‘Oh, my God,’ and you start having flashbacks of all the microaggressions you faced through your life.”
When you ask someone for an example of a microaggression, you don’t necessarily expect a very specific, very personal one. But Halsey comes back with: “My little brother’s name is Sevian. He’s brown, not phenotypically Black; he just looks like a light-skin, mixed guy. He and I were having a conversation about microaggressions, and he was like, ‘In high school they used to call me Slavian.’ It puts people in a position of comfort because he’s not Black enough that they recognize the wrong, but he’s also not white, so the joke exists, right?”
Now Halsey is a conduit as one generation unfolds into the next, and her job as a mother will be helping her child understand their own identity. “I’m biracial, Alev is Middle Eastern, and our child is going to have a Black grandfather and a Turkish grandfather — there’s Christmas and there’s Ramadan,” she says. “They’re going to grow up in this kind of multicultural home and I have new challenges because of that.”
It’s hard enough for any of us to figure out who the hell we are. But when who you are is many things, with many ethnicities, when your gender is fluid and your sexuality isn’t one thing, and you’re stepping through all those worlds while also being in the public eye, the word “challenges” seems like an absurd understatement.
“You never stop coming out,” she says, when asked what advice she would offer a young person struggling with their sexual orientation. “It’s not like you tell your mom and dad and then everything’s all good. You need to prepare yourself for that.”
But there’s also a flip side, one that says you don’t have to have it all figured out. Who the hell does? “You don’t have to decide at 13 years old ‘I’m a lesbian and that’s it’ or ‘I’m scared to come out. What if I change my mind?’” she says. “It’s not for other people to validate you or determine if your queerness is real enough.” To emphasize this, she assumes the persona of, presumably, the lesbian police. Wearing a stern expression, she points her finger: “Have you been loyal to your label? Have you done all the right lesbian things?”
It’s a funny moment, but it’s also sort of melancholy. Here’s this young mother-to-be telling people who struggle, telling every one of us, telling herself and her unborn child, that this is all an unfolding process. And we get to choose it. We are the only ones who define us. It’s an existential idea, but I sense it’s hardly the only one she thinks about.
“This wasn’t an interview,” she says, laughing. “This was a therapy session.”
Photographed by: Jackie Nickerson
Fashion stylist: Law Roach
Hair: Marty Harper
Set Design: Bette Adams