Avril Lavigne: The punk who became a princess
She found fame as a grungy, guitar-thrashing icon of teen angst. Then came the blonde makeover, the schmaltzy white wedding, the Hollywood roles – and the ‘sell-out’ accusations. So what is up with Avril Lavigne?
Avril Lavigne is sitting, feet up, on a granny-style sofa at the Beverly Wilshire, one of the most expensive hotels in the world, the one where Richard Gere made an honest prostitute out of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. She’s looking at me like I’m about to tell her off. And looking like she’s going to answer me back when I do.
It’s the trademark Lavigne attitude – one even she calls “bratty” – which made her the biggest teen-pop star since Britney. But while clean-cut, parentally sanctioned pop muppets like Spears ended up having drunken weddings in Vegas chapels, getting knocked up, giving the paparazzi no-knicker shots and generally going round the bend, Lavigne – the grungy-looking one who swore in all her interviews and who parents probably thought was a bit of a bad influence – has been quietly embracing a lifestyle based on core conservative values – these days she’s happily married, abstemious, financially prudent and, often as not, rather well groomed too.
Today, though, Lavigne is dressed down, in skinny-leg jeans, a yellow Sid Vicious T-shirt with red and white polka dot ballet slippers and a tinny-looking lightning-flash chain round her neck (“Look at the shit I wear”). Although 22, she comes over five years younger (in fact, a casting director recently told her she looked “well, sort of 12”). And the only thing marking her out as a multi-millionairess, with 24 million records sold and stadiums squeaking to capacity worldwide, is a ring with a diamond the size of an eyeball on her wedding finger.
This is from her husband of not-quite-a-year, punk star Deryck Whibley from the band Sum 41. Only, these days, being punk royalty doesn’t mean slashing your arms, sniffing glue till you’re sick and stabbing your girlfriend in The Chelsea Hotel. It means living in a Spanish-style house in Beverly Hills, just up the road, getting married in Vera Wang and making all the right financial decisions in a career that has gone from big to multi-media huge over the last four years.
“I don’t care about things,” says Lavigne, meaning, you know, stuff. She reckons the most money she’s ever spent (apart from that Spanish-style house, but that’s really a great investment anyway) was on a couch, the price of which she feels uncomfortable discussing. “I come from not having money so I’m not the kind of person who’s like, ‘I need a million cars’, like the rappers who spend all their money and go broke. I’m low-key. I’m really smart with money. I plan ahead. If something happens and I can’t work anymore…”
This is one young celebrity who’s not ploughing their cash into the latest party dresses or frittering it away nightly on Cristal champagne and beer at a series of West Hollywood bars, like some just-post-teen-millionaires you could mention.
But then Lavigne has always distanced herself from Britney and all she stands for. She’s accused her of dressing like a showgirl and dancing like a ho, and has said that the reason she won’t be pushed around by “advisors” is that she doesn’t want to end up looking like Britney. When I ask casually if she and Deryck are thinking of having children now that they’re settled in their Spanish-style house, the first thing she says is, “Absolutely fucking not. That’s the last thing on my list. I’m no Britney Spears. What a drag!”
“It’s all very negative,” says Lavigne of those party girls who live their lives for the tabloids. “It’s not something I want to be part of. Someone like… I’m not going to say her fucking name… [I suspect she’s talking about Paris Hilton or Nicole Richie here] some of these girls, that’s how come they’re famous, because of all the clubs they go to and they need that and want it and they like it. But I’ve got a career. I don’t go to the fucking Ivy for lunch.” She means the West Hollywood celeb restaurant our own Posh Spice loves coming out of, her eyes shielded against the flashbulbs. “I would be embarrassed to go to The Ivy. It’s like asking for it.”
When she says she comes from not having money, she means she comes from a regular working-class Catholic family in Ontario. With an early grounding in church songs, she was spotted by manager Cliff Fabri singing country covers in a bookshop, her only showbiz experience up till then having been winning a competition to sing a song with the Canadian country singer Shania Twain on stage during one of her early tours. She was signed to a major label at the age of 16 and her first album, Let’s Go, released in 2002. Within months, she had become the youngest female artist to get to number one in the UK album charts and Let’s Go became the best-selling album of the year for a female artist, on the back of international number ones like “Sk8ter Boi” and “Complicated”.
Working with seasoned songwriter Cliff Magness, the music was more rock than country, picking up on teen angst, rebelliousness, shouting, hair-shaking, door-slamming, out-of-control crushes, the whole teenage kit and caboodle, expressed through sometimes gentle songs, other times through very shouty, guitary ones. Eight Grammy nominations followed, giving credibility to an album that could so easily have been dismissed as so much teenage nonsense. She even found herself hanging out with Marilyn Manson, for goodness sake.
Five years later and Lavigne is at the hip Hyde Lounge up on Sunset Boulevard to launch her third album, The Best Damn Thing, the second one having done similar business to the first. The world’s press has been flown in at great expense and is being fed champagne in very tall, expensive glasses and little fishy hors d’oeuvres by women in fishnet tights and high boots. A record company executive has reminded us what a very important artist Lavigne is, while the girl herself has told us if we don’t have “a fucking drink, then get one!” and is now dancing wildly on a table with two punky, tomboyish-looking girlfriends she’s dragged along for the ride. This sort of album unveiling is usually carried out with all the humour and energy of a hospital ward opening, with “I’d just like to thank…” speeches and earnest discussions about how hard everyone has worked, but Lavigne is on a total high, “totally burning calories”. She’s shouting and laughing and joking and freaking out as each song is played after a little introduction from her. It’s unusual to see someone actually enjoying herself and her album and her status and not worrying about her cool factor.
She shows us the video for her single “Girlfriend” (a UK number two), then shows it to us again. “This (omega) next song I wrote smashed on Limoncello…” she says about another track from The Best Damn Thing album before going back to jumping around with her blonde-with-pink-highlighted hair thrashing, careless as to the fate of those expensive champagne glasses dotted around her.
“I’ve always been a good kid,” she says to me back at the Beverly Wilshire the next day when I ask about the drunken song-writing, while she wanders across the room to pick at some fruit that’s been laid out. “That was like the most I’ve ever drunk. I’ve never done drugs and I don’t hang out with anyone who does drugs,” she says, not in a “aren’t I good” way, just straightforward, like it was a career choice. “I like to have a couple of drinks with my friends but in moderation.” But moderation’s no fun when you’re a 22-year-old rock icon. She laughs. “Yeah, but I think it’s important or else you’ll end up in rehab.”
Ask her if anyone has called her a sell-out for appearing in fashion magazines, styled-up to the nines, looking like Nicole Kidman’s younger sister and she’s typically defiant. “I don’t know and I don’t care,” she says. “I do what I do for me. You have fans who adore you and people who don’t care for you. It’s like anything, a colour or a store: some people like it, some people don’t.”
Among those who have always definitely liked her have been lesbians (we have lesbians in the family, I know what I’m talking about) something Lavigne seems surprised about. “Maybe it’s because they’re girls and nothing to do with them being lesbians,” she says. “I have quite a few female fans. I’m kind of tomboyish in some ways and also people get a kind of toughness out of me because I’m a strong woman and I do what I want and say what I want. Maybe they like that. And they probably go through a lot being gay and maybe they get that message from me: attitude, confidence, not doing what other people want me to do.”
It’s like when she got married. Most parents – especially when their daughter is in possession of a multi-million pound fortune – would be concerned if that daughter told them she wanted to get hitched when she was barely out of her teens, but the Lavignes obviously accepted it either as an unchangeable decision Lavigne had made or maybe as the next stage for someone who seemed never to have put a foot wrong. “They were just really excited for me,” she says. “They know me and anyone who knows me doesn’t think I’m too young. It’s people who don’t know me who think that. I’m much older than the average 22-year-old.”
Suggest to her that early 20s is perhaps a little young to be promising, in front of all your friends, family and a God you believe in, never to have sex with anyone else as long as you both shall live and she reveals a person much more conventional, old-fashioned even, than the skater punk of her videos. She says that she knew she wanted to marry Deryck the second she met him; she asserts that she would never move in with anyone she didn’t plan on marrying and she absolutely, positively wouldn’t even dream of thinking about having children unless she was legally married and settled down. “I’m a good girl. I’m responsible. I have respect for myself. I see why people are surprised that I wore a white dress and did all that…” The wedding was, in fact, part-conventional, part-Gothic, with a blood-red marquee and a first dance to something by the Goo Goo Dolls. “But I’m very sentimental and very emotional and very passionate and things mean a lot to me.”
She made up her own vows but can’t remember quite whether she promised to love, honour and obey. She did, however, take on Deryck’s name: “Everyone knows me as Avril Lavigne but legally I changed my name to Avril Lavigne Whibley. I wanted to because I think it’s special. It’s sweet.” At this point, it seems a bit like her eyes are welling up. Is she getting teary? “No!” she laughs. “I have, like, mascara in my eyes.”
And despite saying there are no songs for Deryck on the new album – “I think mushy would be lame” – she’s obviously crazy for him: it was when she was caught snogging him in a car last year that she freaked out on a bunch of paparazzi and spat in their lenses, all outside the Hyde Lounge where she’s just had her album launch.
“I’ve been spitting on paparazzi for two years,” she laughs now, telling the story of how some paps were trying to get her to sign some memorabilia so they could sell it on eBay. “So, I wrote ‘fuck you, fuck you’ and I spat on them and this one time they decide to make a huge story out of it and make out I said ‘fuck you’ to my fans. Paparazzi are not fans. I would never treat my fans with disrespect. These are annoying guys who follow me around every night and wait around for me. It gets stupid. I’ll have five guys on my tail while I’m driving up the hill in my car alone. What if they do something? It should be illegal.”
Suggest that as an internationally renowned rock star this is what she’s signed up for and she’ll have none of it. “I’ve done a very good job of keeping my distance,” she explains, “but this last couple of years it’s got out of control. I watch where I hang out. I won’t go to sceney places. You can kind of control it to an extent and I have.”
Quite how long she’ll be able to keep the paps at, well, spitting distance is open to debate. Not only is the new album looking like carrying on in the Lavigne tradition of going huge on an international scale but she’s also embarking on a movie career, with her first big film, Fast Food Nation, out in May and a small role opposite Richard Gere and Claire Danes in The Flock also out next month. It’s something she’s very serious about – adamant as she is that she shouldn’t just sit back on her rock laurels and rake in the cash.
“I may be a big rock star but I’m not a big movie star,” she says of her new career move. “For Fast Food Nation, I had to audition, which was very humbling… and I have been rejected before, but as long as I know I’ve gone in and done my best and I’m proud of myself, then it’s fine.”
It’s a strange ethic for a rock star who’s flirted with (and married into) punk. But it seems that’s what her brand of punk stands for: doing exactly what you want even if that is having a nice white wedding your mum can cry at.
“I’m working for it and earning it,” she says, of the film roles and of her life in general, and sounding like a sensible career woman twice her age. “I don’t want something just given to me. I want to earn it.”