Billie Eilish: Growing up in public has been bruising

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Billie Eilish interviewed by the BBC in Perth, Australia

Billie Eilish is the first person born in the 21st Century to win an Oscar. The 20-year-old singer tells BBC 100 Women she has struggled with impostor syndrome, and that growing up in the public eye was a "bruising experience".

It's three hours before the start of her penultimate concert of Happier Than Ever, a world tour that has taken Billie Eilish across four continents over seven months. The final stint is in Perth, in the far west of Australia.

Soon, a trapdoor in the arena will open and she will spring up from under the stage, as if emerging from an underground toaster, landing in a crouch to strobing white lights. The sell-out 15,000-person crowd will scream in ecstasy.

For the next 90 minutes she will beguile an audience made up mostly of young women born this century, with her dreamy, two-octave, sliding voice. She will move across the stage in freestyled tip-toes and mosh-pit-style jumps that end in squats, with the grace of someone trained as a dancer from the age of eight.

Between songs she will talk to the crowd like they are her best friends, telling them that she loves them.

Billie is one of the women featured on the BBC 100 Women list, which each year names 100 inspiring and influential women around the world. This year the list is honouring the progress that has been made since the list's inception 10 years ago.

"I was doing an interview earlier today," she will say when she pulls her hair free from two tight buns. "And I was saying that when a new person comes into my life - any sort of romantic anything - you guys are the first thing I mention… 'Just so you know, this comes with me!'"

And the crowd will scream again.

But all that is still three hours away, and right now Billie Eilish is in the BBC 100 Women interview that she will mention on stage, talking about a career that is less than a decade old.

Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell was born and raised in Los Angeles to actor-musician parents, who had background parts in shows like Friends and The West Wing. Billie was home-schooled with her brother, guitarist-singer-songwriter Finneas O'Connell. She was writing songs from the age of four. Her ascent to stardom is now the stuff of legend.

One night in 2015, the 14-year-old Billie uploaded Ocean Eyes, written by Finneas, to SoundCloud so that her dance teacher could hear it.

When she woke up, thousands had. A record deal - and a series of awkward meetings with older men - followed.

"I look back fondly for the most part, but, you know, it was so funny to be a 14-year-old girl with my 17-year-old brother and, you know, just doing hundreds of meetings constantly," Billie tells the BBC. "It was a lot of meetings with people that didn't know how to talk to 14-year-old girls."

​​As Billie's fame exploded, so did her social media accounts. Currently sitting at 100 million on Instagram and more than 60 million on TikTok, a post from Billie Eilish will fire up a global engine of commentary. She says she knows about the intoxication and acidity of the comment boxes, having been on so many herself, so it's scary being the subject of a million conversations.

Media caption,

Billie Eilish: It's like, 'OK I am part of the discussion now'

Worldwide fame meant worldwide interest from some of the biggest media outlets. Comments she made, from the trivial to more serious and personal subjects like living with depression and suicidal ideations, were analysed and repeated by people twice her age.

It's a bruising experience to grow up in the public eye, she says, and hard to keep defending things you said as a teenager.

Media caption,

Billie Eilish: I was in a downward spiral of impostor syndrome

It's almost impossible to fathom how such a young person could have coped under this intense spotlight, and the weight of outsiders' expectations.

A June 2021 issue of British Vogue, showed the then 19-year-old singer in a skin-tight satiny corset dress that was slashed at the knee, a departure from the baggy and genderless emo outfits she had been synonymous with. The cover generated commentary not just from the internet but the New York Times, which commented that some had been unhappy with her defiance of gender stereotypes.

Billie says she doesn't feel the need to display just one version of herself, though she does feel most powerful when she feels "masculine".

Media caption,

Billie Eilish: I like to feel more masculine than feminine

Billie's personal favourite song, Your Power, with lyrics like "you might not wanna lose your power, but having it's so strange" resulted in a particularly electric moment on the final night of the tour in Perth, when dozens of young women held up pieces of paper saying "thank you" while she sang the ballad.

The signs were made by 19-year-old Australian Alyssah Louise, who distributed them to fans outside. For Alyssah, the song is about a period of abuse in her own life.

"Your Power is a song that almost everyone can relate to," she tells the BBC. "When I hear this song, I think of the man who abused his power when he was with me, how much trauma he has caused me, physically and emotionally."

Billie says that the song is about several people she has met, who have had influence over others and struggled with that.

"It's really hard to have this much power, just in general," she says. "It's hard to have power and it's really hard when you really don't have any power and suddenly you have a lot of power. It's hard not to take advantage of it and abuse it. Besides what the song's about, that goes for everything in life."

There's a moment in her Apple TV documentary The World's A Little Blurry, just before she takes the stage at Coachella in 2019, where the star Katy Perry gently pulls her aside and invites Billie to call her if she ever needs to talk to someone who understands a life so few ever will. As much as things were exciting in 2019, the pace would only intensify, Perry said.

Billie says she hasn't taken up the offer yet.

"I should call her up. At the time I just didn't believe her. It was already so crazy. I couldn't imagine it being crazier." She says it's impossible to describe to other people what it's like to be so famous. "It's like trying to explain a colour that doesn't exist."

And with that it's time for Billie to get into her pre-performance mindset, which involves a vegan meal - the tour is carbon-neutral and plant-based, influenced by her environmentalist mother Maggie Baird - and a series of physio exercises.

"I don't look at myself like I am something to explain," the 20-year-old says. "I just exist. I'm a person."

But as she springs up on to the stage, thousands of phones in the audience are pointed towards her, wanting to understand her, the bona fide voice of a generation.

In an exclusive interview in Perth, Australia, 20-year-old superstar Billie Eilish tells the BBC's Megha Mohan about growing up in the public eye, overcoming impostor syndrome, taking control of her career and her excitement that so many women artists are now topping charts and headlining festivals.

BBC 100 Women names 100 inspiring and influential women around the world every year. Follow BBC 100 Women on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation using #BBC100Women.