FIRST PERSON

Jillian Hervey: How My Mom’s Iconic Sequined Leotard Helps Me Release My Inner Lion Babe

The singer, songwriter, and dancer opens up about a piece owned by her mother, Vanessa Williams, that’s followed her from childhood to the world’s biggest stages.


When I was little, I thought my mom’s closet was the coolest in the world. My sister and I would always sneak in there whenever we could, at any opportunity, to try on her coats or her shoes or her bags. So, my first memory of the silver sequined leotard was just seeing it there. I must have been eight or nine. I had never really seen the leotard except in her music video for “Running Back To You.” She’s wearing it so differently: It’s kind of a classic mom jean, and the leotard is underneath a jean jacket. You only see a hint of it.

It was a piece that I knew for a long time, but the first time I put it on, I had just moved in to Manhattan, where I studied dance at the New School. I had grabbed the leotard—the idea of going to New York, I was trying to get my Carrie Bradshaw on—but I hadn’t used it yet. One night, one of my friends was over, and we were drinking wine and sorting through my closet. I put it on, just to try it. It fit me like a glove. I was not expecting that at all—when I was little, I wasn’t crazy chubby, but I was a round little girl. Now that I can wear my mom’s clothes, I recognize I’ve come a long way.

About two years later, I decided to wear it for my senior thesis piece. I hadn’t done much personal choreography prior but I wanted this piece to be a collection of memories and different parts of my identity. The leotard was the first thing you saw on stage—the piece started in pitch black, and I was singing an excerpt of a James Blake song, “The Wilhelm Scream,” that I had listened to a lot while choreographing.

Lion Babe: Children of the 90s, Sound of the Future

Jillian Hervey wears Alexander Wang jacket, $995, alexanderwang.com; Proenza Schouler top, $795, net-a-porter.com; Matthew Adams Dolan jeans, price upon request, matthewadamsdolan.com; Ana Khouri x Narciso Rodriguez gold earrings, $4,000, Barneys New York, New York, 212.826.8900; Alexis Bittar choker, $495, Alexis Bittar, New York, 212.625.8340; Rag & Bone belt, price upon request, rag-bone.com. Lucas Goodman wears Diesel Black Gold jacket, $575, diesel.com; his own shirt and jeans.

Photo by Brandon Mercer. Styled by Caroline Grosso. Produced by Biel Parklee.

Jillian Hervey wears Alexander Wang jacket, $995, alexanderwang.com; Proenza Schouler top, $795, net-a-porter.com; Matthew Adams Dolan jeans, price upon request, matthewadamsdolan.com; Alexis Bittar choker, $495, Alexis Bittar, New York, 212.625.8340; Rag & Bone belt, price upon request, rag-bone.com; Carven boots, $690, Carven, New York, 646.684.4368.

Photo by Brandon Mercer. Styled by Caroline Grosso. Produced by Biel Parklee.

Jillian Hervey wears Miu Miu knit, price upon request, miumiu.com; Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh jeans, $620, Barneys New York, New York, 212.826.8900; Alexis Bittar choker, $495, Alexis Bittar, New York, 212.625.8340; (left hand) Ana Katarina gold and diamond ring, $5,455, anakatarina.com; (right hand) Marlo Laz gold, onyx, opal, and diamond ring, $4,550, marlolaz.com; Calvin Klein Collection sneakers, $895, calvinklein.com.

Photo by Brandon Mercer. Styled by Caroline Grosso. Produced by Biel Parklee.

Lucas Goodman wears Diesel Black Gold jacket, $575, diesel.com; his own shirt, jeans, and Dr. Martens boots.

Photo by Brandon Mercer. Styled by Caroline Grosso. Produced by Biel Parklee.

Jillian Hervey wears Alexander Wang pullover, $750, alexanderwang.com; Kéji jeans, $385, net-a-porter.com; Y/Project belt, $199, openingceremony.com; (right wrist) SheBee Gem sapphire and diamond bracelets, $475 each, shebee.com; Marlo Laz gold, onyx, opal, and diamond ring, $4,550, marlolaz.com; (left wrist) Marlo Laz sapphire, emerald, topaz, and diamond cuff, price upon request, marlolaz.com.

Photo by Brandon Mercer. Styled by Caroline Grosso. Produced by Biel Parklee.

Lucas Goodman wears Acne Studios shirt, price upon request, acnestudios.com; Current/Elliott jeans, price upon request, similar styles at currentelliott.com. Jillian Hervey wears Alexander Wang top, $1,195, alexanderwang.com; Each x Other skirt, price upon request, each-other.com; David Samuel Menkes Custom Leatherwear belt, price upon request, davidmenkesleather.com.

Photo by Brandon Mercer. Styled by Caroline Grosso. Produced by Biel Parklee.

Jillian Hervey wears Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh cropped T-shirt, $330, off—white.com; Kéji jeans, $385, net-a-porter.com; (right wrist, from left) Marlo Laz sapphire, emerald, topaz, and diamond cuff, price upon request, marlolaz.com; SheBee Gem sapphire and diamond bracelets, $475 each, shebee.com; (right hand) Marlo Laz gold, onyx, opal, and diamond ring, $4,550, marlolaz.com; (left hand) Ana Katarina gold and diamond ring, $5,455, anakatarina.com; Louis Vuitton boots, $1,570, louisvuitton.com.

Photo by Brandon Mercer. Styled by Caroline Grosso. Produced by Biel Parklee.

1/7

The first line is “I don’t know about my dreams, I don’t know about my dreaming anymore; All that I know is I’m falling, falling, falling, falling, might as well fall in.” That was a thing I just kept repeating, because that was how I felt—I was going through a breakup and finding myself feeling really excited but also really scared of what was to come. The leotard was a glistening piece, a reflection of how I was feeling—proud, showing it all. Wearing my mom’s leotard meant I was finally embracing her legacy, coming out of the darkness, representing her and myself. At one point, I took off the leotard completely—I was nude on stage—and changed into a gown. Pina Bausch is one of my favorite choreographers, and that was my ode to her.

I was citing a lot of different dance styles, both that I loved growing up and that I learned in college. The same friend that I tried on the leotard with two years prior was also in the piece, because I wanted another body to play off of. It was a piece honoring the people that have influenced me and moving through a journey from where I’d started, as well.

My senior thesis informed a lot. At the end of the piece, I was playing with hair pieces, and I put on this ponytail and crawl to the back of the stage. I had no idea Lion Babe would happen later. It’s funny how it all works, because for our first music video as Lion Babe, the first time you see me, I’m crawling—with much bigger hair—in the wild.

Jillian Hervey with her mom, Vanessa Williams.

Courtesy Jillian Hervey

A year after graduating, I did my first solo performance at Pravda, on the Lower East Side. That’s the second time I wore the leotard—for my first solo work as a working dancer. Whenever I want to do something special, that’s the standout piece. I feel comfortable in it; people are going to love it.

Wearing my mom’s stuff makes me feel a little extra special. I’m not wearing my cute little sweater from Topshop—I’m wearing my mom’s old vintage. It ups the ante a little bit. She has a two-piece chocolate-brown Chanel set that makes me feel like I’m Dionne in Clueless. Immediately. If I’m going to a special meeting, I know it’s the jacket to wear.

Beauty Icon Vanessa Williams’s Best Looks, from the ’80s to Today

Making history in 1983 as the first African-American Miss America, Vanessa Williams wore her hair in voluminous curls with a coral red lip and violet smoky eye at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Photo by Getty.

In 1984, Williams wore her shoulder-length hair in natural, voluminous waves. Her makeup was simple, letting her glowing skin shine through.

Photo by Getty.

Williams looked chic, and very ’80s, at the opening night of The Tap Dance Kid in 1985 with her hair in a curled up do.

Photo by Getty.

Wearing bold, voluminous curls with a satin red lip that matched her jacket, Williams embodied the ’80s at the Hollywood premiere of Coming To America in 1988.

Photo by Getty.

At the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in 1989, Williams wore her hair in a tight bun with blunt, rounded bangs. She wore a mauve lipcolor and rosy blush.

Photo by Getty.

Attending the 2nd Annual Billboard Music Awards in 1991, Williams wore her long hair in soft waves, pulled back from her face and a burgundy red color on her lips.

Photo by Getty.

The American beauty showed off her natural beauty at the Another You Los Angeles film premiere in 1991 with fresh, luminous skin, pulled back hair, and a natural lip color.

Ron Galella

Wearing her hair in almost feathered, tousled waves with a sun-kissed skin and a glossy mauve lip, Williams looked relaxed and pretty at the 2000 My VH1 Music Awards.

Photo by Getty.

Dewy skin, a tousled half up do and a light blue smoky eye was the look Williams wore to the Johnson Family Vacation Los Angeles film premiere in 2004.

Photo by Getty.

Wearing her highlighted locks in tight, bouncy curls with cream blush on the cheeks, Williams attends the UPN 2005/2006 UpFront event in New York.

Photo by Getty.

Radiating at the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards in 2008, Williams wore her brown hair pulled back from her face in a simple, slicked back bun with luminous skin and a glossy pink lip.

Photo by Getty.

At the Los Angeles premiere of Hannah Montana The Movie in 2009, Vanessa Williams wore her hair in a half up do with a glossy nude lip.

Photo by Getty.

Williams opted for an edgier look at the 30th annual New York Women in Film & Television Muse Awards in 2010, wearing her hair in a sleek, yet tousled half up do with a dramatic smoky eye.

Photo by Getty.

Williams wore her soft curls swept over with a playful fuchsia pink lip at the ABC Television Desperate Housewives Final Season Kick-Off Party in 2011.

Photo by Getty.

At the 2012 TCA summer press tour party in Beverly Hills, Williams matched her bold red lip to her dress paired with soft, polished waves.

Photo by Getty.

Williams wore her ombre locks in sleek, loose waves with a hint of rose blush on cheeks at the 23rd Annual NAACP Theatre Awards in 2013.

Photo by Getty.

At the 15th Annual USTA opening night gala in 2015, Williams wore her hair in a curled top knot with dewy skin.

Photo by Getty.

Wearing a dramatic smoky eye with her dark brunette locks styled in a high pony, Williams attended the 2016 VH1 Divas Holiday: Unsilent Night.

Photo by Getty.

Glowing at the L’Oreal Paris & Good Housekeeping 50 Over 50 event in 2016, Williams wore her shoulder length locks in soft curls with a nude pink lip.

Photo by Getty.

Back to a dark brunette, Williams wore full lashes and a nude lip at the Nevada Ballet Theatre’s 33rd annual Black & White Ball in Las Vegas in 2017.

Photo by Getty.
1/20

I’m super visual. A lot of times, people only get to see you, they don’t even get to hear you. The visual is just a way of me expressing myself. Often, when I’m writing, I’ll have my computer open and I’m scrolling through photos I love or watching vintage videos, even if it’s on mute, just to give me inspiration. And sometimes, I look for my mom’s old photos, her old style. With Lion Babe, we want to always reference the vintage, but then give it a new breath or somehow shape it. It’s a way of connecting to my parents.

After the Pravda show, I didn’t wear the leotard until my first show performing on stage as Lion Babe, with Disclosure in London. It’s the look for moments when I want to feel a certain energy. It’s comforting. Clothes can give you comfort; they can give you confidence, especially when you’ve had great experiences with them. So for that Disclosure show, I knew I needed something I know I feel amazing in. That was the last time I’ve worn it—until now.

As told to Katherine Cusumano. Lion Babe’s new single “Rockets” featuring Moe Moks is out now.