Doja Cat’s ‘Balls to the Wall’ New Era: The Grammy Winner on Rapping More, Her Viral Fashion Looks and Being a ‘Messy Bitch’

Photographs by Greg Swales

Most cats only get nine lives, but Doja Cat already seems to have enjoyed about 90.

Looking back on the ways she’s grabbed the attention of pop culture as a hitmaker and sly fashionista since she broke through as a star with the No. 1 hit “Say So” just three years ago, it can almost feel as if she’s had as many looks and sounds in that short period as Madonna or Lady Gaga have in their entire careers. That’s illusory, of course, for someone with a mere three albums. But 27-year-old Doja Cat has been impactful enough as a musician as well as style icon to rack up 16 Grammy nominations — five of which she’s carrying heading into the 2023 ceremony, including a record of the year nod for “Woman” and rap-category attention for her “Elvis” soundtrack song, “Vegas.”

When Variety first catches up with Doja Cat, it’s over Zoom. Today, her buzz cut is two-toned: half natural color, half blond. “I’m gonna play with it more,” she says, brandishing a glass of red wine, her American Bully, Malibu, standing with his front paws in her lap. “I think I want to do something like two different colors entirely on each side.”

Her fans seem to get the look now, but she watched as a massive online debate ensued when she first cut off all her hair in the fall. Some onlookers even wondered if the shaved head meant she was having a Britney-Spears-circa-2007 bad moment. Those comments disturbed her — on Spears’ behalf, not her own. “It’s so incredibly disrespectful for people to be minimizing what Britney went through and make a joke out of something that was very serious and a big deal in her life. Every time I see a comment like that, I can’t compute what’s happening, other than it’s just an awful thing,” Doja says.

Greg Swales for Variety

“But other than that, when I shaved my eyebrows off and I shaved my head, I remember thinking, ‘Get this shit off of me,’ because I needed to change something,” she says. “I wasn’t working out and wasn’t really taking care of myself in the way that I wanted to. I was like, ‘I need to do something,’ so I just chopped it all off. And I could see the shape of my head. I could see my whole face. I can see my ears, now that I don’t have a wig that’s glued to my forehead.”

Doja seems to be in a basement, piles of pillows behind her, and file cabinets.

“I’ve been doing wigs for years,” she continues, “and I haven’t gotten used to it. You wake up in the morning and it’s in your mouth and in your eyes — it doesn’t feel good. It’s stressful if you want to work out, and then it slides off your head while you’re in a public gym. So now you have another responsibility other than taking care of your body. So, yeah, it’s the best choice I’ve ever made, and I’ve never felt more beautiful.

“And you know what? I still wear wigs, and they look better now because I don’t have so much hair under them, braided with grease and glue buildup because I wouldn’t wash my hair for two or three weeks at a time. Now I have a fucking hair hat — a shake-and-go — and I just slap it on and it’s cute and I look like a little ‘Pulp Fiction’ girl.” She laughs.

In her music, Doja Cat is less chameleonic than in her sometimes provocative photo shoots and appearances at Fashion Week. But only a little less. There’s even been a touch of controversy in certain music communities over whether she should be considered primarily a pop artist or a hip-hop queen-in-waiting — as in, a successor to her oft-acknowledged idol, Nicki Minaj. Add to all that the fact that, in her few live appearances over the past 18 months — especially a second-billed 2022 Coachella set that had everyone saying she should have been the headliner — she hasn’t just showed rock-star energy: In those moments where the dancers have dropped out and she’s alone onstage with her band, she is a rock star.

Rocking or walking a carpet, as Doja says, “I like to show my feathers.” Her manager, Gordan Dillard, says, “It’s a performance everywhere we are. If we pop up at a party, it’s a performance. If she goes and reads a book, I’m sure it’s gonna be a performance. That’s her personality. I think Doja is our generation’s Madonna or Lady Gaga, as far as her capabilities, and we’ve just scratched the surface. We are planning for the long haul, as far as her businesses, and as far as potentially joining the film and TV world. She’s done a little acting before” — his client dipped a toe in the water with a small role in an episode of the hip-hop comedy series “Dave” — “but we want to get into that more after she continues to mark the surface with the music. We’re always planning long-term and working our way backwards.”

Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, who solicited her to pave the way for his “Elvis” soundtrack with her “Vegas” single, makes some of those same comparisons: “Look, when you rehearse with Madonna, it’s very hard to stop her from keeping rehearsing. When I went to see Doja rehearse for Coachella, I thought of that same work ethic. And then in terms of her look and her self-projection, if you think of Madonna in the early days, there’s no corner she wouldn’t go to, and I see that with Doja, who’s not going to be cowed by other people’s opinions or expectations.”

Luhrmann has another comparison in mind too. “You know, Amala,” he says, using Doja’s given name, Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini, “has this Elvis-like philosophy — early Elvis, when his portal was about Black music but he was blending country and opera. You couldn’t really pigeonhole him. And what I really love about her is the impossibility of pigeonholing her. She can move effortlessly through different genres. When we were at Coachella, she did a hard-rock version of ‘Say So,’ and it could have been Jimi Hendrix.”

Greg Swales for Variety

But Luhrmann’s not about to play down what seems to be Doja Cat’s primary self-identity. “She’s an extraordinary rapper, and we have to celebrate her for how brilliantly she rhymes. I wouldn’t like to be in a rap battle with Doja.”

Or maybe any battle, as, on the set of the Variety photo shoot, we see her putting on a pair of boots with dozens of two-inch spikes. “I know that I’ve done a lot of pink and soft things, a lot of pop and glittery sounds,” she says, “but for this next era, I’m going in a more masculine direction.” Whenever the next album arrives — date unknown, though they’re guaranteeing sometime this year — one thing is for sure: Pastels won’t be a part of it. Maybe pop won’t either.

Aside from bristling over Britney’s treatment at the hands of the internet, Doja seems in a flagrantly carefree mood as she sips the wine, followed by a smoke 20 minutes in (of what, it’s not clear, but she does cheerfully say, “My memory is shot. I’ve fried my brain with weed”). The arrival of a delivery at the door — “Fresh veggies!” she proclaims — leads to a lot of bag rustling as she finds and delightedly devours some oysters. All this serial consumption isn’t what you’d call dainty, but it is what you’d call Doja. She’s as unabashedly freewheeling and don’t-give- a-fuck-ish as you might expect from someone who got her start in music a decade ago hanging out with a few dozen fans in talky social-media hangs, sharing the new Garage Band-generated songs she was just beginning to come up with. She still does those, as well as TikTok originals she constantly feels embarrassed by but hasn’t yet given up.

She laments that fame has screwed with her social interactions but admits to getting a kick out of confronting haters. “It fucking sucks now that I can’t fully do my thing on Instagram Live. Now I’m being flooded with people who have these preconceived fucking notions about me, and they come in and try to troll. Which I’m very good at handling,” she points out, brightening.

“A lot of people think I’m not good at handling trolls because I respond to them. But that’s the art of it: I love to go to fucking war with trolls. That’s just what I’ve grown up with; I’ve been on the internet for 1,000 fucking years and it’s just part of me: that I need to respond. People think, ‘Oh, if you’re defending yourself, you’re weak.’ But I always rest on ‘Everyone can suck my dick from the back.’” She hesitates, peers into the camera and says, “I don’t know if you want to write that down.” Oh, consider it written. “If somebody wants to fight me on the internet,” she continues, “I will gladly join in, balls to the wall. It’s fun for me. I’m a very messy bitch.”

Malibu, who’s been sleeping, gets up and swings by to check on his mom at the word “bitch.” Doja’s experience with a snake at the photo shoot has left her wanting to expand her pet family, which currently includes Malibu, a second dog and two cats. “I’ve always wanted a snake, but I didn’t know how much I wanted one!” she says.

Doja came by her outsider status early on. Los Angeles-born and partly New York-raised by her mother and grandmother, she spent some of her growing-up years at a Southern California ashram led by jazz musician Alice Coltrane, which was just the start of her culture-melding. A more traditional stint at a performing arts high school in L.A. ended when she dropped out as a junior to spend most of her hours, she says, squatting on a floor finding beats on Sound-Cloud to rap over. There were some delays along the way, as her stint with the majors had her releasing an EP as far back as 2014 but not achieving stardom till “Say So” — a sure-fire smash even before Minaj jumped onto a remix — put her on pop’s A-list in 2020.

Greg Swales for Variety

Doja Cat hasn’t had that much reason to be defensive lately, given her widespread admirers in the media and the music world. The commercial stats say plenty about her acceptance. Last year, her latest album, “Planet Her,” was the fifth-most-streamed on Spotify on a global basis and the second biggest for a female artist. The 86 songs she has on the platform to date have racked up 12.7 billion streams (and another 2.4 billion for her feature contributions on others’ tracks). She’s had seven top 10 hits. In Billboard’s year-end rankings for the Hot 100, she was the No. 1 female artist.

And now she is almost certifiably the queen of awards shows. Not that she cares about winning. Asked about her Grammy chances, she says, “I think it can become very toxic to focus on stuff like that. And the last thing I want is to forget about the music — forget about why I’m here. So to focus on winning, it’s not going to make my music sound better.”

But appearing on awards shows, that’s a different matter, and she’s been a hit nearly every time out, sometimes with impressionistic dance numbers, and just as often with a high-concept performance like singing alongside sleek aliens in a cornfield for the iHeartRadio Awards. “What I value the most is having a place to express myself,” she says.

She initially declines to offer a preview of what style statements she might be making at the Grammys. She’s still high on the gorgeous Versace look she had for last year’s show, even though, she says, she didn’t really know the headdress “was gonna have this kind of Statue of Liberty-adjacent vibe. But my family’s from New York, so whatever — I loved it. At the last Grammys, we were good at capturing a beautiful, glamorous look, but I want to follow a different story with this next visual content. This is a new era.”

No hint at all about what to expect, then, stylistically? “Can’t give you anything. I’m evil. I’m a mean person,” she says, but then gives in. “If I had to describe my Grammys 2023 look in one word,” Doja says, “it would be brutalist.” Well, of course.

A new album is guaranteed in 2023; going out on the road, maybe not. “I don’t know,” she says. “But I do want to make sure that everything I’m doing right now in terms of recording is solidified before I make any decisions. The baby hasn’t been born yet.”

There will be much more rap on the next album, she vows, even though she’s demonstrated plenty of those skills to date. She particularly prizes “Vegas.” “That was one of the greatest experiences,” she says, “because everyone knows ‘Hound Dog’ ” — the classic Presley song that is interpolated into hers — but I was able to give it my own spin. I went in and I was like, ‘Finally, I get to rap again.’ A lot of people dis-credit me, so it’s nice to just put another one in the fucking bucket for a great rap song.”

Doja Cat says she can’t blame casual hip-hop fans for thinking she might be a dilettante. “I just got an award [from iHeartRadio] for a billion spins on the radio,” she says — thanks largely to the sing-along popularity of “Say So,” “Kiss Me More” and “Woman” — “so with that alone, I’m constantly being shoved down people’s throats. I would be upset if I saw somebody who has kind of been fed to me as this pop-star girl with a fat ass making it to this level of rap icon, after I’ve only been watching them do disco shit and pop shit all the time.” The next album will be her bid to up the ante on both R&B and rap, even if it means sacrificing some obvious Top-40-fodder hooks.

Greg Swales for Variety

Among the awards Doja Cat is up for at the Grammys is the top prize, record of the year, where she’s nominated for “Woman.” (It’s her third year in a row being nominated in that plum category, having gotten noms there for “Kiss Me More” last year and “Say So” the year before that.) “Woman” may be taken in some quarters as a “hear me roar” song of power and pride, but, she says, “It’s not like a big feminist anthem — absolutely not. I didn’t want to make a great statement, but if somebody felt empowered by it, that’s fantastic, and that’s what I want, though it’s not what I seek. I think the song can also definitely sound submissive in a way, so it just goes both ways,” she points out, making sure some nuance gets into the discussion. (This comes from a star who did bring her own whip, unbidden, to Variety‘s photo shoot.)

A standout element about “Woman” is its sense of dynamics, with a melodic chorus that consists mostly of rhythmically playing around with just the title word, interspersed with spoken verses that couldn’t be wordier. Doja Cat has had guests on her hits before, like Minaj and SZA, but here, as on most of her material, she pulls off a hybrid of rapped and sung material without needing in to call in any favors. Or, to put it another way: she’s the rare artist who, essentially, can do her own features.

And it’s not just as simple as going back and forth between rap and singing: Doja Cat is constantly thinking about how to play around more with her vocal tones to make the music a richer experience. It comes up in some of the surprising inspirations she cites. “Caroline Polachek is a really interesting vocalist because she loves to make her voice much deeper. She reminds me a lot of Imogen Heap, who also plays with a lot of her lower register while also being able to go up high.” Meanwhile, she points to her own “AIn’t Shit,” from the “Planet Her” album — where “the beginning half of the song is my real voice, and then I go into that condescending, silly cartoon voice that’s like, ‘I’m not your fucking mommy'” — as an example of some of the “schizo,” “call-and response”-type material she’s working on now. “I get bored very easily,” she explains, arriving at a less purely musical reason for her vocal experiments. “It might be due to my ADHD.”

At the photo shoot, it’s ironic, given that she makes it clear that hip-hop is her first love, that she quickly replaces it on the sound system with the British post-punk group Idles, which she plays on a loop for hours. They’re her favorite band of last year. A few nights earlier, she attended a Jack White show at a club in downtown L.A., where the rocker gave her a shout-out from the stage. (“I’m 5’3”, so it was very, very difficult to see the show, but whatever I did see was fantastic,” Doja says of the White gig, noting that she’d love to work with him.) These shows of rock ‘n’ roll fandom may be signaling yet another direction for the coming album.

In the middle of a conversation about genres, she starts to say something but stops herself. She twists her mouth to one side, thinking, and then starts again: “This is the manic part. I wasn’t gonna tell you. But I’ll just tell you now, because not talking about it is making me annoyed: I want to explore punk. But not pop-punk. I feel like we have enough pop-punk artists right now. And if there needs to be more, then let there be more, but I don’t think I’m the one to do it. I want to explore more of a raw, unfiltered, hardcore punk sort of thing. It’s just something that I’m doing for my own personal fun — getting some drummers and guitarists together. And I don’t even know if that’s gonna make it out there.” If the punk sounds do make it onto the album, is there a way they could mesh with her other areas of focus? “Absolutely not. It does not mesh! I’m gonna see if maybe it could be fun, but it doesn’t make any sense to me,” she says, laughing, as if senselessness could be its own reward.

But she’s a Beastie Boys fanatic, and if she does end up releasing those tracks, she can rest on the Beasties’ legacy as historical precedent in establishing thatrap is punk and punk can be rap. It’s really a beautiful set of genres that you can twist, and I think people get it.” Anyhow, the chief genre-blending focus that is guaranteed for the finished product will be a mixture of hip-hop with its most natural cousin. “I just go straight to R&B if I’m alone,” she says, attesting that she is very much going “harder into that.”

If her musical direction is far from predictable these days, her visual style is a kind of beautiful anarchy. Her creative director, Brett Alan Nelson, doesn’t work for Doja exclusively, but he might as well count as a full-time collaborator. Her hoarding his attention is just the way he likes it, especially when they were able to pull off multiple looks at Paris’ Fashion Week at the end of January and make headlines with two particularly shocking or funny ones. One involved red body paint and the application of 30,000 Swarovski crystals, a process that took five hours before she hit the equally red carpet. That idea that was cooked up for them by Daniel Rosenberry, the creative director of Schiaparelli. But having burned that image into the world’s eyeballs, Doja still wasn’t done yet.

“Everyone gave her shit for not wearing eyelashes,” Nelson notes, not to mention the still-polarized reaction to her shaving off her brows. “The Internet’s horrible, and there’s a bunch of kids online that have their opinions that don’t need opinions. She and I were laughing in the glam room the next day, and she’s like, ‘I’m gonna give them lashes'” — by applying them in spots where other facial hair might go. “She was joking around about just doing a mustache. And I was like, ‘No, if we’re gonna do it, you’ve gotta go everywhere. Do your eyebrows’ do a little goatee.'” She was game, and that hilarious, quickly assembled look went almost as viral as its predecessor at Couture. “It’s such a funny clap-back at the Internet haters, but one that wasn’t taken in an aggressive way. It was more like, ‘I see you, but I also don’t care.'”

Nelson adds, “She obviously feels beautiful with her buzzed head, and is saying, ‘I don’t need to be the world’s idea of what beauty is.’ Especially where we live now in 2023, everybody has a very distorted idea of what beauty is, with all the plastic surgery and crazy contouring of makeup. People think that beauty is an enhanced ass, fake boobs and long, beautiful playboy hair. But if she feels beautiful and strong and independent with her buzzed head — let’s go!”

Doja has found that happy medium between being the star that every designer is eager to lend clothes to — after she and Nelson couldn’t get the time of day with them a few years ago — but show herself in closeup with no makeup. Or shoot herself on Instagram Live taking her dogs for a walk in her yard before she decides to spontaneously take a pee alongside them.

“I made this joke years ago that was like: ‘I want people to want to laugh with her, but also want to have sex with her.’ Where there’s the idea of comedy behind the idea of sexuality; where you can laugh along with her and still find her sexy at the same time. But she’s obviously evolved so much as an artist and as a woman. … People love her so much because they she’s so attainable, but untouchable, if that makes sense. Her fan base really fell in love with her and want to be friends with her because they see her on Instagram Live and TikTok all the time and she is such a normal girl. Even though she’s not normal at all,” Nelson laughs, going fully in with the contradictions.

One of the key parts of Doja’s appeal is mixing a sense of precision with the appearance that she’s just enough of a live wire that anything could happen. “There’s an art to being a loose cannon,” she says. “Because you can be a true loose cannon, or you can be a fucking fake loose cannon, which I feel like sometimes I am. I still am very self-aware — like, I can’t have a couple drinks without still thinking about how I look and what I’m doing. I still make a fool of myself. But at least I know what I said.”

How has she navigated that balance? “By making mistakes. I would drink and then I fucking see myself on Live being an idiot. And then I go, ‘Oh, let me fine-tune that,’ and then I’m a little less idiotic. And then I go, ‘Let me fine-tune that.’ And then I make a TikTok and it’s so unfunny, I go, ‘Hmm, maybe I won’t make another TikTok again.’ It happens in these layers, where I keep fucking up, but I have to make mistakes or else I’m just gonna look like an idiot for the rest of my life.” She raises her glass — if the wine is flowing, so is the self-consciousness about what she likes to call “controlled chaos.”

“I’ll get better. I feel like I’ll be pretty chill by the time I’m 35,” she says and laughs. “Then nobody can say a damn thing.”

Makeup: Ernesto Casillas/OPUS Beauty/Danessa Myricks Beauty; Hair: J Stay Ready/Chris Aaron Management; Manicure: Saccia Livingston; Set Design: Lucy Holt; Producer: Alexey Galetskiy; Look 1 (cover, black leather jacket): Patrycja Pagas; Necklaces, earring and rings: Loree Rodkin; Necklaces, earring and rings: David Yurman; Choker and earring: Messika; Shoes: Allessandra Rich; Look 2 (baseball hat): Luis de Javier look with boots: Gloves: Vex, Rings: Hoorsebuhs, Djula, D’Orazio, and David Yurman; Earrings: Youmita; Hat: Stylists own; Look 3 (snake): Dress: Alaia; Ring and earrings; Bulgari; Look 4 (robot arms): Bodysuit: Olivier Theyskens; Choker and earrings: Messika; Necklaces: David Yurman and Loree Rodkin; Boots: Phillip Plein; Robot arms: Buerlangma; Look 5 (light tubes): Dion Lee; Necklaces: Loree Rodkin; Necklaces, earrings and bracelet: David Yurman; Ring: Messika; Look 6 (black dress, cross necklaces): Dress: Norma Kamali; Necklaces, earrings and ‘belts’: Loree Rodkin; Necklaces and bracelets: David Yurman