Leigh-Anne Pinnock sits across from me in her manager’s office, curls piled in a half-bun on top of her head, dressed from head to toe in green. It’s Pinnock’s favourite colour – one of the many details shared in her memoir, Believe, written in collaboration with author Natalie Morris.

For the last decade, Pinnock has enjoyed phenomenal success as a member of Little Mix, the girl group formed on The X Factor in 2011. From the outset, Little Mix were underdogs, expected to exit the competition in the first week. Against all odds, they became the first band (and only girl group) to win. Against even greater odds, the four-piece went on to stake their claim in the pop history books as one of the UK’s biggest ever girl bands, racking up billions of streams, five chart-topping singles and three Brit awards, including best British group in 2021 – the first ever win for a girl group in that category.

Pinnock’s life story, a working-class-to-riches yarn about a young girl whose dreams of pop superstardom came true, reads like a fairytale. And indeed there are touches of magic sprinkled through the pages of Believe. But in every fairytale there are malevolent forces at work, and Pinnock spends much of the book trying to overcome the racism that tarnished her experiences.

“I always used to say: ‘Should I feel like this, having accomplished my dream?’” says Pinnock. “Why do I feel like I might as well not be here sometimes? Why does it feel like I’m not being noticed? Why do I feel invisible? Why am I not appreciated like the others? It just didn’t feel right.”

Believe paints a picture of Pinnock as a shy, reserved child who matured into a reliable, hard-working head girl. She always wanted to be famous – and was instilled with the confidence to chase fame by her parents, who told her she was capable of achieving anything. “I wanted to be a massive pop star and everything that comes with it. I expected what you saw in the movies: red carpets, fans screaming your name,” says Pinnock. Auditioning for The X Factor put her on the fast track, but reality hit almost the moment the group was formed, with fame feeling to Pinnock like a potent cocktail of rejection, self-doubt and loneliness.

It stemmed, in part, from the clear disparity between the way she was received by fans, compared to her bandmates Perrie Edwards, Jesy Nelson and Jade Thirlwall. It is perhaps inevitable that members of a band will find themselves ranked by popularity, but as “the Black girl” in a predominantly white pop group with a predominantly white audience, Pinnock was dealing – silently – with a problem that was not quite so clear cut. And yet, despite warnings from older Black people in the entertainment industry who had already trodden the well-worn path she herself was heading down, it was a long time before she allowed herself to consider that she may have been subject to “painful and frequent” rejection for no other reason than her race.

Leigh-Anne (second left) with Jesy, Jade and Perrie in Little Mix, 2011

“I internalised that I was the problem and it made me lose my confidence,” says Pinnock now, outlining the hoops she jumped through in an effort to bridge the gap. She took extra vocal lessons, worked harder in the dance studio, tried to speak up more in interviews and cycled through a number of different aesthetics, desperate to carve out an identity that appealed – losing her authentic self in the process. “I was the girl who would light up the room,” she says, her voice breaking. “The other girls would always describe me as kind and caring. Everyone could see my character. Why would the kind, caring girl be treated that way? It never made any sense to me.”

Nine years would pass – nine years of coping with anxiety about meeting fans and performing to audiences who were indifferent to her presence – before Pinnock began to accept that the issue wasn’t personal. Believe opens on the moment, in March 2020, when Little Mix made their first visit to Brazil. The majority of the fans that showed up for their headlining festival performance were Black, and Pinnock recalls the overwhelming wave of emotion she felt when she heard thousands of people chanting her name for the first time. “I always knew there were Black women out there that I was touching, but I didn’t see them. They were not at shows or fan events,” she says. “Brazil was monumental in helping me understand everything I’d been feeling in terms of being undervalued and unseen. It confirmed what I was feeling. But it didn’t take the pain away, because it kept happening. I came back to the UK and I was still feeling it.”

A few months later, at the height of the pandemic, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minnesota, and the world began to reckon, openly, with the impact of racism. Privately, Pinnock had already begun to unburden some of the weight she had been carrying over the years, confiding in bandmate Thirlwall, whose mother is of Egyptian and Yemeni heritage, and some of the backing dancers she had close relationships with. But publicly, she had never spoken about race. Floyd’s murder, and the unprecedented surge in awareness that followed, prompted her to share her own experiences in an emotional video posted to her Instagram account.

The response was overwhelmingly sympathetic and Pinnock felt empowered to make a difference. She made a documentary with the BBC, Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop & Power, but found herself embroiled in a backlash when the project was initially announced under the working title Leigh-Anne: Colourism & Race. As a light-skinned Black woman (Pinnock’s parents are both mixed-race, and she has both Jamaican and Bajan heritage), she was perceived as the wrong person to lead a discussion about the nuanced ways that white privilege affects the Black community, and dark-skinned Black women in particular.

The backlash was misplaced. When the documentary aired, Pinnock sat down with fellow Black artists – including Keisha Buchanan of the Sugababes and Alexandra Burke, who won The X Factor in 2008 – to pull back the curtain on the varying degrees of discrimination they had faced throughout their careers. When Pinnock wonders whether she would have even been in Little Mix if she were dark-skinned, Buchanan thoughtfully responds by observing the perceived “cool” of Black culture and the cynical creative decisions made at executive level in the music business: “Of course being mixed race … is more acceptable and palatable. I don’t know if this is a compliment or not, but definitely you were chosen for your ‘Blackness’.” One of the film’s most enlightening scenes, the exchange neatly summarises how systemic racism reduces Black people to their race first, their individual personhood becoming a secondary consideration.

“It hurt me more to get stick from my own community than it did to read a racist comment on the Daily Mail,” says Pinnock, reflecting on the documentary’s clumsy roll-out. Not using her platform for good, though, is “not in my nature. I know I’m helping some people, and I know I’m doing a good thing, and I’m going to continue to do that. And one thing I’m 100% going to do is talk about light-skinned privilege. I truly believe it’s helped me to get to where I am today.”

Leigh-Anne Pinnock

Sharing her story with Morris was new, but not completely unfamiliar, territory. “When I’m writing songs, I walk into rooms and have to tell my deepest and darkest to people I’ve never met before, which is weird, but Natalie is amazing and we clicked instantly,” says Pinnock. “It was really heavy, but it was a really lovely process. She just got it.”. She sometimes feels torn over how much airtime she needs to dedicate to the topic of her race –“Another interviewer asked me if I was sick of having to speak about this – a white artist wouldn’t have to do it” – but, she says, she would be doing herself a disservice to revert back to silence. “I wanna be able to speak my mind on things and not be scared to say how I’m feeling in this moment.”

Today, Pinnock is in a new phase of life, personally and professionally. In 2021 she and her then fiance, footballer Andre Gray, welcomed twins – the couple were married in Jamaica this past summer. After Nelson left the band in 2020, the three remaining members of Little Mix went on indefinite hiatus after wrapping up a sold-out arena tour in the summer of 2022. Earlier this year, Pinnock signalled a new musical direction by launching her solo career, with the garage-influenced Don’t Say Love.

Like many pop group members who have struck out on their own, Pinnock is relishing the fact that she no longer has to compromise with other people. “Five years ago we had no plans to go solo. We loved the group, we thought we were going to be in Little Mix for ever,” she says. “But after so long, you do start to wonder what it would be like to do something of your own, I guess. I can write whatever I want to and do whatever I want to do.”

Understandably, Pinnock is now keen for fans to hear “different sides” of her artistry. She is immensely proud of her latest release, My Love, a dynamic, Afro-pop anthem produced by PRGRSHN and frequent Ariana Grande collaborator, Khris Riddick-Tynes. The song also features Nigerian artist du jour – and Little Mix fan – Ayra Starr.

“I was listening to the radio the other day and [My Love] really does stand out. I feel like I’m carving something out here,” says Pinnock. The video for the track, shot in Lagos, Nigeria, is a riot of colour and movement with Black people front and centre throughout – a marked difference from Pinnock’s time in Little Mix, where she was often the only Black person in the room. “I went through so much of my career not being able to be around other Black creatives, not being able to offload or relate,” she says. “I felt like I was alone a lot of the time. That’s why it’s so important to me now.”

Although she has made great effort to re-establish her roots, Pinnock is now struggling with a new kind of disconnection. She recently learned that decision-makers at a major UK radio station had deemed her solo efforts “too pop”, and declined to add her single to their playlists.

Once again, she finds herself adrift. “Where do I sit now?” Pinnock asks. “I’m still a pop girl at heart, but I want to explore the music that I love – music I grew up listening to, that is a part of me – and incorporate that into my work. I want the Black community to know me, and I want to be accepted in those spaces, without being put in a box.” Her story is a vivid illustration of the unavoidable race trap – how it limits and constrains Black people, and our society at large. “I want to be able to speak about it because it needs to be spoken about, but I don’t know if we’re gonna see a change in our lifetime. That’s what’s tiring about it,” Pinnock says.

Fortunately, everything Pinnock has endured so far has set her in good stead to face the future. The confused young woman who contorted herself into impossible shapes, trying to fit into the mould, is far more inclined to break it these days than agonise over why it doesn’t accommodate her. “I know that not everyone is going to love me, or buy into me as an artist and that’s fine, because I’m so proud of what I’m doing,” she says. “I feel like I’m owning who I am more than ever. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now if I wasn’t.”