Josie Proto does not tolerate cat-calling. A few days ago, while driving home—in a juiced-up muscle car that used to belong to her boyfriend, one she says you don’t expect “a small blonde girl” like her to drive—a construction worker let out a wolf whistle and blew a few leering kisses, all directed her way.
“I just felt that shiver,” Proto, a 20 year-old British pop singer and TikTok personality, said. “I was not putting up with that asshole.” Proto ignored the two-way traffic and made a three-point turn to pull up beside the man. “I slammed on my brakes and rolled down my window and was like, ‘Did you just make kissing faces at me?’ He said, ‘No, no.’ I said, ‘Good, because if you did, I’d drive over your foot right now.’ Then I did another three-point turn and sped away.”
“It was the most badass thing I’ve ever done!” Proto said, giddy, during a Zoom interview with The Daily Beast. “I really believe that he won’t do that again to girls. It made me feel so much stronger.”
It’s also a great plug for her newest single, released in June, titled “I Just Wanna Walk Home.” In blunt and unsparing terms, the lyrics detail the various ways young women ensure they return safely from a night out or late commute. She mentions clutching house keys as if they were brass knuckles, making sure she walks on a brightly lit side of the street, and “telling a joke to the bouncer so he’d remember me leave” just in case she'd have a witness in case the worst happened.
Proto wrote the song in response to the outcry and protests over the death of Sarah Everard, a young Londoner who was killed by a former cop while walking back to her flat in March. It was a manifestation of so many women’s worst-case scenarios and spurred a mini-#MeToo movement, where many took to social media to share their close calls and brushes with danger. It was a cathartic moment, for sure, but one that left many like Proto wondering: who didn’t already know this was a reality?
“I was really frustrated; I felt like everyone really focused on the statistics and facts,” Proto explained. “There was this graphic going around that said 97 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment. Some people were tearing down the statistic saying it came from a bad source. Other people said the number didn’t matter: anything above 1 percent was too much. And I was like: you’re missing the point. Regardless of what the statistics are, it’s obvious that we’re scared. Surely if you’re a kind person, you want to make 50 percent of the population feel safe. Everyone was dismissing emotion as if it wasn’t a valid response to an argument.”
Proto made clear that she wrote the song as a reaction to the public discussion about women’s safety—not Everard’s specific case. “I was shocked and hurt by her death, but it wasn’t something that frustrated me,” she said. “It was so normal. And that’s really sad. But I felt that making this song about her death would be a little too raw. I never wanted it to feel like it was pinned because of [Everard]. She deserves more than that.”
Still, Proto admits there is an uneasiness when it comes to earning fame off the back of a tragedy. “It’s a really strange one,” she said. “I wanted to stress in all the interviews and promo I've done for the song that although Sarah Everard’s tragic death was a catalyst for the song, it isn’t ‘in her memory,’ as I think that would be insensitive to those who knew her personally. It’s been a really fine line with the release, trying to stay on the side of awareness, instead of promotional and personal gain. I’m incredibly grateful for the reaction the song has had, though I am aware of the connotations given the timing. However, I think, more unfortunately, that there would never be a time where a case wouldn’t pop into someone’s mind when hearing something about this topic.”
The young singer remembers the first time she was cat-called very clearly. She was 12 or 13 years old, and doing a charity showcase for the older residents of the village she’s from, a small parish in southeast England called Lower Breeding. “We’d sing songs, do comedy, act, dance, make up sketches—the stuff you do when you’re 12 and think you’re the next Taylor Swift,” Proto explained. She was passing out tea to an elderly man when he said “something along the lines of, ‘Oh, wha I would do if I were younger,’ or ‘those legs!’” Proto recalled.
“It was the first time I was suddenly like—what do I say to that? I felt dirty and shameful with the fact that it happened to me,” Proto said. The next year, she began working at her local pub, which is still one of her favorite places in the world and the first venue she ever gigged. But it was also an education in sexist micro-aggressions. “There were all sorts of remarks like that,” she said. “People thought they could get away with it, because I was young and vulnerable.”
When Proto was 15, she and a friend walked into town on the hottest day of the year. It was about an hour-long trip, and Proto remembers getting honked and jeered at six times by different men. “Six times! And it was so obvious that my friend and I were young. I went home to my mom and told her and she went, ‘Yeah. that’s going to start happening now.’”
Proto grew up in a music-obsessed family; her parents would put on David Bowie, Queen, and Elton John. Her grandmother kept an old guitar around the house that she gave to Proto when she was around 10 years old. She learned how to play one chord. It was so exciting to her that she played the same chord, and nothing else, for two years. When her parents got sick of it, she learned the song “This Train is Bound for Glory.” She taught herself for a few years, and then began seeing a guitar teacher who taught her the rest.
Going to an all-girls’ school taught Proto the language of female empowerment: “That experience teaches you that women are incredible and really strong and can do whatever they want,” she said. “But it also teaches you that women are so oppressed. It teaches you the prejudices.” She mentioned having to campaign for a music tech course; the nearby boys’ school got one, but administrators assumed young women wouldn’t be interested in those classes. “I hated that,” she said. “That set off a bit of a fire in me.”
Proto has nearly 50,000 TikTok followers; she’s spent her life oversharing on the internet. She loves her online community but acknowledges its darker side. “You laugh about these things with your friends—like, I had a Facebook stalker,” she said. “It was when I was 15: a guy started following me, commenting normal things, and I just thought he was a fan. Then it got more personal. You could interpret was he was saying as being lewd, like he asked me for a private gig. It got worse and worse, but the problem was people assume that because you have a public platform, you have to accept it.”
Proto signed with Island Records this year. Her songs exhibit a plucky girlishness, but she’s hesitant on how to market her femininity in the sex and youth obsessed pop world. “The way people talk about the industry, they call your persona and public image an ‘artist project,’” she said. “That’s so surreal to me, it sounds like adopting a fake personality. For my artist project, it’s just me. I’m just recording songs in my bedroom, just writing songs about my life. My music is not separate from who I am; it’s the same thing. So it’s hard for me as a 20-year-old, learning all the normal stuff you learn when you’re 20, and also keeping my artistic project in a place that’s marketable for the money-minded people in the industry.”
She tries to keep her face off of album covers. “It’s difficult because as a woman, you can be pressured to put your face in things more, because you’re selling your image rather than your music,” Proto said. “Men are much less likely to be put on things—how many times have you seen Ed Sheeran on his album covers? Ariana Grande’s on all of hers. And don’t get me wrong, the way you market yourself is down to you. It’s empowering that women can market themselves as their face and their beauty and sexiness. I think that's really cool. But when you want to do the opposite, the options really aren’t there for you.”
Proto said she faced “pushback” after making the “conscious decision “ to not put her face on EP covers or certain music videos. “I don’t think it’s malicious misogyny,” she said. “I think people just see me and go, people will like it if she’s on the thing. They don’t think about why that could be the case. But I’ve always seen that as a really important thing: I’m not selling my face. I’m selling my music.”
One music video that Proto is really proud of does feature her face, along with a dozen other women who lip synched the lyrics to “I Just Wanna Walk Home,” a sad display of solidarity and unintentional sisterhood. She found the cast after putting out a call on social media. “We had one fantastic girl come who was 13 but lied about being older so she could be in it,” Proto said. “Which was incredible, and also her mom was fine with it.”
After the shoot, Proto chatted with the women about their experiences walking home. “It was heart-wrenching,” she said. “Some of the girls were 16, 17, but talked about it like they were old women who had experienced it their whole lives. There was this entire feeling of burning in the room. How can you not hear this and change the way you’re behaving? How can you not hear people talk like this and feel something?”
Like everyone, Proto entered lockdown as an entirely different person than who she is now. By the time she starts performing live shows again, she’ll be 21—three years older than the last show she performed at age 18.
“Will I remember how to do it? I don’t know,” she said. “I’m nervous to meet people in person, because my social battery isn’t fully charged yet. I’m concerned about having a ridiculous amount of social anxiety because I’m not used to being around people. But I’m most of all excited, because I haven’t met anyone who listens to my music. I’m dying to meet the people who have been so supportive on the internet, in person. But I’m terrified at the same time.”