Going Viral with the EU Supergirl: An interview with Madeleina Kay.

Madeleina Kay has been among the most prominent campaigners against Brexit and, as a singer, songwriter, illustrator, author and artist, certainly the most creative. Her innovative use of social media and costumed public performances brought a sense of fun to the Remain cause and earned her the title of Young European of the Year 2018. Now building a reputation as a visual artist, Madeleina spoke exclusively to Riches in July 2020.

Rich Turner: You first rose to prominence with the viral video All I Want For Christmas is EU…

Madeleina Kay: [Laughs] Yeah. [Laughs]

RT: …which I thought was brilliant at the time. What prompted that and how soon did it develop into part of the Remain campaign, for you? 

MK: What d’you mean, the music, or…

RT: Yeah, well just that song to begin with, because that’s how I became aware of you.

MK: Okay. Well, I started writing protest songs, like, literally the day after the Brexit vote? Like, normally I would write something completely original. So all the chords and everything and then record it and make a music video, or something. And then, because it was Christmas, I thought I would, you know, like, tap into the festive vibe and, rather than write something original, it just seemed better to do a spoof, and obviously All I Want For Christmas Is You, to make it EU just seemed an obvious choice. I rewrote all the lyrics and had quite good fun with that [Laughs] and recorded it at a studio in Sheffield, then made that little music video, which I edited myself, on my Macbook. Obviously it got quite a lot of attention, because it was, like, funny, and also with a strong message. And I know for a fact that a load of people in the EU, so like the DG Comms Department told me that they’d all seen it. It helped me network, I guess, a bit. It raised my profile. Like, I started getting asked to write blogs for this platform and then people found my other music. So I guess it was part of, you know, everything I was doing at the time, because I was also doing my illustrations at the time, so it also bought more attention to them. It was kind of like one of the things that got quite a lot of attention. And that was on Facebook. So I didn’t start using Twitter until halfway through 2017, and I didn’t start using Instagram until 2019. It was like my New Year’s Resolution for 2019 was to start using Instagram. Actually Instagram’s my favourite platform now. So this video was basically on YouTube and Facebook, and it helped kind of build up my community on Facebook. Since then, actually, I’ve found that the videos are far more likely to go viral on Twitter, ‘cause that’s where I have a bigger following now. And also, I just feel like Twitter, as a platform, kinda lends itself better to the music videos, because there’s a lot more engagement with the tweets and like, you know, retweeting. 

RT: I think people are more politically educated on Twitter. 

MK: Yeah. Facebook’s just more like… You can certainly cultivate an echo chamber much more. So, like, it’s a lot easier to cut out trolls on Facebook than it is on Twitter, and that can be a good thing, in that it protects you, but the trolls are also why my music videos go viral. So I must have had like close to ten viral videos now, on Twitter, and it’s always because of the amount of abuse that comes as a result, and you can see that as a bad thing, or you can just, like…

RT: Exploit it.

MK: Exactly, ‘cause I’m gonna get it anyway, so why not? 

RT: Well, I must say you must have an incredibly thick skin, because I would have just run away. 

MK: Well, I’ve certainly developed it over that last few years. It’s really sad for me, actually, because I’ve literally had girls come up to me, or young women, come up to me at events and say “I’ve seen all the comments that you get on your posts, and I’m too scared to make a post myself.” That makes me angry, because it’s silencing women, potential female activists. The thing that really grates on me is the abuse I’ve had from within the Remain community, from other Pro-EU campaigners. A lot of the time that can be put down to jealousy, or sexism, or a mixture of the two. I’ve been called things like “A Prima Donna,” “A little madam,” “Silly little girl,” “Attention seeker,” “Self-promoter,” sometimes by quite high-profile male activists, calling me all these things, and trying to basically shut me up and put me down, and that really annoys me, and that does grate, because then that’s, like, personal criticism. It’s not even like they don’t like you because of your politics. It’s literally like they don’t like you as a person, and that hurts. 

RT: The character of EU Supergirl is very visually striking and theatrical, and it has gained a lot of traction during the campaign. How do you feel about it now, and has it been a success? 

MK: This guy from Bristol For Europe group actually once wrote this cute little blog post about me, and he described me as “The little Orphan Annie for Brexit.” I just thought of that when you said “theatrical.” It’s kind of like, I’m…

RT: Well it is, because you’re dressing up and you’re doing street theatre.

MK: Yeah, exactly. To communicate a message. To tell a story. I created a character, essentially, to narrativise, to campaign, to make it more engaging, to make it more, you know, to help people empathise? Because I think that politics, the political debate, is really sterile. It’s dominated by, kind of, really conservative… It’s usually old, white men. 

RT: Yeah. I was just gonna say that. 

MK: That kind of – also the women involved as well – subscribe to this approach, and this tone – shall we say? – that is very formal and, like, controlled. And I just feel like they’re missing an opportunity to engage the majority of people that, basically, they’re just, like, bored by current affairs – don’t care – particularly young people and also uneducated people. Sorry. I don’t know how better to describe it. Look at the EU, actually. The EU itself. Their communications is [sic] created for a specialised audience and, therefore, they fail to reach out and engage the average person, the less well-educated, the less well-informed, and then that’s when they become vulnerable to manipulation by populists, because the populists go straight for the heart with their arguments. They go for all the emotional, whip-up the fear and the hate, and I wanted to, basically, learn from the populists’ approach, and this personality politics of the, kind of, caricatures of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin. They’ve created these characters that are very personable and engaging. We need to learn from that – make our own role models, but make them positive role models. And that’s why I created the EU Supergirl character. And also because it’s a positive force, at a time when everything, the whole dialogue, was so negative and so toxic. And I think remainers, they tend to be better-educated people, though not exclusively – I’m making generalisations here – but basically, kind of, focus on the meditative, facts-based, arguments, and they fail to see why that’s not actually going to reach out and engage those people you need to reach out and engage the most. I also wanted it to be, like, something that provided inspiration, to give them licence to take their own creative actions, within their communities. So I think a lot of people were afraid or scared of, like, what they could do, and I hope that, by leading by example, I would, you know, give them licence to, you know, to do things that are daring, to do things that are provocative, that are engaging, that capture attention, that are memorable and meaningful, because everything in our society is information overload and, to have something that stands out, and captures attention…

RT: It’s entertaining in its own right, as well.

MK: Exactly, and that’s why I think also the story-telling approach is really important. I just feel like that’s how humanity operates really. The way that humans interact with each other and socialise with each other is through telling stories – about people that we know, experiences that we’ve had. Basically I wanted to make stories that could be shared, that also had a political meaning. 

RT: You’ve been a prolific writer and performer of protest songs. Of what work are you proudest and will you continue? 

MK: Nobody taught me how to be an activist. Nobody asked me to be an activist. I just decided to do it. Then, when people saw things that I was trying, they would respond positively to some things more than others. People would ask me to perform at events, or whatever. So it’s been a bit of a learn-as-I-go experience, of trial and error. I’ve tried a lot of things, and some things work better than others. I think it’s important not to regret things that didn’t work, not even, necessarily, to call them mistakes, because you learn from mistakes. They’re actually a good thing. What worked best? I’m quite proud of my books. I’ve done seven books now, and they’ve always been a challenge, especially with the fundraising, in order to do the print run. Compared to other projects that people have crowdfunded, where they’ve raised a lot of money, I’ve always been surprised at how few people want to support a book because, to me, a book is educational, and it’s a resource that can be used by the campaign, so it seems to me to be quite a constructive thing to do. My children’s book about refugees [Go Back To Where You Came From] – primary school teachers use it. I’ve gone into schools to do assemblies on refugees. We sold that one in aid of a charity in Sheffield, the City of Sanctuary. That raised £1800 for that charity. I’m really proud of having done that, and to make a difference to the education of children. Likewise my Theresa Maybe In Brexit Land book, my Alice In Wonderland parody, that is being taught on the syllabus at two German universities, Regensburg and Leipzig, on political satire. On my more recent book, The Future is Europe, which has been accepted into the collections at the House of European History in Brussels, and also awarded the UK Charlemagne Youth Prize, I’m really proud of that book. It tells a whole story, and it addresses a lot of the things I think that have been missed by the anti Brexit side, in terms of making the positive case for Europe and celebrating EU membership. They have always been very challenging to fundraise and, because I do all of the editing myself, design the whole thing, the layout. I have wonderful volunteers who help me with the proofreading and things like that. There’s a lot of work that goes into that. It’s something to be proud of, for sure. I guess, in addition to that, some of the places that I’ve performed at – Glastonbury Festival, Open Air Festival in Poland, Yo!Fest in Strasbourg, the opening of the Suffragettes Centenary Exhibition at the National Justice Museum in Nottingham, the Kreutzberg Installation at the Nikolaikirche in Berlin – were all quite prestigious and important things that, you know, I can put on my CV! [Laughs] 

RT: The Future is Europe documents your travels in visual art. Do you feel that this has become your main medium of expression now? You seem to be concentrating on that side of things. 

MK: It’s partly to do with the current situation, with the Lockdown actually, because obviously I can’t go to events to perform. So my music has taken a bit of a backseat but, having said that, I did just recently put up a new song which went viral on Twitter. It got, like, 150,000 views, and Guy Verhofstad shared it on his Facebook page. So that was kind of reassuring to me, actually, that I could still, even in a post-Brexit, Covid 19 pandemic, I could still have an impact. The musical content was still having an impact. My focus has been on the visual arts and that’s been because I’m using the funding that I got from winning the Young European of the Year prize for a project which is explicitly arts-focused, which is researching Brexiles. So I’m painting portraits of 27 people that live across the EU, that have left the UK because of Brexit. I’m hoping, again, to make a book out of this, with their portrait and their story which, again, I’m trying to crowdfund – which is proving very hard in the current economic situation. I’m nearly halfway there, so I’m kind of hopeful that I might make it. Also, because I’m kind of thinking long term for me, because my campaigning during the last four years has not really been financially sustainable. I live with my dad. I’m not paying rent. I’m not paying bills. So I can’t carry on doing this any longer. So I’ve had to think. 

RT: You were thinking about Germany. 

MK: Well, I got a grant from the Arts Council, in order to rethink my practice. Basically the application was I want to shift my practice from this, like, travelling, performance, which isn’t possible during the Covid 19 pandemic, to visual arts. And that’s why I’m also doing a lot of painting that’s just abstract or portraits, because I can sell them, basically. [Laughs] I am also, in the meantime, trying to do some networking with my EU contacts, because, obviously, in the UK, the anti-Brexit campaign is just decimated. And it’s also futile, I think, for the next ten years. There is no pro-EU campaign. There isn’t a Rejoin campaign on the cards. So I think that people that care about campaigning for the EU in the UK need to look to forging better links with our European allies, so that we can learn from their campaigns and, likewise, so that the Europeans can learn from the mistakes of the Remain campaign which lost – the anti-Brexit campaign which failed to stop Brexit. There was [sic] a lot of mistakes made along the way. I think that Europeans that are fighting populism in their own countries can learn from us, and we can learn from them, and we need to work together. So I’m trying to network at the moment, and forge some new alliances with pro-EU movements in Europe to see if, hopefully, that I can continue campaigning in the future but, again, it’s all gonna come down to whether I can financially sustain that. 

RT: I should ask you, before we go, a bit more about your art, really. What are your influences? You’ve obviously got bits of Picasso, Cubism, a bit of Warhol in there as well, sometimes. So what are your influences, and how are you developing as a visual artist? 

MK: I literally did a spoof of the Campbell’s soup Pop Art tin, for a placard. It was for the Wooferendum march, so I did it as, like, a dog’s breakfast, rather than Campbell’s soup. During the anti-Brexit campaign I was mainly doing illustration. I wasn’t really doing fine art. That was because the children’s books, the Trump one, Theresa Maybe in Brexit Land, the Reasons to Remain booklet – that’s something I’m really proud of. The Reasons to Remain booklet is something I’m really proud of, actually, because we crowdfunded, like, 50,000 copies, to go to the local groups, and that made a real difference to them on their street stalls and in the local communities, that they had these to give out. That was all illustration. It wasn’t until I started my tour of Europe that I started doing the charcoal sketches, the watercolour sketches, in more of, like, a fine art approach. Since Christmas and when we knew that the anti-Brexit campaign was coming to an end, that’s when I really started with my oil paintings. The portraits are definitely influenced by Picasso and Cubism. When I was at college, I did study Picasso but particularly Guernica, because I was reading George Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage To Catalonia, at the same time, and drawing connections between the art, the literature, and the politics of the time. That definitely influenced my creative approach to political issues and dealing with them and representing them. The Cubist style is so descriptive and chaotic, and that’s why I feel like it serves so well as part of the project that I’m doing at the moment on Brexiles. These people are abandoning their lives and moving because there’s political turmoil in their own country. In terms of my abstract paintings, certainly the splatter paintings would be influenced by Jackson Pollock. They’re less political but, at the same time, they’re kind of about how I feel about my experiences during the last few years. There’s been so many things out of my control and so many things that have just been chaotic and random but, at the same time, there’s been some beauty and something memorable that’s come out of what was complete madness and chaos. For me a splatter painting is this really interesting balance between what you can control and what you just have to let be, and let go and just accept. You can select your colours. You can try and control the movement of your hand but, at the end of the day, it’s just gonna happen. That is, literally, the mentality that I’ve had to take in the last four years, where so many things have been in turmoil. Planning my schedule, particularly my travel schedule, was happening on like a day-by-day, week at a maximum, basis, because so many things changed that, if I tried to plan in advance, it would all have to be torn-up and changed anyway, so it was very much like “What can I control? What do I just have to, like, put out of my mind and let happen, or postpone?” I mean that’s why I’m kind of enjoying doing these abstracts at the moment, because they’re very much about control and freedom and chaos – what beauty can be found in something that is chaotic. 

[Editor’s note: Since the interview, Madeleina has been successful in fully funding Brexiles. Her books and art work may be purchased at https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/AlbaWhiteWolf ]

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