Estelle Swaray — she of the megahit “American Boy” — has learned a thing or two about music and fashion. Regarding the former, the West London native knows to skip over her ballad “Back in Love” during her concerts (“I did it one time and I think I put the audience and myself to sleep”) and to end with her most famous, Grammy-winning jam (“I can sell them [“American Boy”] through the whole show”). Sartorially speaking, Swaray, who uses only her given name professionally, realized “that you shouldn’t wear silks, satins, those kind of materials, ’cause once they start sticking and you start seeing sweat patches, it’s the most unattractive thing on the planet."
There have, of course, been myriad other lessons learned since Swaray’s first U.S. album, “Shine,” dropped last year, catapulting the rapper-R&B singer to top 40 stardom and onto the pages of glossies including Interview, Elle and Vogue. Chief among those lessons: the value of an original look. For Swaray, this meant hewing to sexed-up Fifties polish — think upper-thigh-grazing shifts; poufy, cleavage-bearing frocks; trench coats, flashy baubles and an asymmetric haircut. “Audrey Pepa” is what she calls her stylistic hybrid: Audrey Hepburn’s crisp elegance crossed with Salt-N-Pepa’s brash vibe. “I’ve always dug Audrey Hepburn,” she says. “I think she’s one of the classic beauties. And Salt-N-Pepa is just me and my outspoken, need-to-say-some-s--t side.”
Clearly for Swaray, fashion speaks volumes. “When I started my whole thing, I was like, ‘I want to have a look,’” says the singer, who left London for Manhattan shortly after she scored a record deal with John Legend’s HomeSchool Records in 2006. (She now lives in Brooklyn.) “When I was growing up, [musicians] always had a look. It wasn’t just clothes you wore down the street.” Back in 2004, when her first album, “The 18th Day,” made its debut in the U.K. on Richard Branson’s V2 Records, Swaray’s look was “a bit more hip-hop, a bit more tomboyish,” she says. Things changed when she “hit 25 and was like, you know what? These boobs and these legs ain’t going to look like this forever.” Skin, “boobage” and legs, then, all figured prominently in the Holly Golightly-from-the-hood image she crafted for the release of “Shine.” “That was my thing that I was gonna do,” she says bluntly. “No one else was doing it.”
That is, until now. “Everyone and their auntie is doing Fifties [dresses] and corseted dresses and doing half a head shaved,” says Swaray. For the record, she recalls — half jokingly — rocking that hairstyle back in 2005, “when [Rihanna] was chilling in Barbados.” And so, goodbye, Audrey Pepa.
Hello, “Minnie Tantrum.”
“I think it’s just another level of confidence,” Swaray says of her new alter ego, which takes its name from the cartoonish voice Swaray adopts when she “takes the piss out of people.” Jumpsuits and slinky dresses are new essentials, as are separates including harem pants and sharply tailored jackets. (Her shoe fixation — she owns more than 400 pairs, taking up “90 percent of my house” — is unchanged.) And while she mentions Bianca Jagger, leggy entertainer Lola Falana and blaxploitation film star Tamara Dobson in conversation, Swaray distills her fashion m.o. into a practical one-liner: “Chic, nothing too crazy, nothing too clingy — just 100 percent free.” Adds the singer: “[Before], I was having to prove my point at every single step of my day, while still having to be classy and be a lady. Now, I have no energy for it; I just want to live.”