'Dark Pop' Purveyor Dua Lipa on Rejecting Modeling & Hitting the Strip Club With Troye Sivan

Daniel Kennedy
Dua Lipa photographed Feb. 20 at Dalston Heights in London. Hair by Mark Francome at CLM. Makeup by Francesca Brazzo. Styling by Lorenzo Posocco.

On a February afternoon, Dua Lipa sits in a London warehouse, cheerily explaining why she enjoys the sensation of getting tattooed. The 21-year-old has seven tats in total, from Keith Haring stick figures on her fingers, to a palm tree on her left elbow, to the word “angel” on her right shoulder. The phrase “This Means Nothing” is scrawled across her left arm, because despite her initial fear of getting inked, she likes the feeling of needle against skin.

“It’s the idea of getting to keep something forever and having something that reminds you of a certain time and place,” says Lipa, slouched in a gray velvet armchair. “When I’m traveling, I feel like they ground me.”

Lipa has been away from home a lot lately. The British purveyor of “dark pop,” as she puts it, is in the midst of a 15-city U.S. headlining tour designed to maximize a run of positive momentum. In February, she cracked the Billboard Hot 100 with “Scared to Be Lonely,” an EDM collaboration with Dutch DJ Martin Garrix, after touring the United States as Troye Sivan’s opening act last fall. “We went to an Atlanta strip club at the end of the tour,” she says of Sivan. “I had never been to one. It was everything I hoped for.” 

In her native England, Lipa has had more of an opportunity to flaunt her devil-may-care pop persona, and she has quickly taken her spot on the U.K. A-list. At one point in February she had three singles in the top 15 of the U.K. Singles chart -- “Scared to Be Lonely,” “Be the One” and “No Lie,” the lattermost a duet with Sean Paul. Lipa’s music channels the quirkiness of Lana Del Rey, the universality of Katy Perry and the soulful swagger of Amy Winehouse; she’s the girl next door who might kick your ass, and she wants to come to America. Both “Lonely” and “Be the One” will go to top 40 radio in the coming months. “My biggest dream for 2017,” she says, “is doing what I’m doing now but on a larger scale.”

Born in London to parents who emigrated from Kosovo prior to the war, Dua -- whose name means “love” in Albanian --  developed her knack for rowdy stage shows on the playground, where she would oversee choreographed performances of Ciara’s “1, 2 Step” with her friends. When she was 11, her family returned to Kosovo, and Lipa attended her first concerts: Method Man and Redman, 50 Cent and Chamillionaire. “I’ve always been obsessed with hip-hop,” she says. “I’ve wanted to take the honesty in the storytelling -- of someone like J. Cole -- to describe my own story.”

The daughter of Albanian-Kosovar rocker Dukagjin Lipa, she started uploading covers of Christina Aguilera to YouTube when she was 15. Her parents worried when she decided to pursue music rather than attend university, yet within a year, Lipa found her manager, Ben Mawson, and Warner Music signed her in 2015 shortly after hearing the combustible pop track “Hotter Than Hell.”

She has released a steady stream of singles since then, including “Be the One,” which topped charts in Belgium, Poland and Slovakia, and “Blow Your Mind (Mwah),” which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs list in January. The next step in her offensive comes June 2 with the release of her self-titled debut album through Warner Bros. Originally set for February, the album was pushed back so Lipa could land a series of new collaborations; she calls the decision “really tough,” but enthuses that she is “100 percent sure the album is the best it can be.”

Dua Lipa snakes through acoustic R&B, electro-funk, synth-pop and tropical house, but the connective tissue is Lipa’s deep, emotive voice. “It’s important for artists to be recognizable through their voice,” says Garrix, “so when you hear them on the radio you think, ‘Oh, that’s Dua Lipa!’ She has that, for sure.”

The majority of the tracks focus on past relationships: “Genesis” reads as an apology for being on the road too much, while “Hotter Than Hell” stems from a toxic romance that had her questioning her self-worth. “I never want to portray weakness in my songs,” she says. “Even though sometimes sadness and vulnerability are really strong, I wanted to seem like I had the upper hand in the relationship. It was really therapeutic.” (The artist says she’s currently in love, but offers a steely look and no details.)

Lipa doesn’t yet act like a pop star. She squeals when she describes passing Adele on the red carpet at the Grammys, and her eyes swell when recounting the time childhood hero Nelly Furtado tweeted her a string of heart emojis. She’s still getting comfortable taking a seat at awards shows and figuring out how to properly experience Fashion Week. With her cheekbones and perfect pout, Lipa is frequently mistaken for a model -- and while she did some shoots as a teen, she quickly left the business when she was told she’d have to lose weight to be successful.

“It wasn’t the path I wanted to take -- I love food too much,” she says with a cackle. “And I’d like to think that my voice is my best feature.” 

This article originally appeared in the March 11 issue of Billboard.