Leigh-Anne Pinnock says racism has made her feel 'lost and invisible' in Little Mix

FROM the outside, Leigh-Anne Pinnock’s pop star life as one third of Little Mix looks the absolute dream, with a string of chart-topping hits, sold-out tours and a soccer star fiancé.

But behind the scenes, it hasn’t just been her former bandmate Jesy Nelson — trolled for her image — who has struggled.

In a new BBC1 documentary, Leigh-Anne opens up about how racism within the music industry and the country as a whole has “ruined” her decade-long career in the group.

In Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop & Power she reveals she was left feeling “lost and invisible” — leading her to question whether she was only put in the group as the “token black girl”.

In a teary conversation with her mum Deborah, who is half Bajan, and her dad John, who is half Jamaican, she recalls: “You’d be like, ‘Look where you are, you’re still earning the same money’.

“But I was carrying a lot — never, ever feeling good enough.

“I feel like it ruined a lot of my experience, which should have been the best time of my life. It’s f***ing frustrating.”

Despite achieving huge success in the group, Leigh-Anne, 29, says she has always felt less popular than her bandmates Perrie Edwards, Jade Thirlwall and Jesy, because of her race.

And although she didn’t notice it at first, one encounter with a group of fans made her realise she was different.

She says: “We did a radio tour, we got off the plane and there were some fans waiting for us and I was the first to walk up to them.

“They just walked past me and went up to the other girls.

“It was so weird. It was never like it was someone racially abusing me, but it was little things that happened regularly.

“All of these little feelings just built up, built up, built up. It was something I could never fully explain.

“And you can’t pretend it’s not happening, feeling invisible, feeling that people would just look past me.

“I’m in the biggest girl group in the world, I have a fiancé, we have a lovely house. It’s like, ‘What have you got to be upset about?’

“But all of that stuff doesn’t matter. All that matters is that feeling, and that feeling that just doesn’t go away. It keeps hurting and hurting. And wondering, ‘Is it my colour?’

“All these questions. Pushing myself constantly to do better. I just wanted to be on the same level and nothing I did would get me there.”

In the documentary, Leigh-Anne meets other black artists who have faced similar situations, including Alexandra Burke and Sugababes singer Keisha Buchanan.

It leads to a conversation in which Leigh-Anne questions whether she would have been invited to join the group on The X Factor in 2011 if she had darker skin.

Keisha, 36, says: “If they were looking for a minority, they were looking for a minority to be in it to sell records. Because, let’s be honest, it makes it a little bit cooler.

“If you had a couple of white managers in a room and they wanted to throw someone of colour in, of course, being mixed race, the more you look like a white person is more acceptable and palatable.

“I don’t know if this is a compliment or not but I definitely think you were chosen for your blackness.”

Leigh-Anne reacts: “I’m still struggling to talk about it in general. So the fact that it comes down to the token black girl — you do see it in other girlbands.

“It’s like a . . . not a trend, but it’s happened so often. It really does make me think, ‘If I was shades darker, would I be sat here right now?’ I don’t know.”

Although thankfully she has not experienced explicit racial abuse as a pop star, Leigh-Anne has clearly suffered.

She has become increasingly aware of there being few other black people working in the group’s team or at their record label.

And she says: “Winning X Factor and becoming a pop star was everything I ever wanted, but before we’d even signed the record deal, things started to happen that now feel a bit off.

“On The X Factor, when they dyed my hair red and shaved it, made me look like ‘the Rihanna’. I was 20 at the time and a bit naive.

“Looking back, it was clear my colour was being used to define my image within the group.”

Leigh-Anne was born and raised in High Wycombe, Bucks, by Deborah, a teacher, and John, a mechanic, who she says brought her up to be “really proud” of their Caribbean heritage.

But she recalls one racist moment that has stayed with her.

She says: “As a child, the only time I ever experienced racism was one time at primary school.

“A boy handed me a note that just said, ‘Name: Leigh-Anne. Age: Nine. From: The jungle’. I was devastated.

“I had never been made to feel like I didn’t belong before. It turned out I wouldn’t be made to feel like that again until my life changed overnight a decade later.”

The Sun revealed last April how Leigh-Anne was working on the BBC1 documentary, although she faced criticism at the time for saying she would address colourism, which is discrimination against people with darker skin, especially within the same ethnic group.

Some people suggested that as a light-skinned woman, she was not the person to make the documentary.

However, the debate led her to have a difficult conversation with her fiancé, Watford footballer Andre Gray — who has Jamaican heritage — about his own historic racist remarks.

Months after they started dating in 2016, he was slammed for a series of posts he had made on Twitter in 2012, including derogatory remarks about black women.

Andre, 29, was suspended for four matches and fined £25,000 over the comments, which Leigh-Anne now admits horrified her.

Addressing the scandal publicly for the first time, she says: “I will never know what it feels like to be a dark-skinned woman but seeing those tweets really made me feel a bit sick.

"I was really upset because I was just like, ‘Who is this person? This is horrible’.

“That wasn’t the person I knew. When they surfaced, my heart sank. Because I was like, ‘That is not the person I met. It sounds like a child, like a silly child’.”

Andre, who was raised in Wolverhampton, says: “You become a product of your environment.

“Whatever you were around every day and you’re not educated on it or exposed to why it’s wrong, it kinds of sticks. There’s no excuse at all.

“When it all came out, obviously I was embarrassed, ashamed and disappointed.

“I’ve made that mistake and I’ve learnt and I’ve educated myself and grew up to understand how offensive and wrong it was.

“Being from a Jamaican heritage, it’s a tough one. I think it’s a bit of self-hate.

“It happens still, people don’t want to be dark-skinned in Jamaica a lot of the time.

“There’s a lot of bleaching and whatever going on and it’s cool to be lighter.

“You pick up on these things as well, maybe it was easy for a light-skinned person like myself to joke about it.”

The documentary is one of several solo ventures for Leigh-Anne.

In December she shot her first feature film, Boxing Day, due out this year, and she has also launched swimwear brand In’A’Seashell and is expected to release solo music in 2022.

After shooting the documentary last year, she set up her non-profit organisation The Black Fund, to finance internships and mentor-ships for black people in the creative industries.

The film also sees her rally her record label Sony to introduce more diversity and champion black creatives.

Leigh-Anne says: “I feel like I’m in a unique position.

“Being a black girl in the pop industry with a predominantly white fanbase, I do feel like I have a responsibility to speak out.

“I can use my voice to try to do something.”

  • Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop & Power is on BBC Three on iPlayer from 6am on May 13, and on BBC1 at 9pm the same day

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