Cover story

Kesha Knows Exactly What She Wants to Say

A decade of litigation. A recent health scare that nearly killed her. Our June cover star is done pretending she’s invincible. 
Kesha Is Setting Herself Free Cover Story
On Kesha: Top by Celine from Paume LA. Underwear by CUUP. Pants by Tibi. Hoop earrings by FSPR. Teardrop earrings by Tiffany & Co. Shoes by Adidas. 

Being onstage with Kesha looks different than you might picture. On an April afternoon, we’re seated on the dais of an empty auditorium at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles. The exteriors of the center’s buildings are stitched with arterial red vines, and turning every corner, you run into some plaque bearing an aphorism about the great meaning of the self in society. Inside, the lights are off. I can barely see the tiny freckles dappled all over Kesha’s bare face—her natural glitter.

Kesha sits on a hulking throne of carved wood and green velvet with her knees pulled against her chest. Between us is a stack of hardcovers with titles like The Magic in Your Mind and The Drama of Love and Death. Cheesing for a photo with her palm raised next to her face, prayer-card-style, she looks like a benevolent mystic, if that mystic wore thrashed white sneakers and jeans and had hand tattoos of a smiley face and the words Live Free. Lately, she tells me, “there’s a feeling of just really searching for who I am.”

The setting, and Kesha herself, feel far removed from the spangly artifice that first made her famous. Kesha’s star rose, in part, because of her extremely unsubtle cracked-disco-ball persona: You likely got to know her through auto-tune-heavy hits like her chart-obliterating 2009 breakthrough, “Tik Tok,” or 2010’s “We R Who We R,” on which she sings, “Got that glitter on my eyes, stockings ripped all up the side, looking sick and sexified.”

Looking back on the 2010s, Kesha acknowledges that she felt pressure to play up her approachably ribald, wild-child image. “My fans came to me for joy, and I didn’t want to disappoint them,” she explains. But…she also believed in joy, so she encouraged people to get sleazy, have fun, and, yes, live free. “I was really tapping into enjoying myself, and…just doing a bunch of silly, fun shit, and inviting people to join me in that,” she says. “I stand by having a safe place [at my shows] for people to be exactly who they want to be.”

That glitzy, feral charisma bomb is still a part of who Kesha is. Now, at 36, she also wants to talk about her more recent philosophies, which grounded and guided the creation of her new album, Gag Order, released on May 19. “It’s a really exciting time to feel like...people can look at the art I’ve made and really see my different phases of life, and a complete look at who I am,” she says. It’s even more exhilarating to see that herself.

On Kesha: Top by Goldsign. Skirt by Nguyen. Hoop earrings by FSPR. Teardrop earrings by Tiffany & Co. Shoes by Adidas. 

Kesha wrote Gag Order at the height of the pandemic, when, for the first period in her adult life, she was spending lots of time at home. In this new stillness, she faced feelings she’d long avoided dealing with, particularly around her self-image after years of external judgment. “I’ve lived in the public eye since I was 22,” she points out. In the absence of that constant attention, she started to contend with its effects. “I’ve had people dissect every part of me. And it can be embarrassing. It can be crazy-making,” Kesha says. One of her new songs, “Living in My Head,” focuses on the criticism she’s internalized over the years. It was written in the throes of a panic attack.

As she composed this record, Kesha wanted to dislodge the anxiety she felt about being inspected so closely for so long—and to take ownership over what she wants people to see when they do look at her. “With this album, it was the first time I shed real light on subjects that, previously, I was too nervous to. I didn’t want to bring people down—I really like to make people move their energy and dance and be happy,” she says. “But I was doing myself a disservice as an artist to just placate what I felt like people wanted from me. I had to shed light on the darker sides of what happens in my mind. This was me saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve had this self-imposed, implied gag order since I can remember, ’cause I’m still in litigation.’”

Yes, still. Since she was 27, Kesha has been hamstrung by a legal fight with her former producer and then Kemosabe Records label boss, Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald (a.k.a. Dr. Luke). In 2014, she filed a suit against him alleging sexual assault and battery and sexual harassment, among other charges. (Dr. Luke has publicly denied all sexual assault and harassment charges against Kesha.) The producer filed a countersuit for breach of contract and defamation, and they’ve been embroiled in litigation since. In 2016, a judge denied Kesha’s request to be released from her Kemosabe contract, citing “no showing of irreparable harm” to Kesha’s career. This means Gag Order, a record that squares with the limitations she endures related to these circumstances, is itself a Kemosabe product: Because of the way her contract was structured, Dr. Luke will profit from the songs Kesha wrote about her pain. His defamation suit against Kesha is scheduled to go to trial in July.

As much as she can within these strictures, Kesha is striving to be more forthright about what she’s going through, rather than trying to keep things hyper-positive for others’ sake. “I’ve never, ever been in touch with my anger, and my acupuncturist told me, ‘You need to go on a mountain and scream.’” At first, Kesha didn’t identify with that kind of fury—“I was like, ‘No, I really don’t feel angry,’” she says. But when she followed this advice, just to see, and poured her voice out in nature, she was surprised to find that, yes, she did feel angry—ferociously, explosively angry. She realized she needed healthy ways to regularly release the pressure valve on all the rage that had mounted inside of her.

On Kesha: Blazer by Tibi. Bodysuit by Heros. Skirt by Dion Lee. Hoop earrings by Jennifer Fisher. Shoes by Adidas. 

Sometimes, that looks like practicing ninjutsu, a stealth-focused martial art developed in feudal Japan as a warfare strategy. Sometimes, it means tapping into and reclaiming the Kesha we met back when she spelled her name with a dollar sign: “There are still moments when I absolutely want to slap a bunch of wild makeup on, put a wig on, put the heels on, and throw a cape on. It’s fun,” she says, laughing. “That’s the reason I did it in the first place! I didn’t quite think it was going to be so etched in stone as who I am.”

It also means expanding on what that person feels she’s allowed to communicate about who she is, more panoramically—and writing songs about how maddening it is to be muzzled by almost a decade of expensive, draining, and traumatizing court cases. On “Fine Line,” she sings, “All the doctors and lawyers cut the tongue out of my mouth.” Part of this suppression seems obvious: Other than asides like these in her work, Kesha can’t comment on ongoing litigation in public without potentially jeopardizing the possibility of a favorable outcome.

But what about the doctors mentioned in these lyrics? According to Kesha, this silencing was, in fact, her own response to a new diagnosis. In 2022, Kesha learned she has common variable immunodeficiency (CVID), a primary immunodeficiency disease that puts her at an especially high risk of developing recurrent, and potentially serious, infections. She’s kept this news private until now out of fear it would attract negative attention. “I just never wanted to be the whiny, privileged girl,” she says. “Also, my image had been that of going out and having fun.”

CVID is a lifelong condition that affects one in 25,000 to 50,000 people globally. Its causes aren’t well understood in a majority of cases, but it’s believed to stem from both genetic and environmental elements—so, mutations that affect cells in the immune system or external factors a person encounters in their life (though it’s not yet scientifically clear what, specifically, those are). In an estimated 25% of cases, like Kesha’s, CVID is associated with autoimmune issues, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy parts of the body while trying to protect it. This can trigger a host of other challenges, including symptoms like sluggishness and digestive problems as well as larger complications, like constant respiratory infections that can lead to other chronic conditions, like lung disease.

Initially, Kesha sought medical care because she felt alarmingly fatigued and run-down on a daily basis, which she assumed was a consequence of overextending herself. “When you’re lucky enough to have a song that catches on, you’re just trying to keep up. I had a really hard time saying no to interviews or photo shoots because I didn’t want to let my one chance fall away by not being able to fulfill every request. It led to severe exhaustion physically and mentally,” Kesha says. Though she obviously knew she wasn’t feeling well, most people with CVID don’t receive a diagnosis until their 20s or 30s—the disease is extremely varied in how, and how severely, its symptoms present over the course of someone’s life.

To preserve her health, Kesha had to do away with her yearslong practice of saying yes to everything and everyone. Instead, she’s decided to change course and try something novel: rest. Whatever you might remember about her snooze-when-we’re-dead bangers, her wee hours of the morning look quite different now. “I learned after my diagnosis that sleep is the most important thing. I took that for granted for, God, about 29, 30 years. I feel like I’m just playing catch-up on my teens and twenties, still. But I try to get as much sleep as possible, and I have to protect that fiercely,” Kesha says, adding that she schedules it as a nonnegotiable part of her daily agenda on tour.

Kesha is also in ongoing recovery for bulimia, which began with a two-month inpatient rehab stay in 2014. Thinking back to her decision to seek treatment, she says, “I had a particular moment with my eating disorder when the anxiety just got so high that I was not functioning. It was taking up so much of my brain space, from morning to night. I was obsessed with what I looked like, what went in my mouth, what size things were, and people’s approval.”

In her 2014 legal filing, Kesha alleged that Dr. Luke “cruelly and incessantly criticized” her weight. And in emails submitted to a New York court by Kesha’s legal team in 2017, he claimed that other people in the industry wouldn’t want to work with her if she didn’t lose weight: Dr. Luke wrote to Kesha’s then manager, “We all get concerned when she is breaking her diet plan… We have seen it happen multiple times...almost every day. It is also double concerning when the A list songwriters and producers are reluctant to give Kesha their songs because of her weight.” (Dr. Luke’s lawyer released a statement saying the emails were “out-of-context.”)

Ten months after she first checked herself into rehab, she filed her first lawsuit against him.

On Kesha: Bodysuit by Heros. Overalls by Tibi. 
On Kesha: Bodysuit by Heros. Overalls by Tibi. Shoes by Femme LA.

Contending with all of this—the seemingly never-ending lawsuits, the ongoing recovery, the CVID diagnosis, the screaming-on-a-mountain-grade rage—is already a lot to bear. But Kesha has something else knocking around in her mind.

Throughout our conversation, Kesha has audibly reminded herself that it’s okay to be candid when she wants to. “I maybe should be more nervous, or taking a microscope to every sentence that I’m saying from every angle, but I’ve done that for so long, and I just…. I’m done,” she says, sing-songing the last words and sighing. At one point, she cuts out of the room to check in with herself and see whether she means it—what I think is a bathroom break is actually a moment for Kesha to consult the mirror about how honest she feels equipped to be, she tells me when she gets back. Kesha resumes her seat on the mystic’s throne and inhales. She knows exactly what she wants to say.

“I almost died in January,” Kesha begins. She’s speaking deliberately, alternately staring into me and casting her eyes down. Last year, she froze her eggs. Some weeks after, on New Year’s Eve, she performed in the Bahamas, and after the show, she found she was too weak to walk. She went to the hospital, where doctors discovered that she had developed an uncommon yet serious complication from the fertility procedure, which they attributed, in part, to her weakened immune system. (Kesha chose to share some of the specifics off the record.) She was transferred to a hospital in Miami, where she spent nine days. “I finally feel recovered, but it took a couple months,” she says. “It was horrifying.” It was a wrenching outcome for a hugely personal decision—one she’d made because her album was coming out, and she wanted more time to think through what it meant to have a child in the world today without feeling rushed or distracted.

She clearly struggles with the question of whether to be forthcoming about a health issue—one that almost took her life—because she’s afraid of what people might say about what it means. She doesn’t want to be seen as prescriptive about pregnancy. As Kesha insists and emphasizes: She firmly believes people should decide whether, and when, to give birth on their own terms. “I just was taking my reproductive health into my own hands,” she says. “And I stand by everyone doing that and [honoring] your body.”

Kesha’s honoring hers by taking the simple but giant step of merely talking about her survival, even when it scares her. “Everyone probably has some semblance of feeling like you share what you’re going through, and, at the same time, it’s almost inviting people to have an opinion about it. I don’t have that perfectly mapped out,” she says. This moment in our time together encapsulates her consistent dilemma: When you’re a symbol, your life isn’t solely your own. When you’ve been typified and disbelieved so publicly, it must be hard to trust that people won’t see a life-threatening health emergency as somehow your fault, despite how cruel and wrongheaded that would be.

I’m willing tears back inside of my eyelids, because how rude, as Kesha tells me more about how she thinks through what she still wants to keep for herself. She’s protective of her bond with her boyfriend, whom she declines to name. “I didn’t really want to mention the relationship, because I think making a family is everyone’s choice, and family can mean so many different things to everyone,” she says, connecting her feelings about privacy back to her January health scare. “My family right now are the people I spend time with, and my actual family, and also my band, my friends, and my cats,” she says. When she sees that I’m politely accepting this as a dodge—a truthful one, but a dodge all the same—she can’t help clarifying: “But…he is amazing!”

Later, Kesha offers up a goofy, domestic look at their life together when I ask her an unrelated question about her daily routine. “The only thing I’ll say about my boyfriend is: Sometimes, he has to have a face cream intervention and take them away from me,” she says, laughing and suddenly inflated by happiness. “The other weekend, I thought it would be a good idea—this was not a good idea—to cover my body in castor oil and do a mask.” She broke out in head-to-toe hives, alarming her partner. “He was like, ‘What did you do?!’” That was it for her castor oil privileges.

On Kesha: Earrings by Ariana Boussard Reifel.  
On Kesha: Earrings by Ariana Boussard Reifel.  

Outside of encasing herself in skin care potions, taking care of her mental health informs Kesha’s routine every single day. “I have a support system in place [of therapists] that I speak to weekly or monthly,” she says. At home, she’s attuned to what she eats to not only help her bulimia recovery, but also because it makes her happy: “[After] not allowing myself to eat or enjoy food for so long in my life, I really turned a corner, and now, I fucking love food. I started cooking; I go to the farmers market.” When she tours, she maintains a routine that ensures she doesn’t lose sight of what she needs to feel her best. “I always have three meal breaks, ’cause being in recovery, I need to have time to sit and have a meal,” Kesha says. “I have about 30 minutes before I go on stage where I meditate, stretch, and do breathing exercises. People probably think I’m back there doing shots, and [my routine is] the most zen shit you’ve ever seen.”

Talking about her treatment energizes Kesha—her feet are back on the stage floor, and the pausing alto whisper of her speaking voice throughout our conversation grows closer to the unforced bravura I heard on Gag Order. It’s important to her that others know that eating disorder recovery is possible. “No one could have told me this 10 years ago, but…freedom from that obsession is there. It takes work to get there. But sitting here knowing that I don’t count any calories, I don’t know what my pant size is, and I don’t weigh myself is so beautiful.”

Part of her overall treatment means checking in with her body as a conduit for healing her mind. Kesha does eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. It involves moving your eyes and, sometimes, tapping on two sides of your body under a therapist’s supervision. The bilateral motions in EMDR are thought to help the brain reprocess a specific traumatic experience in order to try to heal from it—Kesha flicks her arms and gazes back and forth to show me how it works for her.

On a daily level, Kesha’s piecing together the small, component parts of happiness and well-being: She meditates. She exercises. She does her very best to open herself to the everyday ecstatic whenever she encounters it, like in the face of her cats (one of whom is named Mr. Peeps), an Erewhon smoothie, a slice of cold pizza, or in videos of her fans reacting to hearing her songs for the first time. Kesha knows life is painful. Just as much as she accepts anger and sadness and illness, she’s striving to let in whatever shred of bliss comes her way.

As a part of that, Kesha sends gratitude to the former selves that ushered this one into being. “One of my practices is, on the back of my phone, I have a picture of myself as a kid, and I have to look at it and send love,” she says. “I look back in the same way at pictures of me when I was 22.” It’s an enormous shift away from how she felt when she first saw herself in those photographs. The plan, this decade, is no longer striving to be imperfect in all the right ways, and thus untouchable—given all that’s happened, Kesha knows now how impossible and punishing that is.

Some things haven’t changed. Kesha has been a broad-strokes cheerleader for LGBTQ+ people throughout her career. “Only Love Can Save Us Now,” a track on Gag Order, was partially conceived as she observed the inequities that compound every day as queer and trans people are vilified and assailed across the US. “Saying it’s heartbreaking is not enough,” Kesha says, and she’s right—it isn’t. She’s trying to figure out what might be more actionable. “What I’ve accepted in my life is, you keep marching forward. I don’t have the answer, and I’m not a politician, but that’s the energy. It gets really exhausting seeing attack after attack after attack on the queer community,” she says. “And if there’s anything else that I can do, I’m available for that.”

In queerness, Kesha recognized the communion that often felt out of reach when she was a kid in Tennessee. “One of the biggest issues in my life was growing up knowing that I wasn’t a completely straight person and going to church after church trying to find my community,” Kesha continues. “I went, when I was about 14, to the gay bar in Nashville and instantly felt home. And my biggest issue was nonacceptance and non-love toward queer people. That always got me so stuck, because, ‘God is love, except for…’ That didn’t seem right to me.”

“[I found] my own version of God in the past three years,” she says, “and that led to my writing ‘Eat the Acid.’ A really important line in the song is, ‘I am the one that I’ve been fighting the whole time / Hate has no place in the divine.’” Her nondenominational, nondogmatic God looks like a force working for the acceptance of and care for all people, including herself.

We have to get out of here—to sniff back our cry-faces and emerge back into the sun; to run around for a minute in pursuit of the fascinations that inspired Kesha to bring us to this particular place. We give each other a big squeeze, shake off the dark, and go try to have some fun. The center’s snowy-headed president drops in to go over some books with us in the gift shop. Looking at the esoterica, Kesha perks up—it’s like her freckles activate. She’s late for something important, but who cares? She lingers over everything he wants to show her, and ultimately scores a Lady Frieda Harris and Aleister Crowley tarot deck (real heads know). In this moment, she seems unconcerned with anything but the present: “When you can find joy in things, let yourself feel the joy,” Kesha told me back in the auditorium. “That’s an everyday mantra for me.”

Kesha is unfiltered in a different sense now than she was at the start of her career. It’s a mode less rooted in making dick jokes—though I’m positive she still thinks they’re funny—and more open to the possibilities of respecting what she needs and what she feels. “If I just am kinder to myself, everything seems way more manageable,” Kesha explains. “When I first came out, I had this bravado, and it seemed like I don’t give a fuck, which, there are elements of that, but I’m only human. After receiving so many comments about what was wrong with me, I started taking the meanest commentary as the truth and my higher power. I started internalizing it.”

That’s over and done with, Kesha says: “I had to start talking to myself like someone who loves me.”

On Kesha: Top by Goldsign. Skirt by Nguyen. Hoop earrings by FSPR. Teardrop earrings by Tiffany & Co. Shoes by Adidas. 
On Kesha: Top by Goldsign. Skirt by Nguyen. Hoop earrings by FSPR. Teardrop earrings by Tiffany & Co. Shoes by Adidas. 

Photography: Jason Kim. Creative direction: Amber Venerable. Wardrobe styling: Kat Typaldos at Forward Artists. Hair: Owen Gould at the Wall Group. Makeup: Sandy Ganzer at Forward Artists. Manicure: Miho Okawara. Set Design: James Lear at 11th House. Production: Melissa Kramer. Editor-in-chief: Rachel Miller. Profile editor: Alisa Hrustic. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, you can find resources (including free and low-cost support) via the National Eating Disorders Association. You can also reach ANAD’s toll-free eating disorder helpline by calling 1-(888)-375-7767.