Still, much of the pressure seems to have come from Taylor herself. She was driven to perform, friends recall. She especially loved music. In interviews, she has talked about listening to her father’s old Beatles records, playing piano and later picking up the guitar. Milone says she used to go around singing songs from the punk rock band Paramore, and the two of them talked about starting a band. She filled notebooks with lyrics, Baeza says.
Taylor’s life eased up when she took the Gossip Girl role and moved to New York. She no longer had to spend her time traveling for work. For the next year she attended Professional Performing Arts High School there, finishing two years early. When McDowell visited Taylor in New York in 2007—about six months after her friend had moved there—Taylor’s career had taken off and she was “ecstatic” about her new life.
Living there was “like a load off her shoulders,” McDowell says. She was around like-minded people who were in “the business.” And even with her mother splitting her time there to keep tabs on her, Taylor felt free, becoming a regular on the party circuit. “She loved being in the city, and she loved being with people who might understand her a little bit more,” McDowell says.
Her progression from acting to music came as no surprise. Taylor told Spin magazine last summer that ever since her father took her to a White Stripes rock concert when she was 9, she dreamed of one day being up on a music stage. That opportunity arrived in 2008, when she linked up with producer Kato Khandwala, who has worked with groups like Blondie and Paramore. He helped her cut her first album, Light Me Up, and with the assistance of songwriter Ben Phillips, Taylor put together The Pretty Reckless.
Khandwala says he didn’t know what to expect when he met Taylor and her mother for the first time at their New York apartment. Once he heard her sing, though, “I was blown away. I was like, ‘This girl is great.’ …She’s got a distinctive sound”—a kind of raw, throaty moan, much deeper than one would expect of someone so young. After listening to some records together, it was clear “we [spoke] the same language,” he says.
Over the course of more than a year, the pair crafted songs on an acoustic guitar, with no two workdays alike as they circumvented her hectic schedule of filming, modeling and interviews to create the songs—some co-written with Phillips, who is also the band’s guitarist—for her album.
Although the album received mixed reviews—Rolling Stone called it “generic” and “Hole-ish”—Light Me Up was at the top of the United Kingdom rock charts for six weeks. Three songs—“Make Me Wanna Die,” “Miss Nothing” and “Just Tonight”—were released as singles and found commercial success last year. The album was expected to be released in the U.S. in February.
Lyrically, the album tackles big subjects—Taylor told MTV News it’s about death, love, rock ’n’ roll, sex, drugs and religion. “They come from her life,” Khandwala says. “Sure, you could say that someone older will have more life experience to draw upon. But when you’re looking at Taylor, you have to temper that a little. She’s gotten more life experience between the ages of 5 and 17 than most people will have in a lifetime. …She’s the hardest-working person I know.”
It’s a sentiment expressed by many collaborators. “Taylor is extremely gifted and laser focused,” says Beau Nelson, a makeup artist whose clients have included supermodel Iman and Twilight’s Kristen Stewart. Nelson met Taylor during a press junket for Gossip Girl. Although she’s young, she’s clear about what she wants, he says. “If you look at any iconic performer, from Madonna to Björk, they have all projected an ever-changing image, and I believe that Taylor will be the same,” Nelson says.
“I remember her discussing what she wanted for the [“Make Me Wanna Die”] video and what she was going to wear and what she wanted to look like and even down to the color treatment of the film. She is a big-picture kind of girl. …
I have worked with many celebrities in the past, and there are few with this kind of an idea of their career arc and idea about their self-image.”
Dominik Prosser manages the Notting Hill Arts Club in London, where Taylor and The Pretty Reckless performed their first U.K. concert last May. “She doesn’t have to be Gossip Girl anymore,” Prosser says. “She’s doing the classic rock thing. As far as rock rebels go, she’s got a long way to go. …But she certainly looks the part.”
In her trademark corset and thigh-high stockings, she was a natural and “had the crowd in the palms of her hands,” Prosser remembers. “Certain people are performers and they have a need to act out in public, and she’s one of these. She’s got this sort of compunction to be, to put herself out there.”
But her old friends are divided on Taylor’s new direction, and few have kept in touch with her these last years. Ex-boyfriend Milone bumped into Taylor last July at The Pretty Reckless tent after a concert at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. She didn’t recognize him. “I was sort of upset about that,” he says. “Like, wow, that’s kind of rude; I went out with her. …People change.”
McDowell, who has swapped tweets with Taylor in recent months, also isn’t big on the new look, but thinks her friend is maturing and exploring what works for her as an artist. “I think [with] the transition from acting to The Pretty Reckless, she was able to kind of do her own thing. She didn’t have people always telling her what to do, what to wear, what not to say in interviews. …For a teenager, it’s very difficult having someone else direct you in your life.
“Personally, I think at some point she might look back at this stage and maybe regret going to the extent she’s going to,” McDowell adds. But “it’s all about growing up…and as long as she’s happy with the image she’s portraying for her career…I think she knows what she’s doing, and I think as long as she does, more power to her.”
Joanna Blonska is a former People magazine writer. She lives in Bethesda.