The Weeknd hates giving interviews. In the past, they’ve required the 27-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter to make himself available backstage or at his condo, only to have his body language scrutinized and his hairstyle woven into elaborately clumsy metaphors. Before releasing Starboy, the hugely successful 2016 album that established the Weeknd as one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, he chopped off his famous dreadlocks and stashed them away in his manager’s safe. But his new, softer coif, which plateaus ever so slightly above his forehead, still attracts annoying questions that he would prefer not to answer. Instead he offers glimpses into his psyche by way of e-mail. Ask the press-shy cinephile about his favorite movies, for instance, and he will opine about his favorite villains. “The last one I was really infatuated with was Heath Ledger’s Joker,” he writes. “David from the new Alien saga who has no remorse for human life” also piques the Weeknd’s interest. He adds that when he was 10, Nas and Puff Daddy were his style gods for their “haircuts and baggy clothes,” and that up until a few years ago he loathed wearing suits. He’s gotten good at it lately, though. In May, when he and girlfriend Selena Gomez made their debut as a couple at the Met Gala, it was a custom Valentino tuxedo, accessorized with a diamond-and-sapphire Cartier woman’s brooch, that landed him on nearly every best-dressed list. On the rare occasion that outsiders make their way into the Weeknd’s orbit, what they often discover is a man more earnest and kind than the one whose lyrics can seem ripped from the pages of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. While his music is rooted in experience, he offers up a simple explanation for the disparity between his lyrical and real-life personas: “I’m not in a rush to let people know everything about me. Mystery is always great.” But by “great,” maybe he means important. Because before the Weeknd became the Weeknd, he was mystery incarnate. Born Abel Tesfaye in Toronto to Ethiopian-immigrant parents who fled the country in the late 1980s to escape a civil war, he was raised by his mother and grandmother in the suburb of Scarborough. At 17, he dropped out of high school and moved into a onebedroom apartment in downtown Toronto with his best friends, La Mar Taylor and Hyghly Alleyne. Rent was paid mostly with welfare checks, food was sometimes shoplifted, and copious substances were consumed, all while the future star crafted what would become the avant-R&B trifecta of online mix tapes: “House Of Balloons,” “Thursday,” and “Echoes Of Silence.” Even before the Weeknd’s highly explicit and intimate music received an endorsement from fellow Canadian Drake, his decision to upload his work to YouTube under his stage name helped him amass a cyber following that had no clue what he looked like.
If his ascent to superstardom seems somewhat effortless, it’s by design: The Weeknd’s approach to his music’s sonic complexities is a closely guarded secret. “Abel is always going to be that guy, the one not giving away too much information,” says Taylor, now his creative director, who collaborated with the stage designer Es Devlin on the shapeshifting light sculpture that floats above the stage on the Weeknd’s current world tour. “Abel worked on the set design as I imagine he works on the music—composing every nuance in scrupulous detail,” Devlin says, adding that the Weeknd has synesthesia, which allows him to “see specific colors in the music. Certain chords are a precise shade of blue, others are blinding white.”
Having achieved A-list status, the Weeknd is grappling with the notion of being both known and unknown in a world where fans expect more access than ever. So how will he preserve his mystique?
“Luckily the only thing the world demands of me is music,” he says. “I don’t have to give them anything else for the rest of my life.”
Still, he engages with his 14 million Instagram followers and even responds to interview questions. Perhaps the key for him will be to do so only up to a point. Asked if he would ever tinker with his public persona for his next album, he expresses interest. “Kind of pulling a Ziggy Stardust. Maybe I’ll retire from being the Weeknd,” he says before backtracking. “Or maybe I’ll just give him a break.”
“I’m not in a rush to let people know everything about me. Mystery is always great.”