We thought we knew the Amy Winehouse story. The gossip press, obsessed with her self-destructive rampages, documented every boozy blowout and run-in with the law until she was a caricature of a celebrity in a downward spiral. That Winehouse was bulimic since her teenage years was less well known, although I remember seeing lots of “Scary Skinny!” style captions under paparazzi photos of the singer walking around Camden in her trademark ballet flats, often looking intoxicated.
Her eating disorder wasn’t a secret, but it just didn’t get the same attention that her drug use did, at least until now. This week her brother, Alex Winehouse, told the press that he blames bulimia for her death, not substance abuse. In an interview with the Observer he said, “She suffered from bulimia very badly. That’s not, like, a revelation—you knew just by looking at her… She would have died eventually, the way she was going, but what really killed her was the bulimia.”
I think hearing this comes as a shock to people because it deviates from the meteoric-rise-and-fall-of-a-celebrity story that we’ve internalized. Winehouse may have died at 27—putting her in the romanticized 27 Club of other musicians like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain, who died tragically at that age—but her demons were around years before she got famous. It’s a good reminder that substance abuse and addiction often don’t come out of thin air. People who develop problems with substances often struggle with something else first—untreated depression, trauma, eating disorders—that don’t get resolved so they begin self-medicating.
Alex Winehouse’s interview is also welcome because bulimia tends to be a very private thing that individuals and families struggle with quietly. Hearing people talk publically about it—and how dangerous it can be—is important. “We all knew she was doing it but it’s almost impossible [to tackle], especially if you’re not talking about it,” her brother said. The Winehouse family has formed a foundation focused on drug and alcohol abuse and also recently donated money to Beat, an eating disorder charity. Alex told The Guardian “We had to support eating disorder charities because no one talks about it.”