In the 90s, Glüme Harlow watched a biographical movie of Judy Garland which depicted how Garland helped her family buy a house. Harlow’s own family was poor and living in LA, an expensive city, so the idea of working as a child actor to help with money excited her. She was six years old. Her mother, who she describes as a “scary stage mom”, steered her fledgling career. Playing roles in video games such as 102 Dalmatians, Kingdom Hearts and a Hayao Miyazaki movie, Harlow was enamoured with older actors and the gorgeous costumes and sets.
Homeschooling was the only option that allowed her to work flexibly in the theatre and Hollywood. Her mother fed her a concoction of drugs to keep her awake through the day for auditions and work and to sleep at night to be well rested. “Mom really had the paediatrician down,” Harlow says today, styled in a full 30s glamorous dress while at the bar of LA’s Beverly Hills Hotel. “I was just chugging bubblegum medication, amphetamines, sleeping medication.”
She continues: “I paid for everything, and I did not have a childhood. I didn’t really realise that or grieve that until I was older because a lot of it was fun. My mom wasn’t. That’s probably why I liked acting so much too because it was a place to go away from home.” Arguments would erupt when Harlow wanted to go to someone’s birthday party or try out her new skates, as these were seen as distractions from her job. “I found my diary recently from 2000. It was like, ‘I hope I make friends this year. My mom probably won’t want me to, but I’ll try.’ I read that casual entry and was like, ‘That’s so sad.’ The tone I was writing it in I can tell I thought that was normal. But no, that’s not for a kid,” she says.
Her last audition was for the role of Hannah in Hannah Montana. “I was down to the final three: me, some other girl and Miley,” she remembers. She looked surprisingly young for her age — which she still does now in her thirties, a 5’1” porcelain doll with cushiony ruby lips and not a line on her face — so much so that people thought she was 12 when she was in her late teens. It was a barrier to getting age-appropriate parts and Harlow was becoming frustrated. She decided to focus on music instead and started having tattoos, less of an issue now but then a big no-no with casting directors.
In her twenties she continued to keep the secrets of her childhood safe, even from her own father. A catalyst for opening up about her story was that she got severely unwell as a result of all the medications she was on as a child. She has a heart condition called Prinzmetal angina, along with lupus, PoTS (postural tachycardia syndrome) and chronic anaemia, for which she has to take a second concoction of medications for the rest of her life. “I was like, ‘Fuck this, I’m how old and my body is already ruined?’ I have diseases an 80-year-old would have. I’m just going to be honest,” she laughs.
Upbeat and open, Harlow is a fun character to be around. At the bar, the self-proclaimed ‘Walmart Marilyn’ sips on a Shirley Temple. When she realises the barman forgot to put a cherry in it, she pouts — “That’s the best bit!” — and asks him if he can bring out some more. He obliges and no sooner is he back with a little tray of cherries than an older man at the grand piano starts playing Frank Sinatra’s ‘Moon River’. She gets up with a clap of her hands, totters over in her heels and begins to video him on her phone, swaying from side to side. Nothing about her feels affectatious — Harlow is in love with life.
She is clear-headed about how she wants that life to be, too. Recently, she’s worked hard to gather her creative team together. “I have a very cohesive vision for how I want everything to be visually because I grew up with this very Old Hollywood world in my brain,” she explains. “I’ve seen so many boring men make complicated beautiful women just not what they would be if they were allowed to express their vision, so I was like, ‘I am getting a creative director now before it’s too late.’”
There’s little Harlow loves more than watching biopics of these types of women: Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Pamela Anderson. “It’s tragic, sad, you’re constantly misunderstood and told what you are and not able to have a stable life with someone you love or have a connection with,” she says of such complex women. “Someone you work with or someone you dated, if you looked at their brain like a movie reel would you be like, ‘Who’s that?’ or would you be like, ‘That’s me’. You might not recognise yourself because of what they want from you. That’s crazy, it freaks me out.”
When she got sick, she knew she could share her truth through avant-pop album, Main Character, an exploration of her childhood told against synth soundscapes. It combines the eerie and Lynchian (‘Child Actor’, ‘Brittany’) with the melancholic, piano-led (‘Main Character’) and tense, dark and sexy tracks, the sort made for driving around LA at night (‘Flicker Flicker’). “I named it Main Character because I was not — my mom was. The irony was that I was always supposed to get the lead role but, in my life, I never was,” she says. “That transitioned into my adult life with dating. I’ve dated a lot of people who I’d cater to and I’d just go with the flow because I was so scared I wouldn’t be loved if I didn’t maintain that role. I’m drawn to main characters who are a weird, neurotic ‘it’s got to be about me’ way and it’s often coupled with them being depressed.”
The album guest-stars Rufus Wainwright on ‘Child Actor’ and Sean Ono Lennon on three songs. “Me and Sean did it all over Zoom because it was during Covid,” Harlow says. “He’s the sweetest, most talented person. We included a little coaster that has Yoko and John on it in the ‘Queen of LA’ music video to include the fam. He was actually so nice that Sean recorded a voice memo for my dad to wish him happy birthday, because my dad is a huge fan. He follows my dad’s music blog now too which really makes my dad’s life.”
Splitting up and closing the album are an intermission and reprise, which feature Harlow and a younger Harlow of sorts. “It feels like my inner child got a chance to say what she wanted to say on those tracks. That means a lot to me because I was kept so quiet,” she says. “She was pissed and I’m still working myself to the bone because I still don’t know if I’m worth it without doing everything perfectly and things that are impressive to other people.”
Launching alongside the album is the short film called Child Actor. Harlow wrote it with her best friend and her creative director who is a full-time filmmaker. She even sold her car to fund the film because she was so determined to tell the cathartic story of her older self meeting and caring for her younger self. The casting director found someone who looks spectacularly like Harlow. “She’s my literal carbon copy of me at 10, we look like creepy little twins,” Harlow says, adding that she was particularly careful to make sure the set was a safe place. “I was very protective of this girl, making sure she was OK and not working too much and having a good time.”
Harlow was feeling increasingly nervous about the contents of the album — then Jennette McCurdy’s memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died came out. The book is about her narcissistic mother and deeply troubled life as a child star. Harlow read it twice and watched McCurdy’s interview on the Drew Barrymore talk show countless times. “We had the same agent when we were little and when I was reading it, I couldn’t believe how accurate it was,” Harlow says. “And I was relieved at how it was received because we as a society are very precious with moms. Dads? Fuck dads. But moms, they’re a precious thing. So I was nervous to say my childhood was very hard because of mine. I thought I’d be tarred and feathered for saying my mom was abusive.”
This reassurance allowed Harlow to enjoy the lead-up to releasing Main Character and Child Actor. When she showed her mother the script for the short film, the response was not what Harlow had expected. “I thought she was going to be really mad at me but her first question was ‘Can I wear Givenchy to the premiere?’ Aren’t narcissists funny! If it were me, I’d be horrified! I’d be like, ‘I hurt you so badly it’s a film?’” Harlow laughs heartily at her joke.
Nothing will dishearten Harlow now she’s in control of her narrative, spending days making art on her own terms. “My mom had a victim mentality and that never really appealed to me,” she says. “Plus, when you’re facing whether you’re going to die or not, you realise: it’s really cool to be here! I don’t dwell [on] where I was, I’m excited for today.”
Hair by Lydia McIntosh. Glüme’s Main Character is out now on Italians Do It Better