Inside Halsey’s Troubled Past, Chaotic Present
It's one in the afternoon, and Halsey is getting buzzed on Veuve Clicquot rosé and telling me things that maybe she shouldn't. Like the fact that the last time she was here in Central Park, she was with an ex-boyfriend who was coming down from heroin and just wanted to lie in the sun for six hours. Or that the original plan for today, dreamed up by her record label, was for us to go for a romantic boat ride. "And I was like, 'Fuck, no,'" she says with a scowl. "'I'm not going on a sailboat. I fucking hate boats. I'm not going to do that.' It's like a blind date, except that I'm not going to spend the entire time wondering if I'm going to be forced to have sex with you later." Or that she has previously been detained by the police for drinking in the park – she ran, but left behind a backpack filled with schoolwork bearing her name – but has never yet been arrested. "I'm really good at getting out of stuff, it appears," she says. She leans back on a picnic blanket and takes a deep swig from her Solo cup.
She's also, perhaps not coincidentally, really good at getting into stuff. A little more than two years ago, Halsey was not actually Halsey, she was Ashley Nicolette Frangipane, a 19-year-old community-college dropout, couch-surfing between basements in her native New Jersey and the Bed-Stuy/Lower East Side hovels of a badass, tatted-up crowd of "degenerate stoners" she met through her boyfriend two years before that, back when she was an arty, misfit high school kid taking AP classes and roaming the halls covered in paint. She'd gotten into the well-regarded Rhode Island School of Design, and then learned that she couldn't afford to go. She'd found the college she could afford a waste of time. She was technically homeless, having been kicked out by her parents after quitting school ("They just didn't agree with a lot of things about me"). Her phone service had been cut off. She had no health insurance. Her friends would pool their money to split a $1 slice of pizza and then get high in their underwear on a roof somewhere. "I remember one time I had $9 in my bank account," she says later, "and bought a four-pack of Red Bull and used it to stay up overnight over the course of two or three days, because it was less dangerous to not sleep than it was to sleep somewhere random and maybe get raped or kidnapped." She was, in other words, living the bohemian dream, and when that got a little less dreamy, she'd go stay with her grandma, the one who had taught her to play "Memory" on the piano when she was four. "Being an old Italian woman from New Jersey," Halsey affirms, "my grandma had the sheet music to Cats."
It was during this time of rambling that Halsey got invited to a party at a Holiday Inn in Newark, a tantalizing prospect because, she says, "I figured hotel party equals bed. I needed a bed." At some point in the night, she met a music guy who later introduced her – based on a cellphone video of her performing a song she'd written – to another music guy, who invited her to his house to maybe do some sort of collaboration. Halsey says she plays eight instruments, but only started writing music as a way to get people to pay attention to her poems. "It was the first time I'd ever been in a studio," she says, "and by 'studio' I mean someone's basement that had a microphone and recording equipment." During that first meeting, she started writing "Ghost," a song about the junkie ex. At around 10 p.m. one night a few weeks later, she uploaded the song to SoundCloud, and when she logged back on an hour later, her Twitter account was blowing up. By 3 a.m., she says, five labels had contacted her. By morning, the song was charting.
The speed of it all – Halsey's music was getting radio play before she even signed with a label, and she already had a sizable Tumblr following – led many to cast her as a purely social-media phenomenon, a tag she rejects. "I wasn't a social-media kid," she says. "I wasn't a Viner, a YouTuber, a blogger, anything. I was just someone that people found minutely more interesting than the average person." Which means that everything that's happened to her in the past two years – the record deal she signed at the top of the Empire State Building; the EP, Room 93; the album, Badlands, which debuted at Number Two on the Billboard 200 chart; the collaboration with MAC Cosmetics; the duet with Justin Bieber; the prospect of, in one year's time, going from singing to a few hundred people to selling out Madison Square Garden; all of it – has seemed to come from some sort of heavy-duty kismet, a moment of rebirth when the world was suddenly Technicolor and "Ashley" became "Halsey," the person she was always meant to be.
"It's, like, 19 years of my life feel like they don't even fucking matter," she says. "They could've just not happened, like they were some weird incubatory period. I'm just this fucked-up stoner kid who made it. I was buying my clothes at T.J. Maxx, then woke up one day and was going to L.A. to film music videos. It's a good thing I'm a crazy bitch, because I don't think I'd be able to handle it if I wasn't, you know?"
There's a lot to say about the "crazy" thing, and Halsey is happy to say it. She's tweeted about her suicide attempt at age 17, when she tried to overdose on "mostly over-the-counter painkillers," regretted it immediately, told her parents, wound up in a psychiatric hospital for 17 days, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, for which she was, for a time, put on lithium ("Lithium ruined my life; I haven't taken medication for years"). She's written a concept album that – in addition to having smart-girl swagger and hooks that burrow into your reptile brain – is about feeling trapped and isolated in a dystopian city of the mind. And she's quick to position her confessional approach as a form of therapy: "I'm not just some fucking martyr who's trying to make all of these lost, misfit kids feel better; I need them to help me feel normal too."
"I'm not just some fucking martyr who's trying to make all of these lost, misfit kids feel better; I need them to help me feel normal too."
Halsey's family moved a lot, shuttling her and her two younger brothers from one cramped two-bedroom apartment to another. Her parents had dropped out of college when they found out her mother was pregnant with her. They sometimes worked two jobs each, as a hospital clerk or a security guard or a car salesman. "I grew up in a really chaotic household," Halsey says. "There was always shit being thrown." After she was diagnosed as bipolar, she found out that her mom was too. "I didn't like being Ashley Frangipane," she says. "It was a person I thought was weak and silly and sad." She came up with the name Halsey – an anagram of Ashley – while riding the subway to Brooklyn's Halsey Street stop.
Today, she says, is one of her manic days. Manic Halsey is the fun Halsey, the one who'll "want to go out, want to drink, want to talk all night, want to help you with your problems, want to change the world! I wanna do it! Let's go!" Over slightly baggy jeans, she's wearing a T-shirt with a crude drawing of some sort of act of bestiality. Her short sleeves are rolled up to show off more of her 17 tattoos, eight of which match friends' tattoos, which she thinks is "a huge reflection of my inability to do anything alone." She has the disarming quality of being impossibly beautiful one moment and somewhat goofy the next, and the type of energy, nervous and otherwise, that makes her basically hum.
As for being a "bitch," Halsey doesn't actually think she is one, although she knows that it can seem that way when she's been on a manic spree for a week, made everyone around fall in love with her, and then shut them out with little more than a check-you-later as soon as she came crashing down. She can be demanding. She writes her own music. She does her own makeup. She helps design her own costumes, merchandise and album covers. She micromanages. No one can book a flight until she approves it. She will not be "handled."
Nor will she be pigeonholed: She may be a woman making pop music, but she acts punk rock, saying whatever comes to mind, and staying in control by being uncontrollable. She says it's no mistake that she signed with Astralwerks, a Capitol Records subsidiary best known for hipster dance artists. They offered her more creative leeway than other labels that courted her, and "they weren't equipped to handle an artist like me," she says. "If they were equipped, they'd have put me in with Dr. Luke and Max Martin and Ryan Tedder. I wouldn't be where I am. People like me because for the first six months of my career, my makeup was smudged and my clothes were dirty."
Of course, there are also people who don't like Halsey. "When I die, I hope people don't come to my grave and spray-paint it with all the mean shit they tweet me right now," she'd said earlier, as we'd passed a memorial for John Lennon. She's gotten hated on for being bisexual but mainly singing about her relationships with men ("I've had female relationships, but you could have dated no one and be bisexual"); being biracial (her mom is white, her dad black) but looking like a white girl ("Colorism is really bizarre"); and purportedly using her mental illness as a marketing ploy. She took flak after The New York Times quoted her as calling herself "tri-bi" – a trivializing term that Halsey claims she never used. "The funniest thing is that the biggest battle that I've had to overcome in my career was not being bisexual, was not being biracial, was not being bipolar," she says. "It was everybody thinking that I was exploiting those things." She recently shaved her head during a photo shoot because she was tired of her hair defining her as a lesbian or not, or a sexual being or not. She's made a point of defining her own sexuality, she says, ever since someone broke into her locker during gym class and spread around school a topless photo she'd meant for her boyfriend. "Teachers saw it; everyone saw it. And suddenly, I was not the weird girl, I was the slut. I could have recoiled and deflected my sexuality, but instead I was like, 'I'm going to own it now.'"
And so it seems like she might just have everything figured out, until a moment in our interview when things go slightly off the rails. We're lying in the sun, getting pleasantly sloshed, when Halsey confesses that she's read a story I wrote for Rolling Stone in April, about Planned Parenthood and a miscarriage I had. "I felt like I was suffocating reading that article," she says. "Like someone put a shopping bag over my head. I didn't want to meet you at all. I was really terrified of you, because I knew as soon as I saw you, I was going to need to tell you that last year on tour I got pregnant." Then, at a breathless pace, she's describing being in a hotel room in Chicago before Badlands even came out, back when her whole career could have easily been ruined ("What happens? Do I lose my record deal? Do I lose everything? Or do I keep [the pregnancy]? What are the fans going to think? What are the moms going to think? What is the Midwest going to think? What's fucking everyone going to think?"), and before she can even decide what to do, she's screaming on a hotel bed, bloody, naked from the waist down, hours before she's to go onstage. "I'm like, 'I have to cancel this show!' And everyone's kind of like, 'Well, it's Vevo LIFT, and it's 3 million impressions, so …' No one knew what to do." Eventually, Halsey sent her assistant to the drugstore to buy adult diapers. She put one on, took two Percocet and went to the venue to do her job. "It's the angriest performance that I've ever done in my life," she says, her voice breaking. "That was the moment of my life where I thought to myself, 'I don't feel like a fucking human being anymore.' This thing, this music, Halsey, whatever it is that I'm doing, took precedence and priority over every decision that I made regarding this entire situation from the moment I found out until the moment it went wrong. I walked offstage and went into the parking lot and just started throwing up."
Halsey says she isn't sure why she had a miscarriage, but it's easy for her to blame herself. "I beat myself up for it," she tells me, "because I think that the reason it happened is just the lifestyle I was living. I wasn't drinking. I wasn't doing drugs. I was fucking overworked – in the hospital every couple of weeks because I was dehydrated, needing bags of IVs brought to my greenroom. I was anemic, I was fainting. My body just broke the fuck down." The part that bothers her most is that, as insane as it was to play that concert, no one forced her to do it. "I had a choice," she says, though she did the thing that made her feel like she didn't. She looks off toward the fields where children play in the distance. "I want to be a mom more than I want to be a pop star. More than I want to be anything in the world." Later, she says, "I'm really scared of being alone." We sit on the blanket, clutching our drinks. "I'm not trying to upset you," she says softly. "I'm really sorry."
A couple of days later, we meet at the White Diamond Diner, a roadside joint not much bigger than an Airstream, in Clark, New Jersey. Halsey's manager, Anthony Li, sits across from her in a booth, as does her on-again/off-again boyfriend, Norwegian producer Lido. They seem to be on-again.
Halsey is in a slump today. Part of it is family drama ("My family's a train wreck"), part of it is being back in Jersey ("I come back here and I crawl out of my skin"), and part of it is her brain chemistry. She orders a Yoo-hoo and a bagel with Taylor ham (a New Jersey delicacy – "It's kind of bacon-y, kind of ham-y"). She came to this diner after she went to prom, she tells me. When she was younger, she'd be left to read in the nearby Barnes & Noble every week while her brother was at karate class, then her mother would take them to dinner at the local Chili's. "It doesn't matter to me anymore," she says of such bygones. "None of it's important. None of it fucking matters."
Halsey lives on the other side of the country now. She has a spacious L.A. house with a pool and a spectacular view, and she's moved her two closest friends there to live with her. She's putting her brother through college. In a matter of days, she's playing her first arena dates as a headliner.
"If I actually let myself feel and process and understand everything that's happened to me in the past two years, I would fucking combust."
As for how she feels about all of that, well, "I've been through some shit. And all of this shit keeps happening. I haven't had the time to figure it out." And also, maybe she hasn't had the inclination: "You have to decide what's most important to you. Do you want to feel the good and enjoy the good, but also feel the bad and risk fucking up your career because you can't handle the bad? Or do you not want to feel the bad and keep your career going, but also not feel the good either? If I actually let myself feel and process and understand everything that's happened to me in the past two years, I would fucking combust."
At the very least, "Halsey" feels real, if not permanent. "I'm not foolish," she'd said. "I know people can forget about me very easily." Eventually, she goes outside to smoke a cigarette. Her flight leaves in less than two hours, ferrying her back to her new home where, she'd told me, "I wake up and walk into the kitchen and there's kids in the pool, or someone's got music blasting because they're in the shower, or someone's making eggs in the kitchen, and I'm just like …" She let out a deep breath. "I made it. I brought them with me. I'm OK, and I'm not alone. You know what I mean?"
Halsey takes a drag. "I hope I wasn't awful today," she says, sighing. She gives me a quick hug, then pulls her sunglasses on. Within moments, she's whisked into a black SUV that merges onto the road and disappears in a sea of strip malls. For now, it seems, there's nothing more to say.