Her remarkable songs of heartbreak and redemption have won Adele many millions of fans. Now, she tells Giles Hattersley, in her first interview for five years, she is poised to release her strongest album yet. Photographs by Steven Meisel. Styling by Edward Enninful
There is an art to being Adele, which is to say that being the world’s most fleetingly glimpsed megastar is not a status achieved by bungling your exit from a limo. It is late afternoon in Manhattan, and her low-slung Mercedes is squeezing down a narrow ramp into the basement car park of the Four Seasons Hotel, the latest manoeuvre in the 15-times Grammy winner’s decade-long mission never to be photographed unawares. We are yabbering away on the back seat behind blacked-out windows, but before the car has truly stopped, Adele – cackling, conspiratorial, complex – has flung open her door mid-sentence and, head down, is loping across the concrete at speed.
Fumbling with my seat belt and recording paraphernalia, I scramble out after her, somehow dropping my bag on the ground, as up ahead a tense security guard pointedly holds open the hotel door. I’m taking too long, and when I catch up to Adele, something like worry, and a little like annoyance, have roamed across her normally merry features. But there’s no time. Nineties thriller-style, we are rushed through some swing doors into a kitchen, past hissing stovetops and blinking staff, out into a salubrious bar and through – finally – to a cavernous private room, empty save for two cocktails standing on a table. Safely re-ensconced in her privacy bubble, the person with the first and fourth fastest-selling albums of the 21st century visibly relaxes. Fair enough. There is an art to being Adele.
Now, the artist has returned. I must say, it is pretty wow to actually meet her in the flesh for the first time, as I had a few hours earlier. It has been five long and tumultuous years – historically, sure, and personally, you bet! – since she last sat for an interview. Here in New York for a few days, to be photographed by Steven Meisel for British Vogue, she’s keen to catch the Willi Smith exhibition, so has asked to meet at Cooper Hewitt on the Upper East Side, housed in Andrew Carnegie’s one-time mansion facing Central Park. As I walk into the gardens, where her entourage inform me she lies in wait beyond a trellis, it is safe to say proceedings take on a touch of the Greta Garbos.
Well, no one has seen her, have they? Mysteries abound. Will she be happy? Will she be heartbroken? Will she have gone very “LA”? Will she be thin? The thrum of a thousand tabloid headlines echo in my head and then – boom – she is before me, perched at a table amid the flora and fauna, as nervous, glamorous and rare-seeming as a snow leopard, with a tumble of caramel-coloured blow-dried hair and a burst of Byredo perfume, in Etro double patchwork-denim, Fashion Nova vest and white leather heels. A manicured hand is proffered, a firm but fluttery handshake bestowed, followed by the most comforting of salutations: “’Ello, I’m Adele.”
And we’re off: “I’m alrite, ’ow are you?” she launches in, heavenly accent unchanged. (Improbably, she has a little hamper of treats with her and passes me a green juice.) “I mean, I have to sort of gear myself up to be famous again, which famously I don’t really like being.” But yes, she can, at last, confirm: Adele is back. The single is imminent, the album approaches. She is once again ready to play havoc with the emotional wellbeing of a billion music fans; to deliver the latest chapter in the sonic revelations of her heart. To be honest, it feels like she has turned up in the nick of time. In a world that can’t agree on much, perhaps we can once again agree on Adele.
She hasn’t spoken to a journalist since 2016, and on top of, you know, a pandemic and the general day-to-day of being a single mum, she’s been married and divorced in that time. In paparazzi terms, she essentially lives off-grid, in what the papers love to call her “compound in Beverly Hills”, next door to Jennifer Lawrence et al. For a certain sort of prickly Brit, the worry is that reality might have become a foreign land to her – but the signs are good. Formal pleasantries dispensed with, it takes four minutes to get to how she’s done with lambasting her exes in her lyrics. “I have to really address myself now,” she says, earnestly. Then, “Instead of being like, ‘You effing… ’” at this point, she drops her first delicious C-bomb of the day and falls about laughing.
So she’s well. Apparently, locked down in California with her son, Angelo, and myriad pets, her parenting style devolved like everyone else’s. “I’d be like, ‘Get my kid on Zoom! Is it too early to have a spritzer?’ He’s like, ‘I want to be a YouTuber.’ I’m like, ‘I am the wrong person to say that to.’” The banter is instantly fabulous. At one point, talk turns to former health minister Matt Hancock, whose office-hours romance with a friend he’d hired with public money saw him resign in the summer. In full Peggy Mitchell mode, Adele growls: “The dirty sod!” Then – presumably imagining tomorrow’s headlines – looks briefly panicked, before shrugging. Whatever!
So we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Adele is still Adele. Or is she? With the honour of being the first to pose the question, I ask where we find the 33-year-old heartbreak queen, no longer 19 or 21 or 25. “I feel like this album is self-destruction,” she replies, carefully, “then self-reflection and then sort of self-redemption. But I feel ready. I really want people to hear my side of the story this time.” With that, she rummages in her handbag and hands over a pair of AirPods.
Under the hot teatime sun, the first strains of a song she doesn’t yet want to reveal the name of hit my ears. A slow, meditative arrangement, then – pow! – that voice. “Go easy on me…” entreats the chorus, which sits between verses that recall her fraught childhood, her lost marriage and the lessons learnt and unlearnt about family, love and abandonment along the way. I’m not sure she’s ever been in finer voice. Sitting opposite me, she flits between nervously examining the horizon and shooting across smiles of such genuine warmth they catch you off guard. For the son of more than one divorce, suffice to say it’s pretty moving.
She recorded it – like a lot of the album – for her son, she says, as, already a touch damp-eyed, I hand back her earbuds. “My son has had a lot of questions. Really good questions, really innocent questions, that I just don’t have an answer for.” Like? “‘Why can’t you still live together?’” She sighs. Gone are players and cads as song fodder (mostly). This is the deep sea of motherhood. “I just felt like I wanted to explain to him, through this record, when he’s in his twenties or thirties, who I am and why I voluntarily chose to dismantle his entire life in the pursuit of my own happiness. It made him really unhappy sometimes. And that’s a real wound for me that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to heal.”
She exhibits that rare combination of confidence and shell shock; a person emerging from a long period of self-examination. “It’s not like anyone’s having a go at me,” she says, “but it’s like, I left the marriage. Be kind to me as well. It was the first song I wrote for the album and then I didn’t write anything else for six months after because I was like, ‘OK, well, I’ve said it all,’” she says. The opening vocal, she explains, came to her when she “was singing a cappella in the shower” one day in 2018… Hang on, 2018? The years are hard to tot up. For the uninitiated, the thinking is that Adele Adkins wed Simon Konecki (founder of the charity Drop4Drop, her long-term partner and the father of their now nearly nine-year-old son) at some point in 2016 (she called him “my husband” when picking up a Grammy in early 2017), and they split in 2019, finalising their divorce earlier this year. But as with almost everything we think we know about Adele’s life, the reality is altogether different.
She does love to keep us guessing. In February last year, she was filmed at her best friend’s wedding telling guests, “Expect my album in September!” “I know,” she cringes, her features settling into a what-am-I-like smile. “I was wasted. And I officiated the wedding…” News soon leaked she was ready, but then of course 2020 happened and everything was put on hold.
“That one is obviously about stuff that happened, but I wanted to put it on the album to show Angelo what I expect him to treat his partner like, whether it be a woman or a man or whatever. After going through a divorce, my requirements are sky-high. There’s a very big pair of shoes to fill.” Was the ending more drift than implosion? “Yeah,” she says, again carefully. “It just wasn’t… It just wasn’t right for me any more. I didn’t want to end up like a lot of other people I knew. I wasn’t miserable miserable, but I would have been miserable had I not put myself first. But, yeah, nothing bad happened or anything like that.”
And yet: “My anxiety was so terrible, I’d forget what I had or hadn’t said to Angelo about separating.” Her therapist at the time suggested she record voice notes of their conversations so she wouldn’t wake up scared in the mornings, wondering what she’d told him (a snippet of one will appear on an album track dedicated to him). “Obviously Simon and I never fought over him or anything like that,” she says. “Angelo’s just like, ‘I don’t get it.’” She sighs. “I don’t really get it either. There are rules that are made up in society of what happens and doesn’t happen in marriage and after marriage, but I’m a very complex person. I’ve always let him know how I’m feeling from a very young age because I felt quite frazzled as an adult.”
She saw the effect in her own childhood. “My parents were definitely frazzled,” she says. Her mum, Penny Adkins, and dad, Mark Evans (who died earlier this year), broke up shortly after she was born, and her relationship with her father was strained through the years, to put it mildly. It’s taken a fair chunk of her adulthood to process it – and she partly blames too much walking on eggshells. “It’s not bad decisions that f**k up our kids,” she says, referencing the modish self-help guru Glennon Doyle (a favourite of hers), “it’s indecisions.” I ask how her anxiety is now. “I definitely learnt a lot of tools in my therapy, but I also just go with it. I find the anxiety gets worse when you try and get rid of it.”
“But I was terrified,” she says, of her lowest patch. “People were everywhere, trying to get stories, and I just hated it. I was embarrassed. I was really embarrassed. That thing of not being able to make something work. We’ve been trained as women to keep trying, even by the movies we watched when we were little. At the time it broke my heart, but I actually find it so interesting now. How we’re told to suck it up.” She shrugs. “Well, f**k that. Shall we go in and see the show?”
Typically, Cooper Hewitt is closed on Wednesdays, but the museum staff kindly opened up specially for us (well, I say us). Adele is keen to see the Willi Smith: Street Couture exhibition – dedicated to the genius American designer of the late 1970s and ’80s, credited with a bottom-up approach to democratising fashion, and whose legacy as a Black creative is being paid some overdue attention. Adele is soon poring over the mix of studio photographs, video and archive pieces from Smith’s career. “He designed one of my friend’s mum’s wedding dresses,” she says, and talks with authority about his radical rethink of who fashion belongs to before his early death in 1987, aged 39.
Save for a handful of museum staff and members of her team and security detail loitering in the foyer, we’ve the place to ourselves. She misses being able to get to exhibitions, she says as we wander the rooms. If she plays her cards right, she gets “about 20 minutes anywhere” before the first fan clocks her and there’s a scrum. Plus, LA doesn’t have the same variety of spaces as her beloved London. Would you care to list the ways in which moving to California has turned you a bit celeby, I tease? “Well,” she says, deliciously deadpan, “I’ve got fit and ’ealfy. That’s quite LA, I guess.”
Ah yes, that. Type “Adele diet” into Google and it brings up an avalanche of results, including a mass of content written since May 2020, when she posted a snap of herself on Instagram wearing a black minidress, taken in her backyard on her birthday (more than 12 million likes, almost a quarter of a million comments). It is a subject on which she sounds both profoundly sanguine and a little bit pissed off. “I think one of the reasons people lost the plot was because actually, it was over a two-year period,” she says of losing “100lbs” behind closed doors.
She breaks it down: “It was because of my anxiety. Working out, I would just feel better. It was never about losing weight, it was always about becoming strong and giving myself as much time every day without my phone. I got quite addicted to it. I work out two or three times a day.” Three times a day, I marvel? “Yeah,” she replies, matter-of-factly. “So I do my weights in the morning, then I normally hike or I box in the afternoon, and then I go and do my cardio at night. I was basically unemployed when I was doing it. And I do it with trainers.” She very much gets that it’s a rich person’s game. “It’s not doable for a lot of people,” she says, a bit embarrassed.
There’s always been a mad degree of public ownership over you, though, right? “People have been talking about my body for 12 years. They used to talk about it before I lost weight. But yeah, whatever, I don’t care,” she says, sounding as though she cares a little but less than she might. “You don’t need to be overweight to be body positive, you can be any shape or size.”
She says there is now an entire industry of snake oil being sold off her back. “You know a hundred per cent of the stories written about me have been absolutely fake. The people that came out being like, ‘I trained her,’ I’ve never met in my life. It’s disgusting. I cannot get over it. Some Pilates lady I’ve never met in my life! And I haven’t done any diet,” she adds.
What about those reports saying you did the Sirtfood diet (a newish repackaging of the same old story: low-cal, wholefoods, big on green tea and blueberries). “No,” she snaps. “Ain’t done that. No intermittent fasting. Nothing. If anything I eat more than I used to because I work out so hard. And also,” she says, gearing up for a final crescendo, “that whole thing of like, ‘Gets Revenge Body’… Oh my god. Suck my dick!” she yells into the empty museum.
She’s laughing now. “It’s ridiculous. I think it’s that people love to portray a divorced woman as spinning out of control, like, ‘Oh she must be crackers. She must’ve decided she wants to be a ho.’ Because what is a woman without a husband?” At this, she does the most amazing instinctive hair flick. “It’s bullshit.”
She’s had enough of her heels. As we step back out into the foyer, an assistant materialises to swap them for a pair of flats. The hair goes up into a scrunchy and we sit on a banquette chatting. Really, she says, the LA move was for quality of life. “Most of my life is in a car or inside a building,” she says; the lot of the famous. “I wanted fresh air and somewhere I could see the sky. Also, once I had Angelo, in England if you haven’t got a plan with a young child and it’s raining, you’re f**ked. And the kind of house I have in LA I could never afford in London. Ever.” I mean, you probably could, no? “No, I looked at houses. It’s like hundreds of millions of pounds. I don’t have that much money at all. I’d throw up.”
The family’s three-house spread in LA is quite something. “It’s very much a British cottage,” she says of her decorating choices there, while, “my place in London is very European. It’s like Italian or something. I don’t even want to sit down in it,” she says, laughing. The principal benefit of the LA set-up is that Simon has been able to move in across the way. For a long time, the question that sent Adele spiralling was: how do we actually break our life apart? “In the end I was like, ‘We’re not going to. You’ve bought the house opposite my house. Nothing changes for Angelo.’”
In normal times, she returns regularly to Britain, so she is missing it. Badly. She shops at Ye Olde King’s Head (“Salad Cream is my vibe”), a pub-cum-minimart in Santa Monica, and is palpably thrilled to be seeing her friend India Standing later, who is bringing PG Tips, Percy Pigs and 20 Terry’s Chocolate Oranges from London. Like the rest of the country, she went loopy over the Euros this summer, watching at all sorts of odd hours from California – although she was fuming that the stadiums were packed with sports fans while the music industry was on its knees. “Imagine if I’d tried to play Wembley Stadium? I’d have been banned.”
She feels deeply connected to London still. Her support for Grenfell United – the charity that works with survivors and bereaved relatives of the 2017 tower-block fire in west London – is well documented, although I hadn’t realised that she had been down there day after day at the beginning. “It was just absolute despair, and I’m telling you no one who should have been helping was helping. I just couldn’t believe there was a building on fire in the middle of central London and it didn’t cause more outrage.” Having lived in social housing as a kid, she couldn’t fathom the response. “There are still a lot of buildings clad in that material. Grenfell aren’t asking for money, they’re just asking for that to be taken off the walls. I haven’t seen people as resilient as them in my whole life.”
She’s quick to admit that she doesn’t always get things right. Who can forget Carnival-gate? On holiday in Jamaica last year, dreaming of being at the annual Notting Hill celebration (cancelled because of Covid), she posted a photograph of herself at an outdoor party wearing Bantu knots and a bikini top made out of Jamaican flags. “I could see comments being like, ‘the nerve to not take it down,’ which I totally get. But if I take it down, it’s me acting like it never happened,” she says. “And it did. I totally get why people felt like it was appropriating,” she says now. Her read had been, “If you don’t go dressed to celebrate the Jamaican culture – and in so many ways we’re so entwined in that part of London – then it’s a little bit like, ‘What you coming for, then?’” She pauses. “I didn’t read the f**king room.” Karma came for her anyway, she adds, drily. “I was wearing a hairstyle that is actually to protect Afro hair. Ruined mine, obviously.”
With Adele, you quickly learn that humour and candour go hand in hand. She takes a comedy sip of martini, mouth like a cat’s bottom. Oh, here it comes, I think. “The timeline the press have of my relationship, my marriage, is actually completely wrong,” she says, suddenly serious again. “We got married when I was 30… and then I left.” How long after you married did you end it? “I’m not gonna go into that detail,” she says, “remember I am embarrassed. This is very embarrassing.” It is such a rare moment of non-confession I fight the urge to hug her. “It wasn’t very long.”
Though the world had thought her already married for the best part of two years, it wasn’t until 2018 that she and Simon wed. “I always called him my husband, because we had a kid together,” she points out. And she loves playing games with the press. “They know nothing!” she cackles happily. “They don’t know my son’s name, my son’s birthday. I’ve got the upper hand on everything. I love it.
“So,” she continues, “when I was 30, my entire life fell apart and I had no warning of it.” She darkly invokes the phrase “Saturn return”, having seen the lives of a few of her friends also implode with the arrival of their fourth decade. She swore “that won’t ever be me,” and yet within months of her birthday she had “bit off a grenade” and chucked it into the middle of her life.
She wants to play me a last song, the seven-minute opus that concludes the new album. It’s a knockout. A string-swirling, Garland-invoking, jazzy, campy, swooning delight, packed with world-weary end-of-the-show reflection, and featuring a vocal for the ages. She watches happily as I beam my way through listening to it. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was playing on the television in the studio when she recorded it, and she says it’s the end song the movie should have had. But it’s also the coda on her recent chapter.
“We kept it to ourselves for a very long time,” she says of the break-up. “We had to take our time because there was a child involved. It would always be like, ‘Where’s Adele? Oh, she’s working’, or, ‘Where’s Simon? He’s in England.’” They are still incredibly close. “I’d trust him with my life,” she says, emphatically. “I’m fully aware of the irony of me being the heartbreak girl who found her person, being at Radio City Music Hall being like,” she bursts into song, “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you… And then, yeah…” She sighs, amused and mortified in turn. “I f**ked up. It didn’t work.”
But so much else did, she reasons, and now she’s going to sing about that, too. “I definitely chose the perfect person to have my child with,” she says, of the lessons you glean when the days of young love give way to grown-up life. “That – after making a lot of knee-jerk reactions – is one of my proudest things I’ve ever done.”
Hair: Guido. Colourist: Ryuta Sayama. Make-up: Pat McGrath. Nails: Jin Soon Choi. Set design: Mary Howard. Production: ProdN. Digital artwork: DTouch. With thanks to Vogue entertainment director-at-large Jill Demling
The November 2021 issue of British Vogue is on newsstands on Friday 8 October.