'Voice' star Jacquie Lee opens up about her bulimia struggle and shocking 'rock bottom' moment

Lyndsey Parker

Pop singer Jacquie Lee, now known professionally as simply Jacquie, first came to fame in 2013 when she was only 15, as one of the youngest contestants ever to compete on The Voice. But that fame came with a price, and a year ago, after she moved to Los Angeles following an aborted deal with major label Atlantic Records, she developed “something with eating” — which is what she initially said when she shyly confessed her troubles to a friend, before she mustered up the courage to say the word “bulimia” out loud.

“I’ve struggled with bulimia since last year, and now that I’m going to therapy and working through the issues that led up to it, I’ve seen that it actually started way earlier on,” the now-20-year-old Lee tells Yahoo Entertainment, in her first on-camera interview about her eating disorder. “Just little things that contributed to where it was at and when it was at its worst. It goes all the way back to little things, like … just being insecure and looking for other people to tell you, ‘Oh, you look great.’ Or when somebody makes a [negative] comment and you’re not strong enough or in the state of mind to just be like, ‘I love myself and I love my body.’ It really gets to you. In music, it started when I was trying on a bunch of different outfits and people are so critical and they’d be like, ‘OK, lose 10 pounds in, like, a week.’ It shouldn’t affect you, but I mean, I was 15, 16. I was growing up.”

It took a shocking, potentially life-threatening 2017 accident for Lee to realize that she was out of control and needed help. “This is the most cliché thing ever, but it was during New York Fashion Week,” she says, giggling nervously despite the gravity of her story. “I was restricting what I was eating — I’d gone the full day — I was at a concert that night in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, like the best place to injure yourself. I fell down because I was dizzy, and hit my head.  … This was 100 percent my rock bottom, because I was like, ‘What am I doing? I can’t do this anymore. I need to take this seriously. I need to just stop thinking that I can handle it and I need to do the work to get better.’ Which is not fun.

“It turned out I fractured my skull. It was a brutal fall. I lost my sense of smell. But my memory’s fine,” she continues matter-of-factly. “I actually went to a neurologist about this, and they said it’s possible [that my sense of smell will return]. My olfactory gland was damaged. But I’m like, ‘If that is the worst that happened, then I’m OK.’ I feel like I was really lucky.”

Jacquie (Photo: Steel Wool Records)

Although it took a while for Lee to see the signs, she realizes that her eating disorder started in her teen years. Being in the public eye on a hit national TV show (Lee ultimately was the runner-up on The Voice Season 5) didn’t help. “With social media at the beginning when The Voice was coming up, and they had just posted an Instagram photo — it was a first photo that fans were directed to my account, and it was the first exposure that I’d had,” she recalls. “I read all the comments, and I was in tears that entire day. There was one comment that was about my dress, and it was like, ‘You’re a slut.’ I’m like, ‘You don’t know me!’” Lee’s Voice coach, Christina Aguilera — a woman with firsthand experience with both teen stardom and body-shaming — tried to advise her sensitive young protégée (“She was like, ‘They’re idiots; don’t read the comments’”), but the damage was done.

“There were really bad habits starting to form, of just like restricting what I was eating. My therapist calls it ‘rules that you make in your head,’ like, ‘Don’t eat carbs past a certain time’ or ‘no bread.’ Just like things that start off small but then snowball, and you don’t realize it until something big happens or it escalates to a point where you can’t ignore it anymore,” Lee says. “Which is sort of what happened with me. I started getting worse when I realized that I was able to get rid of the food that I was eating — which was in hindsight not the best idea.”

While Lee is in a good place right now, obviously she doesn’t want to suffer another Fashion Week-style mishap, so she has to be mindful and not slip back into bad habits, especially when she’s in high-pressure showbiz situations. “It’s triggering when there’s an event and I know that I’m going to be photographed, or I know that people are going to watch me,” she admits. “I’m still figuring out this for myself. It’s good to know what is triggering for you, and it’s good to know your solid routine — even if it’s just preparing meals for yourself three times a day, so you make sure that you eat and don’t skip a meal and then are starving and then you binge. It’s like a cycle.”

After the Fashion Week debacle, Lee came clean to a sympathetic friend, but it was harder to face her parents; in fact, she only told them about her bulimia a couple of months ago. “I hand-wrote a letter and I sent it home,” she reveals. “I wanted to do that because I was really nervous about calling them and talking to them, and I didn’t want them to worry about me, but at the same time, I also feel like I can articulate what I’m trying to say way better when I’m writing it out. It was hard. It was really hard, because they’re my parents, and they hate hearing anything sad or negative going on in my life. But they reacted perfectly, like amazingly. I need their support, so I’m really happy that I told them.”

But now Lee feels secure enough to tell the world her story, be it through a candid Facebook Live interview for Yahoo Entertainment, social media interactions with her fans, or especially in her lyrics. “I felt like telling people would actually help me, because for me, I love getting it out and starting a dialogue and being that real and vulnerable with other people,” she explains. “I want to help other people by being honest about it and showing them that, like, this is a real thing, and a lot more people struggle with it than you probably would think. … Everyone is going through this s***, which is basically what my whole project was about when I started writing [The Only One] EP — which is crazy, because I look back at all the music that I was writing, and all of the things that I was writing about were themes that specifically led up to my eating disorder. I was like, ‘S***! How did I miss this?’”

The Only One, released independently in November last year, reads like one of the journals that Lee often scribbles in, and certain songs are especially confessional. “‘The Old Me’ I wrote looking back at, like, a younger version of myself, of missing so many qualities that I had and then not liking who I was in the present, and kind of just wanting to, like, find myself again. That song, I would say, is the one that hits home for what I was going through,” she muses. “I mean, they all do. Like, ‘What’s a Girl to Do’ is about being insecure, ‘Am I the Only One’ was kind of just my state of anxiety, and ‘Manipulation’ was about a relationship and a change and moving. When I looked back and saw what I wrote, I was like, ‘OK, this all makes sense.’ The good thing is it’s a very honest EP.”

Lee will continue to explore these themes in an “anthem” she is writing and recording for Project Heal — a nonprofit organization that helps people suffering with eating disorders pay for treatment — and she wears her empowering message almost literally on her sleeve, with an “All Is Vanity” upper-arm tattoo that she got in honor of her friend Christina Grimmie, who was fatally shot in 2016. (The only time Lee tears up during her Yahoo interview is when she speaks of their friendship.) She’s also happy to be making music on her own terms, since her teenhood music industry experience was often discouraging. “I felt like a puppet for the beginning of my career,” she says. “I don’t regret [competing on The Voice/signing to Atlantic], because it’s gotten me here and I’ve learned a lot from it, but it’s so easy to feel belittled and controlled and like you don’t have a voice.”

So, Lee is optimistic, and she doesn’t think all of her future music will emanate from a dark place. “I look up to Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, like everyone who died at 27 — which is not where I want to be at 27. I do want to be an icon, but not that way,” she stresses. “Something that I read recently in this book [by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert] called Big Magic said there are two ways that you can be creative and be happy and be successful. One way is you can torture yourself, and you can make art through that and self-destruct and go down this path and feel every second of it — just like the pain, the agony, the doubt — or you can do it in a happier way. Both will lead to the same outcome. You don’t have to torture yourself to get to where you want to be.

“There are happy songs and there are sad songs, but it’s wherever you’re at in your life. So, whatever you go through, you can write about it in whatever way you want to write about it. That’s what an artist does. It’s not always sad.”

Watch Jacquie Lee’s entire inspiring conversation in the video below:

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