At tonight’s Billboard Music Awards, which recognizes artists who’ve made the biggest impact on the charts, as tabulated by Nielsen Music, several newcomers find themselves in major categories. They include country singer Kane Brown, who notched a No. 1 in his format with “American Idol” graduate Lauren Alaina, and is nominated three times; R&B wunderkind Khalid, whose ubiquitous “Location” and “Young Dumb & Broke” was the soundtrack to much of 2017; and Bhad Bhabie, aka Danielle Bregoli, aka the “Cash Me Outside” girl, who is up against Nicki Minaj and Cardi B for best female rap artist.
This morning, it was announced that Cardi B won, but Bhad Bhabie’s nom is no fluke: the BBMAs are metric-based and, with two songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 back-to-back (“Hi Bich” and “These Heaux;” which peaked at No. 68 and No. 77, respectively), she is in rarified company in just being eligible. In fact, in all of 2017, only one female rapper landed in the Top 50 most consumed songs of the year (Cardi B with “Bodak Yellow”), according to Buzz Angle, and just one standalone female artist (as opposed to a feature), Julia Michaels, cracked the top 20 songs in overall consumption.
But then again, nothing about the success story of Danielle Bregoli is to be expected. Plenty of people have made a living out of being famous for being famous, but when it comes to transitioning to a legitimate music career, you’d be hard-pressed to find much more than the occasional novelty hit – Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” comes to mind (it actually reached No. 18 on the Hot 100 in 2006), as does Rebecca Black’s “Friday” (it peaked at No. 58 in 2011, but was bested by the forgettable “Saturday” – No. 55 — two years later) and Kendall Jenner’s chalkboard scratching cameo at the end of Lil Dicky’s current hit, “Freaky Friday.”
Bregoli’s instant fame was of the viral variety, and came with the Dr. Phil chyron “I Want To Give Up My Car-Stealing, Knife-Wielding, Twerking 13-Year-Old Daughter Who Tried To Frame Me For A Crime.” To recap: on the Dec. 20, 2016 episode of the daytime talk show, Bregoli’s mom Barbara Ann pleaded with the television doc to help her daughter. A struggling single mom, Barbara Ann saw handing Danielle over to the authorities as her only option in obtaining professional help for the unruly teen. Reaching out to the Dr. Phil show was both an act of desperation and hope.
Then 13, Danielle Bregoli, who spent many of her nights sleeping on the floor of a trailer in a nearby RV park, seized on the TV opportunity almost unknowingly – delivering her famous line, “cash me outside, how ‘bout dat?,” as if she’d been saying it her whole life. Little did she know that it would follow her in perpetuity.
So how do you go from meme to major label breakout? This was the question her co-manager Adam Kluger asked himself shortly after hearing a remix of the catchphrase on Florida radio and Googling, “Cash me outside.”
The Florida Project
“I drove to her house and knocked on her door,” says Kluger, whose former office in Hollywood, Florida was about 40 minutes away from the Bregolis in Boynton Beach (where 10% of the population lived below the poverty line, according to the 2000 census). Kluger had spent the last ten years working with artists and brands, but had pretty much given up on the music business. “I type in her name on YouTube, expecting to find the Dr. Phil thing, just to see what it was, but instead I came across a live stream of her on Instagram going berserk. She was on the phone, screaming at people, like a hundred miles an hour. It was a train wreck I couldn’t look away from.”
After speaking with Barbara and Danielle Bregoli, Kluger’s initial thoughts were: “Maybe there’s something there; Maybe I could package a TV show… I called a lot of managers in the music business who basically laughed at me, and then I called Dan.”
Dan Roof also came from the branding world, but on the digital side. A fellow Floridian, Roof’s specialty was monetizing socials. He and Kluger went back a few years. “Dan called me back and was, like, ‘I get it,’” says Kluger. Adds Roof with a laugh: “I think I slept on it.”
In Roof’s professional opinion: Bregoli’s numbers were unusual in that they reflected such a high level of engagement. “She was doing live streams and getting tens of thousands of people when she only had tens of thousands of followers,” says Roof. “Usually, you get a tenth, which would be phenomenal, but she was averaging like 50 percent. There was a frenzy about it because, at that point, she was the “cash me outside” girl — no one knew her name, but they were still finding her by droves.”
Indeed, Bregoli’s first Instagram handle, says Kluger, “was ‘Sliiimthugggg’ with three I’s and four g’s. It was impossible to spell. So people were actually spending their time looking for her.” Misspelling, fans quickly learn, is her thing. And Bhad Bhabie currently boasts nearly 13.5 million Instagram followers.
Ratings for Bregoli’s episode of Dr. Phil were so strong that the show wanted her back for a second appearance in April 2017. Kluger and Roof took advantage of the opportunity to test the waters in Los Angeles. The feedback wasn’t all that promising. MTV, for instance, “wouldn’t even take a meeting,” says Kluger. “After making the TV rounds, the response was, it could be 15 minutes of fame just slightly extended. Most meme or Internet stars, without intelligent people around them, will sizzle out and that’s the end of it. We have to pivot and reverse engineer what this is. Typically you have someone with talent and you’re trying to make them famous. We had someone who was super famous, but had to find, what is that talent?”
“Do You Know What We Do Here?”
“Danielle decided out of the blue one day, that she’s better than what she’s hearing on the radio and wants to try rapping,” says Roof. Through connections in the industry, they brought Bregoli to Pulse Music and she cut a song. “Adam hated it.” The team then went to Dr. Luke, but his small army of songwriters and producers wouldn’t bite. Enter: Aton Ben-Horin, Global Vice President, A&R of Warner Music Group (WMG), another native Floridian and a friend of Kluger’s, who heads up Mike Caren’s WMG A&R team (Jason Derulo, David Guetta, Flo Rida). Ben-Horin saw — or rather, heard – something.
“If somebody else were to say, ‘Cash me outside’ on that TV show, it wouldn’t have gone viral,” Ben-Horin tells Variety. “It’s the way she said it. The authentic phrasing she had. It sounded effortless. She sounded dope.”
Bregoli’s first day in the studio “was really, really rough,” says Ben-Horin. The track he picked for her, called “Hi Bich,” she didn’t like. “We were there about two hours and nothing got done. She was, like, yelling at people on Instagram who were talking shit. Dan stormed out. Danielle, just messing around, said, ‘Imma slap him.’ I had to break it down for her. ‘Do you know what we do here? Do you know who records here? Do you know what I do?’” Bregoli shook her head.
Ben-Horin explained that the lyrics weren’t set in stone, and that her vocal can be produced if she gives it just a little effort. Bregoli fought back, telling Ben-Horin that if a stylist wanted to put her in a pink dress, she wouldn’t agree to that either. (Bregoli’s uniform is fairly consistent – tight jeans, a hoodie, sneakers or flip-flops – more on her look a little later.)
“She was frustrated and had been arguing, she was not happy or in the mood, and she went in the booth and [spoke], ‘White J’s / White horse / Hi bitch.’” Even without any emotion or even inflection in her delivery, “That shit sounded fire” says Ben-Horin. “She heard it back and was, like, ‘Oh shit.’ The next day, Danielle came in like she was a new artist. It was as if she’d been recording for years.”
“We had an offer maybe two weeks later,” adds Roof. Bregoli signed with Atlantic Records, a subsidiary of WMG.
Says Kluger: “Transitioning someone who, at the time, was the most hated internet personality in the world, to a legitimate rap artist as a 14-year-old white girl … It’s never been done and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. So we went to the person with the absolute best track record in making hit records and building artists and that’s Mike Caren.”
Caren connected the team with such in-demand producers as Max Martin, Diplo, Ronny J and 30 Roc and over the next few weeks, Bhad Bhabie recorded “These Heaux,” “Gucci Flip Flops” (feat. Lil Yachty) and “Mama Don’t Worry,” which Kluger and Roof liken to Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.”
“In two weeks, we had 14 songs done,” says Ben-Horin. “I was 100% convinced that, even without Dr. Phil and all that notoriety, she would have eventually done music.”
Because a photo posted by Bregoli can get over 750,000 “likes,” she’s in the top 1% of Instagram, which means Bhad Bhabie can command big bucks for a branding alliance. A 45-second mention at the beginning of a video, for example, can bring in north of $50,000. She’s currently averaging $40,000 per post, says Roof, though they are selective on which offers they say yes to. “If it’s a fit for her, we’ll follow their creative, but she’s gotta do it in her own way,” he explains. “She’s gotta curse; She’s gotta be herself. Otherwise it doesn’t come off as authentic and it just doesn’t work for us.”
Additional revenue comes in from YouTube which monetizes her views. To date: “Hi Bich” has logged more than 96 million video plays while “These Heaux” is coming up on 70 million. Bhad Bhabie has 4.4 million subscribers on YouTube. “Hi Bich” was also certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
But branding goes both ways, and one thing Roof and the team have insisted upon is that she keep her look consistent. Hence, the pony tail, the clothes, and the impossible-to-miss nails. Here, too, the team has encountered resistance.
Says Kluger: I try to explain to her: ‘You’re gonna get kids that dress up like you for Halloween; You’ll be more recognizable; and when you decide to change that look, drastically, it’s a story. … It’s a simple strategy that a lot of artists use but it’s very difficult for a 31-year-old guy to explain that to a 14, 15-year-old girl. She fights back because all she wants is to look pretty and do whatever the f— she wants. But from a branding perspective, and that’s 90 percent of her career, you know, that’s the hard part. The music? We got Mike Caren, that shit’s easy. It’s having that aura around you.”
“She gets it now,” adds Roof. “We were at a Chik-fil-A [recently] and the guy at the counter asked her, ‘Are you the “cash me outside” girl?’ I said in front of Danielle, ‘How’d you know it was her?’ And he said, ‘Oh it was her hair.’”
At the same time, Bregoli has some major expenditures. Since moving to Los Angeles, where she doesn’t attend school but is tutored, she’s had to employ a full-time bodyguard (outbursts, like the one on Spirit Airlines last year, persist). “We’re not gonna spare any expense on security because we need it,” says Kluger. “She can’t walk down the street by herself.”
Bregoli’s biggest bills are of the legal kind. “They got into a lot of issues with her dad, who was never in her life, trying to come back into the picture and essentially get a check, which we ended up giving him,” Kluger reveals. The dispute “racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills for Danielle’s mom, and Danielle paid for it.”
Bregoli is represented by attorney Aaron Rosenberg of Myman Greenspan Fox Rosenberg Mobasser Younger & Light, whose clients include Justin Bieber, Jennifer Lopez and John Legend, among many other music stars. She also shares a business manager with Pitbull and is booked by ICM. A North American tour of 800 to 1,000-person capacity clubs is ongoing with several sold out stops (she hits L.A.’s The Roxy on June 14.)
But for now, all eyes are on the BBMAs, where Bregoli will make her red carpet debut and sit alongside hit artists like Ariana Grande, Christina Aguilera, Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes. She’ll likely also have to defend her place among the rap elite – albeit few are expected to be in attendance – and it’s a spot that’s deserved. Bhad Bhabie’s flow, even if the lyrical content – prostitution, drug use, violence — isn’t your thing, is undeniable.
“I think she’ll succeed as a rapper because everything she says, she believes,” offers Kluger. “And that’s one of the hardest things about being a rapper: being believable.”