Before hitting the top of the charts with such hits as “Starboy,” “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Blinding Lights,” Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, had to work his way up from the bottom. “It was tough growing up where I was from,” the self-described “street kid” from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough explained to Variety. “I really thought film was gonna be my way out, but I couldn’t really make a movie to feel better, you know? Music was very direct therapy; it was immediate and people liked it. It definitely saved my life.”
Five studio albums, four No. 1 Billboard hits and three Grammys later, The Weeknd is now among the top-selling artists worldwide. Here are 10 things you may not know about the Canadian singer, who will headline the 2021 Super Bowl halftime show in Tampa Bay on February 7.
The son of Ethiopian immigrants, The Weeknd grew up outside Toronto in a multicultural neighborhood filled with fellow East Africans, as well as people from India, the Middle East and the Caribbean. “Ethiopian — Amharic — was the first language I learned to form sentences in because my grandma, who raised me with my mom, would not speak English,” he told Variety. “Because of television and being in Canada, I learned English too, but I went to French-immersion school, where you’d get in trouble for speaking English, and I couldn’t speak it to my grandma, so it’s almost like English is my third language, even though now it’s my first.”
He has a special connection to Jim Carrey
The Weeknd also told Variety that fellow Ontario native Jim Carrey’s 1994 comedy The Mask was the first movie his single mother, Samra Tesfaye, took him to see in theaters when he was 4 years old. “It blew me away,” he said, adding that it fueled his dream of one day attending film school. Nearly three decades later, the men were introduced over text, and The Weeknd invited Carrey to his Los Angeles condo to hear some new music in 2019.
As it turned out, not only did they discover that they lived in the same neighborhood — and even got out telescopes to wave to each other — but Carrey also knew the exact theater his mother took him to see The Mask. “On my [30th] birthday, he called and told me to look out my window, and on his balcony he had these giant red balloons, and he picked me up and we went to breakfast,” The Weeknd recalled. “It was surreal. Jim Carrey was my first inspiration to be any kind of performer, and I went to breakfast with him on my first day of being 30.”
He initially wanted to spell his stage name differently
During a 2013 Reddit AMA, the singer revealed that he “hated” his given name and, in his late teens, decided to use the moniker “The Weekend,” instead, because it “sounded cool.” There was one problem, however: a Canadian rock band already existed, so he removed the “e” to avoid copyright issues. According to music producer Jeremy Rose, however, he and his fellow musician used “The Weekend” as a collective name, but his former collaborator dropped the “e” after a falling out in 2010.
His trademark former hairstyle was a pain — literally
The Weeknd says his trademark dreadlock hairstyle — which was inspired by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat — caused him to sometimes wake up with neck pain. He kept the style anyway so that he didn’t end up looking “like everyone else,” also wanting to be remembered as “iconic and different.” In 2015, he told Rolling Stone that he’d “probably cut it” if it started to interfere with his sight, however.
He eventually lopped his hair off in 2016, debuting his new short-haired look on the album artwork for Starboy. “I think I felt a single tear come down my cheek,” he later joked in an interview with The Guardian, adding that he’d also missed the anonymity he could get from wearing baseball caps.
He worked at American Apparel
Before he made it big, The Weeknd worked folding shirts at an American Apparel retail store in downtown Toronto around 2010. He began making music with the intent of selling it to other musicians around the same time, and his co-workers would listen to his tracks while they worked without even realizing it was him singing them.
He dropped out of high school
After switching schools several times, The Weeknd eventually dropped out of high school when he was 17, also persuading his best friend, La Mar Taylor, to join him. The pair, along with another friend, Hyghly Alleyne, decided to move into a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood. He recalls his mother giving him “the worst look anyone could ever have,” as he dragged his mattress out of their home. “She looked at me like she had failed,” he told The New York Times in 2015. Admitting to Rolling Stone that he still feels insecure when “talking to someone educated,” he says he later began doing crossword puzzles to improve his vocabulary.
He was homeless
While The Weeknd was living in an $850-per-month apartment with his two high school pals — which they paid for with welfare checks — the trio would shoplift food from a nearby supermarket to survive. Eventually selling marijuana for a nominal amount of money, he and his roommates lived a “no rules” lifestyle and would get high on such drugs as MDMA, Xanax, cocaine, mushrooms and ketamine. (He also addressed this dark period of his life in his autobiographical 2020 song “Snowchild.”) They were eventually evicted, and The Weeknd admitted he’d tell various girls he loved them so he’d have a place to stay. “There was, like, three girls that thought legit that I was their boyfriend,’’ he explained to the New York Times.
In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, The Weeknd admitted to also spending nights in jail when he was about 18, something he described as being bad enough for him to “smarten up, to focus.” He elaborated: “A lot of people don’t get that second chance. But around that age, you usually get one second chance after a slap on the wrist. And you either take the experience and think, ‘This is it, final straw’, or you don’t. And the next move after that? It’s your entire life. You become who you become because of the next move you make.”
Drake helped launch his career
Drake initially introduced the then-little-known singer to his fanbase in 2010 by posting two of the fellow Canadian artist’s songs on his October’s Very Own blog. After the two later met in 2011 while The Weeknd was promoting his debut House of Balloons mixtape, Drake asked him to appear on his Take Care track “Crew Love” the same year. “If you want to talk about evolution — a quick evolution — that’s definitely somebody who, everywhere I go, they love him,” Drake told MTV in 2012. “We’re definitely a family. It’s definitely a Toronto thing.”
After The Weeknd received zero Grammy nominations for 2020’s After Hours — despite the album’s commercial and critical success — Drake defended his pal on Instagram. “The other day I said The Weeknd was a lock for either album or song of the year along with countless other reasonable assumptions and it just never goes that way,” he posted in November, adding that the award “may no longer matter.”
He (maybe) lived in a haunted house
The Weeknd insisted to Rolling Stone in 2015 that the Hollywood Hills home he was renting at the time was haunted, leading him to not want to stay there very often. “I’ve had sleep paralysis. I hear voices sometimes,” he told the magazine. “I heard the Hills are over Indian burial ground. But maybe it’s just the wind.”
He has a $3 million car collection
Not only does he own the $1.2 million orange McLaren P1 seen in his “Starboy” music video, but the hypercar is only one part of his reported $3 million car collection. His other vehicles include:a Ferrari LaFerrari, a Porsche 918, a Lamborghini Aventador SVJ and a Bentley Mulsanne, among others. His $25 million L.A. mansion, which he listed for sale in June 2020, even includes a custom mirror-floored auto gallery garage that can switch between purple, blue and green neon lighting.