Lily Allen only smokes when she’s in London. She tells me this after we’ve wrapped her disarmingly fast cover shoot for HUNGER. Allen, unlike any celebrity I’ve worked with before, barely peeks at her image selects. “Rankin’s photos always look good, and I’ve worked with him so many times that I know he’ll just have it.” Allen is no stranger when it comes to the camera – being shot, photographed, papped, you name it. She became a household name after releasing her debut album Alright, Still when she was just 19, and immediately eclipsed her comedian father, Keith. What isn’t so breezy is returning to London — hence the smoking.
Allen was born in West London to her famous dad and film producer mum Alison Owen in 1985. A well-oiled kid of the city — she famously declared “Why would I wanna be anywhere else” — on her 2006 hit single, ‘LDN’. Now, after relocating to New York during the pandemic with her children and husband, Stranger Things actor David Harbour, it feels like she wants to be anywhere but here.
“I’m always anxious coming back because New York grants me anonymity,” she says two days later, pouring a morning cup of tea at Soho’s Kettner’s Townhouse. “Being with someone so well-known pushes that even further because people are so focused on him that I vanish into the background. People may think I’m retreating, but I’m done being at the forefront… it’s projection, but when I walk down the street in London, I feel like people have already formed an opinion of me. I think, ‘oh god, they’ve read the papers for the last 20 years’”.
The woman who sits before me is 37, and very different to the Lily Allen you may have known before — and by that, I mean the version that has been created by a ruthless tabloid press. Speaking today, she describes herself as “first and foremost” a mother, and formerly known for her love of the sesh, she has been sober for almost four years: “I wouldn’t have met David if I hadn’t”. And crucially, she’s not really singing anymore; she’s acting.
At the height of lockdown and right after she had moved to the United States, Allen got a call from a casting agent asking her to audition for Danny Robins’ West End play 2:22: A Ghost Story. What a disastrous idea Allen thought, and put the phone down. But Harbour was encouraging — she had to return to England anyway due to custody agreements, and well, she felt blocked when it came to music. So, she snagged the lead and won herself an Olivier nomination for Best Actress. “Listen, I didn’t really have any acting aspirations,” comments a nonplussed Allen. “I feel like I have done everything I wanted to do in terms of my career, and I do feel like I won at being a musician, but that being said, I can’t just be making packed lunches and ferrying kids to activities forever. I’ll do it for a few months and then I’ll have to stick my teeth into something — plus I think it’s healthy for them to see me doing something else.”
Fast forward two years and there has been no music — sans a guest appearance during Olivia Rodrigo’s Glastonbury set last summer — but there has been acting; great acting, in fact. In June, Allen will star in the first gender-swapped revival of Martin McDonagh’s acclaimed play, The Pillowman at the Duke of York theatre. Then, she will be making her television debut in Sky Original’s new comedy-drama, Dreamland. Allen stars as Mel; the most rebellious of four sisters, whose return to her hometown ostensibly stirs shit up for her family. Her character smokes, drinks, and takes drugs, all to excess, which might sound a little on the nose; and yes, when it came to playing a scene where Mel is partying in a smoky hotel room at 3am, it was triggering. “She’s a bit of an outcast and I could connect to that. She’s not able to communicate her sadness and her needs, and that’s what really gets her into trouble,” says Allen. “I feel like I went through a lot of that.”
She seems to have this acting thing under control, but selfishly, I can’t help but mourn the lack of music. I am a huge fan of Lily Allen, I grew up with her giving voice to all the petty heartbreaks and disappointments I accumulated over the years. It may have been presumptuous, but I didn’t ever conceive of her stopping — it seemed like she needed to speak out about things as much as we needed to hear them. “I’m not saying I’m never gonna make music again,” replies Allen. “But with acting, especially theatre, something truthful happens in the moment, and when I write music, I’m thinking about how people are going to receive it. When I sat down to write before Christmas last year, I felt like everything was incredibly contrived. I was overthinking and was worrying about what groups of people I would offend, and I thought this can’t be it.” When was the last time she wrote music authentically, I ask. “I think it was [2018’s] No Shame, but you know, I was in active addiction then. I was definitely not sober and I could kind of block those voices out, much more than I can in sobriety.”
Sobriety has been a recurring issue for Allen. She was just four when her parents divorced and she famously wrote in her 2018 autobiography, My Thoughts Exactly, how both of them contended with substance-abuse issues, and even that her father once suffered a cocaine-induced heart attack at Glastonbury (he has refuted this, saying it was acute food poisoning). After leaving school with nary a GCSE, Allen started uploading acerbic, witty and highly relatable songs about break-ups (“Smile”) and unwanted suitors in bars and their cheesy pick-up lines (“Knock ’Em Out”) to MySpace. The year was 2006 — Allen, the new enfant terrible of London, was a breath of fresh air in trainers and a sundress — she was, in short, a sensation.
And of course with success came money, and with money came an unlimited supply of booze and drugs. The paparazzi never missed a chance to capture her falling out of clubs with the likes of the late Amy Winehouse, and a row with Cheryl Cole became a full-on tabloid circus. Burnt out by the age of 25, she starting cleaning up her act after getting together with the builder and decorator Sam Cooper. They got engaged at the end of 2010, shortly after their first child, George, was stillborn at six months – a devastating loss that left the pop star with septicaemia and post-traumatic stress disorder. The following year they got married and welcomed their first daughter, Ethel, who suffered from the throat condition laryngomalacia and had to be tube-fed for seven months. After giving birth to their second daughter, Marnie, in 2013 Allen experienced post- partum depression.
When mounting bills forced her to return to the studio and to tour for her 2014 album Sheezus, it was easy to go off the rails again. Allen was away from her family and she slipped back into substance abuse; one thing led to another, and she was repeatedly unfaithful to Cooper, which included soliciting a female sex worker. At one point Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow attempted to hold an intervention after she got so drunk during a party at Kate Hudson’s home that she accidentally knocked herself out. The summer after she returned home in early 2015, she and Cooper decided to separate.
This was not the end of dramatic events for that year, though: in October her stalker, Alex Gray, broke into her flat, intending to “cut her with a knife”, while her young daughters slept in the next room. Gray had first made contact with her in 2008 and, following the terrifying break-in, was placed on an indefinite hospital order. Allen points out that this is another reason she’s now living in the US. “If I were in England he could jump on a couple of trains,” she says. “That was a big part of me moving. I don’t trust that, if he gets out, the chain of command would let me know in time, because if his intention is to kill me, I’m pretty sure he could find out where I am quite quickly.”
In the months following Gray’s attack, Allen was assaulted by a record industry executive while abroad on a work trip. She has spoken openly about the incident and has written with shocking honesty about everything she experienced during this period of her life in her memoir.
Had she needed to clear the air before starting afresh? “It was always the intention and I said that at the time,” she replies. “I wanted to move on but I couldn’t with so many mistruths floating around. I’m stubborn and I needed to set the record straight.” But really the autobiography was something for posterity for her daughters, now aged eleven and ten. “I had to get it down, at least as a reference point, because they will have questions,” Allen continues. “Ethel was seven, Marnie was six when I got clean, and there’s a lot of shit that happened before that they’ll be really cross about… I don’t know how much you know about attachment theory, but I wasn’t really there with Marnie in the first few years of her life, I was away with the fairies. So she will be at a loss at some point in her life.”
Motherhood is the resounding priority for Allen, but as we keep speaking, we return again and again to her innate need to create and perform — she is, I point out, incapable of staying away. I ask if she gets the same rush from acting as she does performing to hundreds and thousands at Glastonbury, and her response surprises me. “Not on a film set, I don’t, but for sure in a play, because it’s such a risk,” she deliberates. “I went for tea with a director yesterday, and she asked why I do it, and I replied that there were a number of things that happened that made me dissociate from my body. There was the stillbirth of my son, the stalking incident, the sexual assault — I felt myself leave my body when they happened, and I don’t think I’ve ever managed to reconnect. The result has been feeling quite numb, and I think theatre and playing to big crowds gets the adrenaline going… I’m like ‘oh I’m fucking alive again’. It’s addictive.”
We pause for a moment — it’s difficult to know what to say in the face of such naked vulnerability. Allen is perfectly aware that she’s living a life of recovery; unspeakable horrors happened in the public eye, and she seems resigned to the fact that there will be no neat answers or explanations. It’s heartbreaking, I offer, to which Allen lets out a short laugh: “You learn to live with it, but ultimately, it’s devastating because those things happened and completely changed the trajectory of my life. I don’t know who I would have been if those things hadn’t happened. I look at pictures of myself when I was much younger and I don’t see that sadness in my face.”
As we watch London come to life through the windows, I realise that I’m happy that Allen has moved to New York. This city, with all its ghosts, is no longer a fruitful place for her — simply too much, good and bad, has occurred. As our conversation comes to a close, she tells me how she’s been using meditation and journaling to help her reconnect to her body. Integral too is spending time with her daughters, and with Harbour, who just “gets it”. Most importantly, though, she has learned the importance of taking things at her own pace. “I’ve always been the main breadwinner since I left home at 15, and I’ve always needed to have that drive, which has not necessarily served me emotionally,” she responds when I ask her about the search for contentment. “I’m now sharing the weight with somebody else and I’m enjoying it. It’s nice to rely on someone else a little bit more, and I think it’s giving me a sort of peace that I’ve never had before.”