“PFFT, I ACTUALLY DON’T KNOW HOW TO FEEL ABOUT THAT — THAT’S CRAZY!”

PinkPantheress laughs softly. I’ve just told her that a friend of mine compared her show last night to “being inside an episode of Euphoria.” She seems equal parts flattered and concerned at the thought, though the comparison makes perfect sense when you consider the way the Zendaya-starring series has dominated the cultural conversation for Gen Z and millennials on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Read more: PinkPantheress learned she could make music her career by watching Paramore onstage

Finding ways to simultaneously reflect and push the zeitgeist, there are only a handful of topics that have managed to capture the mainstream and the fringes in comparable ways recently. And PinkPantheress’ music? It’s definitely one of them. 

She’s the least visible, most viral internet sensation of the moment — as present in conversations about Marc Jacobs and Roblox as she is in dissections of niche jungle references, Pitchfork and My Chemical Romance forums. But unlike the HBO show’s glitzy Hollywood origins, this 20-year-old artist and producer is a phenomena born from a childhood bedroom in Kent, the southeastern county nicknamed “The Garden Of England.” Posting on TikTok under her adopted pseudonym (inspired by one of her favorite films and an episode of British quiz show The Chase), the aspiring singer and former student used the app to experiment anonymously with different sounds and samples in a bid to see what would stick.

Chopping, changing and toplining everything from Linkin Park’s “Forgotten” bassline to the riff of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” through to Sweet Female Attitude’s “Flowers”’ sickly sweet garage loops, these reimaginative snippets soon started sparking conversation among a famously nostalgic generation. Seizing the current fixation on genres’ and subcultures’ past with a creative and expressive new lens, her sound encapsulated something both distinctly familiar, but also entirely fresh.

Her notably short songs (none so far have made it past the three-minute mark) hook you in with energetic breakbeat productions reminiscent of Y2K and goth tunnel-dancing videos while her understated, treacly vocals capture the depths of youthful musings on love, heartbreak and obsession with wry melodrama and slightly self-deprecating sensibilities; her thumping, dancehall-esque track “All my friends know” opens with the lyric “Did you ever want me? No worries if not.”

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Read more: PinkPantheress and WILLOW join forces on “Where you are” video—watch

But the PinkPantheress you hear on record versus the one you meet in person are surprisingly far apart. Her singing tone is minute and high-pitched, while her speaking tone is low and husky. Where she sings with a shy sentimentality, in person, she stands tall, thoughts flowing naturally and with a casual frankness. She has the quietly intimidating aura of a cool younger sister who can make split-second calls on whether she approves of something, or someone, and you’d be none the wiser.

Yet at the same time, there’s a soft aloofness that connects the two, and air of mystery and privacy that stands out in a system that harvests the opposite. Despite her statuesque height that announces her, she’s comfortably quiet in busier rooms, watching her surroundings carefully. When you chat, she might fiddle a little or laugh politely as she settles in, her eye contact flickering to and from yours, especially when given a compliment.

Fresh off the back of three sold-out consecutive nights at London’s Scala venue as part of her first European tour, we meet in the morning at the office of her press manager. She stifles a couple of yawns. “Last night I was talking to these two girls who always come to my shows — we always say hi — and I was telling them about how before I started doing shows, I was always the one that would wait outside for the artist to come out,” she smiles, still processing the last few days, weeks, months even.

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The 20-year-old’s ascension to fame over the past 18 months has captivated industry and music fans alike. With a comfortable 6 million monthly Spotify listeners and a debut mixtape that charted in the U.K.’s Top 20, she’s far exceeded the benchmarks of even the most ambitious emerging artist. In the past, she has spoken about how the growth has felt separate from her, feeling very much confined to a digital space. Accumulating hundreds of thousands of fans during a time when we couldn’t leave our houses meant that the reality of her impact lived within her phone, making it easy for her to literally turn it on and off as she pleased. It’s helped her to form healthier boundaries with her burgeoning fame, but also made it harder for this new chapter to hit home.

“Because it started in lockdown, it was really difficult for a time to know where I stood music-wise. And not that I care about numbers, but to get an idea how many people are actually listening properly,” she says. “There’s so much content on [TikTok] that a lot of it just kind of remains on the app; it doesn’t exceed it.” With TikTok’s cultural presence catapulting to behemoth status in the pandemic years right alongside her, careers stemming from it are still pretty much uncharted territory.

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“There’d be times where I was anxious, and I’d be like, ‘I really hope I’m not just another one of these artists that stay on the app and people only know me from that.’ And because I couldn’t see anyone in real life, it just really felt like a ‘cyberspace’ only. The only way I could really gauge it was likes, comments and general interaction. But I’d also at the same time need to care about my mental health, so I don’t wanna go on there and read the comments and watch how many likes [things are] gaining. In the end, I was like, ‘I really just have to sit this one out, cross my fingers and hope for the best.’” 

Needless to say, the momentum was extremely real. As live music and regular scheduled programming returned, PinkPantheress began witnessing the fruits of her labor IRL. “I think the first indicator that I was actually having success off of the app was when I was at Reading Festival, after Central Cee did the remix ‘Obsessed With You’ [which samples PinkPantheress’ ‘Just for me’]. I remember being backstage at his set, and the crowd were singing my bit, and I was like, ‘Whoa!’”

I saw Hayley Williams dancing and the crowd singing back and just how much fun she was having. I was like, "In any imaginary world where I can do this, this is what I want"
— PINKPANTHERESS

The moment was especially full circle for someone who grew up going to the festival, and had one of her most pivotal musical memories there. “At Reading in 2015, during Paramore’s set, I saw Hayley [Williams] dancing up there and the crowd singing back and just how much fun she was having,” she recalls. “I’ll never forget the thought I had: ‘She’s having so much fun, and she’s getting paid.’ Money is never a factor, but I realized you can really make a living off of this. It’s more than just dancing and being onstage, obviously, but it just looked so appealing to me right then. I was like, ‘In any imaginary world where I can do this, this is what I want.’”

A LOT OF PINKPANTHERESS' FORMATIVE MUSIC MOMENTS center around her love of emo music. Though her mum didn’t let her go to many, she enthusiastically lists off a bunch of her first concerts: Panic! At The Disco, Sleeping With Sirens, Pierce The Veil, BABYMETAL. She was even part of a band that covered My Chemical Romance songs in her early teens. When asked if they were one of her favorites, I’ve barely finished the question before she says, firmly, in present tense, “They are my favorite band.”

Emo lyrics are so theatrical and camp and over the top. That’s something I think I love about the genre. It’s never just, ‘I’m having a bad day’ — it’s, ‘I’m gonna dieeeee!’
— PINKPANTHERESS

Around the same time she had her Reading epiphany, she had even gone as far as to start an Instagram fan page to celebrate her music taste and connect with others, posting multiple pics a day of the bands she adored. “You know when you get the picture and you put it on the white border? I used to do that,” she giggles. “I didn’t get that many followers, I’m not gonna lie, maybe a thousand? I’d caption [the pictures] like, ‘How’s everyone doing today?’ and no one would answer…” She lets out a loud cackle as she remembers the name. “It was called ‘Bands vs the Universe.’”

What first drew her into the world of emo was the lyricism. “Not even necessarily as lyrics I can deeply relate to, but they’re just so theatrical and camp and over the top that I thought it was crazy,” she says. “That’s something I think I love about the genre. It’s never just, ‘I’m having a bad day’ — it’s, ‘I’m gonna dieeeee!’ I love it so much.” The conversation has her beaming. “The passion that they’re exuding, you don’t really get in pop. In emo, it was always something different.”

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Read more: What does emo really mean? The story of the genre in 11 songs

Though in her own music, the lamentations are more often whispered than they are screamed, the same thread of cathartic confessionalism runs through. Whether it’s the quiet desperation of ‘I’m obsessed with you in a way I can’t believe’ (“Just for me”) or the wry existentialism of ‘I wrote this letter to remind myself the reasons I’m alive/I got to reason number five’ (“Reason”), there’s a bittersweet indulgence in stretching your deepest, darkest late-night thoughts sung over these hyperactive, club-ready productions. And though PinkPantheress doesn’t identify as a raver by any means — “I really am an African woman,” she jokes — her sound is helping to shape a fluid new party scene that feels refreshing and inclusive.

Her music tastes have expanded tenfold since her angsty emo beginnings, but the influence of rock music and culture on PinkPantheress still manifests itself in her visual landscape and interests. She’s unashamedly obsessed with the horror film series Saw — “The whole franchise, the whole thing. Including the most recent one Spiral, with Chris Rock” — and even insists it’s her first pick if she ever ends up with the option to appear on a soundtrack. Her introductory Spotify RADAR documentary is heavily stylized with haunted house aesthetics and ghost hunting. Directed by creative powerhouse Crowns & Owls, who are best known for their visceral work with slowthai, the doc is captured on fuzzy film and night-vision cameras, set in a mansion as her and her friends tour the grounds with a pair of mediums who unsuccessfully try to scare the shit out of them.

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Even her mixtape artwork is a dark, oversaturated portrait in front of a creepy cottage. It’s no surprise that when we arrive on set of the photo shoot that appears on these pages, the stylist’s rack is evoking equal parts Gothic Bride, Miranda from Lizzie McGuire and Bewitched, with layers of netting, webbing, maxi-length skirts, dress trains and corsets lining the rails in earthy tones and textures. “I guess in a way there’s a correlation there between emo culture and spooky stuff like Halloween,” she offers. “I don’t have tattoos or piercings, so from the outset, I don’t think I look much like someone that’s gonna watch Saw or really like this band or that band. But I do have a soft spot for that kind of dark, haunted stuff.”

The first time PinkPantheress and I met was actually on location at a different photo shoot, taking place on a gloomy day in Epping Forest six months ago. I remember her telling me about the task of decorating her new room, now that she’d moved into a house with her friends: The design brief was Gothic and/or Victorian. Updating me now, she admits, “It’s actually more like clutter than Gothic now. I’ve got a few accessories that are like Gothic core and Victorian kind of scattered around, but mostly it’s just like that.”

Starting uni during the pandemic, studying film in London, she’s finally been able to enjoy aspects of the student life in the last year or so. “I think because I missed out on a lot of university experiences, I feel like it’s only now that I’m actually waking up and being able to be with my friends and having fun and parties that we didn’t have back then.”

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It’s a reminder that alongside her career, PinkPantheress is very much still navigating her first steps into adulthood, and is determined to maintain normality in that process. So much so that she didn’t even tell her friends about her artistic alter ego at first. “I’d really made a conscious effort. I’d even blocked them all [on social media]; I was blocking friends of friends, people that I’d met once,” she laughs. “But it was all just because I wanted to keep it sacred, and I didn’t want to feel like I had to limit myself because I was worried about these guys’ opinions.”

In the end, after a month or so of successful Hannah Montana-level double-life living, her breakthrough single “Pain” led to the inevitable. “It was honestly so anticlimactic,” she remembers. “I’d had music out before that my friends had heard. One friend put it in the group chat, like, ‘This voice sounds a lot like you.’ After a few hours, I just admitted it was me because I didn’t want to lie outrightly to them.”

When it came to the rest of the world, however, PinkPantheress has been adamant in her decision to remain anonymous in a bid to preserve some privacy in her day-to-day life. In one interview, she even requested her interviewer use a fake name; when I tell her the writer included it in the piece and I enjoyed it, she feigns faux mortification. Clutching her imaginary pearls, she says: “I asked her that in confidence!” When she first started using TikTok, for a while she was completely faceless, posting purely audio clips so that she could remove any level of bias, positive or negative.

This generation can smell inauthenticity a mile off. It’s really just been a case of being myself, and if people like it, then cool. People online just will not give you a chance, will not give you a break
— PINKPANTHERESS

Slowly, she started to introduce sections of her face, obscured by text or wonky camera angles. “Even though I had fan pages, when it comes to pictures of me and videos of me and what I’m doing in my everyday life — even on my personal Instagram — I’ve barely posted… It was really never something I had mastered because I feel like I find it hard to sell myself very well.”

It has only been since last summer onwards that she has revealed her full appearance, and still keeps her social media presence to an efficient minimum — the odd music teaser or announcement with often-unrelated visuals or memes, which her fans eat up ferociously. “I think the one thing about social media today, with this generation especially, is that they can smell inauthenticity a mile off. It’s really just been a case of being myself, and if people like it, then cool. People online just will not give you a chance, will not give you a break. So I was like, ‘I’m gonna take the simple route and not post that much, and people can make their own assumptions. And I really don’t mind what their assumptions are, as long as it’s not some crazy stuff.”

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DESPITE HER SELF-IMPOSED MODERATION, a huge part of PinkPantheress’ rise has been down to her digital fluency — something that’s a pattern among this new generation of emerging international stars, including Lil Nas X, Doja Cat and YUNGBLUD. They’ve grown up on a diet of fandoms and hyper-online communities that allows them to effortlessly access the mindset of their own fans and cater to them in ways labels and agencies couldn’t replicate with all the money in the world. It was speculated for a while during Lil Nas X’s rise — and eventually confirmed by him — that when he was younger, he was an active member of Nicki Minaj’s famously impassioned army of fans known as “Barbz,” running a hugely successful Twitter fan account.

Subsequently, when it comes to how artists can harness momentum and humor to generate virality, his own campaigns are widely seen as a masterclass — whether that’s the pregnancy shoot he dropped for his debut album announcement, or roping in Tony Hawk as a skating body double. PinkPantheress totally agrees: “I feel like stan Twitter and fan pages, for someone like myself, really do teach you things about fanbases that you couldn’t get from watching from afar. That’s probably the reason that Lil Nas X is so good at marketing and selling himself as a brand, but also as a musician. We know what we want to see, so we can just do it.” 

For PinkPantheress, after emo came the K-pop universe, where she went as far as making her own fan edits, “and actually, that’s a usual transition that a lot of people will make. If you ask someone now that’s a K-pop fan what they listened to before K-pop, they’ll probably name emo bands.

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“There are some people that are just naturally aligned to online communities, because maybe in real life they don’t socialize very well or they’re from a place where they don’t really fuck with anyone. But those people that find a great way to communicate online with communities are usually the people that are drawn to this type of music. And it’s so interesting because I myself, even though I have friends in real life, also definitely preferred the comfort of online.” Scrolling through the comments section of any PinkPantheress video or post, you’ll find the same: hoards of people speaking in their own language of memes, humor and dramatism, stanning unabashedly and begging for new music. 

Despite being signed to a major label since 2021, there remains something unorthodox about how PinkPantheress has navigated her musical come-up. From her unwavering anonymity to her addictively short song lengths, her minimalist posting schedule or releasing music videos on random seemingly bootleg channels, she shirks so many of the templates laid out for artists to thrive in the digital age. While traveling from our interview to the photo shoot, she and her manager are chatting through the plans for her new single “Where you are,” and even from the short exchange, it’s clear that she and her team (pardon the pun) are firmly in the driver’s seat, taking the lead on her own creative and rollouts and following her own intuition on how best to speak to her ever-eager and ever-multiplying fanbase. Such unfettered authenticity has paid off again and again.

Read more: 10 best emo albums of 2011, from Taking Back Sunday to Sleeping With Sirens

Her collaboration with Willow Smith was hypothesized in the comments for months, and eventually teased in January with a 15-second snippet on TikTok. The clip has almost 4 million views at time of writing, with over 60,000 videos using it as a soundtrack. “Extended” versions looping the 15 seconds for the length of a full song are littered across YouTube, with views in the hundreds of thousands. In many ways, the hype is totally justified. The track is a meeting of young alt Black minds with a signature forlorn chorus and bucket-loads of the emotional theatrics both artists revel in and are renowned for. “Willow’s my age. She’s also Black, she’s alt, she’s in her own lane, she’s emo. I was emo, and her voice is incredible, so it just made sense,” Pink says.

As the two Gen Z queens seem to be driven to the brink, PinkPantheress pleads with saccharine vocals “Please tell me where you are” and Willow expels passionately, “Now my life’s a downward spiral/Got my broken heart recycled.” “She had sent me something that she produced, and it was cold, but I also just really wanted to hear Willow on two-step, and I feel like it’s unexpected,” Pink says of the collab. “I sent her this beat I’d made with Skrillex and flipped it with Mura Masa, and she killed it.”

I write from other people’s perspective a lot of the time because I feel like it’s way easier for me to invent a story than to keep [using] my own past personal experiences
— PINKPANTHERESS

In trademark PinkPantheress fashion, it’s a track that feels on the surface to be warm and wistful, but which holds a more solemn subtext. “Just for me” felt like a perfected formula for that dichotomy. Its central declaration — “I’m obsessed with you in a way I can’t believe/When you wipe your tears, do you wipe them just for me?” — was inescapable at its peak. You’d hear it scrolling through video feeds, you’d read it written on IG captions, you’d endure its sometimes incredible, sometimes dodgy covers and remixes on the radio and on YouTube.

Almost whispered sweetly over a gentle acoustic guitar melody entwined with an infectious garage-infused beat produced by Mura Masa, taken at face value, it’s dreamy and romantic. “People actually thought that was a really nice love song, and then after a while they were like, ‘Wait a minute… she’s talking about stalking someone. This is creepy,’” she laughs. “I wanna say I watched a YouTube video or something about a stalker, and I thought, ‘Ah, this is cool.’”

“Where you are” almost feels like a sequel in its extreme brokenheartedness. “The track actually, after a few revised versions, ended up being about someone that I felt like I had lost… in a lot of people’s heads it might feel like [a follow-up], for sure. For me, listening to this track definitely made me feel my most vulnerable, [more] than I ever have listening to my own music,” she admits. For the most part, PinkPantheress’ inspiration comes from all over the place. “I write from other people’s perspective a lot of the time because I feel like it’s way easier for me to invent a story than to keep taking my own past personal experiences and going, ‘OK here, here, here.’”

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She gestures vaguely as if she’s pulling something out of her core. “I don’t see writing music as being different to writing a book… There’s only so much I can say about myself.” She also credits her vivid imagination for making it easy for her to see emotions like heartbreak on-screen and be able to visualize and empathize with it. Since she was young, she’s been able to invent scenarios that feel scarily real.

“I used to be a maladaptive daydreamer. It used to be so hardcore,” she says, deadpan. “I still do it a bit, but I used to talk to myself endlessly, and I’d have these fake scenarios, and I’d act them out and convince myself it was happening.” When I ask what she used to dream about, two things spring to mind: “About becoming a musician, about finding love… I used to love it! And I do think it’s a form of manifestation. I guess in a way it was kind of romanticizing a life that I didn’t have, but I do now, which is cool.” 

To think that in some way, PinkPantheress was able to manifest this truly unique success story is incredible. But what it’s really been is a combination of a ceaseless desire to cut through, an intimate understanding of the people she makes her music for and a host of boundaries that will keep the perils of fame at bay in the long run. Despite it all, she’s still figuring it out and traversing through this industry without much of a blueprint, striving to reinvent the rulebook for others like her and be in it for the long haul.

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“I’m really non-complacent. Even now, I’m uncomfortable.” She laughs. “Not in this interview, but with what the next few months hold, or what my next year looks like if I had to map it out. In today’s era of consuming music and just shitting it out, it goes so quick sometimes. I hate to state the obvious, but for a Black woman to establish herself within these scenes is insane. I don’t know how on Earth I’m gonna get to a point where I feel like I have the steadiest footing. When I’m writing a song, sometimes I’m like, ‘Damn, imagine if things just went wrong now.’” 

With such a unique blend of influences, finding comparable paths and peers is a challenge, and being one of the first only adds to that unsettled feeling. She cites the amazing women in the drum-and-bass and garage spaces that came before her and a slew of women in the alternative space who inspire her today: Rina Sawayama, Charli XCX, Caroline Polachek. “But even when I look at them, I still find myself like, ‘No, I need to do it different. Not better, but I need to do it in my own way.’ That’s one thing I’m obsessed about. If I do something, I can reference something or sample something for sure, but it’s never just, ‘Oh, this person did that exact thing.’ And I don’t wanna say it’s a fear, but it’s a discomfort.”

It’s a specific strain of impostor syndrome, the anxiety that success will vanish as fast as it came. But with the unique perspective she’s offering, the sheer breadth of her passion for music as both fan and creator, and an army of enamored fans worldwide, there’s absolutely no doubt that the story of PinkPantheress is only just beginning.