Girl Crush Pop: West Coast-Based Musician With Midwestern Grit Meets So-Cal Levity

 In Culture, Feature

Cover Photo by Elijah Henderson

Mix a Christina Aguilera voice with a self-parodying, hyper-femme aesthetic, and you have the sequined spectacle of Girl Crush Pop (otherwise known as Ella G’Sell—in full disclosure, my younger sis). But beneath the candy-hued Valley Girl surface, Crush is outspoken on how her unassuming St. Louis roots have informed her professional journey. Working a series of odd jobs throughout college (dancing at the former Rum Jungle on the Landing, greeting gamblers at Argosy Casino Alton), she studied communications and theater at Fontbonne University prior to launching her L.A. career. Making a name as a solo artist under the “Girl Crush” moniker, she’s dropped video after video on YouTube, while also penning music for Showtime, Comedy Central, ABC and the Discovery Channel.

At this year’s Grammys, Crush’s self-designed “ball-gown”—covered in plastic ball-pit balls and repurposed from a quinceñera frock found in downtown L.A.—landed her on every major Best / Worst Dressed list. She is now focusing on her role as executive producer for a forthcoming reality television series, “Momshells,” which focuses on how mothers in entertainment form nurturing communities despite a cutthroat, often antagonistic industry. I caught up with Crush in the days leading to her performance at St. Louis’ Grey Fox Pub on May 28th. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

How do you think your Midwestern upbringing has shaped your character and approach to the notoriously fickle entertainment industry?
I think that in the Midwest, the things that people value—and what I was taught to value—are often very different from the West Coast, especially in this industry. Los Angeles is a great city—it is beautiful in wonderful ways. But too often people find their value there through getting a certain audition or driving the latest car. I didn’t even realize there were so many different status symbols, which a lot of people hold onto as a key part of their identities.

If you come to L.A. trying to find your self-worth from these things, that’s a great way to become disillusioned or disappointed. It’s called tinsel town for a reason; it’s shiny on the outside but not always within. In knowing your value is from within, and from your relationships with people—people who care about you for you rather than what you can do for them—it’s easier to survive and thrive here.

To value relationships as relationships, rather than as a form of moving up the ladder?
Exactly—looking at people as individuals, not as tools to your own advancement.

What responses from industry professionals do you hear when you tell them you’re from St. Louis? How do you respond?
Some people assume I’m a farm girl, and I get asked if I used to milk cows [laughs]. People can equate the heartland with farmland and nothing else, but those people tend to be less-informed. Those who know what St. Louis is about usually ask about the rap scene—Nelly, Chingy, J-Kwon—and I’ll tell them I was a hip-hop dancer at the time that St. Louis really got on the map. I’m actually still in touch with my dance crew. We’re all still friends.

How has your approach to songwriting and performance evolved with your career?
When I first came out to LA, I was writing more confessional singer-songwriter music. I was really “married to the art,” as it were, trying to be authentic. It wasn’t about professional success so much as being an artist. But after I had my son, it was more about the business and creating my own brand. And it’s worked—I’ve gotten a lot farther by viewing the music industry as an industry and not as a creative playground.

You’re not only a performer, but a stylist and fashion designer. How much does your aesthetic inform the art direction and costumes in your videos?
With all my videos, I’m actually most proud of producing them. I write the music, sing and collaborate with talented people, but the thing I enjoy most is having a vision and putting all the pieces together.

Which was your favorite to produce?
Probably “Call Me Trouble”—it was such a fun shoot. I often cast my girlfriends in my videos, and we had such a blast making it. Some of the videos are done fairly haphazardly, even if they look polished in the end. The video for “Barbie Girl” was shot in increments while my son was in pre-school for three hours a day. It was wild, putting the pieces together.

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Tell me about how you thought up that dress for the Grammys.
I’ve been making my own clothes for quite a while, going all the way back to growing up in St. Louis’ South City with my three sisters. If I didn’t have access to what I thought were the coolest designs, I decided to make them myself. Back then, I’d often give sketches of my designs as holiday gifts.

I’m pretty crafty, which really helps in terms of performance—and the red carpet is a form of performance. I don’t have to spend couture prices because I’m making it all myself. For this year’s red carpet at the Grammys, I wanted to make a splash in a bigger way than I had in the past. Early winter, I had a dream that I was wearing a dress made of ball-pit balls and that it was an international sensation. I woke up thinking, “Okay, I’m gonna do this!” So I went online and ordered 1200 ball-pit balls.

Whoa. How did you go about finding them?
You can get anything on the internet! [laughs]. I dropped about $400—which is still very cheap for a red-carpet look. But I ended up only using half of them, and returned six hundred of them later. I only had a month to make it.

How did you discover that the “ball-gown” was blowing up?
Nothing is for certain, and I didn’t know on the red carpet what the response would be. After the Grammys, like a lot of people, I was really hungry [laughs]. I went to this pub and had some vegetarian hot wings when some of the flat screens above the bar started featuring my dress. Just a half hour after the event was over, there was a rainbow splash across all the screens and I was like, “Hey, that’s me!”

At that point, I knew it was mainstream. I didn’t know how many outlets would pick it up, but I knew it was happening. I got so many text messages and phone calls—not just in LA, but also from my hometown, which was going crazy. I didn’t go to celebrate at any after-parties, actually, but picked up my son and went to bed!

The dress seems to go with a kind of neon sensibility cultivated over the years. How did that develop?
Initially, probably because of my son. I was around kid stuff all the time, which tends to be really brightly colored. As an adult, those colors aren’t always accepted. But I genuinely like fun, bright clothes. As I grew older, I started feeling more comfortable in my own skin, and I gravitated towards neon as less artifice but a real reflection of what I like and who I am.

What role has over-the-top femininity played for you in creating the Girl Crush persona? At first it seems the opposite of what I know to be your more grounded personality.
Being from St. Louis, I was always the one who had a unique aesthetic and didn’t follow trends. But with Girl Crush Pop, the bright colors and bright lights are all part of the brand. I have a pretty big female fan base, many of whom are quite young, and when they write me and I write them back, it’s very real and unfiltered. I’m all about girls being positive and not trying to tear each other down but lift each other up.

I think a lot of my perspective, and aesthetic, is shaped by my upbringing. When I was growing up, if you wanted to buy a new outfit, you better go shovel snow or dig some weeds to make some money. With Girl Crush, all the videos and performances are very low-budget. And I don’t mind if some of the costumes don’t look ultra-refined. I’m a fan of glamorous camp—it’s attainable, and it’s fun. In that way, it is down-to-earth. Because it’s very DIY. And I tell people that.

Tell us about your show in St. Louis on May 28th. I hear it involves drag queens?
Oh, yes! I’m very excited about this. I actually had been to Grey Fox in the Grove for a bachelorette party for my high-school BFF, and the drag queens were so awesome. They roasted her really well, and I thought, “This will be a fun place to do a show.” I’ll be performing a mash-up of my most popular songs, and then the drag queens are going to perform to my songs, then roast me in front of everyone. I’ve gotta go in there with a thick skin. I’m very easy to poke fun of, so I’m sure they have tons of stuff to draw from.

What are you really excited about right now?
These days, I’m really excited about shifting from performing to producing. I recently created a show called “Momshells”—inspired by my own life, and many of my friends. On the outside, like Girl Crush, it’s kitschy. Like, “Look how fabulous these moms are,” but the premise of the show is to expose how these women balance motherhood with work in the industry. There’s the stereotype that after you have a child, you can’t perform anymore. After I had my son, people would even ask me, “Are you still singing?” which felt obnoxious to me. At one point I was in a burgeoning girl group and a prospective manager wanted to cut two of the women because they “looked like moms.” It was so sad that “mom” was a slam. I want the definition of mom to be badass, because moms are badass.

Recently “mom” has become a hip complimentary adjective. Seems like you’re hopping on that wave.
Yes—at the heart of the show, it’s about what these women go through. The audience will see us in our multiple modes—mommy mode and glam mode and everything in between. A lot of times social media only shows the done-up part of motherhood. But I’d like to show the multiple layers of being a mom. No one watching my “Bow on It” video would have known that I was nursing my son at the time it was being shot, and that’s why my tits look so good! But the reality is that you can do both, and more people—men and women—should know that.

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