By the time I get to Nika Danilova’s West Hollywood apartment, she’s been branded ankle-to-knee in Xs, her skin having absorbed the imprint of hours spent cinched into a pair of Louis Vuitton corset boots. The shoes have come and gone with another magazine’s stylist, but Danilova’s green eyes are still kohl-rimmed, and her white-blonde hair looks as if it’s been doused with several coats of spray glue. Pantless in an oversized T-shirt, she lounges on a black leather sofa next to her husband, Adam Higgins, and her publicist Christine Morales, who’s flipping through her iPhone to show me a picture of Danilova in the boots. Four inches taller but still just teetering at a diminutive 5’4″, she looks like someone else in the photo—an anonymous Hollywood starlet, shirking the paparazzi on any given sunny LA day.
“Working with stylists is the worst, always,” Danilova says. “I always get excited, because I think, They’re going to bring all these awesome clothes, but then they bring all this crap that makes me feel stupid. I’ve never worn something for a shoot that’s been styled and felt like, This is me. That’s them and what they think I am. The thing is, I’m actually an extremely dynamic person—I’m not depressed, I love Beyoncé, I love Britney Spears. I grew up in the ’90s. [People] think I’m so one-dimensional and now I have to do all this extra work. People are like, How do you feel being a goth icon? I don’t know. It’s frustrating.” You can’t blame people for misunderstanding Danilova. It’s pretty easy, actually. A cursory glance at her bookshelf, with its two prominent volumes of Marquis de Sade (next to Schopenhauer) and Criterion Collection editions of Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and The Night Porter, seem to do a fine job legitimizing the fetish boots. Casting the tiny 22-year-old as the macabre sorceress of the big-voiced, brooding music she makes as Zola Jesus seems only natural. Her sound is heavy and synthetic, her voice deep, soulful and serious. The titles to her most recent records—Stridulum, Valusia and Conatus, respectively—sound atavistic. Their covers feature Danilova in lurid portraits, standing beneath a heavy pour of viscous black sludge, or walking shoeless through the woods, like some wandering witch.
“People try to explain in so many words what you are,” Danilova grumbles about journalists’ tendency to reduce everything to a word count. “They obviously don’t have an adjective count, because they just use the same ones over and over again: Goth. Brooding. Dark. Siouxsie Sioux is an adjective now, I guess. The thing is, I’ve never identified myself. I’ve always known exactly what I liked and what I didn’t like, but it never had any title. You read these things about yourself because you’re so excited you’re being written about, but the more you read, the more you hate yourself.” To Danilova, Zola Jesus is counter to classification, an aesthetic mined from an innate and unquantifiable sensibility. Her style is not defined by a desire to look a certain way, but rather a need to satisfy a feeling. “I know what I like, and I know exactly what I want to feel like when I’m wearing something. That’s what style should mean. I like to feel very powerful when I wear something, or aggressive. I think a lot has to do with a Napoleon complex. I like to feel like, Don’t fuck with me! I’ve always wanted to feel tough.” Which is tough when you’re actually a tiny, very sweet girl.