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Self Esteem
Photograph: Vic Lentaigne

Self Esteem’s radical guide to self-love

A smash-hit second album, a Brit nomination and a fresh sense of her own identity – it’s been a big year for Self Esteem

Written by
Kate Lloyd
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‘What would Rita Ora do?’

That’s a question Rebecca Taylor – aka Self Esteem, pop artist and cover star of Time Out’s very romantic Valentine’s issue – asks herself a lot.

How would Rita Ora pose if she was asked to ‘act natural’ in an outfit that’s just a shirt, tie and some very big earrings? Would Rita Ora drink the champagne brought to the Time Out cover shoot to use as a prop? Would she lick a lollipop with ‘I fucking love me’ written on it? The ‘Rita Ora Test’ has even led to Taylor getting the same personal trainer as the singer. (‘As I’m lifting, I’m like: Yes, this is literally what Rita would do!’)

And nearly every time she brings it up, it’s followed by a massive, filthy laugh.

‘It’s a big part of my artistic process. Hahaha!’

Second acts

That laugh (which is still reverberating around my head days later) has been ringing out across the empty Time Out office for an hour now. It’s Friday night and Taylor and I have somehow managed to work our way through most of a screwtop bottle of prosecco as we chat. To be fair, the 35-year-old – who rose to fame in ’00s folk band Slow Club – has plenty of success to toast. Over the past 12 months, she has gone from retired indie star to hyped pop powerhouse.

Her second solo album, ‘Prioritise Pleasure’, was released in 2021 and became a cult hit with a certain type of millennial who’d got better at saying ‘no’ to stuff during the pandemic. Covering the pressures to be thin and hairless, get married, have babies and hide our greedy, lazy, horny, moody bits, the record sounded like the posts of 1,000 body-positive influencers smushed into 45 minutes of very fun bangers. People related hard. I remember being forwarded the single ‘I Do This All the Time’ – a spoken-word track with lyrics like ‘When I’m buried in the ground/I won’t be able to make your birthday drinks but I will still feel guilty’ – by friends, like it was a meme.

The result, for Taylor, has been a brand-new fanbase. She’s even been nominated for Best Newcomer at the Brits. But the best thing to come out of this era, she says, is how it’s made her feel about herself. ‘You get stuck on this conveyor belt of “To be a good friend, you have to be all these things”,’ she says. ‘Or: “You need to get married and have babies.” It’s not sustainable.’ She sits across from me in double denim, her Telfar bag plonked on the table. ‘I feel deep stress if I can’t be exactly what you want me to be. I think other people feel like that. I think other women feel like that. And I just put it into words. It’s like a really gentle, radical statement.’

Self Esteem
Photograph: Vic Lentaigne

Humble beginnings 

The origin story of Self Esteem goes something like this: Taylor grew up in Rotherham, just outside Sheffield, with parents who were shy, unassuming ‘Sylvanian Family people’. She spent a lot of time on her own ‘playing imagination games’, which is why she reckons she has so many wild ideas now. Her parents were eager to let her try everything she fancied, from cricket (which she had the talent to do professionally) to music, which is how she ended up in Slow Club.

The band – started by Taylor and friend Charles Watson – were the kind of group that introverted guys on Tinder would be surprised you’d heard of. ‘Our fans were heteronormative couples,’ she says. ‘And I was a repressed queer person in a band with people that were happily settled down. At gigs I was like: Why isn’t anyone snogging meeee?’ In fact, Slow Club’s first video, released in 2006, is so ‘indie twee’ you half expect a ukulele-wielding Zooey Deschanel to show up in it. ‘We thought we were so cool,’ says Taylor. ‘But there was an inherent uncoolness to that whole indie era. That’s why there’s nostalgia for it.’

By 2017, Taylor was feeling increasingly disillusioned with male-centric band life. She started turning to pop acts – Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, ‘even, like, Jesse fucking J’ – for inspiration. They were the kind of performers the rest of the band ‘scoffed at’. ‘They didn’t want to hear about them and they certainly didn’t want to be influenced by them,’ she says. She obsessed over the work of female performance artists like Marina Abramović and the queens of TV show ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ (‘I’m into the lives of these people in the way that a bloke might care about Ronaldo’). And then she started writing her own stuff. ‘I stopped equating “being good” with being “what men wanted”,’ she says.

Was leaving the band awkward?

She pauses.

‘I did a soft exit,’ she says. ‘It was like: I’m gonna maybe do this, or maybe be back. That wasn’t very cool of me but I was fucking shit-scared.’ 

Self Esteem
Photograph: Vic Lentaigne

A turning point

What Taylor became was a performer with Gemma Collins-levels of comedy swagger. The kind who, at our Hoxton Hotel cover shoot, can go from making a jellyfish-shaped, Muppet-textured dress look high fashion, to describing its lumpy train as its ‘ballsacks’, to pretending to fellate a wine bottle to referring to herself as a ‘Tesco catalogue model’, all in under two minutes.

It’s exactly what Londoners want from a pop star in 2022. A singer who – while on all-fours with two assistants attempting to pull off her shoes – asks a PR: ‘Can you video this for social?’ It’s also exactly how Taylor is even without an audience. She has the energy of that girl at school who’d always lure you into trouble. Her stories are laced with sideways jokes and overshares that make you feel part of a secret club with her: ‘I have this theory that when I feel like the rat from “Ratatouille” I feel most like myself.’ Or: ‘If Miley Cyrus wants to come to my flat in Hackney Wick for a chicken dinner, I’m ready.’ She talks fast and loud. That is, until she lands on a painful topic.

I have to lean over the table to hear about the period of poor mental health that came before she created Self Esteem: ‘I felt like I was wrong or bad and that everyone hated me.’ Her speech slows down when describing a tour manager who everyone loved but who was ‘a fucking sexist pig’ to her. ‘No one cared,’ says Taylor. One particular incident stands out in her mind. He told her to put her dress on and stop complaining and said: ‘You’d be working in McDonald’s if you weren’t doing this.’ It was a turning point.

When Taylor talks about the state of the music industry, she speaks so softly I basically have to lip read. ‘It’s fucked,’ she says. ‘I make no money from the sales of my records, only from my live shows, but they cost a lot to put on. When you look at who’s in the charts, it’s [often] people who come from money because that’s what’s easier for labels. It took me years to notice. I was like: Why do I have to move in and out of London all the time in order to afford to live, when my peers don’t?’

It means that, like many thirtysomething Londoners, Taylor is still flat-sharing. ‘I can’t do it any more,’ she says. ‘I want to eat cereal by the sink, no questions asked. I want to not get awkward texts about “being a bit quieter”!’

Sometimes she fantasises about living in a big house in Sheffield.

‘But, honestly, nothing makes me happier than putting on boots and a fucking outfit,’ she says. ‘Trotting to the tube and being in London.’

Self Esteem
Photograph: Vic Lentaigne

Shapeshifting

Given this is Time Out’s very romantic issue, it feels only right that we move from housemates to the other great millennial bugbear – dating apps.

Taylor avoided Hinge for a long time in case she bumped into a Slow Club fan. She tried the exclusive celebrity dating app Raya, but the closest she came to a date was almost meeting someone who was in the Blue Man Group.

Her life has been one of many short relationships: ‘I get asked: When are you going to stop being like this? And my question is: What if I never [want to] stop?’ But Taylor’s attitude has altered a bit recently. ‘It’s flipped from being a sort of PlayStation game of “How do I absolutely definitely get picked?” to “What do I actually want?”’ Taylor realised as a teenager that she might be attracted to girls. ‘I’m out as a bisexual person. But for a long time I wasn’t,’ she says. It’s something she’d had an inkling about for while: ‘It was the first time I saw two hot girls kiss at [Sheffield club night] Corporation. I was like: I’ve enjoyed this too much.’ Once she came out, she started to notice that she’d ‘shapeshift’ to appeal to the men she dates in a way she never does for women. ‘With women, I love to make plans and tell them “This is where we’re going”,’ she says. ‘But when I’m with men I become this diminutive bullshit.’

 

self esteem
Photograph: Vic Lentaigne

Self-acceptance

We neck the dregs of our prosecco and head to the pub with the rest of the Time Out team. Taylor grabs a half-pint and entertains office gossip as if she’s not an award-nominated pop star.

It would be easy to position her as a kind of real-talk, girlboss, empowerment-anthemist. But the reality of hanging out with her is far more fun. Taylor is a harbinger of chaos. And while, elsewhere, being a modern feminist means reading  ‘manifesto’ books, going to panel talks and posting Instagram pictures of period bloat, she just preaches having a laugh.

‘I don’t want to be like a Dove advert,’ she says, cackling. ‘What I am trying to do is accept myself for exactly who I am. It shouldn’t feel radical – all I want to do is eat while I watch the telly, get pissed if I want, have sex with who I want – but it does.’

The album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ is out now. Self Esteem performs at Kentish Town Forum on Mar 24.

Photography Vic Lentaigne, assisted by Milo Van Giap. Art director: Bryan Mayes. Picture Editor: Ben Rowe. Styling: Morgan Hall, assisted by Jade Kingsman, Ella Bacon, Samela Gjozi. Hair: Laura Chadwick. Make-up: Emily Wood via Creatives Agency. Shot at The Hoxton, Holborn.

Dress: Stephanie Uhart. Hat: Hat n Spicy. Blazer: Mugler. Body: Annie’s Ibiza. Boots: Boy Kloves. Shirt and tie: stylist’s own. Earrings: Chanel c/o Susan Caplan. Gloves: Rysia Pierzchala.

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