Yesterday I had one of the oddest experiences. I was conducting an incredibly inoffensive phone interview with Ella Henderson, the 17-year-old starlet of last year’s X Factor, trying to understand why she was fronting up Disney’s Safer Internet Day.
None the wiser, after around 20 minutes of carefully managed and unilluminating conversation, I decided to broaden out my questions – to get a sense of the Ella, the young popstar from Grimsby recently thrust into the bright limelight. However, this was when things became tricky, for Ella, having recently signed a record deal with Sony – was surrounded by an army of PRs and publicists from both Disney and her label.
Every time I asked her a question, the line sounded like it went dead, as if someone seemed to silence the phone. There would be a pause and then a carefully constructed answer would be delivered by a very polite and inoffensive Ella.
Ella Henderson pictured with her X Factor mentor Tulisa and other X Factor judge, Nicole Scherzinger at the National Television Awards in January 2013
Having just found out that her music idol was Beyoncé – on account of her “clean cut image” and the fact you never see “bad stuff written about her”, I followed up by asking whether she, a girl of 17 now in the public eye, considered herself a feminist.
Big mistake. Suddenly a gruff man’s voice out of nowhere growled: “She’s not answering that.” Said aggressive man when asked who the hell he was simply replied: “Her PR”. I then pushed for Rude Bloke’s name and was told “Russell.”
I then asked why she couldn’t answer this question, and he replied “She’s just not. It’s not to do with Safer Internet Day.”
Well neither was my question about role models or when her first album was out. I ended the ‘interview’/managed PR chat there and then – not before telling ‘Russell’ aka, the tool minding Ella, that he was giving someone very sweet, a bad rep indeed.
Now I just hope the irony of having a man, or anyone for that matter, stop her from answering the f-word question, will occur to Ella asap. And that she realises, while she does need guidance through the manufactured pop world at the tender age of 17, what she does not need is an aggressive bloke telling her not to say whether she is a feminist or not.
So here’s my message to you Ella Henderson – sack Russell today.
However, Rude Bloke’s (that’s what he is now known as from here on in) intervention left me wondering about whether feminism remains a dirty word for popstars – especially those coming off the X Factor conveyorbelt. It’s not like asking someoneif they are a racist. What is the perceived negative connotation for a wannabe big-time popstar like Ella Henderson of the f-word?
Is the f-word too dirty for pop?
Happy to say she wants to be a positive role model for girls everywhere, Ella’s not allowed to say whether she believe in equal rights for men and women? Something’s up.
Why is it even considered controversial in the modern day? Lucy Jones, deputy editor of NME.com, thinks for most artists it won’t be. However, for some they will be advised against it out of a fear of pigeon-holing the pop star and putting fans off.
“I guess calling yourself a feminist is a political stance. I personally don’t think it would alienate an artist from fans. If anything, saying you were a feminist would stand the artist out as someone with a viewpoint and get them more support. There is no evidence which suggests calling yourself a feminist is a dirty word for pop fans.
“However if you are a pop star coming from the X Factor – it is very manufactured and her people will be more sensitive about everything she says. Everything from Ella’s clothes to her lyrics will be controlled,” she explains.
Jones also quotes Alice Glass, lead vocalist of the band Crystal Castles, who in a recent interview with NME, went as far to call herself a vigilante feminist because “we [women] need an army because the mainstream hates women”.
Glass also thinks a lot of female popstars don’t sell a good image of themselves to children as women. She cites Katy Perry (who recently refused to say she was a feminist) as an example of a pop star claiming to be all liberated – and yet dresses up in cup cake bras - and accuses her and others of sexualising children with their provocative clothes and actions on stage.
Pop versus the rest of the music industry
Ruth Drake, who founded Toast Press PR, which provides PR for a wide range of musicians – including Crystal Castles and many other strong female voices such as Florence & The Machine, Jessie Ware and AlunaGeorge, says its very different working with fiercely independent and intelligent artists – rather than a manufactured popstar.
“I would never advise any of my clients not to say they were a feminist. I just don’t think it’s a dirty word in anymore. Most young women like Jessie [Ware] and Florence [Welch] wouldn’t think anything of saying they are feminists.
“Writers like Caitlin Moran [author of bestseller How to Be a Woman] have made feminism less of a dirty word than it has ever been. It’s totally acceptable now in my opinion.”
However, Drake knows she is working with very different artists than typical very mainstream popstars.
“The female singers I work with are very strong-minded and honest. Fans want artists who are doing something credible and real. It's possible that people in the music industry who work with more manufactured commercial pop acts could be concerned that feminism has negative connotations, but I think you should never under estimate your artist or your audience.”
James Penycate, founder of Ooh Brilliant, a music PR and digital agency, representing the likes of Syron and Tom Odell, said this type of question is something Ella Henderson’s team should always be prepared to answer.
“Whether she is a feminist or not feeds into the same area as to whether she is a role model to young women. For us it is important that artists can speak calmly and articulately. Yes, it is our job to protect the artist – but they also need to know their views on key issues which could crop up in interviews and be of interest to their fans.”
He says he would never warn a female singer client off saying whether she was a feminist or not, but he does recognise the need of the big labels to market their pop acts through mainstream media – which can sometimes mean them needing to have mainstream and inoffensive views.
“I do feel young women coming up through the X Factor have it tough. There is instantly a lot of pressure to be a role model to millions of young girls. They do need taking care of.”
More than a decade on from the Spice Girls’ crass ‘Girl Power’ slogan, there couldn’t be more strong women dominating the charts – from Emeli Sande to Adele to Lady Gaga.
Music industry boss, Miles Leonard, who scouts talent for Parlophone and Virgin, told Telegraph Wonder Women last year: “The term girl power is dead. But there is a new version of expressing yourself which isn’t having to stand up and shout about girl power and being an independent woman. The notion of women being empowered is not dead, maybe it's become more reflective.”
Leonard, who revived Kylie Minogue's career and discovered Coldplay, pointed to Adele - the biggest selling artist in the world right now - who has found fame and fortune through being honest, reflective, upfront, he said. “Adele's Someone Like You is immensely empowering. There is truth and honesty in that which reflects an inner strength.”
However, despite this move away from shouting about girl power, artists such as Paloma Faith, enjoy being upfront about their feminism. She said in a Telegraph interview last month: “I would call myself a feminist, but I believe in equality: I love men (contrary to the beliefs of a lot of my ex-boyfriends); I don’t want to put them down. Some men think that if you’re empowered and sure of yourself then you’re a man-hater, but it’s like, 'No, I’m just the same as you are, but maybe just a tiny bit more confident.’”
And Macy Gray took it one step further when I interviewed her a few weeks ago, saying she wasn’t a feminist – because that term denotes women are equal to men. “Women are better. We are so much bigger, so much more capable, and can do a lot more than men,” she explained in a straightforward manner.
While I never expected Ella Henderson to go that far, I did expect her to at least be allowed to answer for herself whether she classed herself as a feminist. Rude Bloke or not, Ella Henderson is a sweet young woman with a bright talent living in Britain in the 21st century. She needs to be allowed to answer this question, and many others moving forward, in the very same voice that those around her are cashing in on.