In the last year, Benee has taken the world – or at least TikTok – by storm with her viral hit singles ‘Glitter’ and ‘Supalonely’. Ahead of her debut album release, the young star spoke to Elle Hunt about going international from her Auckland home.
This time last year, Benee won not one, not two, but four New Zealand Music Awards, named the nation’s best breakthrough artist, best pop artist and best solo artist (as well as singer of the single of the year) on the strength of just an EP.
It was a resounding endorsement of then 19-year-old Stella Rose Bennett in her breakout year – but you may have wondered, as I did, if it left her with nowhere to go next.
Simultaneously celebrated as the nation’s most promising newbie and its preeminent pop star (and solo artist), Benee could have found herself backed into a corner of that middle ground of New Zealand music to await legacy status – no longer a newcomer, not yet a Finn brother.
Benee soon proved me wrong, her star’s ascent steady even as she herself was grounded by coronavirus. In February, ‘Supalonely’ followed ‘Glitter’ to become her second TikTok dance challenge – in 2020, a key marker of relevance – and her first radio hit.
It peaked at no 18 in the UK charts in March and at no 39 in the Billboard Hot 100 two months later, earning her invitations to perform from Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Fallon.
In any other year, at this stage in her career, Benee might have been tempted to split her time between LA and NZ, and enjoy the best of both worlds: proximity to the show-business spotlight, and a home where she could flee to escape it.
Instead, Benee has ridden the biggest wave of her career from Auckland. When we first spoke in June, she was back in her teenage bedroom at her parents’ house, and a bit morose about her cancelled world tour: “I was gonna go to Paris for the first time. Also Japan.”
But she soon got over it, buying her first home, moving in with three of her female friends, and adopting a cat and puppy. The week after wrapping up her New Zealand tour last month, Benee was planning on getting stuck into home renovations – starting with ripping up the red wine-stained cream carpet.
“It’s very different to what I thought my year would look like,” she says. But Benee has also been surprised by how much she has been able to achieve from home, performing on US television and collaborating with Grimes, Lily Allen, rapper Flo Milli and her regular co-writers remotely.
“People are always asking me if I’m going to move to LA… but I don’t actually need to right now,” she says. “Maybe you needed to 10 years ago or five years ago, but now… everything you used to need to do in a different place, you can do in a bedroom at home.”
Some media may even be better done from afar, such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Not only did she have more creative control via videolink, Benee says, “I would have been a lot more nervous performing on the actual live show.”
But she worries that other aspects of her artistry have been lost to the distance, with the US music press especially inclined to frame her in comparison to other young women in pop. Benee grimaces to recall a headline describing her as “the New Zealander Billie Eilish”. Other interviewers have told her she is “kind of Dua Lipa”.
“They’re both insanely talented, but it just seems sad to compare two artists who are so different,” she says, with obvious frustration. “I got very sick of it. I was like, just listen to my music, and don’t compare our faces.”
She has noticed the same “lazy” comparisons even at home, with new Kiwi artists described as “like Benee” or “Benee-inspired”: “I’m like, ‘You don’t know that – you don’t know that they like my music.’”
It speaks to the fact that in New Zealand, Benee is already a blueprint, not the breakout. Though it was “completely surreal” to clean up at last year’s NZMAs, she says, it did not feel any more defining than an award she won in soccer at high school.
“It feels great to be recognised for the hard work but it’s not like you’re top shit or anything – for me, at least. I don’t feel like I’m better than any other New Zealand artist.”
She admires Lorde for maintaining an international profile and artistic credibility without even much of an online presence. “She was huuuge from the get-go, before she even played a show – but she’s done a pretty good job of staying up there.”
But where Lorde was able to escape her celebrity in big cities (“Nobody recognises me,” she gleefully told a New York Times interviewer in 2017), Benee has navigated increasing attention from overseas within her hometown.
It may be that rather than offering escape from the spotlight, in New Zealand it is laser-focused.
When we speak the week after the election, Benee is still riled by her first brush with controversy, where a clip of her calling Judith Collins a “bitch” on stage in Wellington was posted to TikTok and picked up by the media.
Benee accepts that she should not have called Collins “the b-word” (though “she’s a dirty politician”). But more than contrite, she is irritated by Kate Hawkesby’s condemning her management on Newstalk ZB.
“She called me out on a 5am radio show and was like, ‘Who’s her manager?’ I was like, ‘are you fucking kidding me?’ She’s out here complaining about what I’ve said, and asking who’s my manager, as if my manager controls what I say.
“I think that is just so hypocritical, if she is out here trying to speak about fuckin’ female empowerment… I was fuming when she said that. I can do whatever I want to do on stage, I can say whatever I want because I’m not a politician and I’m not a radio presenter.”
Hawkesby also poured cold water on Benee’s support for legalising cannabis, saying her fans were too young to vote – to Benee, tantamount to discouraging them from doing so. “Which is so twisted! … Apparently her girls went to my gig,” she adds.
I imagine it can feel oppressive to be under that scrutiny, I say. “There’s just so many bloody boomers,” says Benee exasperatedly. “There are so many old, backwards white people…
“It’s just like, I forget about the kinds of people who are here, because I surround myself with my people – and no one I know votes for Judith Collins.”
At her shows, Benee says, she feels like she can count on the crowd to share her political views – from the stage of her election-night gig at Spark Arena, she celebrated the reelection of “Chlöe and Jacinda”.
But the incident showed her that she can no longer count on reaching an exclusively sympathetic audience. After watching the documentary short OK Chlöe, she feels for Swarbrick, dismissed on account of her age and progressive politics.
“She’s doing a bloody good job, but far out, being a politician – I would hate it,” says Benee, grimacing at the thought. “I’m just glad that there are people doing it who are good people in this country, because it must be so much hard work, ohmigod.”
Even with her own limited profile, Benee knows the feeling of being under surveillance. At a recent after party, she confronted a man for filming her on his phone. “I kind of looked at him and was like, ‘What are you doing? You can come and talk to me’. He just pulled a weird face and, I think, sent the video to someone.”
For the last few years, Benee has had a recurring anxiety about being “taken in the night”, disrupting her sleep. It has more to do with her true crime fixation than any real threat, she says – but the reality of her nascent celebrity has not helped.
“I noticed some people were commenting on my posts being like, ‘I know where that is’, then I was like: ‘I posted that too close to my house’. Everyone knows everyone, right. People probably know where I live, people know where Ella [Lorde] lives. It’s kind of freaky to think about.”
Benee sleeps easy now thanks to her “guard dog” and new home security system (“because I’m fuckin’ paranoid”). But the psychological sense of being exposed may be harder to solve.
Tall poppy syndrome is real, Benee says. “My guitar player Tiare and I had a conversation about it… There are so many people here who, when you’re just starting out, will be fully supportive – but… are like, ‘eurgh, all right, they’ve done too well now’.”
Benee’s strategy so far has been to surround herself with people “who are loyal, and who genuinely care – because it can get blurred very quickly”, she says.
“It’s very hard to tell what people want out of you, or if they want anything out of you, or whether their intentions are genuine or whatever. It’s a very weird thing that you have to consider.”
She winces slightly to hear me describe her as on the path to fame. “I reckon if there was a way where I could make music and still build relationships with everyone, but not become famous – that would be ideal.”
Benee’s debut album, Hey u x, is out today