Amy's death still carries lessons for society

Banseka Kayembe 21 July 2021

10 years have passed since her death, yet women in the public eye continue to face similar pressure, says Banseka Kayembe

Amy Winehouse’s story is not a simple one. A bright, talented young woman was let down by some of those around her and spiralled out of control with the most devastating of consequences. Whilst there’s much to pick apart and dissect from what went wrong, one thing that continues to underscore her tragic death, is thinking about how she and many famous women have very little autonomy over their own narratives. 

It’s often said in the aftermath of a shocking celebrity death like hers, how could this happen, particularly in an era of “self-care” and generic calls to us “be kind”. Historically, who tells women’s stories, often seems to determine their fate. How much since Amy’s death has this really changed for women in the spotlight? 

Though she clearly had some issues early on in her life, Amy’s future had so much promise. Her father wasn’t around much due to his infidelities, and she suffered depression and bulimia as a teenager, but seemed to find a lot of solace in writing and creating music. She claimed writing songs about her sorrow was a way of “getting something good from something bad”. Early interviews show her as a ballsy, outspoken young woman who was clearly far more interested in making music than becoming a celebrity. She had little time for questions from the press that she didn’t like, visibly rolling her eyes or zoning out in one interview—a million miles away from the robotic PR-like statements we were used to seeing artists trot out. 

"Early interviews show her as a ballsy, outspoken young woman who was clearly far more interested in making music than becoming a celebrity"

There were early signs that her narrative was being attempted to be shaped by others. She adamantly told interviewer Jonathan Ross in 2004 that she “had her own style” that her label couldn’t try and change, and that they’d attempted to give her “elocution lessons'' something which seems laughable now given her North London twang feels so inextricably tied to her no-nonsense persona. She was someone who required a lot of stimulation as her first manager Nicky Shymansky noted, and that stimulation unfortunately ended up coming from the wrong things.  

Amy Winehouse in 2007

Winehouse in 2007, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The unexpected passing of her Grandmother Cynthia, a key matriarchal figure in Amy’s life, caused her to spiral into a series of self-destructive behaviours, greatly facilitated by her soon to be husband Blake Fielder-Civil. In what has now become immortalised in song, Amy’s dad Mitch reportedly refused to send Amy to rehab—a pivotal moment in her life when perhaps she could have more easily chosen a different path. 

I feel like we are always viewing Amy through the warped lens of others. I remember seeing her splashed across tabloid newspapers, walking bleary-eyed, makeup smudged with blood-soaked ballet pumps. Prime time comedians delivering snooty put downs about her addiction issues, jokes that have now come back to haunt us. Right until her death, the media never really left her alone—and with the rise of social media, sites like Twitter created an algorithmic appetite for negative stories. Through the media’s frame, she was cast as the archetypal “woman who’s lost control”, the antithesis of the dainty, picture-perfect vision we demand of female celebrities. This narrative was no doubt great for selling papers, but not so much for Amy’s recovery. 

The people closer to her seemed unable to facilitate better choices. Blake’s own addiction issues (which he still deserves sympathy for) meant he was unlikely to have a vested interest in her recovery. Similarly, her father and record label had financial reasons to want her to plough on as though everything was fine, rather than go to rehab and take the time to help herself. One of the most gut-wrenching moments in the 2016 documentary Amy was Mitch Winehouse visiting his daughter in St Lucia—who was attempting to recover from her addiction issues—with a camera crew to film his time there. It’s difficult to rationalise from a wellbeing point of view why he would do this.  

"I feel like we are always viewing Amy through the warped lens of others"

The transactional nature of these relationships meant those with something to gain spun their own narratives about Amy, to benefit themselves. Too many people had self-serving investments in Amy for her wellbeing to be prioritised. The truth is, she was not the “fallen woman” the press made her out to be, nor clearly was she in fantastic health either, but a complex woman residing somewhere in between. 

There continue to be echoes of Amy’s fate in other women’s experiences today. Pop star Britney Spears spent years hounded by an obsessive press, thirsty for as many images as they could get out of her; at one point she accounted for 20% of all paparazzi pictures sold worldwide. She was soon boxed into the “trainwreck” archetype, a woman out of control, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy when she infamously shaved her head and attacked a paparazzi car with an umbrella. 

Like Amy, sympathy for her at the time was extremely limited. Britney is still struggling to control her own life to this day; her family’s conservatorship seriously limits her personal freedoms and her own finances are controlled by her father.  Her fan base have been campaigning under the hashtag “Free Britney” to pressure courts to release her from the conservatorship. Britney remains haunted by other people’s perceptions of her as mentally hysterical woman unable to control herself, to the point where legally she is deemed incapable of making basic decisions for herself. 

Britney Spears in 2013

The singer Britney Spears has been through a similar press hounding

TV presenter Caroline Flack, known most famously for presenting Love Island, fell victim to the press’s villainisation of her, with devastating consequences. Like Amy, her rise to fame had coincided with the rise of social media. Her agent said in the documentary Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death, that Caroline kept an almost obsessive watch on what was said about her on Twitter.

Her romantic relationships, from Harry Styles to a rumoured fling with Prince Harry became easy fodder for the media; a messy and hectic love life soon became the established narrative. Her close friends and family revealed she actually really struggled with heartbreak. She found it incredibly difficult to deal with, and craved emotional stability.   

In early 2020, images in the press showed blood-strewn bedsheets, with an implication she’d physically hurt her boyfriend Lewis Burton in her North London flat (it was later revealed that was actually her blood and she had cut herself as a form of self-harm). A media circus ensued, the narrative being that she was a physically abusive partner, and ultimately she couldn’t bear the pressure any more. She took her own life soon after.    

"There continue to be echoes of Amy’s fate in other women’s experiences today"

Former actress Meghan Markle has become one of the most hounded people by the British press since joining the Royal Family. She was associated with anti-black “ghetto” stereotypes; the Daily Mail splashed the headline “Straight Outta Compton” and referred to her black mother as dreadlocked.

Soon after the wedding she was cast as the “diva”, a difficult, aggressive woman in real contrast to the saintly, genteel English rose Kate Middleton. The media decided her narrative was essentially “the angry black woman”, a containment of our white royal family. Revelations since Prince Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah suggest the royal family as an institution did almost nothing to protect Meghan, or to challenge the vicious press.

She claims she begged for help as her mental health was spiralling, which was denied on the basis it would make the royal family look bad. Like Amy, both the press and many of those around her refused to give her the fair treatment she deserved. Meghan was lucky enough to escape the trappings of the institution, and was able to finally reclaim control of her own narrative and have her own voice. 

We’ve seen some female celebrities manage to take control of their own story. One of the biggest criticisms levelled at singer Beyonce, is that she is too private, to the point of inauthenticity. I think it’s a much more strategic move; she clearly reveals a lot of personal issues through her music, visual albums, and documentaries, where she very much has autonomy over how she is construed.

But her interactions with other forms of media remain limited. She rarely does interviews and even her social media presence is minimal, but who can really blame her? Women, especially Black women cannot afford to have others shape their narratives for them. Speaking through their own mediums is often the only way they can hold onto some semblance of themselves. 

Amy’s death was a failure of many, a deep dereliction of what is right often for the sake of personal profit. The stories we construct of female celebrities have the power to make or break them, and it’s clear with hindsight that this was true of Amy Winehouse. Sadly, I doubt much has changed. 

Read more: Rediscovering Bristol's original graffiti artists

Read more: Kathy Sledge: If I Ruled The World

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter