Nelson rates her confidence level at a “solid 8.5” out of 10 post-Little Mix in the interview, which was published online Tuesday (May 4), compared to the 0 it was at when she was in the group. “I didn’t know that I could be this happy. I thought when I was in the group that it was just normal to feel that way. And because I’d felt like that for 10 years, I just thought, ‘This is life.’ Since I’ve left, I feel free,” she says. “I don’t wakeup with anxiety, thinking, ‘I’ve got to do a music video today, I need to starve myself.’ Or, “I need to go on an extreme diet so I can look like the other three.’ That was consuming me.”
She added that despite no longer being in the group, she still gets compared to former bandmates Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards and Leigh-Anne Pinnock. “Even recently, I was still getting compared to them. It’s horrible when you already don’t like something about yourself to then have thousands of people point it out,” she shares. “Now I feel like me. When I look back [at my time] in the band, I genuinely wasn’t me. I can’t believe how miserable I was.”
The singer, 29, announced in December 2020 that she was officially leaving Little Mix, citing mental health reasons for her departure from one of the best-selling U.K. girl groups, which she’s been a part of since 2011. But the cyberbullying about her weight — “I was bigger than the other three, and there’s never really been that in a girl group. I was classed as the obese, fat one,” Nelson says — caused her to reach her the end of her rope last fall when Little Mix filmed what would be their last music video as a foursome for their U.K. No. 1 single “Sweet Melody.”
“The last music video we did [“Sweet Melody”] was the breaking point. We’d been in lockdown, and [that had been] the first time I could have a break and be at home around people that I love. It was the happiest I’d ever felt, and I didn’t realize that until I went back to work,” she recalls. “I immediately became a different person. I had anxiety. Whenever we had a music video, I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to try and lose weight. I have a fear of looking back on the camera. If I don’t like what I see, I find it so hard to be in front of the camera and feel amazing and perform.”
Upon receiving the call that the music video would be shot in a couple of weeks, Nelson remembered panicking and going on an extreme diet “with bloody shakes.” On the day of the shoot, her anxiety only amplified. “On the day of the ‘Sweet Melody’ video I had a panic attack on set because I didn’t look how I wanted to look and I found it so hard to just be happy and enjoy myself. I looked at the other three and they were having the time of their life,” she said, adding that she’s not featured in one of the scenes because she had been sobbing in the dressing room. “I get so jealous, because I want to feel like that and enjoy it, because music is my passion. To have this dream and not be enjoying it because of what I look like, I knew wasn’t normal.”
Her mother witnessed Nelson enter “a really dark time after the music video” before advising her to put her suffering to rest. Now, Nelson has found herself back in the recording studio and returning to her passion, which she notes is “good for my mental health.” Her return to making music has confused some fans given her departure from Little Mix, but her decision ultimately didn’t signal the end of Nelson’s musical career — it just meant the end of her career with the girl group.
“I never said when I put out my statement that I was coming out of the band to never be in the public eye or perform again, or do music,” Nelson clarified to Cosmo UK. “I said I was coming out of the band because I genuinely couldn’t deal with the pressure of being in a girl band.”
While she said fellow U.K. artists such as former One Direction member Liam Payne — who previously said Nelson “Zayn’d out” of Little Mix — and Rag’n’Bone Man reached out to her when she quit, Nelson didn’t understand why people were labeling her move as a “brave” one.
“Rag’n’Bone Man messaged me and said, ‘I just watched your documentary and it’s helped me so much. I think you’re brilliant.’ I didn’t see it as brave, but people were saying, ‘Do you know how brave you are for doing that? You’re going to show so many girls that they can do whatever they want and if they want to make themselves happy, they can,'” she says. “You’ve got to have faith that it’s going to be alright and not let fear get in the way.”
While receiving an overwhelmingly positive response to her 2019 BBC documentary Odd One Out about Nelson’s personal journey with cyberbullying, she says the next documentary she’s in talks about has “nothing to do with what I’ve been through” and focuses on other people’s journeys. She adds: “If it helps people, then how amazing is that? That we get to do our jobs and help people get through their worst days just by telling our stories.”