It’s dawn on a hot Sunday morning in June, and Amy Winehouse is inside her North London home, staring at her reflection in a dark tinted mirror, looking the tiny little body in front of her up and down, assessing the emaciated tattooed limbs, the jungle of a black beehive weave, the hallucinatory glow of her transparent green eyes. All around her, Winehouse’s home is in disastrous disarray: Discarded bags of potato chips, crumpled nuggets of tinfoil, beer bottles, lingerie boxes and scattered old credit cards tell of a long night that hasn’t ended in weeks, maybe months.
While Winehouse’s Saturday isn’t really over, her Sunday has begun with a shriek. The tabloids have hit the pavement and slapped her out of her weekend reverie with yet another high-decibel scandal. This time it’s photographs and videos — leaked from a lost digital camera — that show Winehouse in various states of dereliction, all shot by her now-imprisoned husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. What’s scandalous this time isn’t the pictures of Winehouse surrounded by crack pipes (there have been too many of those this year) but a video of her singing to Fielder-Civil a ditty chockablock with racial slurs: “Blacks, Pakis, gooks and nips … deaf and dumb and blind and gay,” she and a girlfriend sing goofily.
The morning headline reads ‘Sex, Drugs and Racist Rant,’ but at Winehouse’s place, there’s no publicist or manager to be seen, no crisis-management squad deployed to save one of the decade’s most successful female vocalists from public shame. That’s not Winehouse’s style — it’s just her and a girlfriend. British singer Remi Nicole pores over the paper, annoyed, telling her friend that all this scandal has to stop.
“All right, Remi, it’s over,” says Winehouse bluntly.
“No, but how did anyone know about you and Alex and Kristian?” Nicole asks her, referring to alleged extramarital dalliances by Winehouse reported in the press.
“They’re, like, all these Chinese whispers,” says Winehouse sadly.
“You need to get rid of the cunts around you who whisper,” says Nicole, and after a pause, “What’s the point of him taking pictures of you with a crack pipe?” referring to Fielder-Civil.
“It wasn’t like that, babe,” says Winehouse sweetly as she scours the floor in a stupor for a head scarf. “It’s important that you know that. You know a lot of things are more casual to me than they are to you.”
“Yeah, like smoking crack,” Nicole says under her breath.
“It’s just incidental,” says Winehouse. “He’s taking pictures of me because we were on our honeymoon, and he thought I looked pretty.” She finds a red scarf with white polka dots, à la Minnie Mouse, and carefully fastens it around her head, tying it in a jaunty bow. Winehouse lifts her black wife-beater and stares at her chest — the tattoo of her husband’s name thundering across her heart, barely encased by a gray polkadot push-up bra. “Should I wear my Spanish top?” she asks no one in particular. Downstairs, a growing pack of paparazzi has gathered in a frenzy, inches from her door, with cameras at the ready, anticipating Winehouse’s response.
For the last hour, Winehouse has been getting ready to meet the paparazzi; she’s been carefully drawing the dark, thick Cleopatra swoops around her eyes, over smudges of makeup past, her long, manicured red fingernails masking a black resin lining, her lip gloss glittering pink, foundation covering little scabs that raid her face. “What are you going to say, Amy?” I ask her from the couch where I’ve been slumped over, scratching notes for the past few hours. At 4 a.m. — after I’d spent half the night outside her apartment, hoping for an interview — Winehouse had, much to my surprise, opened the door and invited me in for beer. Since then, Winehouse has been puttering around her house in varying states of consciousness, disappearing every half an hour or so upstairs to her bedroom and returning to talk to me a little about her music, a little about her drugs and a lot about her imprisoned husband. Through it all, she’s an attentive and open hostess, boiling me tea and giving me extra slips of paper to take notes. Now, thinking about the waiting paparazzi outside, she keeps her eyes fastened on her image in the mirror.
“I could just go out there and say … I don’t know.” Her mouth is slack. “I don’t know, really.” Winehouse gives her hive one last tease and trots gamely down the stairway. She opens the door, and on cue a firestorm of flashbulbs surrounds her, voices crying her name. “Amy! Amy! Amy!”
“I guess I should apologize,” she starts, fluttering her eyes, swaying her hips, flipping and tucking her hair innocently.
“Don’t apologize, Amy, don’t apologize!” the photographers shout as they blast her with their flash fusillade. “We love you, and your friends love you!” “What next, Amy?” they cry. “What are you going to call your new album?”
She smiles, making them wonder if she’ll answer, and then wickedly says, “Black Don’t Crack.”
This past year, Amy Winehouse, 24, has gone from being one of pop music’s most ascendant and celebrated talents to a tragicomic train wreck of epic proportions. Winehouse has insisted from the beginning of her career that she is a simple girl crazy in love with her man. Her life, her history and talent all seem barely worth talking about when one could talk about Blake, how fit he is, how perfect for each other they are. “We are so in love, we are a team,” she rhapsodizes to me. “Blake, Blake, Blake, Blake, Blake, Blake, Blake.” It’s as if she’s putting herself in a trance.
The daughter of a taxi-driver father and a pharmacist mother, Winehouse grew up in a North London home where jazz voices such as Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra were always on the record player. Sam Shaker, the owner of a longtime club in Soho, Jazz After Dark, remembers the night four years ago when Winehouse asked him if she could sing a few sets with the blues band. “She goes on the stage,” says Shaker, “and I didn’t know what she was doing: Was she drunk, was she stoned? It didn’t make any sense. But then I heard her voice. The band had to stop.”
At 17, Winehouse got a record contract with Island, and in 2003 she released her first album, Frank. It was dedicated entirely to an ex-boyfriend, and choice tracks did well, including the saucy “Fuck Me Pumps,” which took a critical look at British tarts. The album was nominated for a 2004 Mercury Music Prize. But Winehouse was building a reputation as a wild thing, showing up for concerts trashed. In 2003, she met Blake Fielder-Civil at a local bar. A handsome hanger-on from rural Lincolnshire, Fielder-Civil worked part time on music-video sets. Winehouse fell hard; his name was quickly tattooed on her chest. But the romance was rocky, and during one breakup, when Fielder-Civil left her for another woman, she wrote the bulk of Back to Black, her second album. Following incidents of public intoxication, her management tried to pack Winehouse off to rehab. Famously, she refused. By the time Back to Black hit the U.S. last year, Winehouse was hailed as the future of soul music. The album sold 2 million copies in America and eventually earned her five Grammys.
But things got weird not long after Winehouse married Fielder-Civil in Miami in May 2007. In November, he was arrested for the assault of an East End bar owner in June 2006. (Fielder-Civil pleaded guilty.) With her husband gone, Winehouse slid into a despondent place. She canceled her tour at the end of 2007, saying, “I can’t give it my all onstage without my Blake.” And in January, after a clip of her smoking crack was released to the tabloid The Sun, she was sent to rehab by her record label again. She didn’t stay long, and she happily tells me she did drugs the whole time.
This spring brought story after story in the tabloids, parading images of Winehouse wrecked and wretched, usually high and half-naked. There were rumors of extramarital affairs, and she was arrested (and later released) on drug charges and cautioned by police for assaulting a man. Her smacked-out haze of an existence went viral in May, when Babyshambles singer Pete Doherty posted videos on YouTube of the two of them in a dark room playing with just-born mice, their fingernails encrusted in black resin, using the animals as puppets to beg Winehouse’s husband not to divorce her. Also in May, Mark Ronson, the DJ and producer who worked with her on her hits, canceled her recording sessions for the title song of the upcoming James Bond film. “I’m not sure Amy is ready to work on music yet,” he said at the time. It is now rumored that the wholesome and beautiful young British singer Leona Lewis will replace Winehouse on the Bond song.
Winehouse says all of this is the product of heartbreak from being separated from her true love, whose name appears in a little heart pin she often wears in her hair. “To be honest, my husband’s away, I’m bored, I’m young,” Winehouse tells me. “I felt like there was nothing to live for. It’s just been a low ebb.”
Winehouse is rarely alone. Her home is on a hushed cobblestone lane off the main drag of raucous Camden, but throughout the night, musicians, dealers, masseuses, friends and fans come and go freely.
Outside, a nearly ever-present herd of paparazzi — mostly men, mostly in their early 30s — stand around, smoking cigarettes and cracking jokes that revolve around the length of their zoom lenses. Winehouse is their meal ticket, and a fun one. The paps jokingly refer to her as “the pied piper of Camden” for her powers of enchantment. Winehouse treats them like animals in her care — she makes them tea and, on several occasions, smacks them if they get too close to her. And for all that, they love her, speak of her talent and way of life with reverence.
“She’s on loads of crack, but you can see through that,” says Simon Gross, a freelance photographer. “I just want for her to get better. I’m hoping someday for that set of pictures of her riding her bike in the park or something healthy.”
In the hours I spend with her, her main concession to health is a large upright tanning bed, which she uses every day. She often seems like she is having trouble staying awake, fighting to keep her eyes open. “I just took my nighttime medicine,” she says. “I’m so tired.” Winehouse seems lonely, in search of a perpetual slumber party. “Women don’t try to use me,” she tells me groggily. Her trust is remarkable; at one point, she even discusses her night’s outfit with two female teenage fans over her door-bell intercom.
Her arms are spotted with cuts and scratches, and she itches at them furiously as she wanders upstairs. She offers me beer with ice and lime and then realizes she doesn’t have any beer. She sends Nicole to ask a paparazzi to go buy it for her, and when he returns, she laughs at his request for money.
She floats into the kitchen, a sea of dirty dishes, to wash glasses for our beer. She’s dazed, keeps losing track of what she’s doing, her eyes flicking around. “I’m sorry, I’m a really shit interview,” she says politely to me, a totally unexpected reporter in her house at 4:00 in the morning. She spends 10 minutes washing the glasses, fondling the edges slowly with the sponge and drying them with a big, filthy bath towel that sits on the counter. She adds beer and ice, and dumps in a few other splashes of old soda sitting around.
I ask her what her next album will be like. “Same stuff as my last album but with some ska.” Have you started recording it yet? “It’s not so much about recording, it’s about whatever.”
I ask her about her fallout with Ronson. She tells me he made a snap judgment about her based on all the negative press. “We are close enough that I thought we could be like, ‘Hello, darling, it’s me,'” she says. She adds that they went to the studio for a few days in Oxford, but they weren’t connecting. “I played him tracks I liked, just getting the vibe, and he was like, Amy, come, let’s work.’ He was really just uptight….” she trails off and then resumes cheerfully: “He left after three days, and I was like, ‘Breathe a sigh of relief, I’m in the country and I can write.'”
I ask what the songs are like. “When the songs are done, they’ll be all atmospheric and cool like that….”
She does this sort of Sixties-ish Space Age Bond-girl dance, standing with a hip thrust to the side, wiggling her fingers, and opening her mouth. “Whaaaaa…” is the sound she makes. “They might be like these girls I’ve been listening to, like the Shangri-Las.”
I ask her about Doherty. “We’re just good friends,” she says. “I asked Pete to do a concept EP, and he made this face, he looked at me like I’d pooed on the floor. He wouldn’t do it. We’re just really close.”
She pulls up the guitar, picks the chords to the Sixties tune “I Will Follow Him,” puts down the guitar and disappears upstairs for a while.
When she returns, she teeters over to the living room, moves the array of bottles and glasses aside and asks Nicole for a massage: “Press my face, Remi.” She sits in front of Nicole, puts down a pillow and then jogs off to get massage oil and paper towels. “Will you just sit still?” asks Nicole, who seems distinctly sober. In a matter of minutes, Winehouse has moved Nicole again, this time to the couch, and she’s burying her head into her lap as Nicole works diligently on Winehouse’s small, gnarled back.
“I love Amy,” says Nicole.
“Yeah,” says Winehouse, adopting a cute voice, “she loves me.”
“Amy is a very honest type of person,” says Nicole. “She blows my mind. She’s very special.” From her lap, Winehouse mutters, “Special needs.”
“She’ll hate me for saying this, but her heart is made of gold,” says Nicole.
“Made of wood,” mumbles Winehouse.
“She’s very democratic,” says Nicole. “Diplomatic,” corrects the lap voice.
“I want to fall in love like Amy,” says Nicole. “I think I’ve been in love before.”
Winehouse lifts her head: “No, no, if you had, you’d be dead because you weren’t together.”
Winehouse wants to show me her wedding pictures, but first she wants food. “I’m on a strict pizza diet,” she says perkily. “I’m on a strict put-weight-on diet. I love food. I’m just stressed out.” She returns from the kitchen with an oozing white-bread-and-banana sandwich, on which she sprinkles potato chips. She hands Nicole her laptop, which is caked in fingerprints and smudges, and asks her to show me the photographs of Winehouse and her husband making out, the two of them mugging for the camera like Mickey and Mallory, passing pills to each other with their tongues. Winehouse gets up for more food. Nicole continues the slide show, and suddenly the screen flashes Winehouse’s blurry face, taken from above with a phone in one hand and a gigantic penis in her mouth. Nicole and I both look away. “I’ve never been to rehab, I mean, done it properly,” says Winehouse from the kitchen. “I’m young, and I’m in love, and I get my nuts off sometimes. But it’s never been like, ‘Amy, get your life together.'”
It’s 9 a.m., and outside the last paparazzi leave, shouting up, “Thank you, Amy!” “You’re welcome!” she yells back, then she mutters, “You fucking gooks.” And cracks up. She thoughtfully calls me a cab and walks me downstairs, inviting me to join her a few days later for a private concert in Moscow, where she will be paid a reported $2 million to play for Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. (A day later, her manager rescinds the invitation.) After the show, the newspapers report that Winehouse was drunk and Abramovich’s organizers were sent into a mad scramble to search for a replacement. They say she played hours late and without underwear. Her publicist, Tracey Miller, dismisses the rumors, insisting it went well. Winehouse is scheduled to play at various festivals and concerts in Europe this summer. But in mid-June, Winehouse fainted in her home and was taken to the hospital by her father. As this story goes to press, Miller says Winehouse remains in the hospital: “They are just taking it one day at a time,” she says. “In a way, it’s good she’s there.”
This is from the July 10, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.