TV & Movies

Little Mix star Leigh-Ann Pinnock reveals hideous racism she’s suffered as she releases Race, Pop and Power documentary

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Being in one of the most successful girlbands of all time has been a dream come true for Leigh-Anne Pinnock. In the last decade, she’s toured the world with her “best friends” and sold 45 million records along the way.

She lives in a five-bedroom home in Surrey with her fiancé, footballer Andre Gray, who plays for Watford, and their dogs Kyro and Harvey. The couple also this week revealed that they're expecting their first chid together.

But in a powerful documentary, her first project since announcing she’s working on her solo career, the Little Mix singer opens up about another side to her life and how her brushes with racism in the pop industry have clouded her experiences.

Viewers will see that when the pandemic cancelled Little Mix’s tour plans, Leigh-Anne, 29, finally had the time to explore these feelings. The singer reveals how she feels that her ethnicity has defined her image in the group and her popularity with fans.

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“Sometimes I felt I was being treated differently from my bandmates because of the colour of my skin,” she said. “I felt like it ruined a lot of my experience of what should’ve been the best time in my life. Why do I feel invisible? The least favoured, less desired. I want to know is that racism or is it in my head?”

In the one-off programme, Leigh-Anne meets people at last summer’s Black Lives Matter marches and explores issues such as unconscious bias and colourism.

She opens up about the horrific abuse she has received online and her fears for her career after making the decision to ask her record company to address diversity. She hears from other black women in the industry including X Factor winner Alexandra Burke, who recalls being told to bleach her skin early on in her career.

Leigh-Anne also reassured New magazine that there’s no stopping her now and reveals how her bandmates have always had her back…

Hi Leigh-Anne. What was your motivation for making this documentary?

My motivation was based on my own experiences and also because I think conversations about race are so needed and I’ve known for a long time that I’ve wanted to do a documentary about it. Plus, I wanted to educate myself and hopefully others too.

We see you speak to your family about difficult and highly personal topics. What was the toughest thing about having those conversations?

Trying not to get upset when talking about it because it’s an issue I’ve been bottling up for 10 years. I’d just been putting it to the back of my mind and not dealing with it. Dealing with it was one of my biggest fears. So I’m proud that I managed to be completely open and allow myself to get rid of the pain that I’ve been holding on to for so long.

You have a particularly touching conversation with Jade in the programme. How has the band supported you while you filmed it?

They’ve been so supportive and I’m really lucky to have them. Being able to have your best friends with you all the time means that, even if they didn’t realise what was going on with me, they were around to have a laugh with and it took my mind off how I was feeling. I’ll always be thankful to them for that.

Jade has been the person that I’ve really confided in over the years. As she’s mixed race herself, she’s always been someone that I’ve been able to turn to and she would listen and understand. It’s been really important to me to be able to speak to someone who gets it and reassures me that my feelings are valid.

Were they surprised when you told them how you’ve felt?

To be honest, maybe even now they might not know the full extent of how I felt. Jade had her own battles with racism when she was a kid, so I think she got it right away.

We see your internal struggle between recognising that you have faced racism while acknowledging that you experience privilege from being light skinned. How do you hope to use your platform to support the voices of dark-skinned women?

I always wanted to touch on colourism. Colourism sits right beside racism and I think it’s something that isn’t addressed enough. I always wanted to use this doc to allow dark-skinned women to be a part and amplify their voices.

Understanding my own privilege has always been important to me, and something I touch on in the doc is the idea that if I was some shades darker I might not even have been put in the group.

I already struggled in the group, but I know if I was darker skinned it would have been even worse and I think it’s really important that we addressed that in this film.

Your frame of reference on this topic comes from working in the music industry – what is the number one change you’d like to see happen in the industry?

The number one change I’d like to see is greater diversity. It’s not diverse whatsoever and you see that in all aspects and at all levels of the industry. I know that I have some sort of power within that and I’m using my power to say, “No, this is going to be my team, this is who I want to work with, you need to make sure this team is more diverse.” And if everyone was able to do their part and speak up on that, I think we’d see a lot of change.

There’s a phenomenal scene where you have a sit down chat with singers Keisha Buchanan, Alexandra Burke, Nao and Raye. Did that chat galvanise you?

It was amazing that we could all sit down in a room together and be so open and share our experiences. I’ve never really been able to do that with other black creatives before, so that was a real game-changer. It was incredible to hear the similarities and differences in what we’ve been through.

For example, I thought I’d have an almost identical experience to Keisha, what with us both being in pop girl groups – but we had a lot of differences. It was interesting to learn from that. And it just goes to show that racism works in many different ways.

At the end of the doc, we see you, your fiancé Andre and your sister Sairah have started a foundation to support black creatives…

The Black Fund is now a registered charity, which is amazing. When I started to make this documentary, I realised that I also wanted to create some kind of charity or foundation – sometimes you’ve got to go beyond just talking about it – and I wanted to put something into action and actually make change.

I’m really glad we’ve got it up and running and it’s essentially going to be a fund that goes back into black communities to help provide more and better opportunities. It’s really exciting.

Overall, what do you hope viewers take away from this documentary?

I hope that this doc might open up the topics of racism and colourism to people who may have never considered it before. I hope it gives other people the courage to speak out. I hope it also gives people the motivation to be part of change.

I’m so lucky to have an amazing fanbase through Little Mix, but the fanbase definitely skews young and white so I’m hoping that this will help them understand how important this issue is, not just to me, but in a wider societal sense too. If this doc helps even one person, I’ll have done my job.

Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop & Power is on Thursday, 13 May, 9pm on BBC One.

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