The reinvention of Lily Allen
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Theatre news every morning.
Lily Allen lives in Brooklyn, New York, these days, in an elegant Carroll Gardens brownstone, with her husband since 2020, the actor David Harbour, and her daughters from her first marriage, Ethel, 11, and Marnie, 10. Now 38, the millennial pop sensation and perennial tabloid magnet has become a svelte and sober star of stage and screen, comfortably domiciled in the land of the oat-matcha-latte slurpers, where the hysterical notoriety she first attracted in her 20s does not pursue her with anything like the doggedness it does elsewhere.
Happily for us Brits who miss her, this summer Allen is in London to take on the lead role in The Pillowman, a West End revival of Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black, Olivier Award-winning comedy set in a unnamed totalitarian state, about a writer whose macabre fairy tales appear to have directly inspired a series of grisly child murders. Even without Allen’s involvement, The Pillowman would be a white-hot ticket. With her participation, it’s likely to be the most talked-about play of the season.
No pressure, then. “Fucking terrifying,” is her characteristically bald assessment of the situation.
It’s getting to be a habit with Allen, frustrating the tall poppy pruners by landing lead roles in high-profile productions. What started as a side-hustle – and Allen is an inveterate side-hustler (chat-show host, Chanel model, sex-toy tycoon) – has become, at least for now, her primary professional focus. In 2021, Allen made her theatrical debut in Danny Robins’ supernatural thriller, 2:22, A Ghost Story, playing a young woman convinced her house is haunted. The show was a hit. Allen was nominated for Best Actress at the Olivier Awards, and she won a Whatsonstage award. Not bad for a first effort. Although, no stranger to slings and arrows, she deflects praise with a wary brush-off. The Olivier nomination was “very nice, but I will say there were not a lot of other plays on that year because it was Covid”.
Last summer was spent shuttling between the capital and the Kent seaside, filming her scenes in Sky Original’s Dreamland, a candyfloss-light confection about life and love set in the seaside town of Margate. Now, while Harbour – star of Netflix’s megahit Stranger Things – cools his heels in New York with the girls, his wife continues her adventures on the London stage.
So it is that on a wet Tuesday evening in early May, Allen gives me a brief tour of the expensively fragranced digs where she is billeted during rehearsals. She’s wearing a black knit top, jeans and grey Nikes, her hair in a short platinum bob. Ten days into rehearsing, she cautiously allows that it’s going well.
An instant success when it premiered at the National Theatre in 2003, and again on Broadway in 2005, The Pillowman seems, if anything, still more timely today. Allen plays Katurian, the writer under interrogation. According to at least one preview I’ve read, the casting of a woman in a role previously taken by David Tennant in London, and Billy Crudup in New York, changes little, since Katurian’s gender is not germane to the action of the play. Allen feels it changes everything. It will, she thinks, be fascinating to see how audiences respond to the spectacle of a frightened young woman being viciously worked over by a pair of malevolent middle-aged policemen (played by Steve Pemberton and Paul Kaye). Matthew Dunster, the same director who first took a chance on her with 2:22, is directing.
“The dialogue is really funny,” she says. “It’s dark and sick and twisted in the way that I am. And there are things I related to in terms of being an artist who has faced scrutiny and felt the weight of constant interrogation. Socially and politically there is something going on in this play that is important for our time, in terms of freedom of expression and cancel culture. I certainly feel stifled, creatively, in terms of my own writing.”
Allen has not studied acting: “I haven’t studied anything!” She wasn’t even in school plays. But theatre arrived at an opportune moment. She was recently clean and sober (she had her last drink in July 2019; I know this because she had it with me), she was newly remarried and relocated to the US, and she was uncertain of her next move. After the dizzying early success, her pop career had fizzled. “I felt completely rejected by the music industry,” she says.
In Atlanta one night, where Harbour was wrapping a season of Stranger Things, “I got a bit weepy. Like, ‘What the fuck am I going to do with my days when we move to New York? Who will I be?’ And then we drove to New York, and it was the day we were moving into our house and as I walked up the steps to put my key in the door for the first time, the phone rang.” It was a casting agent. “She said she was doing a play in London over the summer… Four weeks later I was in rehearsals.”
“I thought there was absolutely no way there was going to be any good response to it,” she says of the terror she felt before the first night. “I was convinced it was going to be awful. When the first positive review came out, I was just flabbergasted. The whole thing was bizarre.” Following that success, Dunster cast Allen in The Pillowman with Martin McDonagh’s enthusiastic support. “They share a similar punk-rock spirit,” says the director. He also says that Allen already seems far more confident than the first time they worked together. “With 2:22 I had to be much more instructional. And she was brilliant at following those instructions. This time, she’s offering stuff up.”
I first met Allen in 2006, when she was 21. We’ve been friends ever since. She is funny, smart and original, as widely advertised. Also kind, thoughtful and generous, as less widely advertised. She’s extremely good company. Although I do wish she would stop looking at her phone when I’m talking.
She comes from a family of entertainers. Her father is the comedian and actor Keith Allen. Her mother, Alison Owen, is a successful film producer. Her brother, Alfie, is a famous actor. She once described her childhood and teenage years to me as “confusing and chaotic”. She left school – or, rather, schools – at 15, with no formal qualifications. And her initial success was exhilarating. Her first two albums, Alright, Still and It’s Not Me, It’s You, released in 2006 and 2009, sold in their millions. But the backlash was ferocious. This was a time when young women like her or Amy Winehouse were routinely vilified for having the temerity to be popular, wealthy, pretty, clever and apparently enjoying themselves. How does she feel when she looks back on those years?
“I feel sad about some parts of it but then I’ll see a picture of me onstage at Glastonbury and think, ‘God, that was incredible. I wish I hadn’t been so high, so I could remember it.’ But also there were dark forces at work, trying to undermine everything. My phones were hacked. My medical records were intercepted. Proper dark-arts stuff. I’m not being a conspiracy theorist. That shit happened, and it happened to me. And I felt the negative effects of all that.”
She still feels them. “I talk to my therapist about this. I think that in my 20s, everything I put out into the world would always come back at me. Everything I did, even the most positive thing I thought about through the prism of ‘how does a tabloid journalist take this and twist it to hurt me?’ I don’t think I’ve ever really lost that. And I think the only way to escape it, at that time, was drugs and alcohol. I did my fair share of those, for a long time. I don’t have those crutches any more.”
As I tiptoe gingerly through her distant tribulations, she brings me up short. “I’m OK with saying I was a car crash,” she says. “You don’t have to skirt around it. I know how I felt, and how I looked. I looked like a fucking mess. I had, like, weirdly pale, mottled skin and crazy hair and I was wearing some really mad clothes.”
She was photographed falling out of taxis into nightclubs, and vice versa. “But there’s no shame in any of those things,” she continues. “Lots of 22-year-olds have vomited in the back of a cab but most of them weren’t being chased by 20 grown men with long-lens cameras, and the photos weren’t published in the national press.” After a time, “It just got too much. They broke me.”
In 2010, at the height of her fame, Allen became unwell while pregnant. Her son, George, was stillborn at six months. Recovering in hospital, she contracted septicaemia and was gravely ill. The following year, now pregnant with Ethel, she married the builder Sam Cooper. The reception was held at their 17th-century manor house in rural Gloucestershire. “I loved that house in the country,” she says. “I loved the cooking and the entertaining. There was a feeling of safety there that I hadn’t had for a long time. But it didn’t make me happy, really, in the long term.” She offers a comic sob here, conscious as ever that celebrities moaning about their hard luck can’t fail to come across as spoilt and ungrateful.
Sheezus, her 2014 album, didn’t do well, and its 2018 follow-up, No Shame, fared even worse commercially – although it was nominated for the Mercury Prize and creatively it felt like a success. “I think I did something with that record that I hadn’t done with the others, which was to be really vulnerable and honest without undercutting the sentiment with humour. It was, ‘I am desperately sad and I’m going to write music about it.’ And it was the most critically acclaimed of anything I’d done.”
Throughout this period, she was the victim of a stalker. The legal case against him took years to resolve. And her first marriage broke up. “I think I struggled to write music after George,” she says. “And also after the stalker thing. And the divorce. Those were huge events and they just consumed me for such a long time, and when I sat down to write songs, how could I not write about those things? They were obviously dying to come out, but no one wants to hear songs about that.” She thinks for a moment. “I mean, I could write an album about still-birth. Or about having a stalker. But – really?”
She’s in a better place now, but still, as a songwriter who draws from her own life, “the things I could write about are not necessarily the things that people want to hear about. The kids’ packed lunches? Their visa applications?” Also: “I’m a bit of a whinger. And we live in a period where we’re meant to acknowledge our privilege all the time, and I’m not really going to do that, in a song.”
She doesn’t imagine that No Shame will be the last we hear from her as a songwriter. She already has two so‑far unproduced musicals to her name: an adaptation of Bridget Jones’s Diary, and a show based on an episode of Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi series Black Mirror. She likes the idea that there may be more. And she does not necessarily believe that success as an actor means she is forever committed to that as a career.
“Acting is what I’m doing at the moment,” Allen says. “It’s a big thing in recovery that you take one day at a time and you don’t try to have any grand aspirations too far down the line, because that’s what gets you into trouble. I do think I’ll do music again. But I think I can do it on my own terms now. I’m not in a space where I can write yet, but I think that’ll reveal itself at some point.”
Last summer, Allen was a surprise guest at Glastonbury, invited on stage by the newly minted American superstar Olivia Rodrigo for a duet of Allen’s 2009 rabble-rouser “Fuck You”, performed in protest at the overturning of Roe vs Wade in the US. “That was a big eye-opener for me,” she says. “I really thought [Rodrigo] was going to introduce me and no one would know who I am. Or I’d get booed. And it was not like that at all.”
Rodrigo was six years old when “Fuck You” was released. A new generation of young women – fans and fellow musicians – has discovered Allen’s music. And Allen’s own kids were in the Worthy Farm crowd, seeing for the first time what their mum’s music means to so many people. “It was an amazing moment,” she says.
Now that she’s clean and serene – the woman doesn’t even vape! – it’s Allen’s weight that the haters focus on. She does look different, I say. “It’s all the surgery I’ve had,” she says, deadpan. (For the record: this is a joke.)
“You mean I’m thinner?” she says. Exactly. How has she done it? “Not drinking, and exercising. I know that’s what people always say when they lose a lot of weight. But I really used to drink a lot, and self-medicate. And there is a lot of sugar in alcohol, and also in what I used to eat when I was hungover: chocolate, crisps, fizzy drinks.”
I tell her that people suspect she must be injecting Ozempic, the new slimming drug. “I got thin before Ozempic,” she says. In that case, she must surely suffer from an eating disorder. “Yeah. I don’t know.” What does she mean? “I mean I’m not sticking my fingers down my throat, but I don’t comfort-eat in the same way I used to. I don’t know if that’s healthy or unhealthy.” Does she have a weird diet? “I don’t know what a weird diet is. I eat two meals a day, I don’t really eat breakfast.
“I’m not as thin as I was two years ago,” she says. “I’m nearly two stone heavier than I was when I was doing 2:22. I think I did have an unhealthy relationship with food then. I remember getting to a point where I could wear size 23 waist jeans and I would feel quite panicked if they started to feel tight, and I think I did probably change my eating habits when that happened.” But, she says, “I do love food! I go out and eat a lot. You’ve seen me eat. I don’t not eat!” Allen and I have off-the-record dinners together frequently enough for me to be able to confirm that she eats like a – relatively – normal person. In any case, she feels good about her weight.
Her life in Brooklyn, she says, is “pretty damn good. I do think that cutting out alcohol and drugs has been hugely beneficial. I’m hesitant to be like, ‘It’s all thanks to David.’ But he is a big part of it. And living in America is great. Because there is an anonymity there for me.”
In New York, Allen is no longer even the most famous person in her family, let alone on the street. “When we’re out,” she says, “everyone stops David. And I kind of enjoy that. We do have the odd laugh when we’ll be walking around and someone will approach us and David’s hat will go down [expecting to be accosted by a fan], and then they’ll be, ‘Oh my God! Lily!’ And me and the girls will get round David and rub him on the back and go [in voices full of mock concern], ‘Aw, David! Are you OK?’”
Of course, I say, if she carries on as she has been lately, this situation may no longer pertain. It’ll be Harbour offering her condolences on the infrequent occasions when she is recognised after him. She’s OK with that too.
The Pillowman runs from 10 June to 2 September at the Duke of York’s, London. Alex Bilmes is editor-in-chief of Esquire
Hair, Naomi Regan at C/O Management using Sisley Paris and BaByliss PRO. Make-up, Gina Kane at Caren using Lancôme. Photographer’s assistant, Philip Banks. Hair stylist’s assistant, Anastasiia Gryniuka. Special thanks to Kettner’s and Soho House