It was Julia Michaels’ second performance ever, and she was terrified. The singer/songwriter recalls that moment, performing at with Kygo at the 2016 Olympics closing ceremony in Rio, as a trial by fire experience. But she also had a secret weapon.
“I had a friend that made custom clothes,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘I want to look like Diana Ross!’ So, she made me that green glitter suit. Originally it had a cape that tied around the neck, and was super long and really flowy. But it was raining in Brazil, like pouring rain, and when we did our sound check, the cape started wrapping around my heel and getting stuck. So I ended up just wearing that green suit. I love I still have it in my closet. I'm never going to get rid of that.”
The glittery international debut was a long time coming. Although she had been singing and writing since the age of 12, it was penning the theme song for the children’s show Austin & Ally that ultimately served as her Michaels’ introduction to the industry. From there, she quickly blossomed into an in-demand collaborator during a series of co-writes with A-list talent, that includes Gwen Stefani, Demi Lovato, and Justin Bieber.
The glittery international debut was a long time coming. Although she had been singing and writing since the age of 12, it was penning the theme song for the children’s’ show Austin & Ally that ultimately served as Michaels’ introduction to the industry. From there, she quickly blossomed into an in-demand collaborator during a series of co-writes with A-list talent, that includes Gwen Stefani, Demi Lovato, and Justin Bieber.
But it was her debut single “Issues,” released in 2017 that officially marked Michaels as an artist to watch. The song, which laid out very real issues (“When I'm down I get real down/When I'm high I don't come down”), struck a chord, thanks in no small part to how honest Michaels had been about her own anxiety, which at one point threated to derail her career as both a writer and performer. While it is an oversimplification to say that wardrobe choices solved it, as Michaels notes, knowing she can go into an event and look the part has a calming effect.
“There’s nothing worse than you're doing something and not feeling comfortable in what you're wearing. Feeling like you’re not yourself,” she says. “I'm grateful that I have stylists that I've been working with for a really long time that understand me, that know my body, then know what I feel comfortable in and just know what I really like…most of the time I end up buying most of the things that I wear.”
Obsessed with Grace Kelly and fascinated by Rihanna, Michaels describes herself as fairly open when it comes to dressing for events—which is how she ended up in a series of pop-art and Go-go dancer-inspired outfits in her new video “Lie Like This.” She can even laugh at the occasional misstep. (She cracks up while remembering an ill-fitting dress she claims made her look like a “sexy loofa.”)
“I find a majority of the time I end up without a shirt on,” she laughs. “Underneath most of my suits, I don't know how that happened. But I think that's my way of sort of feeling like sexy and like bold and my because almost every video I've ever done I've been in a suit, literally! I think suits make me feel super like strong and sexy…I think my favorite red carpet look to date is probably my Grammy dress that I wore in 2018. I had on a lavender, line cut dress that was super puffy at the bottom, and had these beautiful butterflies, all over it. That was probably my favorite dress I ever wore.”
The butterfly motif is important to Michaels as a symbol of freedom and beauty. (Her eyes light up as she describes a vacation with her boyfriend JP Saxe, where they discovered a butterfly sanctuary in Santa Barbara.) She even has a blue butterfly inked on her biceps, along with a collection of tattoos that includes messages to herself (“I have ‘speak up’ on my throat because I don't speak up enough” she notes) and other assorted aesthetically pleasing pieces.
“Self-expression has always been just a really big medium for me,” Michaels says. “I’m covered in tattoos…When I got my tattoos, [people] were like, ‘Why would you do that? Your body is a temple!’ I'm like, have you ever seen a blank temple that isn’t covered in art?’”
But while waiting for the world to restart—and taking carefully socially distanced gigs, which recently included appearing as a celebrity advisor on The Voice and a performance on Late Night With Seth Meyers—the majority of Michael’s wardrobe is still quarantine mode. A fan of oversized sweaters and T-shirt, she praises Balenciaga, Gucci, and Harley Davidson, all which have become everyday wear. (“I live in my hoodies!” she laughs. “If I could be a turtle, and those hoodies, I absolutely would like if I could just go inside and have an apartment.”) It’s a uniform that she’s happy to share.
“JP steals my clothes!” she says. “He’ll come downstairs and he’ll be wearing my sweatshirt and I'm like, ‘Hey, that's nice.’ When we started dating he only had like a couple things in his closet because clothes were not his vibe. Since he started dating me, he's been very into it. He's collecting Air Force 1. I swear like once a week, there'll be a new pair of Air Force 1s at the house. I'm creating a monster.”
Although she’s happy to discuss fashion, Michaels makes it clear that it’s only a small element in her overall career. It can be hard to remember sometimes, between social media accounts dedicated to dissecting celebrity outfits and reporters eager to ask who wore it best.
“When I think about fashion I try to think just about fashion, she says. “It’s hard to as a woman. So much of what you do is reflected in what you're wearing. You start to feel a bit swallowed. I wear things that I love and that made me happy, and I try to focus on the music as much as I focus on the things that I wear on my body that make me happy. Weirdly it can sometimes pit women against each other, which I find so bizarre because I wholeheartedly adore everybody. It's not easy being a woman in this fucking industry, and to get to where you're going is fucking hard. I'm such like a I'm such a woman lover, my whole team is women. I love seeing people fucking succeed.”