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Bree Runway: she’s that girl

This was Bree Runway’s year. She collaborated with Stormzy, added more A-listers to her growing fan base and is now regularly recognised in the streets of London, her hometown. Rolling Stone UK meets Bree for her most intimate interview yet

By Kemi Alemoru

Bree Runway photographed for Rolling Stone UK (Picture: Stoney/Styling: Holly Wood)

There are few things more integral to the adolescent daydream of being a pop star than conceptualising a music video where you look hot while an electric fan blows through your hair. On the set of her new single ‘That Girl’, Bree Runway’s legs are straddling a powerful white motorcycle, her ombre wig flying back from her angular and contemplative face as she basks in the breeze. It’s still too tame for her. “Fuck me up. I want to feel like I’m riding through the West End,” she calls to a nearby assistant. She then asks for her body — which is nearly bare save for a custom two-piece outfit fashioned from a small number of black belts — to be oiled up. The camera starts rolling and she goes full throttle, rapping: “If you bad and you know it, better show out, girl” to the camera. She punctuates each word of the bar by gyrating up and down on the seat: “It’s. Just. Like. Whatever.”

Bree Runway — real name Brenda Mensah — makes it look easy. Her kaleidoscopic vision is due in part to the fact that she is a child of the music channel generation. “Flicking from MTV all the way to the white rock channels like Kerrang! showed me what you’re supposed to give. Looks need to be served. Nothing I saw was boring. Since I was a kid, I knew that if you are in this position to be a pop star you needed to wow,” she explains.

As a teenager, Mensah loved mavericks like Lady Gaga so much that she emulated the musician by wearing one glove and holding a teacup as a fashion statement. Her mum enjoyed 80s ballads by the likes of Phil Collins and Queen, while her dad was a big fan of older Ghanaian highlife music with textured instrumentation. The West African hotspot has become a party haven for Black Brits recalling the glory days of Ayia Napa at Christmas, but Mensah returns there to feel centred and find inspiration (“I’m used to it feeling like home or a resting place, not Ibiza”). Absorbing all these different influences also imbued the singer-songwriter with a hunger for variety. By taking a commercial music performance degree at London’s University of Westminster, Mensah learned how to develop her skills as well as the intricacies of instrumentation and composition. All of this is evident in how she throws the kitchen sink at her EPs and albums by experimenting with every sound from hyperpop and electronic beats to trap and adrenaline-inducing electric guitar, rapping, singing and writing. 

A keen viewer of the Bree Runway Instagram and YouTube channel would also notice that she’s constantly modelling new standout looks with a technicolour range of wigs, extreme stiletto manicures and enviable high-fashion outfits to live up to her stage name. “I dress for my mood and my mood is always a little dash of stripper, power silhouettes, and wanting to stand out,” Mensah says. She posed in an electric-blue cut-out dress with Naomi Campbell at the Off-White show at Paris Fashion Week, designed a denim two-piece for her trip to New York, and has worn ensembles from exciting rising designers like Chet Lo and Leeann Huang. When you top this all off with high-octane dance routines rarely seen from UK pop stars, you must ask yourself: who the hell is doing it like our Breakthrough Award-winner, Bree Runway?

Bree Runway photographed for Rolling Stone UK
Bree Runway for Rolling Stone UK. Bodysuit by Mugler; earring by Shaun Leane; necklaces by Vivienne Westwood; necklace by Phoebe Walsh; earring and necklaces by Musee Roo; earring and necklace by Hannah Martin; necklace by Dosisg6c (Picture: Stoney/Styling: Holly Wood)

The 29-year-old is completely aware that she naturally possesses an artistic dexterity that other acts hire whole teams to create. As we sit in a restaurant a short walk from her east London home, Mensah tells me that she spends hours trying to manifest a vision of her career as Bree Runway. “I moodboard my whole life on my iPad, I put myself at the centre and have a spider coming out of my name and think about how I can organise everything to be amazing around me. I make notes about how I want to look, and especially how I want to feel.” As for the upcoming music, she has some soul-baring collaborations coming with Stormzy and Khalid, but there’s a different sound elsewhere on the EP: “It’s more aggressive, more colourful, dangerous guitars. Silly!”

It’s been a pivotal couple of years. In 2020, the album 2000SAND4EVA dropped. ‘APESHIT’, she says, is a song that embodies her the most, as it flips from bombastic bars on the verses to sexy vocals on the bridge. It’s bold, chaotic and playful. There’s a reverence for the past that also somehow catapults us into the future. Even in lockdown she kept the momentum going by filming the video for ‘DAMN DANIEL’ in her living room. Bree Runway was dubbed the Sound of 2021 by the BBC and Best New International Act at the BET Awards while also being nominated for the Rising Star award at the BRITs

It also became clear that Bree Runway is your favourite artists’ inspiration. Mensah reels off a few of those names: “I was just with Lil Nas X, who told me he is a big fan, Megan [Thee Stallion], Doja Cat, Cardi goes out of her way to celebrate me, and Kehlani says I should feel mega for what I am doing. SZA said ‘Somebody Like You’ means a lot to her. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, how do you guys up there see me?’” She also collaborated with her idol Gaga on a rework of ‘Babylon’ on the Dawn of Chromatica remix album, and enlisted another hero, Missy Elliott, to rap on ‘ATM’. “People kept seeing videos of me and saying, ‘I didn’t know Missy had a fine daughter,’” she laughs. “She saw it and she told me to keep doing my thing.”

“I moodboard my whole life on my iPad”

— Bree Runway

There are many parallels between Brenda Mensah and the VMA Video Vanguard Award-winner. Missy Elliott was always a talented student, to the extent that she would fail on purpose to fit in with the other kids. Growing up in Hackney, and attending Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, Mensah’s teens were tough. She tells me she too dimmed her shine at school as she was bullied for being too different. Pupils made her feel annoying for the fact that she could sing and dance — though this did earn her the opportunity of performing for Michelle Obama when she visited pupils in 2009. The then First Lady called her a “star”. Mensaheven felt bad that her hair was long and full. She was inspired by Missy Elliott’s lyrics and surreal visuals that celebrated being voluptuous, dark, bizarre and beautiful. In Missy’s first Rolling Stone interview in 1997, she said her ostentatious persona helps her shake off her shy character. Similarly, Mensah says she can be coy. “Brenda sometimes can’t even take being looked at on the street by a guy. She’ll be like, ‘What’s the problem?’ Forgetting that she’s just pretty. It’s the schoolchild in me.”

Shehas been frank about the fact that she now loudly celebrates her hue because she was made to feel like her dark skin was a hindrance. At nine years old, she attempted bleaching and damaged her skin. “I got tired of feeling ugly,” she says. “Walking past bus stops with Black boys from other schools wasn’t always nice.” But ultimately, she feels like the fact that she never fitted the mould gave her the freedom to break out of it. It’s satisfying being celebrated for all the things she was teased for: “Being weird and dark is literally my selling point,” she states. 

After her tour ended with a sold-out show in New York earlier this year, Mensahreturned to London and took four months off. “I wasn’t present or full of life being Brenda. Brenda felt abandoned,” she says. “I knew how to act when the camera comes on, but I also felt like a li’l baby who needed to be carried around in a Louis Vuitton bag,” she confides. The break allowed Mensah to take stock of her life in its entirety, reflecting on what she wasn’t enjoying about her career. “I discovered so much about myself, my artistry, my business and certain structures that work for me and that don’t. It’s really helped me.” She began to do some soul-searching.

Bree Runway photographed for Rolling Stone UK
Bree Runway for Rolling Stone UK. Winged harness by Gabi Fabiyi; corset by Rue-L; trousers by Sankuanz; gloves by Paula Rowan; necklace, bangle and rings by Hannah Martin; earring by Musee Roo; rings by Phoebe Walsh Jewellery (Picture: Stoney/Styling: Holly Wood)

Continuing with that theme, I ask whether she would rather be the best player on a team that always loses, or the worst player on a team that always wins?

“The best player on the team that is losing is doing the job properly. I don’t want to just get by, I don’t like cutting corners,” she says. “I’m not always looking at other people’s career or feeling jealous.” She’s also never been bitter about what stage she’s at in her vision. In 2017, Mensah was working in retail at Christian Louboutin until her passion for music started to get in the way of her being able to commit to shifts on the forward-planning rota. When she quit, she was “piss poor” so she started doing cloakroom shifts, waitressing and hospitality at weddings where you get “treated like shit” by managers. “I’d be that person on the staff team that has a blue tick on Instagram and people would be like, ‘Wait, aren’t you—?’ and you’re like, ‘Yes, I am, but I don’t have the money right now.’ Then I’d swap wigs from black to blue because I’m going to Rihanna’s party afterwards. There’s nothing I’ve had easy, I’m a grafter.”

“Being weird and dark is my selling point”

— Bree Runway

A recurring comment from fans on her videos is that Bree Runway should already be a household name and isn’t getting her dues. It’s a wonder she doesn’t feel oppressed by their impression of where she should be. “Conversations around me deserving more don’t shake me because I’ve come so far, and I just care about whether I’m more successful than yesterday. I know it’s because they love me, but everything will happen in due time. Why would we want to rush this journey? It’s exciting. I don’t want to have one hit and done,” she says. For her, an artist’s development is crucial and as Bree Runway, Mensah is enjoying the evolution of bringing “O2 arena energy” to any room of any size. 

“I try not to accept a doomsville narrative around colourism,” she says. “The ‘Bree isn’t where she should be because she’s dark skin’ thing — I don’t really like to accept that. I have a very delusional state of mind that comes from my faith. I’m doing something different despite what I look like. And if we’re going off looks, I’m hot, so whatever.”

Bree Runway photographed for Rolling Stone UK
Bree Runway for Rolling Stone UK. Bree wears dress by Paco Rabanne; earring and ring by Phoebe Walsh Jewellery; necklaces by Vivienne Westwood and Hannah Martin (Picture: Stoney/Styling: Holly Wood)

Her impressive work ethic means that Mensah only comes home to put her bag down and sleep before leaving again without taking it in (“my balcony view is amazing”). She clearly takes pride in where she lives now. Her high-rise block is grand and stands in stark contrast to her beginnings growing up near what press dubbed the “murder mile”. “Hackney was dangerous. It could go from sunshine to rain really quickly, in the sense that you could be outside playing with your friends and then you look over the balcony in the estates and there’s a frickin’ shoot-out happening downstairs… but it’s not like that anymore,” she says casually. I’m wary of fuelling the played-out rags-to-riches narrative often gleefully repeated when talking about Black artists. “If my dad was rich, I’d own that and be happy, but it’s looking like I’m the first person in my family that’s going to live this sort of lifestyle. We can’t help that that is our reality… but journalists are obsessed with that shit,” she laughs.

Creative people are far more likely to live in chaos according to research, so I’m not actually allowed to see the apartment. “I would have let you in before but there’s so many boxes in there from video shoots and I don’t have the energy to clean,” she says. During her time off, Mensah attempted to turn her home into a sanctuary and Marie Kondo’ed the place getting rid of old clothes (“I did a car boot sale at Princess May in Dalston and let things go like for the low low, I sold a Dior bag for £80”) and practised feng shui.

Mensah often drops God into conversation as if he is a personal friend that is on speed dial — which, if you are religious, I suppose he is. As we walk around her neighbourhood, Mensah reveals that she prays over all her possessions. Vintage items need more prayer than others because they have had a previous owner and a different life that you aren’t privy to. “Especially jewellery, that’s very important. You wear necklaces next to your heart,” she says.

“I don’t lack love; I’m not looking for it in desperate places. I have it from God, I have it from family, I have it from my fans”

— Bree Runway

She focuses on spirituality as she generally finds mortal men disappointing. “I feel that it just has to be worth doing. I don’t lack love; I’m not looking for it in desperate places. I have it from God, I have it from family, I have it from my fans,” she explains. That’s why there is a lack of love songs in her catalogue as the lyrics are usually declarations of self love, like in ‘Hot Hot’, instructions on tracks like ‘LITTLE NOKIA’ (“throw him in the dustbin”), and allegorical tales of men to avoid on ‘X2C’ (“Who’s that girl in your Instagram comments?/Put my gloves on, I’mma fight”). A key believer of manifesting by putting pen to paper, ‘Somebody Like You’ is essentially a callout for the man she wishes she had. The original track is a moving ballad with Phil Collins-esque drums where Mensah exhibits her incredible vocal range hitting high octaves in a saccharine tone before giving way to a more full-bodied cry to show her yearning. 

Mensah explains that the last time she was actually in love was “many, many years ago”. If you’re looking to become Mr Runway, she has a pretty clear idea on what it would take. “I want to meet a guy that knows themselves, that isn’t a slave to material things. I have a lot of clothes but that’s because I’m passionate about fashion — it’s not to impress. ‘I love the silhouette of that, or the buckles really match this bag.’ That’s so different to, ‘I don’t feel like a man so I’m gonna wear this chain.’ It’s giving insecurity and I’m giving big D energy amongst my feminine energy,” Mensah adds. “I’m looking for that needle-in-the-haystack guy. I want to be in a love that makes me feel like I want to do life again just so I can experience more of this person. Until then, I’ll just focus on myself, looking hot and lasering my vag.”

As one of the UK’s only avant-garde pop stars constantly trying to break the mould, Bree Runway is rightly earning nods from industry titans and her burgeoning fan base. And, despite Mensah’s off-duty pop star disguise of a black hoodie (with her blue wig only poking out slightly), eyes hidden behind glasses, and sans-manicure nails, she’s also just been recognised by the waitresses in the restaurant behind us. “Don’t look now but that girl over there just showed her friend my Instagram page and I saw the whole thing,” she says while looking down. We continue chatting, keenly aware of the increasing audience to our conversation. There isn’t a topic we can cover that doesn’t become an example of her self-love, her thirst for originality, her unrivalled passion. “I’m amazing in every single way down to the contents of my soul and the energy that I provide men,” Mensah proclaims. “Men are high not even from having sex with me, just hanging out with me, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I love this girl.’ I mean that humbly as well. I’m just such a good vibe. I know myself. I didn’t buy a personality off the internet — there’s a lot of girls like that. So, when guys come across me, they’re super obsessed with me, they love me the fuck down… and I don’t blame them.” Neither do we.

Taken from the December/January 2023 issue of Rolling Stone UK. Buy it online here. On UK newsstands from Thursday 10 November 2022.

Bree Runway covers the December/January 2023 issue of Rolling Stone UK

Photography: Stoney
Fashion: Joseph Kocharian
Styling: Holly Wood
Hair: Seraiah Artistry
Make-up: Tomi Ajayi
Nails: Katt Katana
Fashion Assistants: Izzy Frost and Frank Tyler