When fiercely talented vocal powerhouse Amy Winehouse died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning, she joined the exclusive “27 club.” This tragic pantheon of rock royalty who crashed and burned at only 27 years old includes Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain. But while substance abuse loomed large in all these lives cut short, in Winehouse’s case, there was an extra element that contributed perhaps more than any other—over a decade of anorexia and bulimia.
As revealed in Asif Kapadia’s devastating new documentary Amy (out July 3), the jazz prodigy started bingeing and purging in her teens, just as her career was beginning to take off and her body became the target of media scrutiny. Colleagues interviewed by Kapadia confirm that before one recording session, she locked herself in a bathroom; afterwards, evidence of her condition was everywhere. It was an open secret.
But perhaps because she was a young woman and appearance was so paramount, or maybe because her struggles with more immediately life-threatening behaviors like crack and heroin use soon took center stage, this fundamental danger to her health and wellbeing was routinely overlooked—even as her weight plummeted.
By all accounts, at the time of her death, Winehouse was attempting to wean herself off hard drugs by relying primarily on alcohol. Unfortunately, by that time, her eating disorder had made her quite frail, and she succumbed to alcohol poisoning instead of the overdose everyone feared.
It’s hard not to wonder how this supremely gifted artist would have fared if she had been allowed to flourish in a world without such rigid beauty standards for its pop stars. It’s hard not to wonder how many more years we would have had of her irreplaceable music if she had been born a man. It’s also hard not to be angry. She was robbed of her peace of mind long before she was robbed of her chance at recovery. And as a result, we were all robbed of her singular brilliance.
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Emily Rems is a feminist writer, editor, rock star, playwright, and occasional plus-size model living in New York’s East Village. Best known as managing editor of BUST magazine, Emily is also a music and film commentator for New York’s NPR affiliate WNYC, and is the drummer for the horror-punk band the Grasshoppers. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in the anthologies Cassette from my Ex and Zinester’s Guide to NYC, and her short stories have been published in Rum Punch Press, Lumen, Prose ‘N Cons Mystery Magazine, Writing Raw, and PoemMemoirStory. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for fiction in 2015 and is working on a novel. Follow her on Twitter @emilyrems.