An earlier version of this story originally aired on October 6, 2019.
She’s been compared to some of the greatest singers of our time, and now you know why. Her name is Melissa Jefferson, but she’s known by her childhood nickname, Lizzo, and you might say she’s on a roll.
She’s still riding the wave of an acclaimed new album, “Cuz I Love You”; she had last summer’s #1 song (“Truth Hurts”); she was named Time’s 2019 Entertainer of the Year; and she’s now the proud owner of three Grammys.
At 32, it seems Lizzo has finally arrived, though she’s been here all along.
Correspondent Tracy Smith asked, “Do you feel like your career was a slow build or something that happened fairly quickly?”
“It’s the slowest build of all time,” Lizzo laughed. “It’s the slowest burn. I’ve done so many tours, but would I have been able to maintain this type of mainstream success ten years ago? Hell to the no!”
“You needed that ten years?”
“I needed this ten years. I feel like a master.”
She’s also become a master of the positive attitude. In nearly every show, she leads the audience in her own personal mantra: “I love you … You are beautiful … And you can do anything.”
These days, there’s another mantra: “Black Lives Matter.” And she’s using her fame to support the cause.
As much as anyone, Lizzo knows how powerful those words can be, after a lifetime spent listening to mean (or even well-meaning) comments about her weight.
“It’s like a little mosquito bite. Somebody’s like, ‘Well, you know, you a big girl, so you can never have short hair. You always have to have a big hair, ’cause you’re a big girl.’
“And they say that lovingly, but I’m like, that’s a little mosquito bite. You don’t even know it’s there. But, soon you look up, you’re covered in mosquito bites. And you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I have all of these things.’ But they were so normalized to me, because they were so innocent.”
“People meant well?” said Smith.
“They meant well. But I had to, like, peel back a lot of layers.”
But it didn’t start out that way: Lizzo was born in Detroit, and grew up in the Houston suburbs. “I would walk to my best friend’s house and we’d play Spice Girls, and we made our own little girl groups.”
Revisiting Elsik High School, where she learned flute as a teen, she said that Manny Gonzales, her band director at Elsik, helped give her the focus she needed: “I’ve had a lot of talks with my band director in here, where he was like, ‘You’re always late. You’re always daydreaming. But, you’re so talented. Get it together.’ And those talks really impacted me.”
“He was formative to you, right?” asked Smith.
“Yes. He was. I mean, he was like … Ahhhh!”
That was when Lizzo saw Gonzales: “Oh, my God! Oh my God! I’m so good! Oh, my God! Thank you. Wow, I did it, didn’t I? You told my ass, you were like, ‘Get it together girl, ’cause you are special, apply yourself.’ Those moments meant so much to me!”
With Gonzales’ help, Lizzo went to the University of Houston on a music scholarship, majoring in classical flute. But two years into her university studies, she dropped out of school. Her father, Michael, who was battling congestive heart failure, urged her to stay with the flute.
“He wanted me to perform and wear the little lavalier mike and just be playin’ through a synth,” she said. “And he wanted me to innovate flute. And I was like, ‘I’m gonna do all of this.’ And his health just declined and declined and declined. And I really just wanted to be able to afford to take care of him. I wanted to save him.”
Michael Jefferson died in 2010, and Lizzo’s world crumbled.
“And they’re like, ‘There’s nothing anyone can do.’ And that, aw, it pissed me off, I was so mad. I’m like, ‘What do you mean there’s nothing anyone can do?'” she said, devolving into tears.
After composing herself, Lizzo explained: “I think sometimes I get angry instead of sad, because it’s, like, a defense mechanism, to be strong.”
“And you want to be strong?” asked Smith.
“Yeah. Well, I have to be. Like, I have to be strong. ‘Cause, like, life really doesn’t give you an opportunity to show vulnerability. Life doesn’t really give you a chance to let your guard down.”
Lizzo performs “My Skin”:
Eventually, she picked herself up and started climbing the rungs of a music career, through bouts of poverty, homelessness, and crippling self-doubt.
She says her career finally took off once she started to believe that beauty doesn’t have a size.
Smith asked, “You’ve said you’ve struggled with self-confidence. How did you change it?”
“It’s not something that you really change; it’s something that you address and work on,” she replied. “I had to address every layer of insecurity. ‘Cause I can’t just be like, ‘Alright, my arm’s not jiggly and lumpy anymore.’ That’s delusional. You have to be like, ‘That’s not ugly to me anymore. and it’s not wrong to me, it’s beautiful to me,’
“And I think that is why I’m able to call myself fat. And people are like, ‘No!’ Even my friends. I’ll be like, ‘Well, bitch, you know I’m fat.’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t say no. I am fat. I am beautiful.’ I think it’s because I learned to actually look all of my insecurities in the face, call them by their name, and fall in love with them.”
“Which is a process – this hasn’t ended yet, right?” Smith asked.
“It ain’t over.”
“It’s a daily exercise?”
“I’m still doing it. Right now!”
Last summer, Lizzo went back to the University of Houston, and got a reception worthy of a superstar.
The school’s most famous dropout has become a role model. Speaking to music students she said, “You’re not supposed to be happy all the time. You’re not supposed to know what you’re doing all the time. Especially at this age. But not knowing what you’re doing has nothing to do with where you’re going. So, I want you to know that: cherish your journey and respect your journey. And keep playing your instrument, man, ’cause people jealous of me ’cause I still play the flute!”
And now, after reaching the top, it seems Lizzo’s goal is to pull others up with her.
“And hopefully by existing, there can just be more opportunities for people that look like me that are, you know, beyond what a trend is,” she said. “And that they’re there on the merit of their talent. They’re there on the merit of their beauty. And they’re there because they’re good enough.”
“Just like you are?” asked Smith.
“Yeah, I’m more than – I’m great!” she smiled.
To watch an extended conversation with Lizzo, click on the video player below, or:
You can stream Lizzo’s album “Cuz I Love You” by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear the tracks in full):
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