Doja Cat’s Creative Director, Brett Alan Nelson, on Styling an Unpredictable Star

Her visual partner talks about Doja Cat's Paris fashion-week looks, her Variety cover shoot, and why she wins over fans by being both completely normal and a little bit alien

doja cat variety cover story
Getty Images (left, right); Variety (center)

There that’s old maxim about how, behind every good woman, there’s a man who’s been holding onto a pair of giant robot arms for just the right photographic moment. Or urging her to shave all the hair off the head. Or, on a more conventional day, hooking her up with the top fashion houses in Paris and New York for yet another red-carpet look… which may or may not have her painted completely red.

So, maybe the “everyman” element does not apply here, since we’re talking about Doja Cat’s four-year relationship with creative director and stylist Brett Alan Nelson, who’s been there just about every step of the way as the singer-rapper has become one of the most delightful fashion and style canvases of the music world. Variety caught up with Nelson after he was on hand throughout the photo shoot for this week’s cover story.

Let’s ask about those two headlining looks from Couture Week in Paris. First, the red look with the 30,000 jewels. Five hours in makeup sounds arduous, but no one would say it wasn’t worth it, and then some.

We’ve done Fashion Week and we’ve obviously had big moments with Schiapareli before — there was a huge red-carpet moment for us at the 2022 Billboard Awards. I told Daniel Roseberry, who’s the creative director of the brand, that we were coming out for Paris Couture and wanted to do a big moment. He has beautiful collection pieces that we could have worn, but I told him that this would be our first time doing Couture. It was going to be such a big moment for her as an artist and being a part of Couture, which is the crème de la crème of Fashion Week. And he was like, “Give me a moment. Let me think on some things and come back to you.”

And usually I’m very involved from the process of custom clothes with anybody from Donatella to Fernando (Garcia) at  Oscar de La Renta, because I know what she likes and what she’ll go for. But I trust Daniel so much in what he does. I wanted him to run with it, and he came with this idea. Normally I want numerous sketches from people, because I want to give her the option of, if you don’t like it, here’s another thing. But he sent us the sketch and I called her right away: “You’re gonna freak out. This is gonna be the coolest thing ever.” It was magical, it was art, and that’s what Couture is. It’s like, we’re going to see the freaking Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It needed to be huge. We saw the sketch and it was a solid “yes” right away.

PARIS, FRANCE – JANUARY 23: Doja Cat attends the Schiaparelli Haute Couture Spring Summer 2023 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 23, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/WireImage) WireImage

And then…

And then everyone gave her shit for not wearing eyelashes. The Internet’s horrible and there’s a bunch of kids online that have their opinions that don’t need opinions. And she and I were kind of just laughing in the glam room the next day, because we went to Paris with a very small group. We didn’t have glam there; she was gonna do it on her own. And she was just laughing, like, “I’m gonna give them lashes.” She was joking around about just doing a mustache. I was like, “No, if we’re gonna do it, you’ve gotta go everywhere. Do your eyebrows; do a little goatee.” And it’s such a funny clap-back at the internet haters that wasn’t taken in an aggressive way or as her snapping back at them on the internet. It was more, “I see you, but I also don’t care.” [Laughs.]

PARIS, FRANCE – JANUARY 25: Doja Cat attends the Viktor & Rolf Haute Couture Spring Summer 2023 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 25, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/WireImage) WireImage

Before that lashes idea came up, was it just gonna be her in that oversized suit?

The thing with Couture is like, we had all these looks set aside and we weren’t really sure which ones she was gonna wear. We were just going with the moment of what the day felt like, and I kind of expected she was just gonna do a pretty face. I didn’t think she was gonna do anything crazy, because that day of shows, we had three shows in a row, so whatever we were gonna do, it had to be a quick change. She’s such a creative, and she has ideas all the time of her own, that she made a joke about it and it was obviously just as meme-able and crazy on the internet as the crystals were — and so simple in comparison.

You work with a lot of people, but it’s hard to imagine Doja isn’t close to a full-time job.

I’ve been with Doja for — I can’t believe it’s been this much time — almost four years now. Of everyone that I’ve worked with, from David La Chappelle to Nicki Minaj and Miley, all of them, she’s really been my most prolific client to date, with the things we’ve been able to do together. She obviously, as we all know, is a massive marketing pop sensation. And the cool thing is when I met her, she had never worked with a stylist before. You know, she did a couple videos before me where there were people helping her out, but I was really the first person that she allowed to kind of come in and be a part of her world. She’s down to play. She obviously is very opinionated about the way that she looks, but she also puts a lot of trust in me and lets me do my thing on top of being collaborative with her.

Doja Cat at Variety cover shoot Greg Swales for Variety

She can be incredibly glamorous, but she also has a real sense of humor, where she’ll try the wildest idea imaginable.

For sure. I think definitely very early on, especially in the “Hot Pink” era, the album before “Planet Her,” there was always a sense of humor behind what she was doing. There was an element of camp and playfulness. 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, and the art form of clothing and things that just feel fun. 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.

And it’s fun to be a part of that, because especially, when we first started, no brands wanted to loan clothes to us. Even if it was people I had relationships with for years, they didn’t really understand her. These brands and these big fashion houses are getting requests every day — hundreds of requests for editorials and actresses and different musicians. Musicians in fashion, unless you are Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift or Rihanna, people don’t want to loan to you. Even with these brands that I have relationships with, it really is like a struggle sometimes to get clothes. But now she’s at a point in her career that we’ve done so many fashion editorials and we’ve really kind of made our mark in the fashion industry where people trust us and understand what we’re doing. And now it’s like we can have anything we want. Everyone wants to dress her.

She’s wearing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewels some time, and dressed by the top designers… but we’ve also seen her do makeup videos where she starts from scratch, letting her unadorned face be seen. And of course she can be goofy, along with, in that red look, possibly just a little scary. It’s quite a spectrum, but it’s her putting herself out there without fear, spontaneously, that’s most remarkable.

And I think that’s why people love her so much, because she’s so attainable, but, like, untouchable, if that makes sense. People watch her online and they want to be her friend and they can connect with her because she seems so real and she’s always on Instagram Live or TikTok or whatever. She seems so attainable and friendly that everyone just wants to be a part of what she is. Her fan base really fell in love with her because she is such a normal girl… even though she’s not normal at all. [Laughs.]

Going back to the Schiapareli show with the 30,000 crystals on her… I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and I’ve worked with everyone you can think of. Even when I was assisting, I was around Madonna and Beyonce and Lady Gaga and all these very massive superstars. I don’t know if I know any artist that would’ve put themselves through what she did for that Schiapareli fashion show. One, I don’t know if anyone would ever do it, but two, I don’t know if anyone could pull it off like she could, because she’s such like a canvas for these brands and people to really paint and have ideas for.

Do you have a favorite look you’ve ever worked on with her?

I get asked this question a lot and I think about it even after I answer it. I always try in anything that I do as a creative to always one-up myself, to feel like we can always do better. I never live my life comfortably and I think that’s why I do so well with my work, because I always feel like I might fail. So I have to do better than the last.

You know, the “Woman” video, to this day, I’m still so obsessed with it. I actually had real prep time. I almost had a month to prep that video and I had things hand-beaded, and I had this really amazing African designer in London do this beautiful, braided look all out of hair. That one will always be something very special to me because I was able to really flex as a costume designer. But you know, the Schiapareli moment that we just did in Paris is gonna be really hard to one-up. So I definitely have a lot of work to do.

How did you feel about her shaving her head?

I’ve been trying to get her to shave her head since the moment I met her. We did a video for her song “Bottom Bitch” from the “Hot Pink” era, where I think she sampled Blink 182, part of their song. In the garage scene where she’s playing with a band, I wanted them to shave her head in the video. And she had people around her at the time that were like, “No, she can’t do that. She’s beautiful. We’re selling sex. This is part of who she is. We can’t do that.” So it kind of just fizzled away.

PARIS, FRANCE – OCTOBER 04: Doja Cat and Brett Alan Nelson attend the A.W.A.K.E Mode Womenswear Spring/Summer 2023 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on October 04, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images) Getty Images

But when she talked about doing it, I was so gung-ho. Becuse for her it’s like a power play. She obviously feels beautiful with her buzzed head, and it’s like, “I don’t need to be the world’s idea of what beauty is.” Especially where we live now in 2022 and 2023, everybody has a very distorted idea of what beauty is, especially 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 it’s not what beauty is. And if she feels beautiful and strong and independent with her buzzed head, let’s go! Because that’s how she feels beautiful.

She still wears wigs all the time and it actually makes her life so much easier having a buzzed head, because you don’t have to corn-row your hair out for a wig  to lay flat. But I love her buzzed head. With the Grammys coming up, I’m pushing for her to do the carpet buzzed-head, because we haven’t really done a carpet that way yet. But we’ll see what it turns out to be on Sunday.

When I talked with her on Zoom, she had a half-blonde, half-dark look.

Which is very funny because my hair is like that now too. I’ve been talking to her about doing that for months, and she called me and was like, “Don’t be mad…” And I was like, “Bitch, everyone’s gonna think I was copying you!”

Greg Swales for Variety

Let’s talk about the looks for the Variety shoot. We have to ask about the arms, because she said you guys had been carrying them around for five months or something.

Yeah. I have gotten to a point in my career where — not the huge design houses like Versace and Schiapareli, but a lot of really cool designers from all over the world that, if I see something that I know I’m gonna shoot on her at some point, I’ll get it right away and I’ll hold onto it. Which I’ve always been so against in my career, because there’s been very big superstars, and I’m not gonna name any names, that their teams will take things and hold onto them and then never shoot them. Which is always such a bummer because these designers don’t make things to never be seen. So with this designer,I saw these robot arms and I was like, “I have to have them for Doja. I don’t know when we’re gonna shoot them, but I want them and I don’t want anyone else to have them.” We’ve kind of sat on them for months, and we’ve talked about them for upcoming videos, and she was talking about bringing them to Paris and wanting to wear ’em there. But this Variety shoot came up and I’m like: These fucking things have been in my garage for five months. I told my assistant, “Bring them to set. I don’t know if we’re gonna shoot them, because Doja hasn’t even seen them yet.” I’m so glad we used them because Greg shot them so beautifully.

Doja Cat at Variety’s cover shoot Greg Swales for Variety

Anything to say about the look with the whip, which is going to be on the cover?

That’s another really young designer that I’ve been trying to pull looks from her for months. Funny enough, there was a young stylist that pulled clothes for one of her clients and has been holding onto her designs for six months and never shot them. This girl doesn’t work with the artist that she pulled for anymore, and I finally was able, after going to Amala’s management and all these different hoops trying to get these clothes, I was able to get some of them. The leather jacket was just so cool. It fits her perfectly. It has la very powerful, sexual energy to it. But the whip is actually Amala. She brought it to set because she was like, “Oh, I think it’d be kind of cool,” so we added it into the shot.

Greg Swales for Variety

It just must be enriching to have someone who’s this collaborative over a period of years now.

I love her. There was a moment in my career that I was ready to stop and not do it anymore. Because I was working with people that were very draining and it was very hard on… I’m gonna sound like such a crystal-collecting Southern California person, but it really sucked my energy and I wasn’t creative anymore. And then I met Amala and she’s obviously the client I’ve been dreaming of my whole career, and she’s turned into my sister. I love her so much and even if the work wasn’t there, I would still want to be a part of her life because she’s so special. Being 15 years in, I’ve never really had a client like this. It’s helped elevate myself along with her. So it’s been really cool and special.

PARIS, FRANCE – OCTOBER 03: (L to R) Ava Max, Brett Alan Nelson and Doja Cat attend the Lanvin Womenswear Spring/Summer 2023 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on October 03, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images) Getty Images