ELLE Digital Cover Star Dua Lipa Says “If It’s Not Fun, I Don’t Want It”

The first time Dua Lipa went clubbing, she was just a wisp of a tween girl in Kosovo. The UK-born pop star realises how absurd it sounds as she explains it. Seated in her home office in London, flanked by shelves teeming with books, she thumbs through her phone for a blurry image of a photo from that fateful night—as if to prove to the two of us that it did indeed happen. At the centre of the photo is a young Lipa dressed in white crochet, smiling brightly next to her much taller cousin and an entourage of stylish women.

Clubbing is a Lipa family tradition; it’s also why she wasn’t fazed when, while out one night on the Lower East Side with Charli XCX, she ran into her parents partying at The Box. “We celebrate everything and anything, and we just love a party,” she explains. “When I go to my aunt’s house, it all starts off pretty tame.… Then the music comes on, and we’re all dancing in the house. And that’s a Tuesday!”

On Dua Lipa: Dress, bra, brief and boots, all by Dior. Earrings by Tiffany and Co

Now 28, Lipa has since made a name for herself as Britain’s leading lady of disco. On the dance floor, she plays an almighty oracle, a savvy young agony aunt for lovelorn club kids, desperate for the sobering real talk she’s dispensed in hits like her 2017 summer jam “New Rules,” and “Don’t Start Now,” a cutting kiss-off from her 2020 sophomore record, Future Nostalgia.

But long before she penned feminist electro-pop smashes that now stream by the billions, her family knew her as just Dua, their precocious eldest daughter who left Kosovo as a teen to fulfil her pop star dreams by herself in London. That’s when she fully harnessed what she calls her “big sister energy” in her life and music; one can hear it now in the unshakable authority with which she sings her songs.

On Dua Lipa: Dress, bra, brief and boots, all by Dior. Earrings by Tiffany and Co.

“She is such a big sister,” says songwriter Caroline Ailin, who first recognized Lipa’s insightful nature when they met almost a decade ago. “You process your feelings [with her], but you also walk away feeling empowered.”

Lipa recently announced her upcoming new record, Radical Optimism, scheduled for release in May. She landed on the title after a friend introduced her to the concept—seeking the silver linings in an otherwise challenging world—which seemed to gel with her ethos, as a person and an artist. “It struck me,” she said in a press statement, “the idea of going through chaos gracefully and feeling like you can weather any storm.” 

On Dua Lipa: Dress and pumps, both by Marc Jacobs. Earrings by Tiffany and Co. Tights by Calzedonia.

In the time she spent shaping her new album, Lipa decided she would first take her own advice and start calling all the shots: in her career, in her love life, and in her image. In 2022, she ended her longtime partnership with management and publishing company TaP Music, whose roster includes outsider divas like Lana Del Rey and Caroline Polachek. Lipa subsequently hired her father as her manager and bought back the rights and masters for her entire catalogue.

In 2023, she made her silver screen debut as a mermaid in the blockbuster Barbie, and recorded the movie’s Grammy-nominated party theme, “Dance the Night.” (Of the experience, she says, “Dressing up in a fishtail and saying, ‘Hi, Barbie!’ didn’t require any skills. I’ve always loved playing dress-up.”) 

She then dyed her hair black-cherry red last fall—not for any symbolic reason, but “so that when I don’t wear any makeup, I still feel like I’ve made an effort,” she explains. “I felt like Future Nostalgia was so glamorous. It was so much fun. But it was all glamour. So much colour and brightness. I don’t want to be as polished now.”

On Dua Lipa: Dress and pumps, both by Marc Jacobs. Earrings by Tiffany and Co. Tights by Calzedonia.

In February, Lipa inaugurated her liberated new era at the 2024 Grammy Awards. Gracing the red carpet in a custom Courrèges chain mail gown, her red tresses cascading past her shoulders, she channelled a dauntless warrior queen. She upped the ante with an outfit change before her performance at the awards show, emerging in a black leather corset and sheer sleeves, before scaling a metal cube with feline ease.

That night, she debuted the single “Training Season,” her newest song from Radical Optimism. A jaunty disco track with theatrical flourishes of acoustic guitars, synthesizers, and live drums, it shows Lipa ramping up her bravado. “Don’t wanna have to teach you how to love me right,” she sings, issuing a notice to any less-than-suitable suitors looking to waste her time: She’s in the big leagues now.

“I had gone into the studio and just said the line, ‘Training season’s over!’ ” Lipa recalls.

On Dua Lipa: Dress and pumps, both by Marc Jacobs. Earrings by Tiffany and Co. Tights by Calzedonia.

Written in November 2022, “Training Season” is a reflection on a string of dates and long-term relationships, mostly set up by her friends. Lipa’s previous relationships include Bella and Gigi’s brother Anwar Hadid, and French director Romain Gavras; more recently, she was spotted kissing British actor Callum Turner in West Hollywood. She speaks only obliquely of her love life these days, preferring to drop hints in song.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to write down what I want,’ ” she says of “Training Season.” “The power of manifestation and writing things into existence with the power of words. When you know your worth, you know what you want and what you don’t want.”

“I was talking about this with one of my dancers today, because she was going through a breakup—when I was single, I didn’t wish it away. And it’s during that period that you learn so much about yourself, you know, whether it’s going on a date or spending that time alone. In the silence, you figure out who you really are.

“As long as everyone knows where they stand, then you’re good,” she says with a shrug. “In the grand scheme of things, I was doing research.”’

On Dua Lipa: Bodysuit and cuffs, both by Maison Alaïa.

Radical Optimism was formulated with a crack team of co-songwriters and producers: Ailin, her trusted writer; Tobias Jesso Jr., hitmaker for Adele and Harry Styles; and Danny L Harle, PC Music alumnus and self-described “rave consultant.”

As a massive fan of the Australian psych act Tame Impala, Lipa also tapped bandleader Kevin Parker to join her personal Wrecking Crew in London. “We called it The Band,” Parker says. “Not an old-school band, but a spiritual band. Each morning going into the studio, I felt like I was in the Beatles!”

On Dua Lipa: Bodysuit and cuffs, both by Maison Alaïa.

Inspired in part by the freedom-seeking spirit underpinning UK club culture, Radical Optimism dovetails neatly with the recent resurgence of two nu-disco queens who rocked the clubs in the Y2K era: Kylie Minogue, who came back hard last year with “Padam Padam”; and of course Sophie Ellis-Bextor, whose “Murder on the Dancefloor” needle drop in Saltburn landed her on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time ever. In Radical Optimism, Dua Lipa brings together live and electronic instrumentals to fashion her own global groove. The result is a cosmopolitan dance-pop record with a 1970s flair, and a vibrant, resounding affirmation of life.

“Dua had this focus on finding this sound, which was so elusive,” Parker adds. “But it was nice to be in the engine room of the creative process, rather than worry about being the face of it. It was the experience that I’ve been waiting for.”

“Houdini,” the first single off the album, was born shortly after Parker teased out a bass line that he’d recorded for himself, weeks before their studio sessions. Lipa was quick to put her own stamp on it, introducing a moody post-disco melody. “She started singing, and it just immediately made sense,” Parker says. “This feeling of early-’80s sleaze, in some strange, dark, sweaty club. Gloriously suffocating. Hypnotic.”

On Dua Lipa: Jacket and gloves by Haimana. Tights by Wolford.

 Ailin has worked with Lipa since before they penned, along with Emily Warren and Ian Kirkpatrick, her 2017 breakout hit, “New Rules”—a dance-worthy laundry list of what-not-to-dos when an ex comes orbiting back around post-breakup. Venting about real life, Ailin explains, became essential to their creative process: “We have a little yap about what’s going on, and from that it turns into a pop song.” Lipa’s moments of unmanicured catharsis, Ailin says, are what yield her most penetrating lyrics; using the firm contralto of her voice, she imparts a pop wisdom that’s as incisive as it is compassionate. 

“That’s her superpower,” Ailin says. “It’s hard not to feel like you’re the strongest person next to her. I think she lends a little bit of that to all of us sometimes.”

On Dua Lipa: Jacket and gloves by Haimana. Tights by Wolford.

Born in London in 1995, Lipa is the eldest of three children in a Kosovar-Albanian family. Her parents sought refuge in the UK in 1992, three years before Dua was born, because of political instability in Kosovo at the time. Prior to their emigration, Dua’s father, Dukagjin Lipa, sang and played guitar in a rock band called Oda, and her mother, Anisa, studied law.

The Lipas settled in the Camden area of London, and Dua was raised to speak Albanian at home and English at school. Between formal singing lessons on the weekends, she’d revel in rock and pop records by artists like Stereophonics, Primal Scream, Robbie Williams, and Atomic Kitten. Edgy electronic classics by Moloko and Massive Attack were also highly influential when it came time to craft her own music, she says.

On Dua Lipa: Jacket and skirt by Chanel.

Dua’s family returned to Kosovo in 2006, while it was still under the supervision of the United Nations. The country declared independence from neighbouring Serbia in 2008, making it the youngest country in Europe. As she grew into her teens, Dua began to meditate on the horrific stories of ethnic cleansing and war crimes committed against Kosovar Albanians and others around the world. It prompted a critical perspective shift for her, one that informs her values to this very day—whether that means being a fierce advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, or calling for a humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza.

“I heard stories from friends [in Kosovo] who lost family members. Houses burned. I saw them. When you have that direct communication with people who have been through [war], it opens up a completely new world, and it did for me,” she says. “I feel very close to [those suffering] injustices in the world, or inequality. Whether that be war, or coming out to your family, everyone’s got a different experience.… It’s about support and learning together.”

On Dua Lipa: Coat by Maison Alaïa. Tights by Calzedonia. Earrings by Tiffany and Co. Platforms by Roker.

Despite having a great time with her cousins in a newly independent Kosovo, Lipa was only 15 when she returned to London alone to pursue a music career. She moved into a flat in Camden with an Albanian family friend who was attending university. After watching her younger siblings grow up themselves, it was a move that’s almost as unfathomable to her now as going clubbing as a young teen.

“I said to my parents: ‘I don’t know how you let me do that,’ ” she admits. “But I knew that I didn’t have the same opportunities that I would have in Kosovo. I was so determined. I think my parents saw parts of themselves in me, and that allowed for them to be so openhearted and generous with that trust.”

On Dua Lipa: Coat by Maison Alaïa. Tights by Calzedonia. Earrings by Tiffany and Co. Platforms by Roker.

By 17, she completed her GCSEs, or secondary school certification, and worked as a restaurant hostess to make ends meet. Besides being raised by resilient immigrant parents, working in nightclubs and bars as a teen inevitably steeled her for the misogyny and exploitation baked into a male-dominated music industry. If she sounds well beyond her years in her songs, it’s because she earned it. “When I started [songwriting], I worked at La Bodega Negra, a Mexican restaurant that looked like a sex shop,” she recalls. “I’d finish work, then go out to whatever nightclub was happening until, like, three in the morning. Then I would wake up and go to the studio until I had my shift again at, like, 8 p.m. The music I [made] was reflective of my every day, or every night.”

After ascending the charts with 2017’s “New Rules,” from her self-titled debut album, and 2018’s “One Kiss” with Calvin Harris, Lipa claimed the title of Best New Artist at the 2019 Grammys. She chased her success the following year with the release of her Grammy-winning sophomore album, Future Nostalgia, which leaked inauspiciously early on in the COVID-19 quarantine in late March of 2020. Despite the pandemic nearly extinguishing the club scene, Future Nostalgia became the singer’s first number one album in the UK, and rendered her one of the most-listened-to female artists on Spotify, with more than 10 billion streams for her first two albums.

On Dua Lipa: Coat by Maison Alaïa. Tights by Calzedonia. Earrings by Tiffany and Co. Platforms by Roker.

Upon wrapping her Future Nostalgia world tour in December 2022, Lipa finally had time to exhale, for what felt like the first time in her adult life. She embarked on extended getaways from the Mediterranean to India this past year, and relished dining experiences with her caravan of family and friends in tow.

After she posted her vacation photos on Instagram, the Internet began dubbing her the “Vacanza Queen,” poking fun at her for presumably going off gallivanting for months at a time. 

At first, the criticism felt dismissive of the years she spent without her family, toiling her way into pop superstardom. Yet perhaps it’s not just the glamorous photos from exotic locales, but also her efficiency as an artist that have concealed her hard work, making it seem magically effortless—the curse of being extremely capable all her life. 

On Dua Lipa: Coat by Maison Alaïa. Tights by Calzedonia. Earrings by Tiffany and Co. Platforms by Roker.

Lipa’s routine is still so regimented that it made an impression on Parker when they worked together in London. “Dua is like the most punctual person,” he says. “For most pop stars, it’s impossible to get to places on time. But Dua…she’s, like, apologizing profusely if she’s five minutes late!” (She even arrived 15 minutes early to the 8 a.m. photo shoot for this magazine.) Through her media company, Service95, a weekly email newsletter–turned–podcast–turned book club, she has interviewed the Afghan American novelist Khaled Hosseini and the rock ’n’ roll poet Patti Smith. She’s also co-executive producing Camden, a new documentary in conjunction with Disney+ that showcases the history of her home borough in London, and the many influential artists that grew up there, from Madness to Amy Winehouse. 

“I’ve been busy for almost 10 years,” she says. “Every single day, I’ve had some bit of work to do. But people are going to say something anyway. People say a lot of mean things about a lot of people.”

On Dua Lipa: Coat by Maison Alaïa. Tights by Calzedonia. Earrings by Tiffany and Co. Platforms by Roker.

And if being Vacanza Queen “is what I’m getting, then I’ll take it. Whether I’m performing or going out, if it’s not fun, I don’t want it,” she says. “You have to make room for joy. The world can be burning down, but goddamn…if you didn’t spend any of your life trying to be happy, I don’t know what you’ve done.”

For Lipa’s makeup look, try All Hours Foundation, Crushliner and YSL Loveshine Lip Oil Stick, all YSL Beauty.

Photographer: Dan Beleiu; Stylist: Patti Wilson; Hair: Ali Pirzadeh, Streeters; Makeup: Sam Visser, YSL Beauty; Manicure: Michelle Humphrey, LMC Worldwide; Set Design: Jabez Bartlett, Streeters; Choreographer: Ryan Chappell; Producer: WA Productions

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