You’ve seen Madison Beer. The 21-year-old singer-songwriter has permanent residency on your Instagram Explore page. Her nose has the enviable quality of having been pinched by a filter. Her eyes are brown, or could they be hazel? It’s difficult to parse, and becomes more elusive the longer you look. Then there are her lips, so puffy and pouty not even the spheric orb of an EOS lip balm could cover them all at once. (She got lip fillers at age 15, but has since had them dissolved.) To talk about her face – how this Long Island-to-Los Angeles transplant has become the talking head of whatever generic beauty standard offers free entry into the TikTok Hype House – seems reductive. Yet it’s all anyone can talk about.
Madison Beer initially struck me as talented but a little self-victimising after being called out for her missteps. She was more often in the press because she had “denied” staging photos at a Black Lives Matter protest; or had been “caught” hiding behind a bush outside of a Beverly Hills cosmetic surgery clinic; or romanticised the paedophilic relationship in Lolita; or “clapped back” at haters after period blood spotted her white bikini. A clip of Beer telling friends how she was asked to appear in Ariana Grande’s video for thank u, next (but couldn’t make it to the shoot) generated an onslaught of it-should’ve-been-me memes.
This was the Madison Beer I was confronted with, when not listening to her music. But she had a lot to say if you cared to plug in to her vulnerable and addictive songs and ignore the headlines.
If she didn’t have the talent to usurp the distracting blunders, I would say forget it. But she does. On her track Selfish, for example, she sings, “I bet you thought you gave me real love /But we spent it all in nightclubs” – a direct reference to her two-year relationship with club promoter and friend-of-famous people Zack Bia. Details from her private life were all there for even the most casual fan to glean. Was Beer’s fallible reputation – a hedonistic, lip-filling “liar” and victim of being “too pretty”, as many TikTok comments would suggest – the case of her words being twisted, or did she have a case of word vomit, arming her enemies and trolls at every turn with munitions? Maybe a bit of both.
The long road to where she is now is littered with potholes. At 13, Beer was discovered by Justin Bieber and signed to Island Records. She was plopped on the pop star conveyor belt by executives at that company looking for another Ariana or Selena. Beer’s path, as set out by her label, ended up more like Tinashe, Sky Ferreira, or someone who wanted to make anything but the bubblegum demos she was handed. She pushed back against her minders and was dropped by her label at 16.
In 2018, after a few independent releases, Beer signed with Epic. Her cult of personality and songs like Dear Society for Netflix’s mental health tentpole 13 Reasons Why have driven her following up to nearly 20 million on Instagram alone. You follow Madison Beer not for all those body-shaping-sessions-with-the-personal-trainer, but for her unapologetic rawness. (Well also, I guess, the occasional hot selfie.)
But what I didn’t know about Beer – what nobody knew – was that the polished veneer of her digital presence belied a deeper truth she hadn’t yet revealed: she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was partly responsible for her mercurial public image.
“People think they already have their minds made up about me,” Beer says, dressed today in a white sweater and sitting in front of her white couch in her Los Angeles home. She is ready to change those minds with her debut album, Life Support. It has been years in the making. It contains 15 tracks, which ferry listeners through a breakup, musings about addictive prescription meds and more personal struggles. Beer is hoping that public perception of her will shift once it’s released.
“Part of me is nervous because I really want people to not take things I say wrong. Part of me is so excited because I’m finally able to be like, have your opinions about me, but the only insight I’ve ever actually provided you with is this album. So if you’re going to judge me based on things I haven’t provided you with versus things I’m lit-er-al-ly giving you,” she says, punctuating every syllable, “then I’m not really going to be upset over it anymore.”
She was for a while. As she talks about these incidents, she uses terms like “exhibit A” and speaks with the urgency of an auctioneer.
“I saw a TikTok recently,” she tells me, “and I don’t use TikTok anymore because it’s very hateful towards me.” She describes the TikTok, a recording of a livestream she did where she discusses a mole on the side of her face. “I was saying I hate this mole on my face after I had seen a Twitter comment about it, and all the comments were: ‘I can’t believe she takes all these comments to heart, she’s so pathetic, she’s so insecure.’ I do take things people say about me very seriously, and maybe I shouldn’t, but it’s something I’m avidly working on.”
I ask: why did you call the album Life Support?
“It was a hell of a year for me,” she replies. “I did go through a break-up, but I didn’t want to make a break-up album because I felt like that was so shallow. That was only one part of a big story, the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t really opened up publicly about a lot of the stuff [I was going through], but I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. I was suicidal at one point. I was going through a really tough time, and I felt like making a break-up album amidst going through such real shit was dumbing myself down in a way that I didn’t want to do.
“[But] once I was given a diagnosis, going through therapy three times a week, I was getting more in touch with my emotions and figuring out how to be stable. I was able to write better and understand myself better. So I could just write the story how I wanted it to be told.”
Listening to her say all this, I wonder how long she had been under the thumb of misunderstanding, of wanting to let people know what was going on in a way that couldn’t be misconstrued, but feeling like it would still be impossibly twisted. She struggled with a reactionary personality, felt “hard to love”, and was beating herself up constantly.
For a singer, oversharing on social media can be a career-ender, picking away at one’s mystery and appeal. But channel those emotions into a song and you’ve got a potential chart hit. She spent the last year recording and refining her bops, along with curating a list of social media accounts she can follow that spread awareness about BPD and help her better understand herself.
Life Support is cohesive and mutable, an elliptical narrative encompassing on-brand nihilism (“Baby serves me for those times when I was like, fuck my ex, I look cute, I’m going to go out and kill this shit”), regret over falling in love (Selfish) and using prescription drugs to chip away at the resulting emotional pain (Effortlessly). Follow the White Rabbit is an anchor on the album, a bass-heavy strummer. It’s an easy listen despite its complex subject matter.
Though she counts Tame Impala, Bülow and Megan Thee Stallion as influences, music-wise she tries to “stay on my own vibe.” That includes visuals – Beer meticulously plans everything, down to her spectacle-driven music videos and her live show. Several of the tracks on Life Support include a harp because she wants to bring a harpist on tour.
“I’m very much about what this show is going to look like in person. I’m always thinking about that.”
The 26th of August will mark one year free of self-harm for Beer. Her BPD diagnosis came in August 2019, which answered many lingering questions she had about why she felt the need to respond to the thousands of online paper cuts she was receiving. Already, she knows that sharing this diagnosis – something that is extremely personal and her business – will only open her up to more scrutiny.
“I’m already prepared for people to say that I’m lying. I’m not going to be the person who is like: ‘I have BPD so I’m not to be held accountable for anything that I do.’ That’s the bad side of the mental health world. You have to try to be better, always. In my opinion, those are the rules. When I open up about it, I’ll hopefully be able to provide people with a little bit more insight, like: ‘This is why she’s this way.’”
Though her actions are often forced under a microscope, it’s the conversation surrounding Beer’s looks that she finds tiring.
“I just have so much more to offer than my exterior, so it does get tiring to have people only focus on superficial nonsense,” she says. “Even when I’m at a meet and greet and someone says, ‘Oh my God, you’re so pretty’, I think: did you want to come to my concert because you think I’m pretty? Obviously, that’s a sweet thing to say, but I have more to offer to the world.”
Can’t she just… stop it? Post her pic and ignore the comments? She’s trying, she insists, removing TikTok from her phone and focusing on herself.
“I know my truth and I know my heart and I know my intentions, and if I can go to bed every night looking at myself in the mirror and be like, ‘You’re a good fucking person’, then I’m fine. In order to be ‘unfuckwithable,’ you have to not be able to be fucked with. I know that sounds so dumb, but don’t even let people in. Fuck everyone. That’s my whole thing. People can say whatever they want about me, and they’ll continue to, even if I release my medical records to the entire world and it literally says the only thing I’ve ever had done was four years ago. They’re never going to stop.
“So what am I going to do?” she wonders. “The one life that I live, am I going to sit trying to convince a bunch of strangers who I don’t know that I’m some great person? Or am I just going to live my life knowing that I’m this dope person who means well, who has a good heart and takes accountability when I fuck up?”
Madison Beer doesn’t answer her question, but her intentions are clear. Say what you will about this young singer-songwriter, but her success is coming like a long emergency. I should know, I’m a convert. And like Andy Warhol used to say about bad press, just measure it in inches.