Amy Winehouse's Legacy
Mitch Winehouse may have lost his daughter Amy to addiction, but as he tells The Fix, he's doing his best to prevent similar tragedies in other families.
On July 23, 2011, the music world—and beyond—was dealt a crushing blow when Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning after binge drinking. But while fans were mourning, Amy’s father Mitch immediately sprang into action by starting the Amy Winehouse Foundation, an organization designed to prevent the effects of drug and alcohol misuse on young people in the UK. The foundation has crossed over into the US and now offers music scholarships for disadvantaged youth; it will also hold the first annual Amy Winehouse Foundation Inspiration Awards and Gala on March 21 in NYC, where Tony Bennett will serve as the honoree and Jennifer Hudson and Nas will perform.
Mitch has also released the memoir Amy, My Daughter and is carrying on her musical legacy with his own album, "Rush of Love"—with the proceeds from both ventures going directly to the foundation. In an exclusive interview with The Fix, Mitch speaks about the accomplishments of the foundation, parenting a child who’s addicted and the importance of early intervention.
How did the Amy Winehouse Foundation first come about?
I was in a hotel room in New York when I first got the news that Amy passed away and one of the first things that entered my head was “Foundation, foundation, foundation.” But I had no experience with this and when we started to create it, we realized you can’t just start one up. It was a steep learning curve and continues to be.
We launched in the UK in September 2011, but we’re really just starting here in the US. In the UK, we’re helping a number of grantees and have joined up with a homeless charity called New Horizon that feeds hot meals to 60 young people a day. We’re also working on creating drug and alcohol education projects and, starting in April, we’ll go into 45 schools and speak with the kids.
Nobody chooses to be an addict. Amy didn’t choose to be an addict.
What is the foundation hoping to accomplish?
Our mission is to help disadvantaged young people so we’re looking to do that in all forms. In the US, we’ll have a slightly different aim and focus more on providing music scholarships. We just donated $25,000 to the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. Amy was half-American and her mom was born in Brooklyn, so it made sense for one of our first US grants to be given out here.
But in the UK, there is no drug education in schools whatsoever. And what about the kids who suffer from self-esteem issues? What do they do when they’re being pressured to drink or do drugs by their peers? What if they’re being bullied or bullying themselves? It’s an issue that goes beyond drugs and alcohol and there are enough people working in recovery in Britain who could be of assistance with this. The service that we’re providing is completely unique to the UK.
Did Amy have issues with drugs as a child or did those develop in adulthood?
To be honest, that all happened so long ago that I don’t want to look back on it. She dealt with her drug problems successfully and was clean for the last three years of her life. What she was suffering from was alcohol addiction. And she really was just one step away from winning that battle, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Having a child who’s an addict can’t be easy.
It’s the most difficult thing that you can imagine. If you talk to three clinical psychologists, they’ll give you three different answers about the best approach. Some say hard love, others say soft love, another says tough love. And when people are in the midst of an addiction, they find it difficult to relate to their families and often separate themselves completely. Luckily, Amy didn’t do that with us. You just have to let them know you love them and care about them.
It’s such a difficult situation for families both in the UK and the US, though, because, unless you have the resources to send your child to private treatment, it’s a three-year waiting list. And we did have the means to send Amy to all these different places, but so many people don’t.
In your memoir, you talked about needing a holiday from her. A lot of parents of addicts often feel guilty admitting that it can be exhausting.
It’s exhaustion, it’s boring and it’s repetitious. I really wanted that to come across in the book. One day she’s clean and hasn’t done any drugs, the next day she’s using again. It would get better and then we’d be back to square one. It was important for me to try and convey that feeling of helplessness and boredom.
Did you reach out to any support groups?
There are a few voluntary organizations in the UK with a family focus, so I did attend those. And what I found is that most parents are in the same boat. They think they’re on their own and genuinely don’t know what to do because if you can’t afford treatment, you pretty much are left on your own to figure it out.
What message do you hope to convey with the foundation and your work in addressing addiction?
Nobody chooses to be an addict. Amy didn’t choose to be an addict. 100 percent of people suffering from addiction didn’t imagine it would end up this way. It’s an illness and should be treated as such. If someone has appendicitis in the US and they don’t have private insurance, they’ll still get an operation and the hospital will pick up the bill. The same principle should apply with treating addiction.
I also want to stress the importance of early intervention in school education programs, as well as reintegration into society once addiction has happened. Instead of being a burden on society, addicts should be allowed to earn their own money and rejoin the community. It’s not rocket science.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.