Bella Latham has found her musical calling as anti-popstar Baby Queen - a fiercely honest voice telling immensely personal stories in an age of authenticity.
“You won’t believe how horrendous this was,” Bella Latham says, explaining why, on the original date of our interview, she was instead taken to A&E. “I’ve got like a third degree burn on my boob,” the 23-year-old shrugs. “I was going to put a new shirt on, but it was really crinkled. I was so exhausted, so I just used the steamer while I was still wearing it. Yeah, it’s gonna be scarred for years,” she smiles, indifferently, “but it’s happening now. I can’t be upset about it. This is the new me.” It’s this kind of laconic humour, to laugh – or yawn – in the face of trauma, blended with a diaristic, totally shameless honesty, that has earned Baby Queen her crown.
This is a Gen Z fairy tale unlike any other. The story goes like this: a teenage Bella left her native South Africa for the bright lights of London, carried by a dream to fulfil her destiny as a musician. But the city was not what it seemed, and while she was living out of a suitcase, sleeping on the floors of strangers, she fell under a spell; a deep sleep cast by a sorcerer – or, to you and I, an ‘Influencer’ – and while she was drawn to the beauty of their world, with dazzling lights of the parties and the free-flowing champagne of the London fashion scene, she had begun to realise all was all an illusion. Bella fought hard to disentangle herself from the smoke and mirrors – but, at a great cost, she at last woke up. The spell was broken. Baby Queen was born. And now, we have the music.
Latham knows, through hard-won experience, that every rose has its thorn. “Art, for me, is quite a selfish thing,” she says. “I have to write because I’m in pain. It’s how I deal with things. When I’m going through a bad time, I just have to make something beautiful out of it, because then it makes it worth it, you know?” Her particular brand of satirical alt-pop, with soft smudges of grunge, is distractingly joyous. It fizzes with euphoria and packs a snarky punch that would slot nicely between BADLANDS-era Halsey and the formative years of Avril Lavigne. But when it comes to her lyrics, there’s something bitter to taste. A spoonful of sugar, after all, helps her debut EP, Medicine, go down.
The 2020 release was a six-act takedown of the trappings of Gen Z, from the pressure of trying to keep up with our immaculate, Instagram personas, to the emotional flatlining from being on antidepressants and the romantic numbness in the world of online dating. She casts her bored, listless eyes upwards from this culture – and yet, in the next moment, she’s batting them at the camera. The irony is not lost on her. “I’m every bitch that I hate,” she laughs. “Being in this generation, you can complain about it all day, but it feels like do or die, you know?” She admits, “I’m very Gen Z. I’m totally immersed in it.”
In her merch shop, you can buy a white t-shirt with ‘Me! Me! Me!’ maniacally scrawled in red lipstick. It’s a replica of the one she wore for “Internet Religion” music video, her debut single. In the description, she says, “I wrote me all over these t-shirts because you’re a narcissist and so am I.” It’s hilarious, precisely because it’s true – uncomfortably true. “The tone of voice I use for Baby Queen is very cynical, satirical, even,” Latham accepts. Her charm lies in being caught red-handed, but it didn’t come naturally to her.
When she was recording “Pretty Girl Lie”, a self-incriminating track about editing your legs “‘til the doorway bends”, and the unspoken truth that “I get more likes when I don’t look like me”, Latham was ready to point the finger at everyone but herself. But her producer, King Ed, helped her to climb down from the soapbox. “I was going to be like, ‘It’s you! It’s you!’ the whole time, but he said, ‘No, let’s go with “I” – because he knows me, that’s the thing,” she laughs. “He knows what I’m like, and I’m a guilty bitch! I think that’s what’s so likeable about the music. It’s about saying, ‘You’re all dicks, but me too’. It’s almost self-deprecating, in the way I spent like 10 hours on my phone per day – it’s horrendous.”
By taking aim at the artificiality of our lives, Latham draws attention to the idea of our ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ personas. “That’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life,” she says. There is a divide between Bella Latham and Baby Queen. She explains, “Baby Queen is a constant show. It came from this belief – which is kind of a narcissistic belief, in a way – that you have to make everyone in the room happy. You have to be the source of laughter, the source of everything. But a lot of what I write is from Bella, when I’m alone. Baby Queen is a really big facet of me, rather than a character – but she’s not everything. I can talk in a million different ways, and Baby Queen is just one of them. I’m not going to leave the house and speak to people, and be in front of the camera as the depressed version of myself who watches Drag Race upstairs, you know? We’re all so multifaceted. You will never get like the full picture of yourself, ever. We're never going to present all of our shit that goes on behind the scenes.”
It's taking us behind the scenes, though, that has certified Baby Queen as a blue-tick Gen Z voice in an age of ‘authenticity’. The truth, she emphasises, is often ugly, and she’s more than ready to drop the charade. She set a precedent for this with the titular track “Medicine”, a glaringly honest depiction of her life on antidepressants. “I feel like people have touched on it before, but no one has said it quite this way,” she says. “I struggle with emotional blunting. I’ve got to tell you, I haven’t cried in years. Like, no matter what happens in my life, I’ll just be like…” She looks blankly into the camera. “I mean, all of a sudden, you can’t cry; you have zero libido. If someone talks to me about sex, I’m literally like, ‘Cool… I don’t know what to say to you.’ They take a way a lot – they take away your ability to think and feel; they box you in. And I’m desperate to cry. I would love to cry. I would love to literally sit here and weep right now, but I can’t.”
But as much as the song readily shows her struggles, it also acknowledges how important they are in her life. “I know for a fact I wouldn’t be alive without them,” Latham insists. “I would cease to exist. So I have to take them. It’s really important people realise that they saved my life. I don’t want people to not go on the medication, because I’m still on it. If they were that bad, I wouldn’t be taking them. It’s a double-edged sword.”
Latham continues to contend with their effects daily – it’s something in her life for which there is no answer, but she has found a silver lining. “I feel like my genius is in my depression,” she says. “My therapist and I talk about, like, when you’re really depressed, you find these nuggets of gold in the dark spaces you can’t make sense of. All those ideas that you write when you’re in that dark place – you don’t get those when your mood is up here.”
The release of her two latest singles, “Raw Thoughts” and “These Drugs”, follow in the same vein. “I feel like the music coming out this year is more personal in the way that it’s more of a true depiction of stuff that’s actually happened to me, as opposed to being observational. It’s more what I feel as opposed to what I think. I’m actually kind of terrified for other people to hear them, because they’re obviously fiercely honest.” Rather than a new era, the new music is a continuation of these very real, immensely personal stories.
“Raw Thoughts” was the first Baby Queen song Latham had ever written, and despite its euphoric, glittering instrumental, her lyrics, fragmented and frenzied, illustrate why Latham needed Baby Queen to turn her life around. Before Baby Queen, she says, “there were a lot of different types of lives.” There was her earliest life in South Africa, where, as a child, she would write songs about her sausage dog on the piano in the hallway; where she would write songs about cats, making demos on her computer (“the weirdest, most horrendous stuff”); and then, a little later, when as a 12-year-old, she would see Taylor Swift’s music video on TV for “Love Story”. That’s when the world felt, for Latham, as if it had tipped on its axis.
“It was like, ‘Oh my god. Who is this? Stop the world!’ She was everything to me. I was like, ‘Mum, that’s it. Kiss goodbye to me. I’m going to Hollywood, like, literally next year.’” But as she got older, her world would change again: this time, when she discovered The 1975. “I was completely obsessed with this lyricism, this… word vomit, sort of; saying exactly what you think, this frank way of writing music.” She would also enter into the darker worlds of Lil Peep, whose fingerprints can be found all over Latham’s lyrical style and aesthetics. She says, “I feel like Baby Queen ended up being this amalgamation of, like, Taylor and everyone else who was, fucked up, and writing these really fucked up things.”
Latham was eighteen when she moved to London in the hopes of truly making something of her music. She sees the last year or so, in the run up to signing her record deal, as a new era of her life, but before that, there was a number of stagnant years in the capital. “It was depressing, man,” she remembers. “I spent five years in the city before things actually ended up working out for me. I felt for a long time like I was just living in this state of limbo, just waiting for my life to start. I basically thought I was gonna come here and walk off the airplane, and Universal Music was gonna be standing there with a sign saying, ‘We’ve been waiting all our lives for you! Get in the car – oh, and we’re paying for your flat!’ I was so delusional.”
But, even so, she insists, London is the love of her life. “I will never live anywhere else, but it’s horrific when you don’t know anyone. It’s freezing cold, and people are fucking dicks,” she laughs. “When you come from South Africa, where everyone’s a legend, to this…” She remembers sitting in pubs, pretending to read poetry books. “I thought a really handsome British boy would come up to me and ask me about the poem I was reading – and that never happened. I don’t know what I expected.” She lived out of suitcases, sleeping on whoever’s couch she could take – even living on a boat, until she could afford rent, which, she says, was only a very recent change. “I’m surprised I’m still alive.”
Then, she dated an influencer, and it would be a vital chapter in Baby Queen’s origin story. “With the fashion world, you get so drawn in by the glitz and the glamour and the fame of this person who does… well, fuck all.” Influencer culture was largely non-existent in South Africa, so seeing Rita Ora at a party in Central London and being handed free cocktails was a dizzying prospect. “I got sucked down this rabbit hole for a while,” she explains. “Being around this person felt like I was succeeding by proxy. I thought I was a fucking legend, but I was actually just broke and depressed with absolutely nothing going on in my life. But you know what?” She smirks. “It was fucking interesting.”
"I knew the honesty as what I had to push. I felt like nothing, a nobody, and I wanted to feel like a somebody.”
Latham ended up studying the people in this world. “It’s amazing. It’s so amazing to watch,” she says, “because this is what this generation is interested in: these fuckers… So when you get to the point where every single one of them has made you feel like shit, like a nobody; when every single one of them has spoken to me like I’m a piece of dirt on their shoe, you get to that point where you’re like: ‘Wait, fuck you. You're all fuckers and I fucking hate every single one of you. I don't know why I pretended to be your friend or tried to make you like me because you're all dicks.’ So that was interesting. A lot of that has fed into the early stuff. It's like this whole sense of like, being disillusioned by looking at a society that was just fucked… just dicks, you know?”
When she was unceremoniously dumped in a park, that was when the bubble burst. “It was the perfect situation to mess me up,” she says. “It all fed into my childhood trauma that no one cared about what’s in my brain.” Baby Queen was about being the boss. “You have this team of people who value your intelligence, your creativity – all the stuff that you really want to be valued for,” Latham explains. “I made this decision to never again give my time and attention to somebody who made me feel less than them. I lost 90% of the people that I did have in my life because I just didn't want to have to have to prove anything to anyone but myself anymore.” The funniest thing, she says, is when those very same people start to follow her on Instagram – if they think they’re getting a follow back, then they can think again.
When Latham started to write under the name Baby Queen, she envisioned a world of light purple – not red, not orange, but something soft. “I know it sounds ridiculous,” she says, “because it annoys me so much when I read an interview with a musician and they’re like, ‘I think in colours!’ – I find it so annoying. So I’m not gonna say that.” She jokes about how rambling about auras will look on paper. “But I needed to pull together this whole world in my mind. It sounded light purple, so I knew I had to bring the music to life with that specific colour in mind.”
While the music saved her, she says, that’s not all Baby Queen was about. “I think that, growing up, I felt like I wasn’t worth anything. I went specifically into this because I wanted to prove myself and I wanted that affirmation from the world, you know? It just so happened that music was what I was good at.” People began to drink in her honesty, which was bitter to taste - and yet bracingly refreshing. “I knew the honesty as what I had to push. I felt like nothing, a nobody, and I wanted to feel like a somebody.”
In therapy, she started to learn how to find other ways of dealing with her feelings of worthlessness – not through the empty attention from others. “The thing with fame, is you actually get the attention you’re looking for,” she says, “but it’s never going to fill the hole inside of you. It’s never going to make you feel worth something.” But just before it gets too deep, she laughs, “Sorry… I love psychology. Fascinating stuff.”
And yet, despite calling me from her “depression hole”, Latham insists that this has been one of the happiest years of her life. “I know it’s a dick thing to say,” she tells me, “but I’ve started exercising every day, which has made me into an entirely different person: a much nicer happier person.” She’s also started to make “lame” mood boards of what she wants her life to look like. More than any accolade, or any crumb that could be thrown by the people she’s been trying to prove a point against, this, Latham says, is what success feels like. She lives the life the girl who swooned over Taylor Swift, who slept on floors and necked free champagne, always dreamed of. “Real success is about just being able to be happy,” she says simply, “and that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”