On the sliding scale of turning lemons into lemonade, getting your head shaved by Rihanna is one big, cold pitcher. Last November, when Pharrell traded his love for giant hats in for a return to his N.E.R.D. roots, he brought along dance superstar Mette Towley for a stunning music video that begins with a head-shaving scene more iconic than V for Vendetta and continues into a dance routine by Towley that had us sweating just watching it.
It was a powerful pop culture entrance for the dancer who joined Pharrell’s crew back in 2014. Since then, the University of Minnesota alum has globe hopped from Cannes to the Met Gala and shown her strength and fluidity in even more music videos — including the stereotype-shattering visual for Duckwrth’s song “Boy”. Far removed from the long-take dance sequence of “Lemon”, Towley looks more like the star of an Atomic Blonde-sequel than dancer as she kicks and punches her way through a legion of assailants.
As she took a break from world domination before jetting off to her next project, we caught up with the dancer to talk about her first time meeting Pharrell, her most iconic Met Gala moment, and smashing archetypes.
You’ve been dancing with Pharrell since 2014. How did you two first meet?
On Super Bowl Sunday that year, I got a call saying that, in two hours, there was an audition for Pharrell Williams for the NBA All-Star game. I went to American Apparel and got a cat suit — it was literally printed with cats on it. For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to wear that. I went to the studio where the audition was held and there were probably about 50 other women. We were typecast by different looks, and then we all danced together. There was a cut, I believe, at that point and then we danced again.
The next day, in the morning, I got a call saying, “Hey, we need you at 11AM at this location.” I went there and danced solo, danced the choreography we learned the night before, had a little interview, and then I waited a couple days, got the job, and then had my first rehearsal. We worked for four hours choreographing “Happy”, and then [Pharrell] walked in the door. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh my gosh. This is the man in the flesh.” He had that hat on he was famous for at the time.
His giant hat.
All I thought of was, “Holy cow, Britney Spears ‘Slave 4 U’. Oh my gosh, ‘Hot in Herre’. Oh my gosh, ‘Love Bomb’ by NERD.” It was amazing to see him. He came up to me immediately and asked how I was and I was like, “Hi. Oh my gosh, you are real, okay.” Once Pharrell opens his mouth, you get an understanding how beautifully human and non-threatening he is.
Now, three years later, you were the star of his track “Lemon.” How did it feel to have Rihanna shave your head? That’s a dream.
It was definitely a transformative moment for me. Nothing prepared me for it. She took a comb and combed out my hair from the root a little bit so it’d be easier for her to shave. The whole time, I was sitting there, preparing to be on camera so I wanted to be in character — but there was also a part of me that was like, “This is the craziest thing ever.”
I’m a girl from Minnesota who moved to LA. This is someone who is ultimately an idol for me because of where she comes from and what she’s been able to do. Just the scope of her as a powerful female figure in the world. She’s the one that cut my hair. Incredible.
She needs to become your regular hair stylist!
I know! Honestly, I saw her at the Met Ball and almost wanted to ask, “Hey, can you just give me a little more of that incredible energy?” [The haircut] definitely felt like an energy transfer. This is someone reshaping my physical image, you know what I mean?
Yeah! Did you talk to her at the Met Gala?
I did. She came up to me and she’s like, “Man, I love that hair.” I was wondering if she recognized me, but she did. She was really sweet. I was Vogue‘s Movement Director for a bunch of footage that we shot at the Met with Bardia Zeinali, who’s a director. I also had to be all ready for the Met at 1PM. That’s a long day. People don’t really show up until 6 or 6:30.
What was the most iconic moment of the night for you?
Oh my gosh, there were so many iconic moments. I think me what really stuck out to me was just seeing people I admire and watching them do what they do on camera. I fixed Jennifer Lopez’s train [on her dress] as we were filming. That was iconic. Seeing Madonna perform was insane. I had a little break at that point, and that was just like, ‘holy cow,’ because I know that she was so well rehearsed. You can just tell. Every single minutiae of that performance was thought out.
What do you do to unwind when you’re not dancing and performing?
I don’t really know. I don’t even feel like I’m working and I don’t feel tired. Of course, when I was on set the other day and was being asked to dance for ten hours on concrete, I had to say, “Okay, I need two minutes before we do another take,” just to make sure that my body isn’t going to seize up on me. I’m relatively well exercised, but I think the traveling does take a toll on you. I just feel like I’m in the prime. I’m in the point of my life where every second that I operate in conjunction with my dreams, that’s very important and key for me right now.
You’re just living the dream right now. Now, let’s talk about the insane video you did for Duckwrth’s song “Boy”.
Did you love it?
I loved it. How long did it take to choreograph all those crazy fight scenes?
We only had an afternoon of about four and a half hours to do that.
That’s wild. How did it feel to destroy the “damsel in distress” narrative?
It felt perfect. My best friend John Mark directed and choreographed the video, that’s a trope that we wanted to spin on its head for years and we did that when we were in Minneapolis in 2010. John Mark was choreographing this runway show at the University of Minnesota and it was this Snow White scene. He was so over Snow White, so he did fight choreography and I walked into the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ track “Heads Will Roll”. He just has this vision about what female protagonists in this performance space should feel like. What it should feel like, what it should be.
When I was listening to Duckwrth’s song, what we had done in those days [in 2010] came into my mind naturally. It was really important to us because, in 2018, we are living in a world that needs more narratives like that. We need to shift narratives and we need to do better. There’s a million ways that you can do something, and do it in the right direction. When was the last time you saw a woman save a man — like really kick ass — in a music video? We love Atomic Blonde. That was one of our favorite films last year because you saw her physical power but also vulnerability.
I actually wrote down ‘Atomic Blonde’ when I was watching the video it felt like an audition tape for a sequel.
Yes! Oh my God! You get it. I’m so lucky I get to perform and do a lot of work with amazing brands to promote female empowerment. When I’m not doing that, I find myself dreaming of these ideas and these roles for myself. I do want to step into my future right now. Everything that I’m doing, I want it to connect to my ultimate goals, and one of those goals is to be an action film star.
It’s so different from what you did in the “Lemon” video, but it still relates back to this theme of incorporating gender fluidity into dancing.
Yeah, 100%. I was just telling my friend a couple days ago that gender is such a performance. I’m always interested in taking our concept of what gender is, and especially as a woman, take myself out of being pigeonholed. I can be graceful and powerful at the same time — I’m allowed to do that. Being incredibly feminine and really owning the power of being a woman is so interesting to me because there was a point in my dance career where I felt like I was just being a sexual female figure on stage. I have performed that and I don’t think it’s interesting and it really doesn’t make me happy.
Yeah! Being this sexy girl and just frolicking up on stage. For what? What I’m really interested in doing is smashing archetypes.
For more of our interview features, read our chat with masterful South African DJ (and Drake-producer) Black Coffee right here.