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Loreen: how a legacy of warrior women helped the star win Eurovision

The first woman to win ‘Eurovision’ twice makes Loreen an artist that will go down in music history. Rolling Stone UK meets the curious Libra in London to talk winning the world’s biggest song contest, the inspirational generations of women in her family who all said ‘f**k no’ to men, and why Sweden needs to up its game ahead of 2024

By Charlotte Manning

Jacket, bottoms by SINÉAD O’DWYER (Photography: Azazel)

I get to sit down not once, but twice, with Loreen, all in the space of a week. Our time together has done my soul a lot of good, she’s definitely calmed me. The first thing you need to know about the Swedish pop star is that spirituality is everything to her. This also leads to the Libra quickly trying to guess every crew member’s star signs on set for her Rolling Stone UK digital cover shoot. We’re meant to delve into the enigma that is Loreen right at the end of a frankly delirious day on set (soundtracked nearly solely by FKA Twigs’ and Pa Salieu’s banger ‘honda’). But everything runs well over and a planned eight-hour day, quickly slips into 11 hours, and she’s pretty exhausted. Our interview is subsequently moved to the weekend to take place at her London hotel. And breathe.

Loreen, a name now so synonymous with Eurovision, never watched the singing event, or its Swedish feeder, Melodifestivalen as a child. She’s one of six kids, raised by a single mum. “I was just a weird kid. I preferred my own company,” she recalls. “I was raised in a big family. A lot of siblings, a lot of helping Mother out because she was alone, trying to make ends meet. We didn’t have much. We had three channels and I didn’t know anything about Melodifestivalen or Eurovision. I just knew at some point in my life, very late though, that I wanted to work with music. I was just trying to find my way wherever I went.” Loreen, 39, has now competed in the Swedish Eurovision selection process four times, making it through twice, and winning both years – pretty good going. Her determination means her name will forever appear in pop music history books.

Raised in a spiritual family, it continues to act as a key component to her personality and outlook on life. She loves nature, star signs, meditating and even has a house she can take herself away to on the remote Swedish island of Gotland. Her Moroccan roots and heritage, she says, provide for a very spiritual backdrop and are a massive influence here, too. “I know what suffering feels like. If you’ve been in pain, and allowed yourself to be in pain, or life has given you painful situations, at some point, when you see another person in pain? Ooof, I can feel that, and I know what you’re going through, I can imagine what you’re going through. That’s why you can’t stop from reacting.”

Her childhood wasn’t easy. Along with her five siblings she grew up “poor”, which led her to start questioning things at an early age. “Why is that happening? Why am I doing that, what is this all about? That’s where spirituality starts,” she says. “So in my house, these conversations happened. ‘Why don’t we have what they have? What’s the purpose of that? That’s unfair. Those people died over there. Why is it like that?’ Spirituality is about questioning your environment and understanding the bigger picture of things.”

Meeting the artist for a second time feels like a huge intake of fresh air. I arrive at Kings Cross, albeit 10 minutes late, and there’s a massive air of calm ready to greet me. Loreen is sitting in the lobby of The Standard London hotel drinking a slightly tepid cup of Earl Grey tea. This time she’s dressed down in an all-black ensemble and instantly recognises me when I arrive. After giving me a hug, she is desperate to know what we’re going to talk about. We settle on: everything.

The first really big question: how have the last few weeks been for her? “I’ve been going from this feeling of it feeling surreal, ‘What happened?’ To this overwhelming, happy feeling,” she says. “Every now and then I just think, ‘What the f**k just happened? Did we seriously win that?’ I feel a lot of gratitude. Life is just… so interesting. A year back, if somebody told me, ‘You’re going to be on Eurovision, and you’re going to win’ I’d probably laugh my ass off, and say ‘That is never gonna happen, no, I don’t think so.’ But life changes so fast, I can hardly believe it. Now I’m here in London, doing what I love the most, meeting new people. You, and everybody, and creating music. What the f**k, man?”

(Photography: Azazel)

The star has been vocal about her initial reluctance for a possible Eurovision return. So much so that she originally turned down the idea of using fiery pop anthem ‘Tattoo’ for Melodifestivalen after being sent a demo. How different things could have been. “I was afraid,” she admits. “That was just my initial reaction [when asked to return to Melodifestivalen], because everything went so fast for us. First there was a song, and I loved the song. There was no talking about Melfest. It was just a beautiful song and I wanted to release it.”

From all directions, she was firmly nudged into entering it, in what turned out to be her fourth whirl at Melodifestivalen. “Initially, I said, ‘No, no, no, no!’ I usually do that when I don’t know the purpose of why I’m doing something. Initially, I said no, because I needed time to figure things out. When I say time to figure things out, what I mean is, I need to understand why I do things.”

Everything that happens in Loreen’s life acts as a test, she believes. The prospect of a Eurovision return is a prime example. “What is the story? What can I give you guys? Is this meant for me to do? If you’re at a crossroad, are you going to go right? Or are you going to go left? You can’t really rush into that. That’s why I said no. I said no for a while. I just thought, ‘How do I navigate this?’”

As time passed, signs it was lining up to be a good call started to appear, pointing in her direction. “They were beautiful, beautiful signs. The first was the song, the second sign was the people that I trusted around me, they were so happy whenever I said, ‘Yes’. There were so many positive things happening. People were happy and curious. That’s why I said yes, basically.”

There is such a strong sense of purpose that ripples through everything Loreen does. When she competed in Azerbaijan back in 2012, a country marred by its questionable human rights record, she was the only entrant to meet local human rights activists. She told reporters: “Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day. One should not be silent about such things.” An Azerbaijan government spokesman responded critically, calling for the contest to not “be politicised”, and demanded the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) prevent such meetings. But Swedish diplomats stayed firmly on her side. They replied that the EBU, the Swedish broadcaster SVT and Loreen had not acted against the competition’s rules.

“What I experienced in Liverpool, I didn’t experience in Azerbaijan,” she explains. “The vibe was completely different. Azerbaijan was tense. The dictator [Ilham Aliyev, who’s been in power since 2003] was so annoyed by me [laughs].” She’s absolutely loving looking back and remembering how she upset the higher powers of the 2012 host country. Her whole delegation was put on an effective house arrest. “My security said, ‘We think you should stay in the hotel’, because [Aliyev] was very annoyed by me doing all these things. Me and my producer, we celebrated. All of us in the delegation just said, ‘Is he annoyed? Cheers!’” as she mimics clinking glasses.

Top, bottoms by SINÉAD O’DWYER Shoes by KAT MACONIE (Photography: Azazel)

Loreen is publicly bisexual, coming out in a TV interview in 2017. Eurovision and the LGBTQ+ community have strong ties, too. Previous LGBTQ+ contestants and winners such as trans star Dana International, drag queen Conchita Wurst and Duncan Laurence have all found success in the competition. She loves her queer fans dearly, too. The ‘Euphoria’ singer told TV host Renée Nyberg at the time: “Many people are so focused on sex, on sexuality. Love is so much more. I usually say ‘Love is where you find it’”. When asked to clarify whether this meant she identifies as bisexual, Loreen said she “quite simply” was.

Unsurprisingly, she has LGBTQ+ fans messaging her all the time. “I absolutely love that. Queer or not queer, I don’t see that, I just see us as people with certain attributes. That’s why I say these are my people. We have the same mindset. The thing is, if somebody asked me, ‘What is freedom, what is feeling free?’, that is just doing exactly what you feel like, expressing yourself exactly the way you want to express yourself. Clothe yourself the way you want to clothe yourself, talk the way you want to talk. Don’t care about what other people think. This is true freedom.”

She goes on passionately: “This community, we know what freedom is about and what that feels like. If you compare it to another community where there are rules and regulations… where someone says, you need to talk like this and be like this, that’s a f**king jail! I cannot do that. For me, when somebody says, ‘You are weird’ to me, that’s [them saying] that I’m free.”

There’s the underlying influence of strong women in abundance in her family, too. This sense of fight from within feels destined to have left a dramatic mark on Loreen’s trajectory before she was even born. Her parents are both Moroccan and moved to Sweden in their teens. While Loreen was born in Sweden, her Moroccan heritage is extremely important to her. It’s taken a while to appreciate her rich cultural history in its fullness, but it opens up the chance for the most incredible part of our interview.

Jacket talents own. Top, trousers by ARAKHNE. Shoes by LANVIN (Photography: Azazel)

“The women from my mother’s mother’s side, these are real warriors. Historically, the women from my tribe, they’re called Berber.” She explains that this word comes from ‘Barbarian’, and adds: “They were called Barbarians by the Egyptians because they were so aggressive. The women were so aggressive. Isn’t that interesting?” She smiles: “The women from my tribe, they weren’t so interested in monogamy, but being in a relationship. Historically, they went out to the village in search of a man. ‘You’re coming with me,’ right? They did whatever they wanted to do. Then they said, ‘Ta ta,’ and they raised their children by themselves. This whole concept of husband and wife was never a concept. They used these women in war, because they were like, ‘Ahhhhhh!’”

This energy is “generational”, Loreen confirms, but that seemed obvious from the get-go, and especially reflective, she says, through her grandmother. “My great grandmother, my grandmother, all of these women, they had a life presented to them. They were told, ‘This is what your life is going to be like,’ by men, but instead, they were like, ‘F**k no!’ They fought for their freedom. My grandmother, she loved her husband, he died in the war. They wanted her to marry someone else. So, what does the bitch do? She says, ‘F**k no’.”

Her grandmother took her two children away to a different city, dressed as a man “with a kaftan and everything” and they fled, alongside her housekeeper. “I have pictures of her at home, seriously! She left everything behind, dressed as a man, so that nobody would notice her. She had a cousin in the next city, opened up a store, still dressed as a man, till she got f**king old. She raised those two children by herself with some help from her cousins and never married again. I have a picture of her; she didn’t stop wearing male clothes, she did until she died. The kaftan, the hat, the gold tooth. That was hardcore from my grandma!”

Loreen’s mum had her when she was just 16. She too was told to marry, and like her mother before her, she fled her family home, which gives us a similarly incredible tale. “They told her, ‘You’re going to marry because we’re poor. This man, he’s twice your age, or three times your age, but he’s good for you’. Again, she says, ‘F**k no’. It’s passed on through generations. Without knowing the language, without ever going to school, without even knowing how the world works.” Her mother grew up believing there were only three countries in the world: Germany, France and Spain.

Jacket, bottoms by SINÉAD O’DWYER (Photography: Azazel)

The unravelling of these “huge” stories leads her to repeat my initial question back to me: “So how was it, raised by these women? It’s a lot of pressure!” she laughs. “They have a lot of expectations of me. Like, girl, you better step up your game, change something in the world. It’s crazy to see what women can do. Women are so much more powerful, stronger than men are. That’s why we can have babies and s**t like that, just saying!”

It’s not just the women in her family who provide inspiration, but “all women within the industry that stand their ground”, she tells me. “You can tell when women are standing their ground and not buying into that whole concept of what a woman’s supposed to be. I’m not saying that women aren’t supposed to be sexy. Grace Jones, for instance, she owns her sexuality. She can run around naked. She’s still doing it! There are so many, not even just in the industry. All women [inspire me] because they’re taking positions for the next generation, they’re balancing things up. It’s necessary and it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. The shift is going to happen, and men will take a step back. The thing is, they’re longing for it, because they’re messing things up…”

Her Eurovision victory was Sweden’s seventh win, and means the nation will host the competition on the 50th anniversary of Abba’s 1974 win. Many fans are begging the group to make a triumphant return to the stage, but after Abba recently created the Voyage experience featuring avatars of themselves, surely that amounts to a deliberate act to make sure they’d never have to perform again? Loreen is convinced they will be at the event. If I were a bookmaker, I’d feel inclined to back her on this.

“They’re going to be there,” she insists. “Maybe not all of them, but they won’t miss it. I promise. How old are they? They all have their own lives. They haven’t really played together in a while. But I’m pretty sure that some of them will be there. Don’t tell them I told you!”

Before she returns to Eurovision again, there’s a giant 2023 in store for Loreen. With tickets for her ‘Tattoo’ tour selling out in literally seconds, it seems Loreen’s going absolutely nowhere. “I’ve been waiting for this tour for years,” she exclaims. “My fans are like, ‘Can you please come to England? Can you please come to Spain? Can you please come to France?’ and now I’m coming! Finally, I’m doing this, and with everything that’s happened with ‘Tattoo’ it’s just a perfect time. I’m longing for it. I’ve longed for it for many years. So it’s going to be nice. I’m a people’s person, I just want to connect.”

Connection is the key feeling again for Loreen. It all feeds back to her spirituality, which has been the dominant force in her life since she was a kid. I point out that there’s no better place for an artist to connect with all their fans than taking themselves on tour. “Yeah! because we gather,” she notes. “They’re there because they want to be there, and I’m there because I want to be there. It’s effortless.” Loreen is already full of ideas. She is, she reminds me, “a bloody creative” after all. “I’m working with the same team that I did ‘Tattoo’ with. It depends on the venues, but it’s going to be a visual performance, obviously.”

She’s heading straight to the studio after our interview. “I haven’t released that much music over the years,” but she promises that absolutely will change. “Now there’s a shift going on, there’s going to be a lot more releases, which is nice. This year and next year. My medium, she told me that!” A move to London is likely, too. “I think it’s actually going to happen. I’m pretty sure. Hello, London! I don’t know what it is, but it’s almost like the UK is a creative hub.” Her top picks of UK artists to work with? Labrinth and Burna Boy. Watch this space.

As our interview wraps, Loreen gives me a huge hug. She made a point of hugging the whole crew on our shoot day earlier in the week, too. It’s a warmth that exudes from her at every stage. “I know we’ll meet again soon,” she says before she departs. “I just know it will happen.”

Photography Azazel
Styling Anastasia Busch
Makeup Ciara DeRostie at Gary Represents using NARS
Hair Carl Campbell at Carol Hayes Management 
First Photography Assistant Kai Jadwat
Second Photography Assistant Elena Santolaya
Fashion Assistant Rachael Adegoke