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Little Mix's Jade Thirlwall praised for opening up on Arab heritage

British singer says she suppressed who she was; now hopes to be role model for younger fans going through similar identity crisis
"I had suppressed who I was because I wasn’t proud," said Thirlwall, pictured right with her mother (Vogue Arabia)

A member of the British pop group Little Mix has been praised over an interview with Vogue Arabia in which she spoke about her desire to rekindle her relationship with her Arab heritage and of her pride in her roots. 

Jade Thirlwall, 27, who is of Egyptian-Yemeni descent, told the magazine she now wants to make up for "lost time" and regrets not having been more open about her ethnic background or issues concerning Muslims. 

"I had suppressed who I was because I wasn't proud," she said.

"I had been bullied into thinking I should be ashamed of my identity, so I didn't talk enough about my heritage in interviews. It makes me sad to think about it now."

Thirlwall became a pop sensation after Little Mix won the music contest The X Factor in 2011.

Having moved to London to pursue a singing career at the age of 18, she describes how she was no longer seen as a "person of colour," which she had been bullied for after growing up in Laygate, South Shields, in the northeast of England.

"I used to get called the P-word, which I didn't understand as I’m not Pakistani," Thirlwall said in the interview.

"I was also called half-caste. During one incident someone pinned me down in the toilets and put a bindi spot on my forehead."

'Mecca-shaped alarm clock'

Thirlwall's grandfather, Mohammed, who came to England from Yemen in 1943, was an important figure in her life who made her aware of her Arab and Muslim heritage, despite not enforcing it on his family. 

The singer describes how Mohammed would tell her "beautiful stories about when he went to Mecca" and how she enjoyed spending time with him during Ramadan and would wait outside the mosque to wish him Eid Mubarak at Eid, the celebrations marking the end of the annual fasting month.

"It was important to him that I learned how to read and write Arabic, so every Saturday I went to Muslim school. I have fond memories of it," said Thirlwall, but she also describes how she was too young to understand the importance of that part of her education.

She recounts that her favourite memory of her grandfather was when she brought him a "Mecca-shaped alarm clock that played the call to prayer" and describes how he cried when he played it.

"It made me realise how powerful music can be," she said.

'Positive representation of an Arab woman'

Thirlwall describes how, when her grandfather died, she felt alone and how she lost "a part" of herself.

"He made me feel proud of who I was – he was my line of understanding to my Arab heritage."

Growing up with little representation of Arabs in magazines or on TV who looked like her granddad added to her disconnect.

She explains how she saw the misrepresentation of Muslims as terrorists but was too young and scared to speak out against it. "I regret now that I didn't talk about it more."

The singer says she is now making up for lost time and trying to embrace her background by returning to learning Arabic, learning more about her roots, and keeping aware of things happening in the region, such as the war in Yemen, which she says has "triggered a lot of trauma" for her mother, Norma.

"My mam and me have started looking into our culture more and it's something that is bringing us closer together," she said. 

"I get a lot of messages from Arab fans saying that they look up to me and that it's lovely to see positive representation of an Arab woman in pop culture."

The interview has been received positively online, with many people taking to social media to praise Thirlwall for her honesty and to recount their own similar experiences with their identities while growing up.

Others praised the magazine for giving a platform to the singer in order for her to focus on her Arab heritage and struggles. 

"It's important for me to use my platform to be a better person and raise awareness, especially about what is happening now in Yemen," Thirlwall concludes in the interview. 

"It's not being talked about enough. I'm striving to be a better role model for my fans and be an artist that I would've liked to have seen as a young girl."

Last year, Vogue Arabia, which became the 22nd edition of Vogue when its first issue was published in March 2017, honoured a number of Arab women representing the face of fashion and reshaping the industry with their diversity.