Lily Allen: The Girl Can't Help It

Lily Allen: The Girl Can't Help It
PHOTOS BY ELLEN VON UNWERTH
WRITTEN BY
Michael Odell

"Do you want some lunch?"

Lily Allen answers the door of her West London flat this chilly November afternoon, quelling a halfhearted attack from her new dog Mabel, who greets me with a succession of snarls, barks, and exploratory lunges. Upon entering, I quickly realize that Allen's home is not so much a three-bedroom apartment as a living autobiographical art installation. On the wall near the front door hangs a two-by-three-foot print of her police citation for a March 2007 assault on a paparazzo. In the open-plan kitchen/living-room area, there are portraits of her baby half sister, Teddie Rose, and of her godfather, Joe Strummer of the Clash.

Allen's bedroom, the nexus of so much dramatic fodder on her new album, It's Not Me, It's You, is a large, girly den: a Victorian rolltop bath set into the middle of the room, an unmade bed. Again, family connections and lifestyle attitude are reflected in two notable pieces of art. One is a painting by Clash bassist Paul Simonon. Another is a print of various pills arranged in pleasing colorful symmetry: Xanax, Paxil, Seralift, Elavil, Seroxat...and one inscribed LILLY. "Quite a fun little piece, I think," she says with a laugh.

A gardener comes in through the back door and asks about the female mannequin's arms that have been planted in the flower beds. "I bought them at the market," she tells him with an arch look. "They're very low-maintenance shrubs."

Allen, 23, became a huge star in the U.K. overnight by asserting, loudly, her right to be different. The barbed genre-hopping pop of her 2006 debut, Alright, Still, was a document of the ingenue as fully formed icon, made for her times; her prom dress, sneakers, and door-knocker earrings looked runway-ready, and her catty MySpace blog gave the impression her ascent was something that just happened while she partied and blew bubble gum in her bedroom. As with Arctic Monkeys before her, her rise seemed to be an act of public will rather than record-company strategy. Once established, Allen became an ambassador for mouthy, troubled adolescents everywhere, distracting tabloid editors from the tiresome Amy Winehouse narrative, that of a young woman dodging her own autopsy. Instead, she gave them a thoughtful, high-functioning boozer who has not only sold 2.5 million albums worldwide but also designs dresses and hosts her own BBC talk show.

Allen is part U.K. entertainment royalty, part sneering kid from a North London housing project. She is the daughter of now-divorced film producer Alison Owen (Shaun of the Dead) and Keith Allen, an actor/comedian who has also dabbled in music, cowriting the 1990 New Order single "World in Motion" and performing (with Blur's Alex James and artist Damien Hirst) in Fat Les (the 1998 U.K. novelty hit "Vindaloo"). "As a man, I could drink, snort, and fuck to my heart's content without major detriment to my career," Keith Allen says. "A girl cannot do that. The tabloids are shameless in trying to create a race to rehab between any girl out there who has a drink. But Lily's learning what Daddy learned long ago: Fame is a pain in the fucking arse. And I don't mind saying this, because I've told her already: She needs to know when to fucking shut up."

Notoriously, Allen attended 13 schools in ten years and boasts "small-time drug dealer" and "florist" on her pre-music CV. It was the breakup with her first boyfriend, Lester Lloyd, resulting in a drug overdose and hospitalization for depression, that inspired her to write music. The song she wrote about him, "Smile," made her a star.

It's Not Me, It's You offers Allen's thoughts on fellas in other ways: boyfriends who don't make her come ("It's Not Fair"), the ex-president ("Fuck You"), and even God ("Him"). "What makes Lily so compelling is her honesty," says producer Greg Kurstin (of indie duo the Bird and the Bee), who cowrote three songs on Allen's debut and all of the new album. "She has something to say. But that also creates the pressure."

She has been more reserved in real life of late. In January 2008, she suffered a miscarriage with then-partner Ed Simons of the Chemical Brothers; shortly after, they split. A therapist, Allen says, has suggested she learn to spend more time "with herself." However, it was a drunken exchange in September with Elton John, with whom she was cohosting an awards show, that triggered her current sobriety. Allen told John to "fuck off" after he teased her about her drinking. Later, announcing an award for legendary crooner Tony Bennett, John remarked on Bennett's age (he's 82), to which she responded, "I'll still fuck him."

And so today, Allen is the thoughtful, stimulant-free homebody. In shorts, T-shirt, opaque black tights, and Christian Louboutin Gladiator heels, she's all vampish glamour even when fixing a meal for a visitor.

"If staying in with Mabel and watching CSI is the price of killing off the ridiculous tabloid party-girl character that's been created for me," says Allen, "all well and good."

Read the entire Lily Allen cover story in the Feb. 2009 issue of SPIN, on newsstands Jan. 27.

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