‘Nobody can tell me not to be sexy’: how British pop superstar Mabel beat the trolls

Neneh Cherry’s daughter Mabel has her eye on the Grammys
Neneh Cherry’s daughter Mabel has her eye on the Grammys

When Mabel McVey was a ­little girl, she would watch from the wings while her mother, the pop star Neneh Cherry, performed. “It scared me,” says McVey, now 26, her big brown eyes widening at the memory. “At home, my mum was this sweet, gentle person, but on stage she transformed into this beast. She was so powerful, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s not my mum!’ ”

Years later, watching her mother on stage at the Electric ­Ballroom in west London in 2015, she saw things differently. “It was like watching her go into a meditative state, and it captured the entire room. That was when I really saw how beautiful her power was. And that was the moment I realised I wanted to do music seriously.”

McVey didn’t waste any time. By the end of that year, now going by the single name Mabel, she had self-released Know Me Better – a silky, RnB-soaked pop song – on the music-sharing website Soundcloud. The influential Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac chose it as her Record of the Week and soon after came a deal from Universal Music, which released Mabel’s album of sassy, tropical pop bangers, High Expectations, in 2019. It became the fastest-selling debut by any British woman that year and set Mabel on the road to becoming one of UK pop’s biggest stars.

In the three years since, her songs have been streamed online more than 4 billion times and earned her 12 top-20 hits and the 2020 Brit Award for best female solo artist (exactly 30 years after her mother won her own Brit Award). Step into any British nightclub worth its salt and you will hear the strong, sultry choruses of Mabel’s 2019 super hits Mad Love and Don’t Call Me Up filling the dancefloor night after night, or else catch their sizzling synths blasting from rolled-down car windows when the sun comes out.

As Mabel sings in Overthinking – on her just-released second album About Last Night – those whirlwind years “should have been the time of my life”. And yet, she tells me now, speaking over Zoom from her new home in north-west London, “those most successful years of my career were probably the worst two years of my entire personal life”. She grimaces and piles her long braided hair high on her head. “I was trying to convince myself that I was having so much fun, when actually, nothing about those years was fun.”

Mabel as a baby with her mother, pop star Neneh Cherry, 1996 - Twitter, @Mabel
Mabel as a baby with her mother, pop star Neneh Cherry, 1996 - Twitter, @Mabel

Mabel was only four when she first started suffering from anxiety, feeling even then that she was “­carrying the weight of the world” on her small shoulders. By the time she was eight, her mother and father (Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey) decided to move the family from their home in London’s Notting Hill back to Cherry’s native Stockholm, hoping a fresh start would help. But while there, Mabel encountered racism – just as her Swedish-Sierra Leonean mother had experienced growing up – and was bullied. Hiding in the school toilets at lunchtime, she would often cry until she vomited.

Music was the one thing that could always soothe her, and her parents would fill the house with the sounds of D’Angelo, Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind and Fire, while encouraging her to play the piano and write her own songs. After memorising chords from the first CD she bought with her pocket money – Justin Timberlake’s ­Justified – she realised she had an ear for composition and at 15 went on to study songwriting at Rytmus Musikergymnasiet, Stockholm’s music school.

It was a contrast to the uncertainty she felt in other aspects of her life: “From the age of five I knew that music was my purpose. And I was always sure that I would succeed.”

It takes a thick skin to enjoy being an international pop star in the age of Instagram – while social media gives today’s stars a simple means of reaching millions of fans in an instant, it also serves as a gateway through which anonymous detractors can just as easily send vitriol in the other direction. At first, Mabel was unsure she had what it took to survive. “I just wasn’t prepared to have everyone looking at me and criticising how I performed and what I looked like,” she says. “But I had no one around me to help. It was absolutely crushing.”

While it is possible to disable comments on an Instagram account, this can inhibit the platform’s algorithm from promoting your content – so it is discouraged for anyone looking to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It should also be possible just to ignore negative comments, but, as fellow pop stars such as the badly trolled former Little Mix star Jesy Nelson have found, reading them can become addictive.

For Mabel, the doubts started to creep in, then became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Increasingly anxious about the torrent of jibes at her ­figure or her dancing, which would flood her social media after every live show, she found herself giving increasingly lacklustre performances. “I was performing on some of the biggest stages, at the biggest awards shows, on the biggest TV shows in the world,” she says. “But what fear does to your body and to your voice and to your face… you literally have no control.”

Around the same time, she discovered that her long-term boyfriend had been cheating on her with a secret girlfriend for the past eight years. She became depressed and started self-medicating with alcohol. “I’d be coming home after a night out and the mums would be doing the school run. I just felt like a complete idiot.”

Teetering on the edge of a breakdown, Mabel moved home with her parents in January 2020, having slept through most of December. Then she got sober: 365 days with no alcohol and plenty of her mother’s home cooking. Since the pandemic had shut nightclubs and put the brakes on socialising, she was able to shed herself of the toxic hangers-on who had encouraged her worst excesses. She began taking medication for depression and anxiety, and bought two Italian greyhounds and a speckled grey horse. Little by little, Mabel was piecing herself back together.

Today, she speaks about the music business with a jaded cynicism one might expect from a woman twice her age. “It’s funny how, now that I’ve started taking care of myself, none of those people from before are around any more,” she says, with a tight smile, before releasing a long sigh. “These past two years, I’ve been so frustrated with the business; so frustrated.”

Have people taken advantage of her? “Not intentionally. They are not bad people, but people that just expect me to make money for them; to make hits, at any cost. There have been some rash, knee-jerk decisions made just to get a chart position.”

Mabel has been soothed by her rescue horse Gus - Eyevine
Mabel has been soothed by her rescue horse Gus - Eyevine

But, she says, those days are over. “With my new album, the most important thing is that people get to know the real me.” About Last Night spins between house, disco, trance and RnB in a euphoric homage to Noughties club culture. She wrote it after binge-watching Paris Is ­Burning (the acclaimed 1990 ­documentary about the flourishing of drag balls in 1980s New York), Pose, Ryan Murphy’s drama on the same subject, and Drag Race while cooped up at home, and thought of a concept: a night out on her own personal dancefloor, from start to finish. Each song contains an experience that has defined her past two years: from anxiety to pleasure, an entire journey of self-acceptance condensed into a single evening.

Like her previous hits, these songs feel crafted with one eye on the charts, but their sound is fresh and exciting. The use of strings even feels like a nod to Abba – one of Mabel’s musical influences, alongside Swedish super producer Max Martin. “I feel like I am no longer confined to a blueprint,” she says.

Lyrically, the new album is more overtly sexual: the first track, ­Animal, imagines a woman dominating her lover and “making a grown man purr”. Is this confidence a kind of two fingers up to the trolls? “Yes,” says Mabel. “I want to show that I am not a submissive person in any aspect of my life. I am strong, wild and powerful, and if that makes me intimidating, then I don’t care. Nobody can tell me not to be sexy.”

Neneh Cherry has claimed that, in the 1990s, female artists were encouraged to offer sexual favours in order to get their records played on the radio. Has Mabel had to reckon with anyone trying to control, or exploit her body? “I think I felt in the early stages of my career, I had to be really careful. Because while men in my position are allowed to sleep around, if I was seen to be having lots of relationships, nobody would take my music seriously. I think now that’s such bulls---.”

‘I’d be coming home after a night out and the mums would be doing the school run. I felt like an idiot’: Mabel McVey at the Brit Awards in February 2020 - JM Enternational/Shutterstock
‘I’d be coming home after a night out and the mums would be doing the school run. I felt like an idiot’: Mabel McVey at the Brit Awards in February 2020 - JM Enternational/Shutterstock

A few months ago, Mabel asked her father to help out with managing her, and she will no longer tour without him and her mother. She will soon start ­writing again with her half-brother, Marlon, who collaborated on her early hit Finders Keepers. She is keeping business strictly within the family – following in the footsteps of other major stars including Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa. “The music industry is dangerous. I am a business, I am making people money, I am signed to a major label. That is scary. But my dad knows the business and he will never let anything bad happen to me. My parents are going to protect me at all costs.”

It took a long time for Mabel to open up to her parents who, though based in Spain, have their own room in Mabel’s new home. “For so long, I shut them out of what I do. I knew they would take one look at me and realise I wasn’t happy. The last six months have been the first time since I was five that I’ve been like, ‘Please come and help me’.”

Was shutting them out also a way of pre-empting accusations of nepotism? “Yes, I didn’t want anyone to know we were related,” says Mabel, whose grandfather, the jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, died the year before she was born. “I wanted to prove to myself that I am talented in my own right. But now I realise, of course I was going to make music if I grew up in a musical household, in the same way that children of doctors often end up as doctors. And of course there’s nothing wrong with letting my family help me.”

With her parents’ support, her mental health back on track and an album she is proud of, Mabel is ready for her second act. “I am a much more confident performer now,” she says. “Aggressive, even intense… like my mother. I am just hoping I get the same opportunities I was given the first time around, because I am ready to stand on the biggest stage possible. I want to be up there with the biggest names in music. I want the Grammys.”

She laughs, perhaps surprised at the sound of her own naked ambition. “I want to be one of the biggest pop stars in the world.”

‘About Last Night’ (Polydor) is out now. Mabel performs at Somerset House, London WC2 (somersethouse.org.uk) tomorrow night