Whether you remember Willa Ford’s racy club entrance from the “I Wanna Be Bad” music video or the Amanda Bynes runway scene from What A Girl Wants, Ford definitely made an impact when she emerged alongside Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson in the early ’00s. With a top 40 hit (“I Wanna Be Bad” reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100), Ford was on the rise when things changed. “A lot of people don’t realize this, but my second single was released on September 11, 2001,” Ford explains. “Everything that happened that day froze; the world stood still, as it should have. My second single didn’t do well because anything that launched that day kind of got canned.” While Ford’s debut album Willa Was Here debuted before Sept. 11 in the summer of 2001, her sophomore album never saw the light of day.
But it wasn’t just the single: record company turnovers and takeovers caused Ford to end up in limbo, and she realized music wasn’t necessarily what she wanted to be doing. “I really took a step back because I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing at the time,” the 36-year-old singer tells Billboard. “I know that sounds crazy, but it was the perfect storm, and I walked away. It’s really hard when you walk away to go back to it.” Over the years, Ford has continued an acting career, but has become a full-time interior designer. “I’m just a creative human: if I’m not creating, I’m dying,” she notes. And while it’s nearing the two-decade mark since she put out any new music, it’s something that is looking like a possibility. At the very least, she’d love to go back on tour. “I’d love to hit the gay club circuit because it would be so empowering and fun every night,” Ford adds. “I miss being on the road more than any of it.”
For her first interview in several years, Ford filled us in on leaving the music industry, what set her apart from the other pop queens and what her return would look like.
Why did you leave the music industry?
That’s the question I get on the daily, literally. It was the perfect storm. A lot of people don’t realize this, but my second single was released on September 11, 2001. Everything that happened that day froze; the world stood still, as it should have. My second single didn’t do well because anything that launched that day kind of got canned. I know that sounds silly, but on radio they slate things, but it really fell to the wayside. I didn’t think it was a big deal because we were making a new album anyway. The record company I was with at the time got acquired by another record company, and the president of our record company left the company. So, I ended up in no man’s land. At that time, my sister had a baby, and I felt like this pop machine had taken me and put me in the wash cycle and I had been spinning out of control. I wanted some time to refocus myself. I started re-evaluating what I was doing. I was a classical opera singer with musical theory — a real, legit musician. I loved what I was doing — I wrote the songs, but I felt like the authenticity wasn’t there. I knew that it wasn’t going to have the staying power that I wanted it to have. I really took a step back because I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing at the time. I know that sounds crazy, but it was the perfect storm, and I walked away. It’s really hard when you walk away to go back to it.
You have such a big fan base, still!
I know! I’m so grateful. So many of them are my loving gays — they’re my ride or dies. I’ve had so many guys be like, “Listen, I figured out I was gay because I realized from your music videos I didn’t want to screw you — I wanted to be you.” I have thought about coming back, and I know who my community was and who would embrace me. When I look at Kylie Minogue, she did [her comeback] really right. She did “Loco-Motion,” she went away for 20 years — which is almost how long I’ve gone away — and then she comes back with this amazing dance-pop record. For me it was groundbreaking in the states. I really do miss music. It’s my first passion, my first love.
You would be welcomed back with open arms I’m sure.
It’s harder than it sounds though. I have a family now, so it’s something that I need to have the support of my husband, and I have a child now. It’s one of those things I’ve been thinking about, and when it’s time, I’ll reach out to the right producers. I think I want to create the record on my own without a record company. What we couldn’t do 20 years ago was create our own records — financially it was impossible to create your own records. Nowadays it’s so easy to put it out the way you want to. One thing I pride myself on is that I’ve really kept up with myself. That’s my one pet peeve: when people want to live in their glory days and don’t know how to reinvent themselves. There are a lot of people doing the same shows when I was doing mine 20 years ago. I don’t want to disappoint people, and it would still be exciting and fun, but I’m 36 now, so it would have a bit of a difference to it.
Why do you think that you became such an icon for the LGBTQ community?
Part of it was image-based. People really didn’t think that we all liked each other, but I really did like all the girls. Britney Spears was really the first pop girl to launch, so you can’t touch that: Britney is iconic. Then you had Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore. Everyone was doing this squeaky clean image, and I was 21 coming out on a record like, “This is not me.” I was on a record label with people like Kid Rock and Jason Flom, who in the business is amazing. He was the president of our record company. He got it that I was 21 and didn’t want to be a goody two shoes. He let me come out guns blazing and finding myself to be honest. I think what the community felt from that was an authenticity of “I’m trying to figure out who I am,” and it’s okay to say, at the time it sounds cheesy, but “I wanna be bad.” It was okay at that time — we no longer had to keep the shutters on. We could come out and be like “I want to go out one night, be this person and I don’t want anyone to tell me who I am.” I think that struck a chord with the [LGBTQ] community that maybe some music hadn’t yet. I think there was a message in that music. When “I Wanna Be Bad” came out, people were more PC, and it was just a more honest song.
It’s been 10 years since you played Anna Nicole Smith in the Lifetime biopic. Tell me about your experience playing her. What do you think about portraying her now?
That was so close on the heels of her death. I think anybody that plays somebody, there’s so much scrutiny that can come at you. I was very nervous because it was my first big role, and it was playing somebody people really knew, but also good because I could do a lot of research. What I loved about playing her, I found a huge heart for her in my research. At least from my point of view, her relationship with her billionaire husband was an authentic relationship for her. She didn’t have a caretaker or a father, and I think we all yearn for that. I think it was interesting to play her and come from that place while playing her. I think she was one of the most interesting people we’ll see in her lifetime. I don’t think she was dumb — I just think she looked at the world differently than us. It was fun to see the world through her eyes for a while.
If you were to release a record today, what would it look like?
It would go in two directions, which is funny to say. It would be a pop-dance record that you’d see in the club with a ton of remixes. I’d also love to do collaborations with some sick DJs right now. I would really want to work with someone that hasn’t made their mark yet. I’d love to be that catapult to do a collaboration with. I’m pretty much obsessed with country music writing. I went to Nashville for a while and did some writing. People were like, “You’re Willa Ford. You grew up on a farm. Why are you not doing a country record?” That’s the only other kind of record I would make, and that would be for myself.
What would your second record have looked like if it had come out?
It was practically done. I have so much of it. It was raunchy, but there were some songs that were really cool. There was a song called “Sexy Sex Obsessive,” which sounds funny out loud, but it was pretty striking at the time, and there was a song called “Who I Am,” which got secretly released in Europe. That song was specifically written about being gay and coming out to your parents. I wrote that for a friend at the time that was struggling with their [sexuality]. I was really proud of the lyrics because I worked really hard to convey what my friend was feeling at the time. I was kind of dirty. It was as if pop met Nine Inch Nails.
You’re an interior designer now. How did you get into doing that?
It’s crazy, right? I’m just a creative human: if I’m not creating, I’m dying. In my first marriage, I moved to Texas, and I was pretty bored there. I started working on the house with an interior designer at the time named Amy Nolan, and we really ended up doing the house together. I found this absolute love for it. I came back out to L.A. after my divorce, and I was acting, but there’s so much dead time. I just needed another outlet. I started doing it for friends and everyone was loving what I was doing. It was word of mouth. I did a movie, and the producer of the movie asked me to work on their home. Before I knew it, I was doing really high-end homes. Now I have three employees and myself with the new firm. It’s constantly changing and growing. I love it.
You haven’t done many interviews in the past few years. Why is that?
Well, it was usually the same questions, and I didn’t know how to answer them. I stepped away thinking that was the better thing to do: disappear from that realm. I wanted to change the conversation. I had to work so hard for people to see someone I really was versus someone in a music video. When the “I Wanna Be Bad” video came out, I would have people say to me, “You’re nothing like I thought you were going to be. I thought you were going to be a total bitch.” I had to work really hard for people to not see me as the “hot chick,” “the badass” or “the bitch.” I never thought that when I did that video that was going to be the reaction from some people, but I got that so many times. I didn’t know how to handle it at the time.
Would you ever do a tour again?
100 percent. I would be very particular about the tour. If the [new] music did well, I’d love to hit the gay club circuit because it would be so empowering and fun every night. I used to say I didn’t want to have a family on the road, I think it’s about having the right family on the road. I think it would be a blast with my husband and child. I miss being on the road more than any of it.