Billie Eilish Was Made for This: ‘Being a Woman Is Just Such a War, Forever’

Photographs by Victoria Stevens

“Being a woman is just such a war, forever,” Billie Eilish says. “Especially being a young woman in the public eye. It’s really unfair.”

When I arrive at her L.A. studio, Eilish is strumming her acoustic guitar, radiating an effortless cool. She’s so down-to-earth, it’s easy to forget that she won seven Grammys and an Oscar before she was even old enough to toast her success with a glass of Champagne.

“It turns out that I’m young, and I have a whole life of shit I can do,” she says. “Maybe because my life became so adult very young, I forgot that I was still that young. I settled in a lot of ways: I lived my life as if I were in my 70s. I realized recently that I don’t need to do that.”

Eilish, 21, got her first taste of fame at 13, when “Ocean Eyes,” the ethereal track she recorded with her older brother, Finneas, in his tiny bedroom, went viral on SoundCloud. As her career quickly took off, she was forced to navigate her adolescence with everyone watching.

She immediately endeared herself to the public with a persona full of contradictions: a whisper-soft voice paired with sticky hooks about murdering her friends, lighting an ex’s car on fire and dumping a possessive boyfriend on his birthday. Combined with a distinctive style of baggy, neon clothes, striking blue eyes and a flair for the downright creepy (an early music video featured a tarantula crawling out of her mouth), she soon became the name on the lips of everyone in the music industry.

She bristles as she recalls the “weird and upsetting” scrutiny she faced in her formative years: Who was she dating? What was her sexuality? Why did she dress like that? More sinister critics even questioned if she was secretly a devil-worshipper. (She wasn’t.)

Victoria Stevens for Variety

Still, Eilish looks back on her early success with pride. Around the time her megahit “Bad Guy” reached No. 1 in 2019, Eilish thought she had found true happiness.

“That was all external validation though,” she says. “I think at some point this last year, I realized that. I was like, ‘I gotta find stuff within myself and my personal life that has nothing to do with the outside world or the internet or my status that’s going to bring me that much joy.’”

So she’s done just that, pushing herself to new creative heights with a slew of projects outside her comfort zone. Case in point: stirring up Oscar buzz for the “Barbie” original song “What Was I Made For?” and garnering praise for her acting debut as cult leader Eva in Prime Video’s horror satire series “Swarm” — all while putting the finishing touches on her third studio album.

“My life is feeling good,” she says. “I feel like I’m becoming a person I really love and doing things I feel really proud of. In many ways in my life, I feel like I’m just now waking up.”

When Eilish first sees me, her famous blue eyes instantly lock on the bright-pink box in my hand. Since she’s being honored in our Power of Women issue for her work with plant-based nonprofit Support + Feed, it felt appropriate to bring a few vegan pastries from a local bakery.

“Oh, my God, we will be eating these,” she says, tearing the box open as her mom, Maggie Baird, snaps a quick photo of the treats.

I sit down facing Eilish from the other side of a large coffee table. “You’re so far away! Come sit next to me,” she beckons. And just like that, we’re sitting crisscross applesauce on the couch.

She hasn’t always been a girl’s girl. In fact, she’s spent much of her life plagued by the assumption that other women don’t like her. “I’ve never really felt like I could relate to girls very well,” Eilish says. “I love them so much. I love them as people. I’m attracted to them as people. I’m attracted to them for real.”

She doesn’t miss a beat as she says this, like any other young woman of her generation talking about her life. For a stadium-selling artist from a different era, such a revelation would have required record-label ruminations about the effect it could have on her career. “I have deep connections with women in my life, the friends in my life, the family in my life,” she says. “I’m physically attracted to them. But I’m also so intimidated by them and their beauty and their presence.”

Victoria Stevens for Variety

That tenuous relationship with femininity and womanhood has only recently started to change for her, following the July release of the “Barbie” song. The soaring, somber piano ballad is placed at the emotional climax of the Warner Bros. blockbuster, scoring a scene where Rhea Perlman’s Ruth Handler teaches Margot Robbie’s Barbie what it means to be a woman. “Take my hands. Close your eyes. Now, feel,” she says, offering Barbie visions of real women’s lives.

The scene spawned a heartwarming TikTok trend in which more than 1.3 million users made video collages set to the song, sharing their own experiences of girlhood. “It was so moving, dude. It was so, so touching,” Eilish says. “I feel like I helped bring people together, and it felt so special. I wasn’t expecting to have women around the world feel connected.”

In the song’s official music video, which the singer directed, Eilish faces earthquakes, wind and heavy rain as she unpacks a small box with Barbie-sized versions of her most iconic looks: mostly oversized T-shirts and sweatpants. That signature style provoked praise, attention and even Halloween costumes — but with it came unwanted speculation. What was Eilish hiding?

“I wasn’t trying to have people not sexualize me,” she explains. “But I didn’t want people to have access to my body, even visually. I wasn’t strong enough and secure enough to show it. If I had shown it at that time, I would have been completely devastated if people had said anything.”

She takes a deep breath. “Maybe my not really caring about being sexualized is because I’ve never felt desired or desirable.” Eilish leans back into the couch and wraps herself tighter in a big blue baseball jacket, her jet-black hair peeking out from under a black beanie.

“I’ve never felt like a woman, to be honest with you. I’ve never felt desirable. I’ve never felt feminine. I have to convince myself that I’m, like, a pretty girl,” she says. “I identify as ‘she/her’ and things like that, but I’ve never really felt like a girl.”

As she wrestled with these feelings growing up, Eilish also had to contend with the media’s mounting curiosity about her developing body. The rare moments when she wore tighter clothing were irresistible fodder for tabloids.

“I have big boobs. I’ve had big boobs since I was nine years old, and that’s just the way I am. That’s how I look,” she says, becoming exasperated as she recalls the media frenzy when she first dared to wear a tank top in public at age 16. “You wear something that’s at all revealing, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, but you didn’t want people to sexualize you?’” She scoffs and answers the trolls: “You can suck my ass! I’m literally a being that is sexual sometimes. Fuck you!”

She’s fired up now, launching into a good old-fashioned rant. “Nobody ever says a thing about men’s bodies,” she says. “If you’re muscular, cool. If you’re not, cool. If you’re rail thin, cool. If you have a dad bod, cool. If you’re pudgy, love it! Everybody’s happy with it. You know why? Because girls are nice. They don’t give a fuck because we see people for who they are!”

Victoria Stevens for Variety

Baird lets out a giggle from across the room as Eilish tells off the haters. Later, Baird will say, “One of the things everyone loves about Billie — and I do too, although it’s a bit scary — is that she’s just always saying surprising things, and she’s honest. That can be scary in the public eye.”

These days, Eilish still rocks oversized outfits, but she also mixes in some more form-fitting pieces, which she wears with confidence in front of her 110 million Instagram followers. In a recent photo dump, she shared a few glimpses into her life lately, including images of her dog (a rescue pit bull named Shark) and a look at her massive new back tattoo — a series of abstract black lines following the curve of her spine.

But one slide in particular, featuring a screen grab of the lyrics to Drake’s “Another Late Night,” drew extra scrutiny. In the song, Lil Yachty raps, “She had big tits like Billie Eilish, but she couldn’t sing.” Fans were quick to wonder: Was Eilish offended by the lyric?

“I think it’s fun!” she says. “I’m flattered! Yachty is my friend. Drake is my friend. It’s a joke. I do have big tits. I love it.”

Raised as a vegetarian, Eilish became a vegan at 12 because of her love for animals. But educating herself on the connection between the meat industry and climate change has strengthened her resolve and led her to passionately uplift her mom’s charity, Support + Feed. “Food injustice is a real-ass thing. Systemic racism is some real shit. They’re trying to kill you guys out here, without anybody really realizing it,” she says.

What began as a crisis-relief operation to distribute plant-based food to those in need during the COVID pandemic morphed into something much larger. “Our goal is to address climate change and food equity,” Baird says. “And really move society and culture to a more equitable, plant-based
food system.”

Support + Feed conducts food drives on Eilish’s tours, and fans are encouraged to pledge to eat one fully plant-based meal a day. Since 2020, the organization has reached 41 cities and delivered nearly 400,000 meals and pantry items.

“I’m outspoken in my own way,” Eilish says. “I really don’t like shoving information down people’s throats. And nobody wants to be told what to do. But I just want to make sure everyone knows the deal, and then make your decision. What I really don’t like is just being ignorant about it and being comfortable in that.”

Suddenly Eilish’s father, Patrick O’Connell, walks into the studio and tosses Eilish a set of keys — he’s brought her car back from the auto shop. I notice the pepper spray on her keychain. “Just girly things,” Eilish jokes about her favorite personal-safety item. “That’s what it takes to be a girly pop in the world.”

Styling: Lana Jay Lackey/LaLa Land Artists; Makeup: Emily Cheng/The Wall Group; Hair: Benjamin Mohapi; Look 1 (Brown Suit): Suit: Jean Paul Gaultier; Shirt: Stella McCartney; Jewelry: Chrome Hearts; Look 2: White Shirt): Shirt: Valentino; Jewelry: Chrome Hearts