The Un-‘Invisible’ Woman, Alison Moyet: ‘It Is Brilliant Being Middle-Aged!’

Alison Moyet (photo: Steve Gullick)

At age 56, Alison Moyet has lived a rich life — many lives, in fact. She’s been a French peasant girl in the British suburb of Billericay, Essex; the big, booming contralto of synthpop duo Yazoo (known as Yaz in America); a multiplatinum solo diva and two-time BRIT Awards winner for Best Female Artist; a wife; a mother; a feminist; a plus-size role model of sorts; and, most recently, an art student who lives modestly and in relative obscurity in Brighton, England. But along the way, through all her guises and life stages, Moyet has always felt other. “I always thought of myself as being different from other women,” she confesses to Yahoo Music.

But as Moyet settles into what she enthusiastically and unapologetically calls “middle age” and releases her ninth studio album, Other, she seems completely content with herself — with her looks, her fluctuating weight, her art, and her anonymity. (She didn’t even mind when she was recently mistaken for a homeless person.) And even though Other has been heralded by critics and fans as a return to Moyet’s classic electronic sound, and Yazoo did briefly reunite in 2008, she feels no need to look back at her youth — even burning all of her ’80s career memorabilia (“I don’t want build a monument to myself,” she says) and refusing to play her biggest solo hit in concert.

Yahoo Music recently chatted with the self-described “pop-singing granny” about gender fluidity and her “innate masculinity,” body positivity, lookism in the music business, and why she believes life begins after age 40. Alison Moyet truly is “other,” because there is no one like her.

YAHOO MUSIC: It seems like you’re not a very nostalgic person. Like, people coming to your concerts should not expect a greatest hits ’80s revue.

ALISON MOYET: Well, I do perform music that spans my career, right back to Yazoo. But I try and find myself in the now, rather than seeing myself back in the 1980s as a mainstream pop queen. … I really don’t want to sound like I’m my own tribute act.

Funny, but I never really thought of you as a “pop queen.” Obviously you had hit songs and you were on MTV, but I didn’t put you in that pop star category.

Well, in England, I was a bigger sort of thing. In America, I’ve always been more of a fringe act. That is why when I come to America, those audiences seem to travel much better with me. They’re more informed, more invested. They tend to be hardcore, and more interested in the trajectory of my career, as opposed to “Hey, I remember that one hit.” But what’s interesting is in America I did have just one pop hit, “Invisible,” and that is the one song that I will never play again!

How come?

Because of the language. When I first started singing, I found heartbreak more interesting than love. I was influenced by Janis Joplin, therefore a “man-done-me-wrong” type of song appealed to me. Whereas now, as a middle-aged woman, or even in my 30s, it just got to the point that I’m so sick of whining! I can’t do it! Because like I say, when I’m onstage, it’s not nostalgic for me. I’m connected in the here and now, and I’m meaning what I’m saying. So if there’s something I really can’t mean then, I just can’t do it. And unfortunately, “Invisible” is the one. It’s a great song written by a great songwriter [Lamont Dozier, of the songwriting team Holland–Dozier–Holland] who knows his stuff, but a great song isn’t enough for me anymore.

So what inspired this new album, Other?

Well, you know, my life changed massively in between the last album and this one. I lived in the countryside [in Radlett, England]. I didn’t know my neighbors, and I was quite isolated. And I just decided to change my life utterly. I burned my history. I burned all my gold discs and my itineraries and my photos and my stage outfits and my furniture and my belongings. I sold my big house and moved into a terrace in the city [of Brighton], which I’ve never done before. I have no street parking. I walk everywhere.

I have the brilliant attribute of being an invisible, middle-aged woman. And I’d never been invisible before, not even before I was famous. I was always noteworthy. I was always remarkable. And I don’t say that as a compliment. People just always had something to say to me about the way I looked or presented myself. I grew up in this peasant French family in polite England, and my family stood out like sore thumbs.

So here I am now, in this city that I’ve moved to, which is so much about diversity. It’s a really mixed community. It’s got a big gay community there. Lots of artists. Also lots of poverty. You know, there’s lots of things going on in this city. And I disappear. I go to art school there; that’s what I do with my daytime. I dress down. I am now in this place where I observe. So all of these songs are about observation. Instead of being the person who’s being viewed, I am now the voyeur.

So wait — you burned all of your memorabilia? Do you regret that at all? There must have been some stuff that was worth money — if not to you, to a fan out there who would have paid big money for it.

Yeah, there was stuff that was worth money. I don’t know, I just got to a point where I don’t need gold discs to tell myself that I’ve sold a lot of records. I don’t need photographs of myself to tell me what I look like. I don’t need to pass on these whole sad f***ing crateloads of dead history to my children, and then they have to feel guilty about dumping it because they haven’t got a house big enough to look after the stuff. I don’t want to think of myself as a saleable item. I don’t want to think about everything I’ve done in my life and say, “That has monetary value.” Because monetary value has no value to me. I’m very comfortable with the idea that when I’m dead, I am dead. I may be forgotten in one or two generations, and that’s it. I don’t want build a monument to myself.

I appreciate your humility, but I do think your music will be remembered.

Yeah, but so what? And just for a while. Or maybe not. You have young kids now asking what the significance of the Beatles is. When that happens, you know that nothing is forever. And I find that really delightful. That means some of the s*** that’s going on in the world now, it’s not going to last forever either.

Good point. You mentioned that people used to make comments about your looks back in the day. Can you talk more about that?

It wasn’t even just about my looks. It was the way I presented myself. I never had a dress. I never had a doll. I didn’t know how to play with dolls. We were kids of peasants. We were physical, and we were physically strong, at a time when girls were supposed to be warm and dainty. That is the whole idea of “other.” I always saw myself as other. I always thought of myself as being different from other women.

You started your career in the ’80s, which in America at least were dominated by MTV. It was definitely a lookist time; image was very important due to the advent of music video. How did you deal with that? Did you get any flak because you weren’t a size 2 or you didn’t dress in a more glamorous, feminine way?

It wasn’t just about the fact that I was fat. I mean, you look at someone like Adele, who is a bigger woman, and she is very well-groomed. I was never well-groomed. I always looked odd. I think the thing that people found difficult was less my fatness, and more the fact that I had a kind of an innate masculinity, almost. There was a power to me that I think people were discomforted by.

Alison Moyet’s debut solo album from 1984, ‘Alf’ (photo: Columbia Records)

That point about your “innate masculinity” is interesting, because I recall that sometimes your deep singing voice was mistaken for a man’s. It was almost like your image was a predecessor to the gender-fluidity movement going on now.

That wasn’t something that I would have been particularly complicit in, or that would have been calculated. I just am what I was. In those days, had we had the words “gender-fluid,” I probably would have thought of myself as gender-fluid for a time. Then there were other times when I was quite surprised by people who didn’t think of me as feminine or female. For me, that’s just a case of — doesn’t that speak more about the fact that you have really misjudged what it is to be a “woman”?

My mother, for example, always had a really beautiful body. But my f***, she was strong. I mean, she could carry things on her little back that you couldn’t imagine. The strength of women, I think, is something that has just been entirely forgotten. We are so many things, just in the same way that men are so many things. So within that, I celebrate the fact that there’s a recognition that there are more than two sexes. Or maybe that you’re more than two sexes — that’s fine.

My husband would say that I’m in a place that I am more of what’s considered “feminine” than I’ve ever been. Maybe that’s because I’m maternal; I’m nurturing. There’s a curvier softness to my body than there would have been when I was muscle-bound. These are not things that I have chosen for myself. It’s just how age changes us and makes of us liquid.

Do you think lookism in the music business is worse or better now than it was when you first started out?

Well, you didn’t really see big women on the television then — that was kind of unusual — but having said that, I think it’s much worse now. In the ’80s, even the artists who were considered the good-looking pop girls, if you put them in today’s context, they’d be considered average-looking girls, girl-next-door girls. People are expected just to be kind of like f***puppets now, really, and I think it’s much harder.

For example: A girlfriend of my daughter’s is a very nice-looking girl, and she auditioned for a girl group that was being started by a friend — this guy whose name I shan’t mention. She is a perfectly attractive girl, and she would have fit in perfectly in the ‘80s [music scene]. And he said to her, “I like what you do, but you’re not good-looking enough.” I thought, wow. I mean, it’s far more endemic now. There were plenty of ugly f***ers in the ‘80s! [laughs]

How do you feel about the body positivity movement that has come up in the last couple years?

I don’t know. For me it’s always been about the way someone carries themselves. You can be as big as you like and if you float in like a queen, you’re going to look like a queen. If you hunch over yourself and look ashamed, then you’re going to look like someone that’s hunched and ashamed — regardless of your body size. Personally, I think women with a bit of chub on them are very attractive. I think flesh on a woman is lovely. But there’s degrees of flesh, isn’t there? Maybe I’m old-fashioned in the sense that I was always big and wouldn’t get my kit off in public, but I celebrate women who have bodies that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable displaying, but who are comfortable with showing themselves off.

But there’s always been this thin fascism. Women with a bit of flesh on them, they look great. Women with normal women’s bodies, or regular women’s bodies, all the different variations they can be, are brilliant. And men celebrate that. If you’re worried about what a man thinks, there’s not a man that’s got a problem with you having that. … This is something that women do to themselves, and they do it to each other.

You seem to have a really good attitude about aging. You talk so cheerfully about being “middle-age” when many other female celebrities, and women in general, struggle with getting older and supposedly losing their looks.

I find it such nonsense! I find it really funny when you come across younger people that are being ageist. I just sit back and smile and think, “You are s***ting on your own doorstep. If you are lucky, you will live to my age — and then you will be having these fights, and you will have done this to yourself. So f***ing welcome to the world you’ve created. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be dead.”

My life is irrevocably better since I turned 40. I look at my life now and think of my intimidating 20s when I was worried about what everyone thought about me, when I didn’t know who I was or I felt ashamed for feeling different. I look at my life now: At 6 o’clock in the morning I get on the commuter train, just as a person. I can just watch the world go by. I go to college. I study sculpture. I like clay. I play with modeling clay. I get on the train and I go to another part of London and I record music of my own making, completely to my own plan. I spend my weekends with people I want to be around, or else I write. F*** me, it is brilliant being middle-aged! You are so free to just express yourself in any which way. It comes to a point where you can be, “What do I like doing? What do I want?” Instead of, “What does this person need of me? What does this job need of me? What do other people require of me?” Even the freedom of no longer being a mainstream act — my God, it’s glorious.

I don’t have anyone telling me what they think I should do, because they don’t think they can make money from me. So they f*** off somewhere else. So now, I’m left with the voice that was my own — the voice I had at the very beginning, the voice that made people interested in listening to me. So I say, if you are in your 40s, you’re absolutely coming to the prime of your life.

Unfortunately, many women in their 40s do not feel that way — or have been taught not to feel that way.

Because you are made to feel those things. But there’s not a single one of us that can hold back time. Bless those women that think they’re doing it [with plastic surgery], but God knows what their face is. They don’t know that they still look like their age, just with skin that has been tightened. They look like another being. I mean, I defend anybody wanting to do whatever they want to do with their bodies — I have no judgment over that whatsoever — it’s just that I insist for myself that nothing is going to alter the way I play out the rest of my years.

We’ve been talking about looks, weight, and anonymity. Your looks, specifically because of your weight loss, have changed a lot over the years. Do you think the fact that you’re less recognizable from your famous ’80s self makes it easier for you to now live this invisible, middle-aged life?

Actually, I’ve put some weight back on again. I will say, you’ve seen pictures of with a makeup artist, and I can look fantastic — but most of the time, I don’t. I go to college and I’m covered in plaster and clay, and my hair might not get a brush, and I’m carrying loads of filthy bags. The other day on the commuter train, I kid you not, a woman offered me her leftover food.

She thought you were a homeless person?

Yeah. Or somebody in need. I loved it. When I turned it down, I felt really bad. I was thinking, I should have just taken her food, because she tried to do a kind thing. She probably feels ashamed that I rejected her. I should have just eaten her old food. But I loved that. I genuinely love it.

You certainly have high self-esteem. Many women would have been insulted or embarrassed in that situation.

Maybe it stems from a fact that I was once considered ugly, or I’d had none of those [attractive] attributes when I was young. Maybe my beautiful friends are struggling more. They feel a loss of status. I never had that status. I never learned to build my character around it. My character, my strength of character, was never based around the fact that I had automatic approval because people wanted me. They didn’t. I feel very blessed by that.

Do you have daughters?

Two daughters, yeah. My oldest is 28. My youngest is 21. My two oldest children are big academics. My eldest daughter, she’s a linguist. She did modern and medieval languages. She’s fantastic with language, an incredibly bright girl. She’s a feminist and she fights for diversity rights. She works in gaming — you know, these places where women aren’t supposed to be! She’s a little whip of a thing, but she’s mighty. My youngest daughter, she’s like me. She dropped out of school at a young age, but she’s brilliant. She plays drums and she writes for magazines and she’s part of a big creative collective. She’s another one that fights for diverse rights and is a feminist. And then there’s my son. … He’s a feminist too, and that makes me very proud.

That’s great. Obviously, the word “feminism” has been debated for years.

People have just become scared of it. It’s just another thing to hit us over the head. It’s not about special treatment. It’s just about balance and equal rights. That’s just the way it is. You know, I’m not one of those people that thinks that if a woman smacks a bloke, he has no right to remonstrate.

Feminism has become a really dirty word, but as long as women [around the world] are still having genital mutilation or are forbidden to work or forbidden to rise with their talents, then there’s a need for feminism. Just for parity. That’s all it is: parity. … This is not an attack on men. F*** it, I am a wife to a man. I am the mother to a son. I am a grandmother to a grandson. I am the daughter of a man. I love men! Men are part of my life. I live with them. I just don’t think it’s too much to expect those men to respect my contribution to our lives.

This isn’t about trying to change anybody or saying to another woman that she’s not valid if she wants to be a housewife or raise children. These are very valid, legitimate lifestyles. I celebrate women’s choice in anything. And if that means she wants to live her life facilitating her husband — or, indeed, her wife! — more power to her.

And of course, going back to what we were discussing before, a woman should be free to present herself however she pleases.

I agree. … I had an argument recently with someone on Twitter, this whole idea that I’m not “lovely” [because I’m opinionated on social media]. It’s like, do I have to be lovely? Must I be lovely? And why is there this assumption that I would be lovelier than my male counterpart? Why can’t I be an a**hole? I actually like the idea of being able to express my ugliness. I find it very oppressive, this whole idea that anybody who’s been a part of pop stardom can’t do that. And that affects your art, because if people think there is no challenge to your character, then they can’t understand what it is you’re saying or how you express yourself.

So it became really important for me, again, as a fat mainstream pop star, and the assumptions that are based around that — you know, that you are asinine, or that you are soft. Your body becomes your whole image; your body becomes a metaphor for what you are. You’re soft and pillowy, so you must be soft and tender, right? But I have many things about me. Yes, I am loving. I am nurturing. I do care, and I do empathize. But I’m also a big f***ing asshole! I want to be seen as that too. I want people to know it, and if they don’t handle it, then it’s their turn to f*** off and stay where they feel comfortable. But don’t expect me to be something I’m not. I’m 56. I’m not prepared to fit in with your ideas of what a pop-singing granny should be.

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