by Eryn Brothers
New Orleanian classically-trained musician and record label executive Lilli Lewis is a well-established voice of clarity and insight within the queer country and folk music community. Described by Mandy Patinkin as “like listening to light,” her music incorporates traditions from classical, blues, country, folk, and soul, creating a style that’s all her own. At the end of this month, she’ll be piloting the first ever Black Opry Fest, held both in New Orleans and over Zoom, as well as releasing Americana, a long-anticipated LP that was recently reviewed by Americana UK.
Ahead of that, however, she took some time to sit down with Country Queer to discuss fatphobia and intersectionality, as well as the turn she hopes to see in favor of “solidarity dividends,” rather than the respectability politics of the past.
What are your experiences with fatphobia in country music?
I can’t narrow it down to country music only. It’s an insidious presence through the music and entertainment industries. Just recently I saw footage of two artists at the Newport Folk Festival where they were considerably more fat than their internet profiles would suggest. I felt like they were being told that their bodies, as they were, were not marketable enough, so the image they projected must be of smaller bodies.
For the most part, it feels that the industry does its best to render fat bodies invisible, particularly those of fat women. I’ve been told more than once when I was being scouted by A&R for major labels that both my music and my show were great, but they didn’t know how to market me. I got the strong impression that where fat bodies were concerned, all imagination drifts out the window when it comes to propagating the actual content.
How did this tie in with your queer experience and expression?
To tell you the truth, I think it has been my queerness that has saved me. I believe that fat women’s bodies have precluded fat women artists as being marketable because of the assumptions that fat women are not as appealing under the male gaze. Ignoring the fact that that’s a deeply limited view, my queerness made me decidedly unapologetic about not performing for a sexualized male gaze. It centered my work outside of the scope of vanity, and saved me from a lot of creepy industry scenarios that I hear all too often from my less ample, cis-het counterparts. I feel as a queer woman, I inherited a legacy of self-reliance, focus, and a strong and tender heart. All of these are complemented by having been born a Black woman as well.
It doesn’t hurt that for at least half of my career, I’ve had my wife by my side, sometimes even making music with me. I watched her have to endure some of the creepiness I seemed immune to as a fat Black woman in a folk-rock arena, but the more vocal we were about our queerness, the more that subsided. We ended up selling ourselves as conscious, hippie, lesbeaux (the extra letters are because we were from Louisiana) folk, rock and soul, and when bigoted fans confronted us about being so “out,” the usual line was “we don’t care that you’re gay. It doesn’t matter to us.” Our response was, “well, it matters to us, and to a lot of people you wouldn’t think to have relationships with so….”
One of the best compliments we ever received was when a rabid fan who had become a friend admitted he never imagined having a meaningful relationship with any queer women, and that the most powerful form of activism he could imagine for us was for us to just keep being ourselves. I don’t know if he was right about that, but it sure was affirming to hear it.
Do you have a history of body image issues, disordered eating, body dysmorphia, etc?
I do have a history of disordered eating, and while I don’t have a history of dysmorphia, I do have a history of being somewhat intolerant of those who do, which is something I’m trying to work on. To unpack that a little, I’ll say that my knee-jerk reaction to people who express shame about their own bodies is to experience it as an act of aggression against mine. I know that’s not fair and not my business, but I think it extends from being so relentlessly dehumanized from so many directions that when I see others doing it to themselves, I just have a tendency to take it personally.
To be honest, I used to feel the same way about internalized homophobia preventing folks from coming out, but now I’m coming to seek refuge in the knowing that we’re all on our own journey with this stuff. It’s not simple, it’s not easy, and can be devastatingly confronting.
How have these things tied in with your musical life?
Well, rejection is never easy, and a life in music is loaded with opportunities for rejection, but it was really painful to watch people I came up with get validation where I was invisible. Not too long ago, I was sharing a gig with a colleague where we performed a duet that I played and arranged. We shared the singing equally. We both got messages from an audience member saying our rendering of the song was so beautiful that it saved her that night, but my thin counterpart got a sizeable tip with her note. It’s times like those that make me believe people value my work less, that my work is less often appreciated with currency, because it’s coming from a fat body.
I have also been cut out of frames of photos and videos so often that there was a time when I felt I had to warn bands that I was an auxiliary member of that if they wanted to see their footage or photo on TV or in the paper, they’d best leave me out of it. But so much of this business is visual, and there came a point where my invisibility was becoming too conspicuous for my liking — something I’m still up against. So I started doing my version of shoving my presence down people’s throats, so to speak… Now for a hard core sociophobe, this is definitely a work in progress. While so much of this is changing in our culture, getting someone who knows what it means to take a non-exing shot of a fat lady still feels like trying to harness a unicorn. Same for stylists, etc. (And if you’re reading this as a cry for help, you’re not too far off. Holla atchya gurl!)
I guess what I’m saying is, I feel like my lack of dysmorphia has impacted my musical life the most because I have the same expectations of any other performer. I want glamour shots. I want to look like money!
And I want my audiences to be able to experience the fullness of my heart and intention. I want them to be able to receive the transmission that I think my music ends up being about, which is that they are loved, fully loved, as they are — that there is a version of themselves inside of them that already loves, admires and accepts the F*** out of them, and that the pain and grief most of us feel is the longing for that part of us to be heard, seen, and met. It’s a powerful transmission that I think matters for a lot of people, but I learned long ago, not in music but by hanging out with Tibetan Buddhists on a mountain in Colorado, that transmissions often require a container…in the case of music and entertainment, that sense of razzle-dazzle, no matter how subtle, can make the difference.
[Right now] it appears as though the music scene is saturated with thin women who are coached into using their voices in a “thin” way, who can achieve this razzle-dazzle with a waify dress from a local thrift shop. Not so for us thick chicks. For starters, we’re lucky if the thrift shop has anything in our size! The price point on fat fashion is considerably higher, and the talent pool of mindful photographers / videographers feels too shallow to swim in… And given that fat people get paid pennies on the dollar for our non-fat counterparts, you better believe this impacts our careers.
How have these things correlated with your queer experience?
Early on, I thought being queer would give me different audiences to perform for, audiences that would be interested in the content and the message perhaps… But then I started paying more attention to what the stages and bookings looked like in most queer spaces, and learned (and this might come as a shock!) that queer people are people too! We’re subject to the same messages and programming as everyone else, sometimes not to the same extent, but when we’re in the mode of trying to normalize queerness to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ as it were, we can end up exaggerating the expectations of our more-accepted counterparts.
Let’s not forget, in so many ways, queer people have played a major hand in building this industry, so we have to own our part in the dynamics that we’re all out here navigating. Nothing is simple. My queerness has been a refuge even though at times, my queer community may not have been. What I see happening now is that queer communities are becoming increasingly intersectional. We’re gaining interest in “solidarity dividends” and losing interest in the respectability politics of the past.
Do you feel as though fatphobia is part of the music industry? If so, why do you think that this?
I feel that while music itself is a sacred practice and a powerful technology that people all over the world use to problem solve, build community, achieve emotion regulation, and more, the music industry is a different beast altogether. It is unapologetically capitalistic, and it thrives off of celebrity worship. People tend not to worship other people unless they in some way want to be them, and our society is so aggressively fat-phobic that no one wants to be us. We have a tendency to dial whatever our super powers are up to twelve, whether it’s our humor or our compassion or our positivity or intelligence or cleverness or sexuality or (as in the case of Lizzo) all of the above, and yet the hater-ation continues to know no bounds.
In many ways, the wisdom those of us who grew up in fat bodies have to offer the world is similar to the wisdom that comes from being born queer: that we are beautiful and powerful in our own right, and we don’t owe anyone our joy, our vision, our self-respect or our right to love and be loved well! This is true for every living being, but it’s not a wisdom most people seem prepared to receive.
What do you think is the best way to dismantle fatphobia and the commodification of “conventional” bodies in country music/music industry?
We have to keep showing up as ourselves and do our best not to hide, even if it’s hard and feels unfair. We have to be unapologetic about our sense of worth and vision. We have to occupy the spaces that would have us uninvited, whether that’s at the executive level or otherwise. We have to infiltrate. We have to outgrow our shame around unpacking this stuff. Some of us are hiding in plain view, and are unwilling to confront the industry because we don’t want to lose what paltry scraps they’ve thrown at us. For those who are able, we have to become willing to break our silence to pave a safer, less toxic road for those to come.
We have to keep being phenomenal like Brittney Spencer, but also vulnerable, honest, flawed, patient, forgiving, and relentless. In short, we have to keep doing, or trying our best to do all the things that feel impossible and unfair, so that over time they become possible and ordinary.
Do you think that ties in with the rise of queer representation in music?
I think it could, depending on how the queer community perceives itself. I’ve been watching this “rise” slowly occur over the last couple of decades myself, and we’ve had phases when we were very “up with people” and phases when we were very “up with the fashionable” depending on how it suited us. I fear that the more mainstream our queer community becomes, especially with regard to the marketability of our queerness, we could abandon each other along ever changing faultlines. How long did the gay community leave the trans community on the sidelines, even though we pretty much owed the entire PRIDE movement to them? How long will we lean on the strength, endurance and compassion of our trans fam and our fat fam when things aren’t going our way, only to seek refuge in greener pastures the moment our lawns switch to manicured turf?
I think as we fat-bodied people find our language around this stuff, it may become eager to find allyship in intersectionality-minded communities. I hope that will include my queer fam, because we haven’t as yet had the best record when it comes to body diversity, particularly in the realm of entertainment.
It’s safe to say that the roots of fatphobia and body shame are very much rooted in colonialism, heteronormativity, homophobia, and sexism. What are your thoughts on this?
I think every item on that list is an effort at social engineering, one that requires a great deal of exertion but is relentlessly imposed at all times. No one is immune. No matter where we fall in the spectrum of any of those words, we are all subjected to the illusions and distractions they are designed to perpetuate. Meanwhile, our planet falls apart and common sense (along with common decency) steadily erode away under the same heavy thumb as we pass on the inevitably resulting stupor inducing traumas from generation to generation. We won’t implode any of the words, destroy any of these institutions, without painstakingly rooting them out in ourselves and encouraging others around us to do so as well.
Right now we’re exhausted, and we run the risk of causing more harm the way exhausted people do. We’re yelling at the baby, we’re not catching the stop signs, we’re not bending our knees when we bend over… We’re wielding our exhaustion as a weapon against those we find safest to blame.
All this is to say, the words I’ve left here are an attempt at sobriety, not at blame. I’m attempting to be as transparent as possible, owning my imperfect lens while acknowledging that at least one or two things I’ve said in the paragraphs above might very well be spot-on true. Our responsibility is to examine, choose, and course-correct, if we find such an exercise to be of value. That’s all we can do, right?