Willa Ford Talks Surviving 2000s Teen Pop Craze, Emerging as Top Interior Designer
The "I Wanna Be Bad" singer talks to The Hollywood Reporter about reinventing herself as a home style maven and starring on E!'s new reality series 'Flip It Like Disick.'
It's 2019, and Willa Ford means business.
Dressed in a sleek pinstripe suit with her hair pulled back into a ponytail, the "I Wanna Be Bad" singer was on a mission to reintroduce herself when she met with The Hollywood Reporter on a recent summer day in New York.
Today, she's a sought-after interior designer in Los Angeles and Scott Disick's right-hand woman on E!'s new house-flipping reality series, Flip It Like Disick. Juggling a TV gig while running her WFord Interiors firm and raising 3-year-old son Elijah with her husband, NFL linebacker-turned-businessman Ryan Nece, is "a lot of work," Ford admits. But she wouldn't trade being a "mom-preneur" for anything — not even her past life as a pop star.
"I want to empower other women and let them know that it's OK to pivot careers," says Ford, 38, whose clients range from Steve Aioki and French Montana to billionaires she'd rather keep confidential. "Even if you don't have a college degree, you're still worthy of making a transition. I've been told, 'You were a pop singer. Why should I think of you as an interior designer?' Well, you should take me seriously because I've worked my tush off, and it's been seven years now that I've run my own company."
The Florida native, born Amanda Lee Williford, wasn't known as a home style maven when she first entered the public eye at 20. Instead, she commanded attention from the teen pop music scene with her provocative self-penned hit "I Wanna Be Bad" — the lead single from her debut album, Willa Was Here, released in July 2001. Radio stations welcomed her defiant celebration of sexuality as an antidote to excessively sweet bubblegum efforts from Ford's peers at the time. This week marks 18 years since "I Wanna Be Bad" peaked at No. 22 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.
Ford eventually left the industry (after a sophomore LP with Lava Records was shelved in 2003 due to label acquisitions), and while she looks back on her music career fondly, she's happy to have found another passion.
Below, Ford talks with THR about surviving the 2000s pop machine (including her interactions with Britney Spears and "frustrating" comparisons) and prioritizing family over fame as she navigates her second act in the spotlight.
After dabbling in acting — playing Anna Nicole Smith in a 2007 biopic and later scoring a role in the 2009 reboot of Friday the 13th, among other projects — how did you make the transition from entertainer to interior designer?
Even though I was acting, I wasn't creating. I wasn’t writing the scripts. I was just playing the characters. So I was designing on the side and absolutely loved it. It was more of a creative outlet. And then a friend would ask me and then another friend would ask me. Before I knew it, it took over all my time. And I decided to stop acting altogether. I called my agents and said, "I'm done. I'm not going to act. I'm going to focus on my design firm, and I'll let you guys know when I'm ready to come back."
With writing music, I would add a lyric, tweak a verse, add a chorus or remove a harmony. It's the same idea with interior design: I add a rug, a couch, two chairs. Does it need a side table? If not, I'll remove it the way I would take away a certain line or note in a song. In many ways, it's the same. But now I feel in control of my own destiny.
You've hosted several reality shows and even competed on Dancing With the Stars in 2006. Were you hesitant at all about coming back to the format with Flip It Like Disick?
Yes, because I wanted to protect my family — and even myself — from trolls. After leaving entertainment for a bit, I had this normal life that I'd grown to be so happy with. There was a moment where I thought, "Do I want to deal with the things that could come my way, good or bad?" But after talking with my husband, it was simple. He asked, "What is it that you want to accomplish?" And I said I want to build my company and my brand. I want to be a design firm that people know and come to. And he said, "Then the answer is yes." Both he and my son are off limits. It's all about the business, so that part of my concern was gone. Me? I figured I'm strong and can handle anything. I'm glad I signed on.
What has it been like entering the Kardashian-Jenner dynasty? Kris Jenner [an executive producer on Flip It Like Disick] and her family have created the blueprint for what fame looks like in 2019, so are you learning more about making the most of this increased exposure?
I had styled something for [Scott Disick] a little while ago. A friend had recommended me. I don't think my past as a pop star was even on his radar. He just saw me as a designer, and that was it. Right now, I'm in the incubator stage of what being a part of the Kardashian-Jenner machine looks like. But I'm married to a businessman, so I tend to conduct my business in a very traditional way. What they do is a little bit different, but really it's all business at the end of the day. So I am learning and I'm taking it all in as I'm around it. But I'm definitely not being trained in any form or fashion by them. I also want to do my own thing. I think it's incredible what they do, but I want to create my own path.
How would you describe your style, and where are your favorite places to source materials in L.A.?
It's high/low luxe. I believe in mixing vintage and new. When I finish a room, you shouldn't know if that table or that chair was the expensive thing. I'm drawn to organic materials: woods, stones, metals and fabrics that feel like linens. It makes me feel calmer, so in return I think it makes a home feel calmer. I love to go to the Pacific Design Center. It's such a mecca. And then there are so many places on Melrose now that are amazing.
We see you working with Steve Aioki and French Montana on the show. Who else is on your roster of clients?
I can only give a few names. But Tom Higgenson from the Plain White T's is a client. I've worked with Andrelton Simmons, the Angels shortstop. I just did his home. But the truth is I have billionaire clients, so I'm super lucky. People ask me, "Oh, you get to work with celebrities?" Yeah, I do, and it's fun — but those billionaires are the ones that are really fun to work with.
Do clients ever put it together that the woman who's designing their home is the same woman who sang "I Wanna Be Bad"?
Not often, but there was this one project. I took a meeting for a Newport kitchen, and the guy's wife was sitting there while I was talking and was just like, "Oh my god, that is Willa Ford who is designing our kitchen. I'm trying to process this." It was really funny.
What are some of your best memories from the "Bad" days?
Working at MTV as a guest host on TRL was something that I'll always cherish. That family, working with Carson Daly, Quddus, Brian McFayden and La La Anthony, those are great memories. If you weren't a good person, they fired you. So it was all good people that I was working with. And then songwriting, hopping all around the country and working with really gifted writers, that's something I really loved. And then, of course, I miss being on stage. The natural high was amazing.
Would you ever consider returning to music?
In November, I went to Nashville for a handful of songwriting sessions. I was working with a talented group of guys who invited me out. They were like, "Willa Ford, that's a country name. You need to come out here." It's therapeutic to get some things off your chest. I loved getting back to it, especially in a different genre. But I believe that music is a full-time job as well. You've got to constantly be flexing that muscle. I just do it and dabble in it for fun. The demos are banked, but don't expect to hear them anytime soon!
Your music still lives on in the LGBTQ community. Why do you think "I Wanna Be Bad" has specifically resonated with gay men?
The song was written out of defiance and a bit of anger. I was tired of people telling me who to be. And so I think it was really relatable at the time, because I was told, "You look like this. You're not allowed to be sexual." The community was also told, "You look like this, so you're not allowed to do this." I was being oppressed by what I look like and the industry, and these young men were feeling that same oppression at home by society. It was a connector. Not long after the song and video came out, the stories started to roll in. They continue to tell me how much my music has affected them, but their love has also had a huge impact on me.
You embraced your sexuality faster than Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera did. Was that part of a concerted effort to separate yourself from the pack?
Correct. I had been signed for two years before my record came out, so Britney had already been out. And because I was also blond, everybody immediately would look at me and be like, "Oh, she's like Britney Spears." It was frustrating, because I wanted so badly to be my own artist. And, by writing my own songs and deviating from that Britney blueprint, I did create my own lane. [Music executives] kept wanting me to sing songs that were already written for me, as well as put me in that "good girl" box. And I kept resisting, telling them over and over, "That's not who I am." Having to advocate for creative control was exhausting. But that's how "Bad" was born. I was fighting back against the status quo. Also, I remember working on my second record and wanting to go a little more rock. And the label told me that would never work, that women can't do rock. And then of course Avril Lavigne came out and completely nailed it.
In your song "Tired," there is a lyric that goes, "Tired of the clones that look like me/Tired of the people saying, 'Britney.'" Can you explain your relationship with her?
I knew Britney very quickly right after she launched. I was Mandy Williford to her. We were all in that teen pop Florida circuit. I was at the roller-skating rink one day and we were lacing up our skates. She had come out, she was doing really well, and she was like, "How are things going?" We always had a good rapport. With "Tired," people thought I was bashing Britney. But my point was that I worked so hard not to copy anyone else. I was tired of the comparisons. And so was Christina and Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore. I was and always will be a fan of Britney's. Her work ethic is incredible. There was always this pressure from the media, from the fans even, for us to be pitted against each other. No, I'm rooting for her every day. She is an icon.
What were the biggest challenges that came with being one of the faces of the teen pop craze at the turn of the millennium?
The workload is a very big one. Don't feel sorry for anybody, but the schedule that you keep and how much everybody needs from you slowly chips away at you. The hardest part about that — and I always commend Britney for how she has persevered — is that you start to lose it a little bit because you're so exhausted and so overstimulated from every direction. It's an incredible problem to have, but I do think that it breeds a little bit of a meltdown mentality. You burn out. Everybody wants a piece of something so fantastic. But you forget, at that age, to save something for yourself and you just give, give, give. And then one day you wake up and you don't feel great. I would say that was the hardship of any pop artist. I'm not just speaking for myself. Across the board, I saw that struggle.
Is that ultimately why you left?
There are multiple reasons. Look, you need to have success with your singles. That's one reason I left. But I had come to a point where I couldn't do it anymore. I remember breaking down and calling my mother on the phone. And I said to her, "I don't feel right anymore, Mom." And she said, "You pack your suitcase and come home right now." And so I did. I left New York, got on a plane and went home to Florida. I needed to take that minute to breathe. And then I watched a lot of people have breakdowns later on because they didn't take that time. It was part of my journey, and it was the healthiest thing I could do at the time.
On a lighter note, early 2000s fashion is back with a vengeance. What trends are you happy to see again, and what do you hope stays in the past?
Let's please never bring back the frosted tips. I would also love for our pants to at least be waist-high instead of having my thong hanging out. That was my thing back in the day. I'd wear my jeans so low that my thong would be completely visible. I feel like that should never happen again. The belly-button ring has also seen its day. I still have my scar. I do love a Canadian tuxedo, just maybe not in the same way we were doing denim-on-denim. It's really interesting when you watch it come back around, it looks so much cooler on kids today than it did when you look back at yourself. And I'm sure the people from the '80s thought the same thing about my generation coming in. So, it looks a little better now. But, honestly, I wouldn't mind if it all just remained a part of history. (Laughs)
Other than finding a new passion, how else have you evolved nearly two decades later?
The word is so cheesy, but I've matured. I'm really aware of everything around me now. I'm not just self-aware, I'm very aware of everything happening around me at all times and how that impacts other people: how that impacts my child, how that impacts my husband, how that impacts my team [at WFord Interiors] — but also how that impacts society. Everybody saw my success, but there were so many failures along the way that people didn't see, whether it's divorce or any other setback. All those things make you grow. They shape you, and then suddenly you come out on the other end this better human.
Flip It Like Disick airs on E! Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.