Kim Willsher (The Guardian) writes, “A million-selling superstar at home and in France, she discusses her confrontation with Playboy, growing up in a famous family and being publicly outed as bisexual.” Angèle’s new album Nonante-Cinq is out now on Universal/Angèle VL Records.
A few years ago, a popular pub quiz question involved naming 10 famous Belgians. The answers often revealed more about British cultural ignorance than Belgium’s ability to produce international celebrities, given that the fictional Tintin and Hercule Poirot were the best many could come up with.
The game has got easier since the rise of Angèle, a stridently feminist Belgian pop singer-songwriter who shot to fame in 2016 after posting short clips singing covers and playing the piano on Instagram. She was young, talented and not afraid to make fun of herself, pulling faces and sticking pencils up her nose. Her 2018 debut album, Brol, sold a million copies; by 2019, she was a face of Chanel. “I’d always wanted a career in music, but I was thinking more of working as a piano accompanist,” she says, folding into an armchair at a five-star boutique hotel near the Paris Opéra. “I really didn’t expect it to happen like that.”
If Angèle, 26, is known in the UK, it is for her duet with Dua Lipa on the British singer’s 2020 song Fever (“There’s something very natural between us,” Angèle says), but in France and Belgium she is a household name performing to packed arenas. She has just released her second album, Nonante-Cinq (95, after the year she was born), 12 introspective disco-pop tracks with deceptively naive, childlike vocals. It follows a Netflix documentary about her life. “The success came from nowhere, almost from one day to the next,” she says. “It was very rapid and intense. I was very surprised by it all. I still am.”
This intensity ramped up in 2017 when she agreed to talk to Playboy. Despite being asked not to, the magazine used a photograph of Angèle topless and holding two peppers in front of her breasts. Feeling humiliated and betrayed, she says she cried for a week.
“They didn’t even write about the music I was doing, but just the fact that I was sexy,” she says. Amid the fallout, “I was also reduced to being a woman who wanted to draw attention to herself by sexualising her image, as if that wasn’t something good, while being sexy and sexual shouldn’t be a problem”. Playboy breaking her trust, she says, “was a hard lesson”.
“As a girl and young woman, I have suffered lots of sexist aggression, like the majority of women. There’s the harassment in the street and in relationships and there are sexist remarks and behaviour in the [music business],” she says, adding that it was seeing the lack of reaction to her brother, the rapper Roméo Elvis, performing shirtless that hammered home the sexist double standard. “Nobody remarks on it when he does it, but if there’s a topless picture of me in Playboy the discourse is pejorative. People don’t say: wow, isn’t that great and isn’t she lovely; they think it shames me.”
She wrote Balance Ton Quoi “because I knew what these women were talking about from my own experience. This song suddenly became a feminist hymn at protests – I found myself a bit of a feminist icon at 23 years old when I still had many things to learn.” Belgium and France, she says, “are still behind on sexism. Violence against women is still treated as a taboo subject and one that’s difficult to address and is minimised.” [. . .]
Watch the video for Bruxelles je t’aime, from the new album: