12 Surprising Things I Learned at the Amy Winehouse Exhibit

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Amy Winehouse chilling in her flat. Photo: Mark Okoh / Camera Press London
Amy Winehouse chilling in her flat. Photo: Mark Okoh / Camera Press London

Four years ago today, Amy Winehouse died. But her impact on music lives on, in the form of Amy, a new documentary about her life in theaters now, as well as a traveling museum exhibit called Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, which has made its way from London to San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum.

I was apprehensive about the exhibit at first because it feels weird for us, complete strangers, to go rifling through her belongings so soon after her death. There comes a point where we must draw the line between our adoration for a celebrity and letting them have the dignity of resting in peace (Selena's hologram comes to mind).

But the show does its best to navigate this tricky space, by working with Amy's immediate family to move the spotlight off of the tragedy and spectacle of her life and onto mementos that project a simple truth: Amy Winehouse was just a girl. Yes, a very talented, famous girl, but ultimately a human being just like you or me.

Here are some humanizing details about Amy that surprised me:

A young Amy outside her Grandma’s flat in Southgate. Photo: The Winehouse family
A young Amy outside her Grandma’s flat in Southgate. Photo: The Winehouse family

1. Amy is so defined by London, but she was almost an American! Her ancestor, Harris Winehouse, emigrated from Minsk, Belarus to London in 1890, and was soon followed by his family. The only problem? He meant to go to New York. Oops.


2. Amy's grandmother, Cynthia, was a bad ass. She believed herself to be a medium and taught Amy how to read tarot cards. "Nan" also held a grudge (broyges in Yiddish) against Amy's brother for not saying hello to her when he was eight. That's one way to teach the youth to respect their elders!

3. Amy loved Snoopy growing up and well into adulthood. She collected any books featuring the cartoon pup that she could get her hands on.

4. Amy always wanted to live in Camden, a hip neighborhood in London. When she was old enough, she got a job selling candles at the market there.

5. Amy was an OK cook, but made a mean meatball.

6. She was essentially expelled from two different schools. During a class at Sylvia Young Theatre School, she decided it was a good time as any to pierce her ears with a drawing pin.

7. Her music collection was wide-ranging. There are artists you would expect: Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong. And some you might not: Adam Sandler, Mickey Mouse Club, Marilyn Monroe, Beck and George Michael.

8. Her brother says that Amy was insecure about how intelligent she was. She would leave Jackie Collins novels out, while hiding books by Dostoyevsky. She was also obsessed with word puzzles.

Photo: Ian Lillicrapp / Jewish Museum London
Photo: Ian Lillicrapp / Jewish Museum London

9. Don't let the omnipresent ballet flats fool you. Amy loved shoes in a Carrie Bradshaw kind of way. The exhibit showcases heels by the high-fashion likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Louboutin, Fendi, Ferragamo, and Miu Miu.

10. Speaking of Ms. Bradshaw, Amy loved Sex and the City, if her DVD/VHS collection (seen in this close-up below) is any indication. Other favorite shows and movies include Will & Grace, Jackass The MovieMTV YogaBeaches, Dirty Dancing, TootsieGhost World, The Craft, The Birdcage, and all the Audrey Hepburn movies.


11. The most interesting part of the exhibit for me was the tracklist from Amy's "Songs on my Chill-Out Tape." Anyone who has made a mix for a crush knows how soul-revealing the medium can be. Seeing the school uniform she wore, the records she touched and her collection of designer shoes is all personal, but this artifact, written in her own bubbly handwriting really projects Amy's humanity and personal taste. Give her mix a listen:


12. Carole King's "So Far Away," a favorite song of Amy's which makes an appearance as the penultimate track on her mix, was played at her funeral. *fights to hold in sob*

Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait opens today and runs through November 1, 2015 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. To read more about the exhibit, check out my colleague Gabe Meline's take on why we can't leave Amy Winehouse alone.