LONDON – I’ve always had a soft spot for Amy Winehouse. The British, bee-hived chanteuse was the polar opposite of the proverbial girl-next-door: outré…erratic…Jewish.
In a country where the Duchess of Cambridge – aka Kate Middleton – currently personifies a sort of Ivory Soap poster girl for all that we hold dear, Winehouse embodied this nation’s darker side: wayward, unpolished, self-destructive.
And yet, there was a certain tenderness to Amy Winehouse – a vulnerability – skating just beneath the bravado that drew you to her. You could hear it in the lyrics of her signature album “Back to Black,” which launched her career in 2006 and subsequently won her a record 5 Grammy awards for a female British pop star:
I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would
I told you I was trouble,
Yeah, you know that I’m no good.
That vulnerability was again confirmed by her older brother Alex, who has spoken publicly about his sister’s death for the first time in an interview with The Observer. According to Alex, what really killed Amy wasn’t the booze or the drugs for which she was so famous, but a life-long struggle with bulimia. Her battle began in her teens and persisted until her death in her late twenties. In his view, the disease left his sister weak and more susceptible to the physical tolls of her addictions.
This belated revelation of Winehouse’s eating disorder is hardly surprising: she was, after all, rail thin (although one might easily have attributed her slight figure to her frequent heroin use.) But her bulimia also puts her in the company of another female British icon – Princess Diana – who wrestled with the disease throughout her marriage to Prince Charles and similarly “flamed out” far too early. While the two women couldn’t be more different in terms of looks or social background, they nonetheless shared this dirty secret of adulthood which plagues a growing number of professional women, particularly in mid-life. (When Winehouse died, her Camden townhome – some two miles from where I live – was littered with flowers and tokens of affection for the young pop star – another poignant echo of the street-side shrines left to Diana when she passed away.)
While it’s commonplace to blame the rise of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia on cultural factors such as emaciated models and movie stars, a new body of research suggests that, in fact, most eating disorders are caused primarily by psychological and biological factors. Princess Diana herself once movingly described eating disorders as a “shameful friend,” which – by focusing people’s energies on controlling their bodies, creates a refuge from having to face the more painful issues at the center of their lives.
It’s probably fair to say that even if she hadn’t suffered from bulimia, Amy Winehouse was not likely to last long on this earth.
But this new wrinkle in the narrative of her very short life renders her death all the more tragic.
Delia Lloyd is an American journalist living in London. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Financial Times, The International Herald Tribune and The Guardian. She was the London correspondent for Politics Daily and blogged about women and politics at The Washington Post’s She the People. She blogs about adulthood at RealDelia.
Photo: Wiki Media Commons