Why Megan Thee Stallion Isn’t Slowing Down — or Backing Down

Photographs by Orin Fleurimont

For the 2020 Power of Young Hollywood Issue, Variety profiled three young stars making an impact in the entertainment industry. For more, click here

Megan Thee Stallion is ready to move on.

Since she burst onto the hip-hop scene in 2017 with “Stalli Freestyle,” the now 25-year-old rapper has been on a seemingly inexorable rise, with last year’s meme-spawning smash “Hot Girl Summer” (featuring Nicki Minaj) and a tag team with none other than Beyoncé on the “Savage” remix earlier this year. Even the pandemic didn’t slow her down: She blew up the BET Awards with a stunning, socially distanced, “Mad Max”-themed video for “Savage,” she was a judge on HBO Max’s ballroom competition show “Legendary” (which has been renewed for a second season) and social media was aflutter over her new friendship with Kylie Jenner.

Lazy loaded image
Orin Fleurimont for Variety

But in the early hours of July 12, things got complicated. After a night of COVID-defying party-hopping that included a visit to Jenner’s house, she and an unidentified woman were in a car with Canadian rapper Tory Lanez, whom Megan was said to be dating, when he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. While initial reports said Megan injured her foot on broken glass in the car, she has since claimed in social media posts and a July 27 Instagram Live session that she was “shot in both of my feet and had to get surgery to get the bullets taken out,” although she did not inform police and has yet to reveal the identity of the shooter. (One common rumor is that Lanez lost his temper after the two had an argument, but she has dismissed all such speculation as “fake-ass news.”) Surveillance video footage of the arrest shows Megan limping from the SUV, leaving bloody footprints; Los Angeles police confirmed they have opened an investigation based on Megan’s account, but witnesses are said to be not cooperating.

Such incidents normally send a celebrity into hiding, but after nine days of tabloid frenzy, Megan was on the phone with Variety for a long-scheduled interview and ready to talk about virtually anything else. Questions about Lanez and The Incident were strictly off limits, but during the conversation Megan was cheerful, funny, forward-looking and optimistic, only hinting at the experience when asked how she’s doing.

“I’m not the type of person who can stay down for a long time,” she says. “I don’t like to be sad or keep myself in a dark place, because I know it could be the worst thing happening, but the pain and the bad things don’t last for long.”

Lazy loaded image
Orin Fleurimont for Variety

But that resolve was tested less than 24 hours later when Megan found herself on the receiving end of some epic trolling by “Basketball Wives” star Draya Michele, who speculated that Megan and Lanez had “some sort of Bobby [Brown] and Whitney [Houston] love” and concluded by saying, “I want you to like me so much that you shoot me in the foot too.”

The online retribution was swift and fierce, particularly from Megan. “Dumb bitch that sh– ain’t f—ing funny who tf jokes about getting shot by a n—a,” she tweeted, not needing to identify her target. “And f— all the hoe ass n—as making jokes about it too [middle finger emoji]. I’ll talk about sh– when I get ready.”

The social media snark continued anyway. 50 Cent shared a meme that made light of the shooting; Chrissy Teigen made a joke about making a joke about Megan that landed badly. While Megan didn’t single them out in the Instagram Live session, she thanked supporters and told others: “It’s nothing to joke about and nothing for y’all to be making fake stories about. I didn’t put my hands on nobody, and I didn’t deserve to get shot.” Both apologized — and a direct apology from virtuoso troll 50 is a rare event. “Damn I didn’t think this sh– was real,” he wrote on Insta­gram. “@theestallion I’m glad your feeling better and I hope you can accept my apology.” She’s also received flowers from Beyoncé and Rihanna and messages of love and support from Janelle Monáe, DaBaby, Chance the Rapper and 21 Savage, among many others.

As much as Megan says she wants to move on from The Incident and not let it define her young career, one thing is clear: Mess with her at your peril.

Lazy loaded image
Orin Fleurimont for Variety

Indeed, one gets the sense that Megan has just begun to scratch the surface of what she has to offer. She’s a strong rapper with an unusually forceful yet precise flow, shaped by the UGK and Notorious B.I.G. records her parents played. And her infectious, sexy, fun-loving persona is easy for fans to embrace. She’s already begun introducing different characters in her songs, like Hot Girl Meg, the brassy Tina Snow, the shy Suga — and one that she promises will be “the leader of all of them, the boss,” on her still-untitled debut full-length album, which she hopes to release by the end of summer.

As if a demanding music career weren’t enough, she’s also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in health administration at Texas Southern University, with the goal of opening an assisted-living facility. At the same time, she’s a big horror-movie fan and has begun work on the screenplay for a film (“It’s gonna be something that definitely blows your mind; you’ve never seen it before”), and starred as a vampire private investigator in a comic “Hottieween” YouTube series directed by Teyana Taylor last year. She has multiple branding deals in place or in the works, including for her “Hot Girl Summer” brand, which she’s trademarked. And her formidable social media game has played a huge role in keeping her profile up. “It’s nothing that’s planned out,” she says. “I just get online, and my team doesn’t even know until they see it and ‘Oh sh–, look at Megan.’”

As on-brand as her fun-loving persona can be, it’s just one of the multiple roles she can inhabit. “I have a lot of people dancing around in my head,” she says, letting off a trademark short, high-pitched laugh. “So in the same way that I like to introduce different personas through my music, I also want to try a lot of new things.”

Minaj admires her friend’s ambition. “One of my favorite things about Meg is her desire to further her education,” she tells Variety. “It’s so important for women to feel inspired to achieve goals outside of social media, where the focus is usually placed on their bodies or who they’re dating at the time. Women are more than just baby mamas, and we can continue to prove that by being goal oriented, bettering ourselves and being independent. Megan is the perfect example that we can have fun and be smart at the same time.”

She also is not someone to be trifled with. After winning a court case early this year in which 1501 Entertainment, her former label, tried unsuccessfully to block the release of her “Suga” EP, she posted on Instagram: “I will stand up for myself and won’t allow two men to bully me, I am NO ONE’S PROPERTY.”

“The only thing I don’t like about having all eyes on you at all times is not all eyes are good eyes.”
Megan Thee Stallion

That self-confidence comes from being raised by strong women. Megan Jovon Ruth Pete was born on Feb. 15, 1995, and grew up on the south side of Houston. “It was me, my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mom,” she says. (Her father, Joseph Pete Jr., who she’s described as a “full-time hustler,” was in prison on weapons charges for the first eight years of her life.) “They were all polite Southern women, but so sassy, smart and strong: ‘You don’t need a man to do anything for you,’” she recalls them saying. And although only her grandmother remains — her father died when she was 15; in March of 2019 she lost both her mother (due to a brain tumor) and her great-grandmother — she says, “Because they put that in me, nobody can tell me the opposite: ‘My mom told me I was great, so that must mean I’m great!’”

Her mother, Holly Thomas, was a bill collector who moonlighted as a rapper named Holly-Wood, and Megan soon began quietly creating her own rhymes. “I grew up watching her writing [raps] and going with her to the studio, which I thought was normal. I started writing, and I would sneak her CDs with [instrumental versions of hip-hop hits] and rap over them.”

Although she wasn’t doing it consciously, Megan Thee Stallion was born during Megan Pete’s early years. “I’m an only child, and I spent a lot of time by myself because my mom and grandmother were always at work,” she recalls. “So I just found ways to keep myself entertained — dancing in the mirror, listening to music loud, trying on anything I wanted to wear in the closet. I was always in my own little world, and just acted like that everywhere I went. And growing up in Texas, it’s so hot, I never even realized anyone else dressed like me until I went to a show and I saw other girls in booty shorts, bikini tops and cowboy hats.”

Her mother’s influence dovetailed with the strong relationship she developed with her dad after his release from prison. The first song she remembers being obsessed with was Three Six Mafia’s 2005 hit “Poppin’ My Collar,” which he loved. “I thought my dad was the coolest man on the planet. He was so clean and so gangsta,” she says wistfully. “He would pick me up from school, and I remember riding around with my dad, feelin’ cool, with that song playing.”

The music in her home — her mom’s, but also hard male rappers like late Houston hero Pimp C as well as Notorious B.I.G., N.W.A and Three Six Mafia’s Juicy J — shaped the musician she is today. “I really loved the strong men that had the attitude, and I thought it would sound super-cool if a girl was doing it,” she says. “Everybody that my mom and dad put me on musically had a man talkin’ crazy, and I was like ‘That’s gonna be me when I grow up!’”

While she’d been a member of the dance team and a cheerleader in school, she kept her rapping under wraps for years, even from her parents. But “when I got to college, I was like, ‘These people don’t know me. I can be whoever I want.’ One night I was rapping at a party, and suddenly everybody knew me as Megan Thee Stallion.”

Eventually, she casually mentioned to her mother, “‘Hey Mom, I’m going to the studio — I’m gonna be a rapper,’” she recalls. “She was like, ‘What? You can’t rap!’ ‘Yes, I can!’ and I started rapping for her. She said, ‘Oh, hell no! Am I about to be your manager?’ But I showed her I was serious.” Holly managed Megan’s career until her death. (Megan is now managed by Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s powerhouse joint venture with Live Nation.)

As Megan’s career took off and she continued to pursue her degree, at times the multitasking reached comic proportions. “I was late for an awards show last year because I had to finish a final,” she laughs. “I remembered halfway through getting dressed for the event, so I’m finishing the final while my hairstylist is curling my hair and people are calling like, ‘Where is Megan?’ I got there and went straight onstage.”

Lazy loaded image
Orin Fleurimont for Variety

At the end of her Instagram Live session, Megan closed by saying, “I just want y’all to know a bitch is alive and well and strong as f—, and ready to get back to my regular programming.” And there’s a lot of programming ahead: Coming this Friday is “WAP,” her forthcoming single with Cardi B. If things go according to plan, it will be followed by Megan’s album, which she promises will have lyrics addressing the Black Lives Matter movement, something she hasn’t yet done explicitly in her music (although the words appeared, painted on objects, in her BET Awards video).

“I feel like everything that’s going on right now, if it hasn’t moved you to speak out or try to make some type of difference, then something might be slightly wrong with you,” she says. “Even though I haven’t already come out with a song with that messaging, I definitely plan on it.”

There’s also the second season of “Legendary,” although there is no start date for taping yet (“Seeing how hard they work to kill it for three minutes, it made me think, ‘If I’m not going that hard, I need to change my work ethic’”); and her budding friendship with fellow Houstonian Beyoncé, which began when they met at the queen and Jay-Z’s New Year’s Eve party. “In the first five minutes of the conversation, I felt like I’ve been knowing her all my life,” Megan says. “She treated me like family, and now I feel like I am family. We talk all the time.”

Every day, there are the lessons that come with fame. “The only thing I don’t like about having all eyes on you at all times is not all eyes are good eyes,” she says as a dog barks in the background. “I still want to be able to walk into Walmart and buy dog food. I still want to party in the club and nobody’s recording me and no super-judgey internet police are going, ‘Shame!’ But all that comes with it, and you have to be prepared for people to be in your business, 24/7. No!” she abruptly shouts, startling her interviewer.

“Sorry,” she laughs. “My puppies came in here acting bad.”