Thursday 19 September 2019

'I always felt like sexism was just accepted as part of my job' – meet former girl band member taking a stance for female empowerment

Kelly Donnelly’s new song and video championing female empowerment is garnering traction across the world.  The former girl band member tells about forging a solo career as A Girl Called She, a powerful persona born of her experience of becoming a mother

Kelly Donnelly
Kelly Donnelly
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

A music video from the artist A Girl Called She, aka singer songwriter Kelly Donnelly, is garnering traction online, attracting 3.3 million views on Facebook and over 160,000 views on YouTube, and has been shared by celebrities from Fearne Cotton to Holly Willougby, Angela Scanlon and Aisling Bea. Not bad for an independent artist without the backing of a major label.

What makes the video for the track I Am She remarkable is that it is, she claims, the first ever ‘unblockable’ music video, using technology from censorship circumvention software tool, Lantern, which allows  it to be viewed all over the world including in censored regions like Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Given I Am She’s message of female empowerment, solidarity and strength, it’s an appropriate project to claim that first.

Kelly may be familiar to fans of noughties pop as Kelly Beckett, a member of Paradiso Girls, who were signed to Interscope Records.  The group split in 2010 after six long years together, prompting a new phase for Kelly.

“When the band didn’t work out, to be honest I was burnt out.  I was super happy for the experience and opportunity I had been given but I was ready to do something else,” she says.

“It’s hard being in a manufactured band. You don't get any say in the songs you sing or what you want to wear or sometimes even your own opinion on things. It can feel very suffocating.  After the whole experience I thought was done with music. I just wanted a break.  I hated how the industry worked and treated women.”

Originally from Nottingham in England, Kelly was now based in LA and worked in TV presenting for a time. She got married, to LA-based Navan man Niall Donnelly six years ago (when they initially met in London his words to her were, “I’m a cheeky Irish fecker, let me take you out sometime” – she could not resist!) and it was when she became pregnant with their son Wilde (named after Oscar) that Kelly began to contemplate making music again.

Kelly and Niall on their wedding day
Kelly and Niall on their wedding day

“I've said this before but I honestly believe his birth was my rebirth. Being a mother gave me the confidence to go back into music. I thought to myself, if I can grow a human inside me then anything else is achievable,” she reveals.

“I also started to look at the world differently. I wanted music I could relate to as a 37-year-old woman and mother, that spoke to me and the thoughts and feelings I had, that’s not necessarily about going out to the club, or boyfriends and breaks-ups. I couldn't find what I was looking for so I decided to make it myself.”

Kelly wrote I Am She with her friend and writer/producer Joe Janiak when Wilde was just six months old.  She wanted to write a song to celebrate women and mothers, in particular.

“I think the patriarchy's view on strength is often seen as physical. But I just thought to myself I'm surrounded by all these awesome women growing little humans inside them and raising the future. We are warriors as well. We have an inner resilience and power that often goes unnoticed. I wanted to highlight that,” she says.

“I wanted to give women and mothers an anthem that they could play on their way to work or the school run that would make them not only do some cheeky fist pump in the air but remind them that they are enough.  We are all in this together and doing our best.”

She found out she was pregnant with their second child before shooting the video for I Am She, and motherhood has given her a different perspective.

Kelly Donnelly
Kelly Donnelly

“Little things like what would people think about me no longer bothered me. That's why I thought f**k it. I'm 37, a mother, I still am relevant and I should be able to sing songs that are relevant to me and other women. So that's what gave me the confidence to go ahead with the project. And the response from women around the world has been overwhelming. So I know I have made the right choice.”

A friend of Kelly and Niall’s, LA-based Irish director Stevie Russell, came up with the concept for the video.  Kelly gave him free rein but had one request – that he use real women of all sizes, ages and colours and not to airbrush anybody. 

A still from I Am She
A still from I Am She

While it’s not about “bashing men”, she says it is a reaction to MeToo and Time’s Up; “How could it not be?” she says. While she has never had anything “crazy” happen to her in the music industry she says, “I always felt like sexism was just accepted as part of my job. We had to just shut up and be grateful for the opportunity. The music industry is run by men so I feel if more women were record execs or had positions of power within the industry then that boys' club attitude would have to change.”

However, she feels positive about the future and making change, and references Ireland voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment earlier this year as an example of progress.

“I felt so proud of Ireland earlier this year for people using their voices and votes to repeal the Eighth. This is a major achievement for the country. It shows young women and girls that they have a choice over their own bodies,” she says.  “My Irish friends were buzzing after the results and it has prompted them to carry on the conversation about gender equality and intersectionality discrimination as a whole, which can only be a good thing.”

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