‘When I became a meme it was humiliating and hurtful’: Dua Lipa on pop, psychedelics and proving her haters wrong

The London hotel room is huge, with a grand piano in one corner. In the middle is a stash of crisps, nuts and drinks, laid out as if we were in a high-end store. And on a sofa I can just about make out Dua Lipa, lost in the vastness. She could be a top footballer – red hair tied back, fresh-faced, wearing black tracksuit bottoms and a striped top. I’m trying to think what club it is. Barcelona?

She laughs. “No, I designed it. It’s merch.” I look closely. On the front, it says Training Season – the title of the second single from her forthcoming album, Radical Optimism. Ah, that makes sense; she is playing for FC Dua Lipa. Over the next hour, Lipa makes it clear that she’s a devoted fan of FC Dua Lipa, gives her all to it, and can only see it growing exponentially. Something I wouldn’t dare to disagree with.

Lipa, at 28, is already colossal. Her last album, Future Nostalgia, was the UK’s third highest selling in 2020 and the 10th biggest album in the world that year with 3.3m sales. It spawned four Top 6 UK hit singles – Don’t Start Now, Physical, Levitating and Break My Heart. She has won seven Brit awards and three Grammys, and has 88.6 million Instagram followers.

But now the pop star, singer-songwriter, podcaster, producer and incipient business tycoon is on the brink of something even bigger. Huge amounts of money have been poured into promoting the new album, she is headlining this year’s Glastonbury, and she has recently bought back the rights to her music catalogue, after walking away from her management team in favour of her father in 2022. It’s all very well being a common-or-garden superstar, but Lipa is looking way beyond that. She was 21st in last year’s Sunday Times Rich List for under‑35s, with an estimated worth of £75m, so there’s still some way to go before she joins Taylor Swift in the billionaire club. But you sense that is where she could be heading.

Dua Lipa with her first two Grammys in 2019. Photograph: Dan MacMedan/Getty Images

It’s a big year for you, I say.

“Yeah, it’s massive,” she says.

Are you nervous?

“Yeah. Terrified.”

What of?

“It’s more of an inner excitement, nerves, adrenaline, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me in my life’ terrified.”

What can’t you believe?

“Just how far I’ve come.”

It’s interesting that you’re surprised about that, I say.

“Yeah. And I’ve worked my arse off to get here.”

It’s classic Lipa – confident, assertive and a tad defensive. “I’m not surprised,” she says, “I’m just excited that I have come to this point.”

You’ve got big boots to fill, I say – literally, in the case of last year’s Glastonbury headliner Elton John, with whom she collaborated on the chart-topping Cold Heart.

“Yeah, 1,000%.” This is one of Lipa’s favourite expressions. “Glastonbury is the pinnacle for me. It’s something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life. Every time I write a song, I think about how this is going to sound at Glastonbury. That’s my barometer.”

Her best songs do sound as if they’ve been made for a hot, sunny day at Glastonbury (arguably more so than her prized night-time headline slot). If you’re looking for lyrical profundity, Dua Lipa’s music is not your go-to. Most of her songs, written by a team with her at the helm, are about being betrayed by rubbish boyfriends, not standing any nonsense from rubbish boyfriends, having great sex with rubbish boyfriends and dumping rubbish boyfriends. But if you’re after electro-pop dancefloor bangers, she’s up with the best (One Kiss with Calvin Harris, Be The One, Physical, New Rules).

Lipa was born in London to Kosovan-Albanian parents who fled Kosovo in 1992, just after Yugoslavia had been dissolved and at a time of growing discrimination against ethnic Albanians. Her mother, Anesa, the child of a Kosovan father and Bosnian mother, trained as a lawyer. Her father, Dukagjin, is the son of Seit Lipa, an esteemed historian and a former head of the Kosovo Institute of History. In the 1980s, Dukagjin was a member of the Kosovan rock band Oda, before training as a dentist. In England, their qualifications were useless. So they waited tables while retraining – Dukagjin in marketing and Anesa in tourism.

With her mother, Anesa, brother, Gjin, sister, Rina, and father, Dukagjin, in 2019. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Dua, the oldest of three children, showed promise as a singer. She attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London until the family returned to Kosovo, after it declared independence in 2008, when she was 11. By then, Dukagjin was studying mass communication at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communication. Had his band been successful? “Yes,” she says. “Even now, it’s like a cult band.” When he went out in Kosovo did everybody stop him? “No, because Kosovo is so small everybody knows everyone.”

With its population of 1.87 million, Kosovo was too small to contain Lipa’s ambitions. At the age of 15, she pleaded with her parents to let her return to London by herself to pursue a career in music. Is it true that you delivered a PowerPoint presentation to them to make your case? “No,” she says. So how did you convince them? “I just had a conversation with them. I had to come back and finish my GCSEs if I wanted to go to university in London. That was my main argument for the whole thing. And as my dad likes to say, I’m a very hard person to say no to.”

Why? “I’ve always been very determined. I’ve always known what I wanted.” Lipa won the argument, but she didn’t end up going to university.

Back in London, she shared a flat with a family friend and completed her GCSEs and A-levels. Like her parents before her, she then waited tables – in a Camden cocktail bar. She uploaded her own songs to YouTube, joined a modelling agency and modelled for Topshop. In 2013, at the age of 17, she signed a contract with Tap Management, and, a year later, secured a record deal with Warner Bros. Lipa played it smart – as she always has. She knew Warners didn’t have a top female star so it would invest time and money in her.

As she talks, I’m trying to figure out her tattoos. Flames appear to be coming out of one finger. “It’s a fire,” she says. “It’s a powerful pointing index finger where I can manifest whatever I want into my life.”

Photograph: Luca Teuchmann/ Wire Image

On her arm in a small delicate type is the word PATIENCE, a tattoo that dates back to around 2015. Has she needed patience? “Yes, massively.” She talks about the couple of years in her late teens waiting for success as if they were decades. Then when the hits did come, they weren’t big enough. Be the One, her first single, made the Top 10, but none of the next four did. Lost in Your Light, featuring Miguel, only reached No 86. It looked as if it could be over for Lipa before she had got going. There were rumours that Warners were going to drop her.

In 2017, she recorded the song New Rules. It had been written for Little Mix, but the girl group passed on it. Lipa realised it was perfect for her. New Rules was her first No 1 in the UK. In the US, it bubbled around in the lower reaches of the Top 100 until it finally reached the Top 10 six months later. Her first album, simply titled Dua Lipa, was also a sleeper hit. She says this has become a pattern for her records in the US. “They don’t go to No 1, but they stick around and they’re around for a long time. And that’s about patience. That’s about just letting things do their thing; not forcing them.”

The title of her new album, Radical Optimism, is another take on the need for patience. “It’s about rolling with the uncertainties, being OK when things don’t go your way, understanding that everything’s for a specific reason. Patience is so important to me because there are moments that can be so frustrating and you can get stuck in a rut of like, ‘Had I done this, maybe I would have been here.’”

Radical Optimism continues in the dance vein of Future Nostalgia, with Lipa writing songs as part of a team that includes Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. Is she the team’s conductor? “I like to think so, yeah.” She says of the album: “It’s still a pop record, but more psychedelic with more alternative influences that show another side. It’s more experimental.”

Did you take psychedelics when the album was being made? “I didn’t take psychedelics when I made it,” she says in a stern, schoolmarmish voice. Did anyone take psychedelics? “No one took psychedelics … No psychedelics were harmed in the making of this album.”

I tell her I’m struggling with the theme of radical optimism, particularly in such a polarised, war-torn world. Lipa has been vocal in her criticism of the Israeli government and her support of the Palestinian people. “You know, it’s not just Israel and Gaza,” she says, “it’s also Russia and Ukraine. And there is so much happening in Sudan. There’s so much going on in our world that’s horrible. I think everybody’s feeling that sense of hopelessness.”

Exactly. So where do we find optimism? “For me, music has always served as a form of escapism. It’s about community, togetherness. It’s one language that we can all universally connect with.”

Agreed, art can be a great way to escape and bond. But I still don’t get the optimism. “I just like to see things in a positive way. Every time when you look back and in hindsight go, ‘Oh, that thing that upset me is so irrelevant now.’” And the radical element? “It’s the idea of being radically accepting of who you are, of your flaws. It comes over time, learning about yourself, going through different experiences, maturing. Understanding that being forgiving towards someone is just as important for them as it is for you. It’s about being able to move on. That is radical acceptance in its clearest form.” One song, Happy for You, sums up her philosophy of radical optimism – she spots an ex with his new model girlfriend and finds it in her heart to be pleased he’s found love.

Music writers have pointed out that in an era dominated by female singers with a distinct USP (Beyoncé empowers, Taylor confesses, Adele provides a shoulder to cry on), Lipa does not have one. She would probably agree and say that’s her strength. There are many Duas; she contains lucrative multitudes. So there is the singer who gets you dancing; the bikini-clad Instagram babe who always seems to be holidaying with a hot boyfriend (actor Anwar Hadid, film-maker Romain Gavras and now Masters of the Air star Callum Turner); the #sponsoredcontent creator who writes on X: “So fun being back with my @porsche family for 24hrs in Singapore!!!” Then there is the campaigner who wants to educate about social injustice, and the arts curator who runs a book club and interviews literary giants (she has taken the club to women’s prisons). And finally, there is the aspiring media tycoon who founded the website Service95 in 2022, which she describes as a “global style, arts and society venture – the ultimate cultural concierge – at the service of the reader”.

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With her boyfriend, Masters of the Air star Callum Turner. Photograph: Neil Mockford/Getty Images

Perhaps it’s the podcasts that reveal most about her character and ambitions. Interviews with Shuggie Bain author Douglas Stuart, campaigner Monica Lewinsky and pop star Charli XCX were beautifully handled. But what’s most interesting is how little she divulges about herself. Often her subjects will tell Lipa a story about fame or the music industry, for example, and say that she must have experienced a similar thing. We wait for the revelation, but Lipa skilfully bypasses it and segues on to her next point. It’s a conjuring trick of sorts. She appears to invite us into her life – showing us what she reads, where she holidays, which issues she cares about – while revealing nothing truly intimate.

Is she aware of how little of herself she gives away in her podcasts? “Oh, 1,000%,” she says. “I guess I just wear different hats, and when I’m in my podcast world, and especially when I’m interviewing different artists, I’m there for them and for their story.”

You have an incredible knack of not answering their questions, I say. She smiles, curious. “Go on,” she says. Take Charli XCX, I say. When she asks which songs of yours you hate playing, you don’t answer. “Well, that’s really interesting because I don’t have a song that I hate playing,” she says.

OK then, one you’ve written that you hate?

“Yeah, I have that, but I can’t tell you that.”

Exactly, I say, but you’re happy for Charli XCX to tell you. “That’s entirely her prerogative. I don’t want to say because I write with other people. It could be a song that someone’s really proud of. I’m not going to go and shit on that.”

So next time Charli XCX guests on her podcast and offers up her least favourite song, is she going to tell her to keep it to herself so she doesn’t cause offence? No, she says. “I love how open she is, it’s great. Maybe I’m a bit more of an overthinker.”

Her most moving podcast is with Lewinsky, the former White House intern who was humiliated by Bill Clinton after the former president lied about not having “sexual relations” with her. I ask Lipa if she has ever felt humiliated. This time she does answer fully and with feeling. She talks about the time she was ridiculed after a wooden performance of her singing New Rules at the Brits in 2018 was posted on YouTube. One user commented: “I love her lack of energy, go girl give us nothing!” It went viral.

“When people took that snippet of me dancing online and just turned it into a meme, and then when I won the best new artist Grammy and people were like, ‘She’s not deserving of it, she’s got no stage presence, she’s not going to stick around.’ Those things were hurtful. It was humiliating. I had to take myself off Twitter. The thing that made me the happiest – performing and writing songs – was also making me really upset because people were picking everything apart that I’d been working on, and I had to learn all that in front of everyone. In the public eye, I was figuring out who I was as an artist, as a performer. All that was happening while I was 22, 23 years old and still growing up. You have to build tough skin. You have to be resilient.”

How long did that feeling of humiliation last? I expect her to say days, perhaps even weeks. “Until I finished writing Future Nostalgia and did my first performance of Don’t Start Now, at the MTV Europe Music awards.” How long was that? “I want to say – gosh, I don’t know – two years.” Wow, that is a long time, I say. “It never was like I couldn’t get out of bed because of what I thought people thought of me. I didn’t care to that degree. But that’s when it was most heightened for me.”

Anyway, she says, in the end she was vindicated. “It was November 2019 when Don’t Start Now came out, and it dawned on me that I’m finally going to get up and dance in front of people after what they have thought about me for so long. And I went back, did that performance, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, we were wrong.’ I got a real kick out of that.”

The Brit awards performance in 2018 that provoked a meme that went viral. Photograph: JME International/Getty Images

Lipa was widely praised for the work she had put in to improve her dancing. Did you feel that the criticism had been fair? “No. Not in the slightest. I don’t think it was fair because it was a small snippet of a much bigger performance. I think people who had seen me play live on the first album tour would have thought a very different thing.”

Wasn’t there a positive to the criticism – it showed your grit and you returned a better performer? “For sure. Definitely. It had an impact in that way, but I was always going to work towards being a good performer. There was no way I was going to not let that happen, regardless.” It just took one sarcastic meme for Lipa to lose control of her image, and it took 19 months to regain it.

Since then, she seems even more determined to retain control. Lipa regiments her life to the minute, allocating time slots for showering and eating. I ask what her diary looks like today. “I woke up at 7.30, I did pilates, I had a shower, I had a coffee, I recorded a podcast … ” Is all this written down? “Yeah, I recorded a podcast with an author called Tomasz Jedrowski, who wrote the book Swimming in the Dark. I got dressed, I came here, I had an interview. You’re my second interview. I have one more after you, and then I go to rehearsals. After rehearsals, I go home, I cook dinner, I go to bed, and that’s my day.”

Blimey. Do you get knackered? “I do, but that’s why I like to plan things. When I plan, I’m in control, therefore I can do anything. That’s how I see it.” Control is a word Lipa returns to repeatedly.

In 2022, she walked away from Tap Management, the company that had launched her career. Her departure was linked to the size of the cut she received from recording and commercial deals negotiated on her behalf by Tap. According to her accounts, Lipa’s net worth had more than doubled to almost £50m in 2021, up from £24.5m in 2020. At the time, she also had nearly £30m of assets in her touring company Dua Lipa Live LLP. She announced that Dukagjin would take over her management – though, Lipa being Lipa, you sense she will be the real boss.

Was leaving Tap another example of taking control? “It was definitely about taking control back. I really wanted to be more in the know about everything happening with me.” I ask if it was a tough decision. “Like any decision with any relationship that you’ve been in for a long time, the conversation is never easy. But when you know it’s for your best, then conversations need to be had, no matter how difficult they are.” Did you feel you had been used by Tap? “I don’t think that’s something I’m comfortable talking about.” When Lipa left Tap, she also bought back the rights to her music. “I just wanted everything to be under one umbrella. I want to be in control. I want to know how my music is being used. I want to be the sole decision maker on all of that.”

She tells me about Radical22 Publishing, her publishing and production arm. “Through my book club, I get sent lots of new books, and if I find a story that I love, then maybe I can help produce it or bring it into a different world.” She mentions a documentary series on London’s musical heritage, directed by Oscar winner Asif Kapadia that Radical22 is producing. “It’s about Camden, which is my home. I’m so excited about that. I want to grow with all these other aspects of my job.”

Photograph: Tyrone Lebon

It’s now that I feel I’m seeing the real Dua Lipa. And it’s now that the podcasts she has made with Apple CEO Tim Cook and former New York Times editor-in-chief Dean Baquet begin to make sense. Sure, the music is important to her, but Lipa seems to be playing a longer game.

When she met Cook and Baquet, she saw the interviews as learning opportunities: how do you grow the world’s biggest tech company? How do you lead the world’s most influential media organisation? How do you plan for, shape and, of course, control your global success? Her interview with Baquet was strategic. The NYT had run an advert in May 2021 targeting Lipa and supermodels Bella and Gigi Hadid. The ad, paid for by the World Values Network headed by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, featured photos of the three women, with a headline saying “Bella, Gigi and Dua, Hamas calls for a second Holocaust. Condemn them now”. It claimed the women had accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and “vilified the Jewish State”. Lipa said at the time: “I utterly reject the false and appalling accusations”, and called it a “blatant misrepresentation” of who she is.

When she interviewed Baquet a year later, she interrogated him about the advert and told him how it had affected her. Baquet struggled to provide a convincing answer as to why the paper had run the ad, simply saying there was a church and state separation between editorial and advertising. But, I discover today, there was an even more politic reason for the podcast. It was Lipa’s way of resolving her problem with the NYT. What clued-up superstar wants to be at war with such a powerful organisation? “For me, it was important because I wasn’t working with the Times because of it.” You had boycotted it? “I wasn’t doing any media work with them because I felt I was put in danger. So it was important to talk to him about it. It was something that I needed to get off my chest.” She is no longer boycotting the NYT.

What is fascinating in her interviews with Cook and Baquet is how much common ground she finds with them as cultural curators, media grandees and global influencers. As well as its book club and podcast, Service95 provides news features, restaurant reviews and travel pieces.

As she has almost 90 million Instagram followers, would I be right in thinking that she’d like to create a media empire? “Yeah, potentially. I think the media sphere is changing drastically.” And, yes, she understands perfectly why her fans may prefer to come to her for news. “We have a lot of subscribers. We’re giving a platform to voices that we think really need it, and it’s news that maybe people might not necessarily go looking for. I think we offer something different to what the Guardian or the New York Times are doing.”

Are you going to take my job? I whimper. “Definitely not,” she says. “I need you. Because I want to commission interesting stories, but I need the writer. I need the journalist. Journalists are super vital. The people who tell the stories are super important.”

She recently started to learn Spanish, French and Italian, and plans to be fluent in all three languages by the time she’s 35. Where do you see yourself then – a multilingual, singing media tycoon?

“Yeah, all of it,” she says. “Why not? Yeah. Hell, yeah.”

On my way out, I ask again about her shirt. “Isn’t it like the AC Milan top?”

“No, I designed it myself with my team,” she says firmly. “Do let me know if you want to write something for us.”

Thank you, I say, much appreciated.

“1,000%,” she says.

Radical Optimism by Dua Lipa is out now on Warner Records

The Guardian