Leigh-Anne Pinnock has been living the pop star dream ever since she was 19 and stepped on to a stage to audition for The X Factor, singing Rihanna’s Only Girl (In the World). She has now spent almost a decade in one of the UK’s biggest girl groups. But she had a difficult start with Little Mix, and not because she didn’t get on with her bandmates. She felt “invisible”, and would regularly cry in front of her manager. “I just couldn’t seem to find my place, and didn’t know why,” she said in a magazine interview in 2018. “I didn’t feel like I had as many fans as the other girls. It was a strange feeling.” She had, at that point, finally realised what the trouble was. “I know there are girls of colour out there who have felt the same as me,” she said. “We have a massive problem with racism, which is built into our society.”
If she expected the interview to change anything, she was disappointed. “I really did feel as if it fell on closed ears,” she says today, speaking from the Surrey mansion she shares with her footballer fiance, Andre Gray. “It was almost like people just weren’t ready to talk about race then.”
Now she is giving it another go, as she fronts a BBC Three documentary, Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop & Power. “The majority of the film is me talking about my experiences, being the darkest member of my band in my very white pop world,” she says. “I really wanted people to see that just because I’m successful doesn’t mean I’m not going to be affected by racism.”
The documentary was shot over the course of 2020, a year in which the convergence of George Floyd’s murder and Covid-19 lockdowns provided many people with an unusual amount of time to reflect on the racism within society. Pinnock’s own intervention, a five-minute video posted on Instagram, went viral in June, with 3.5m views. As well as sending her condolences to “George Floyd’s family and all the other families who have lost someone due to police brutality and racism”, she talked about the loneliness she felt while touring in “predominantly white” countries. “I sing to fans who don’t see me or hear me or cheer me on,” she said. “My reality is feeling anxious before fan events or signings because I always feel like I’m the least favoured. My reality is constantly feeling like I have to work 10 times harder and longer to mark my place in the group because my talent alone isn’t enough.”
The documentary grew out of a conversation over dinner with old schoolfriends the previous year. “Leigh-Anne opened up to me, for the first time, really, about how she’d been feeling about her experiences in the band,” says Tash Gaunt, a documentary-maker who has worked with the BBC and Channel 4. “She was having a series of quite painful realisations about how profoundly racist the world is, and if she identifies [an issue] she wants to go and do something about it.” The two joined forces, and 2020’s summer of Black Lives Matter (BLM) activism gave them a renewed sense of mission. “We always wanted to make something that was knotty, and really challenged the audience,” says Gaunt. “Something that leaned in to the difficult conversations, rather than sidestepping them.”
In one early scene, Pinnock literally leans into a conversation at a London BLM protest, and asks how the young activists think she should be using her Little Mix platform. They tell her she should educate herself and speak out. Later, she reproaches Gray for a series of tweets that he wrote before they met, describing them as “a blatant example of colourism”. She also sits down with her parents – both of whom were raised by a Black father and a white mother – to discuss racial identity. (“I identify as John Pinnock,” says her dad, bluntly.)
Race wasn’t discussed much at home in High Wycombe when Pinnock and her two sisters were growing up. Her father (a mechanic) and mother (a teacher) “were both brought up in Caribbean households so, in turn, we were brought up in a Caribbean household, but they didn’t have ‘the talk’ with us. They didn’t say: ‘Look, life is going to be hard for you because you’re mixed race.’”
She didn’t encounter any racism at her Buckinghamshire secondary school, which she describes as “very multicultural”, and looking back she understands her parents’ desire to insulate their children from the wider world. However, she says: “If we had had that talk, I would probably have been better equipped for when I got put into the group.”
After so long as a Black woman in the public eye, Pinnock was prepared for the kind of angry reaction that the documentary has already received from people who, as she puts it, “do not want to understand racism, don’t care about racism. They never have and they never will.” Yet no sooner had the project been announced than a backlash of a different sort began. The working title, Leigh-Anne: Colourism & Race, led some to conclude that Pinnock would be holding forth on skin-tone-based discrimination within communities of colour, in a way that was oblivious to her own light-skinned privilege.
It’s a criticism that she wants to address head-on. “I know my privilege, and what I explore in the film is the fact that if I were some shades darker, I probably wouldn’t even be here.” Nor was the decision to include the voices of dark-skinned Black women a hasty attempt to muffle criticism: “It was definitely always the plan, 100%. We know already there is not enough representation of dark-skinned women in the media – that’s just a fact.”
When Pinnock needed support through all this, she could call on bandmate and bestie, Jade Thirlwall, who has Egyptian and Yemeni heritage on her mother’s side. “It has definitely helped – having someone close to me, who I’m with 24/7 – who just gets it and understands.” She had another sounding board in her former bandmate Jesy Nelson, who announced her departure from Little Mix in December 2020, saying being in a pop group “had taken a toll on my mental health”. In 2019, Nelson had made her own BBC Three documentary about online bullying and body-image issues. “I spoke to her about how it was for her,” says Pinnock. “Being open and being vulnerable is such a hard thing to do.”
Little Mix have just released their first single as a trio, Confetti ft Saweetie, and while the arc of pop history bends inexorably towards solo projects, after nearly a decade their union seems unusually robust. Perhaps this is because, having started out as soloists, before The X Factor threw them together, Little Mix have held space within the group to do their own thing. “That’s who we’ve always been,” agrees Pinnock. “So it makes sense that now that we’re a lot more grown up, a lot more educated, that we all individually have things we stand for.” Bandmate Perrie Edwards, for example, has teased the launch of a mysterious new brand called Disora, and Thirlwall has made forays into TV presenting. There are apparently limits to this freedom, though. Can Pinnock imagine Little Mix writing songs that address the issues of her film? “I can imagine me writing something about it …”
In March, she hired a PR agency to oversee her solo endeavours. “I’m just excited to let people see Leigh-Anne, and not just the girl from Little Mix, y’know?” Aside from the documentary, and the all-but-inevitable music releases, these projects include In‘A’Seashell, the swimwear brand she co-founded with another old schoolfriend, an anti-racism charity called the Black Fund, and the romantic comedy Boxing Day, in which she stars alongside Aml Ameen (Simon in I May Destroy You), who also writes and directs.
Pinnock hopes to make “a film a year”, in future, with action roles holding a particular allure: “Maybe I can be, like, a Black Lara Croft?” she says, playfully swinging her Croft-esque high plait. Ameen’s film, though, was the perfect choice for her screen debut. She can relate to the depiction of a lively British-Caribbean family, and also to the celebration of Black love. “Andre is like my backbone. If I didn’t have someone like that through this experience, I don’t know what I would have done. We’ve always had amazing talks about [experiencing racism], from when we’ve met.” Gray is very into Black history, to the extent that his whole back is a tattooed tribute to icons including Bob Marley, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. “I love how pro-Black he is,” says Pinnock. “It’s inspiring for me.”
It’s already been decided that Little Mix won’t perform when Pinnock and Gray tie the knot next year (“Oh, God, no! They’re coming to enjoy it! No way!”), but add wedding planning to all Pinnock’s professional commitments, and her plate seems stress-inducingly full. When it all gets too much, she can be found listening to R&B slow jams in the bath or reading one of her pile of social and political theory books. Currently, it’s Akala’s Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, which doesn’t sound very relaxing. “I don’t really read fiction. It’s always educational with me. I still feel like it’s switching off, though, because it’s just me and my book.”
She owes at least part of her recent activism to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. “It was like: ‘Whoa! I’m not on my own!’ I think, because I was in this bubble for so long – this Little Mix white world – I didn’t understand why I felt the way I did.”
This process of self-education isn’t usually excitingly visual, but in her documentary, Pinnock demonstrates a natural flair for externalising emotion and thought. In one remarkable part, she brings together women of colour from across British pop – founding Sugababe, Keisha Buchanan; 2008 winner of The X Factor, Alexandra Burke; R&B soul artist Nao; singer-songwriter Raye – to share their experiences. It’s like a group therapy session, full of healing, as well as breakthrough moments, such as when Buchanan confronts Pinnock with a thought that seems to momentarily knock her off balance: “They were looking for a minority to be in [Little Mix] to sell records because, let’s be honest, it makes it a little bit cooler,” says Buchanan. “Of course, being mixed race, the more you look like a white person, it’s more acceptable and palatable.”
Part of Pinnock’s journey is this dawning realisation that while her Blackness is seen as synonymous with cool credibility, and commodified as such by her industry, Black artists rarely get the support they deserve when they encounter racism.
Pinnock was ready and willing to bring these issues to the heads of her label, Sony Music, but, after some negotiation, they declined to appear on camera. How does she think Sony will react to the documentary? “I’ll be dropped!” she says. It’s a joke, but an anxious one. “No … erm … I am a little bit nervous, but I feel like there isn’t really much they can say.” She points out that Sony has set up various initiatives in response to BLM activism, committing $100m (£72m) to anti-racist causes in June 2020. “So that’s all very positive.” All the same, her frustration that these people – for whom she feels loyalty and affection – have let slip an opportunity to lead by example is audible: “I would hear people say, like: ‘Yeah, but you have to understand, this is very sensitive and this is hard for people to come on [camera], and what if they say the wrong thing?’ And I’m like: ‘Argh! This is not what this is about, though! We are trying to make a change.’”
Pinnock herself has been changed in a way that is both immense and irreversible. “There’s only so much you can take of feeling like you are the invisible one, or you’re being overlooked. There had to come a point where I see this as my power and I now do. It is. Being Black is my power. And I want young Black girls around the world to see that.
“One of the reasons I didn’t want to speak at the beginning was because I was so scared of offending [Little Mix fans] and losing them,” she continues. “But I just thought: this is not about me. The reason that I am here, in this position, is for me to speak out and do something.”
• Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop & Power is on BBC Three on iPlayer from 6am on Thursday 13 May, and on BBC One at 9pm the same day.