It’s 10:30 a.m. in Brooklyn and Danielle Bregoli is eating olives for breakfast. Just olives—a selection of green and kalamata from the oily Key Foods salad bar; the only snack that piqued her interest after wandering the aisles, uninspired. Lingering outside the store afterwards, we scan 5th Avenue for a salon that can attend to her acrylic claws, as she doesn’t feel like herself when her nails are short. It’s clear from the jump that Bregoli doesn’t open up to strangers right away; my amusement at her breakfast of choice is met with a shrug, as if to say, “And what?”
I’ve never been more anxious to meet a 15-year-old. Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever spent much time with a 15-year-old since high school, let alone one who’s best known for stealing cars and roasting the elderly (i.e., anyone over 30). But it’s hard to feel intimidated by this barely five-foot presence spitting olive pits onto the sidewalk in a white tee and jeans, with her squeak of a Florida drawl and a baby-like giggle that initially catches me off guard. Instead, I feel weirdly protective, scanning the sidewalk for lingering eyes or wayward shouts of the three words no one wants to hear: “Cash me ousside!” But it’s early, and the only person who’s bothered Bregoli so far is a red-eyed drunk who loops back three times to beg for a photo only to get shot down three times by her hulking bodyguard, Frank. “Please?” the guy slurs, waving a mini vodka bottle. “I’ll let you pour this in my mouth!” Frank re-positions his nearly seven-foot frame: “Sir, you’re speaking to a child.”
The initial plan was to meet Bregoli and her team—her manager Adam, her other manager Dan, her publicist Ariana, and Frank—for a fancy lunch and spa manicure in Midtown, but Bregoli shot that down immediately. Instead, we meet at Atlantic Terminal Mall in Brooklyn, a setting she’s deemed more fitting. From there, we wander towards nearby Park Slope in search of a nail salon, the “less bougie” the better. Bregoli begrudgingly approves of a spot, and I settle in next to her for a manicure as she monitors, eagle-eyed, the length of the plastic tips being applied to her tiny fingers. The technicians hover nervously, warning her that the nails will easily break if they’re too long. Bregoli rolls her eyes: “I’ve been getting nails this length since I was 10 years old.”
“I don’t know if I like the feeling of being in trouble, or if I just like the feeling of you knowing that I just tricked you.”
Disclaimer, dear reader: this next detail’s boring but important. There are two basic types of fake nails: acrylics, the cheaper, old-school option you typically see with super-long claws, and gels, which are more natural-looking but less durable. Practically speaking, the difference has a lot to do with class and race. In Park Slope, populated by Cool Dads pushing luxury strollers, you’re probably going to get a gel manicure; in Crown Heights, whose community is largely Afro-Caribbean, you’re more likely to find acrylics. Realizing that her in-progress manicure is the former, Bregoli jumps up, her irritation finally bubbling over. “These are just gonna break!” she yelps over her shoulder to Ariana. “I need acrylics! We need to go somewhere more hood!”
The only other patron in the salon, aside from the six of us, is an older West Indian woman whose feet are submerged in a pedicure bath. At the drop of the word “hood,” the room’s energy shifts. “It’s 2018!” the woman shouts disgustedly at Bregoli, who immediately seems to retreat inside herself, falling silent. “You want ‘more hood’? Oh, I’ll show you more hood!”
Ariana seems to grow a foot taller in the moment. “No, I’ll show you more hood!” she warns. “You are yelling at a child right now!” The salon workers look on in horror. Everyone is shouting except Bregoli. I’m pretending to be invisible, wet nails captive under the air dryer, midway through what is easily the most stressful shoulder massage of my life. “Um, it’s okay, you don’t have to...” I whisper, planning my escape as Frank barks, “I’ll beat your son’s ass!”
The rest of us duck outside as Ariana throws down her credit card. Immediately, Bregoli proceeds to violently rip off her raw plastic tips. Her nail beds begin to bleed profusely. “That’s why you don’t eat olives for breakfast,” she deadpans, blood dripping onto the sidewalk. It’s not even noon.
If you’re reading this, you probably know how we got here. Bregoli debuted in the public eye in a September 2016 episode of Dr. Phil, alongside her apparently distraught mother Barbara. “I Want To Give Up My Car-Stealing, Knife-Wielding, Twerking 13-Year Old Daughter Who Tried To Frame Me For A Crime,” read the episode’s fairly straightforward title. None of this totally explains Bregoli’s near-instant viral appeal. Daytime television isn’t exactly lacking in the “troubled youth” department, but with a few infamous words—“Cash me ousside, howbowdah?” she threatened the audience in her comically thugged-out South Florida drawl—Bregoli became a star, or at the very least, a meme.
Bregoli returned to Dr. Phil a few months later for a stint at Turn-About Ranch, where she was entrusted with the care of a little horse named Chief. The footage shows Bregoli bonding with Chief and sweetly embracing her cowboy mentors. “I just feel okay with who I am now,” she told the camera with a serene smile. But face-to-face with Phil in the studio for a second time, Bregoli’s tone had changed. “I made you, just like Oprah made you,” she smirked, and she wasn’t exactly wrong. (Has a Dr. Phil episode gone viral this side of 2010—or ever, really?)
These days Bregoli doesn’t like talking about the show too much, other than to emphasize that her and her mother’s relationship was never as dire as it seemed. “The show just wanted views,” she tells me, matter-of-factly. Her awareness of her own role in a cynical content machine strikes me for the first of many times throughout our day together; I can’t tell if I’m relieved or sad.
That nearly a year after the episode aired, The Artist Formerly Known as the “Cash Me Ousside” Girl was officially re-introduced as Bhad Bhabie, rapper extraordinaire, wasn’t particularly surprising news in itself. Nor did it seem especially unusual that “These Heaux,” her first single, entered the Hot 100 at No. 77 last September, making Bregoli the youngest woman to debut that high in Billboard history. After all, it was 2017—the year streaming data officially turned the Billboard charts into a teen-driven free-for-all, and the year we seemed to collectively decide we liked memes more than music. Still, it’s rare that one person gets two shots at virality—and even rarer that they finesse that virality into a career. But later that September, Atlantic Records issued a press release announcing that they’d signed Bhad Bhabie to a multi-album, multi-million dollar deal. And though most of the media coverage was snarky, accompanied by the expected State Of The Industry hand-wringing, the power dynamic was obvious: the blogs needed the hate-clicks more than Bregoli needed the blogs.
I’d prepared myself for the inevitable onslaught of stray “Cash me ousside” shouts, doubtful if anyone who’d recognize Bregoli on the street would know the name “Bhad Bhabie,” if they knew she was rapping at all. But not once during our day in Brooklyn were those three words uttered. When people recognized her—and they did, everywhere we went, a bizarre majority of them grown men—all I heard, over and over, was: “Hey, you’re that little rapper girl!” It was as though the gnarly reason for her fame had been wiped from our collective minds, leaving only the fame itself.
Post-fame Bregoli does pretty much the same stuff pre-fame Bregoli did—namely, listen to rap and get her nails done. Back in Park Slope, after wrapping her bloody fingers in a napkin, we hop in an Uber to Crown Heights, where Ariana has found a salon on North Flatbush much more to Bregoli’s liking. Her mood brightens as soon as her acrylics are underway, and Dan runs to a bodega to fetch her yet another confusing meal—a bagel with cream cheese and bacon, an unspeakably off-putting combination.
As Bregoli’s technician works, she and I chat until we’re interrupted by a man in his mid-thirties with short braids and a “BROOKLYN” flat brim, selling earrings out of a velvet-lined case. Bregoli buys a small silver pair for $5. “You know, you look like that rapper girl,” he muses off-handedly, and Bregoli grins, her eyes flashing mischievously. Realizing who it is, the man suddenly breaks into a rendition of “These Heaux,” politely censoring “hoes” into “girls”: “I ain’t nothing like these girls! Don’t compare me to no one!” He knows every word; everyone seems pleasantly stunned, Bregoli included. “That song’s hot, though!” he says, posing for a photo. “Keep making them hits!”
Later, I mention to Bregoli that she seemed relieved he didn’t say, “Cash me ousside.” “Because I’m not a sentence,” she says, eyes fixed on her white-painted talons. “And I’m doing more than just a sentence now.”
“What if people just think [my music] is a joke? What if it doesn’t blow up? I was scared. Like, for real. But it turns out, like, B*tch, I’m a rapper, okay?!”
“These Heaux” was a little formulaic, maybe, but hardly the dumpster fire Bregoli’s critics might’ve liked to imagine. (Upon its release, the song overtook Taylor Swift’s No. 1 spot on the Spotify Viral 50 chart. “Congrats to @taylorswift13 on that #2,” Bregoli tweeted; if you couldn’t get behind the song, you could at least appreciate the schadenfreude.) But by the release of Bhad Bhabie’s second and third songs, which arrived tacked together in a single video—perhaps because their run time was less than two minutes each—I quickly came to terms with a jarring realization: “Hi Bich / Whachu Know” was a banger. Produced by SoundCloud rap’s go-to guy Ronny J, “Hi Bich” was especially addictive; with bratty, stutter-step bars like, “I ain’t worried ’bout no basic bitches/All y’all look like you still fly Spirit,” Bregoli already seemed exponentially more comfortable on the mic. If you weren’t told the artist’s name, you’d probably love it.
The proof was all over YouTube, in an endless ouroboros of reaction videos—and reactions to reaction videos, and reactions to reactions to reaction videos. Bregoli’s Youtube channel is overrun with all sorts of these reaction videos, which far outnumber her actual songs. Not that this is saying much: at the time of our interview, there were a whopping three Bhad Bhabie songs in existence, aside from a handful of unofficial remixes. Today that total is up to seven; the video for her latest, “Gucci Flip Flops” with Lil Yachty, depicts a Pleasantville-type universe infiltrated by SoundCloud rap values. (There’s a David Spade cameo, if you’ve ever wanted to see him in a durag.)
I have long tried to parse the grim world of the YouTube celebrity, a futile endeavor that generally leaves me feeling approximately 3,000 years old and ready to move to a cave. But Bregoli’s videos, I must admit, tend to be genuinely entertaining and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. As a rapper, Bregoli is capable (in a recent Complex interview with Peter Rosenberg, she rates her own music a very fair seven out of ten); as a YouTube comic, she is a star. For many artists these days, the content helps sell the music; with Bregoli, it seems to be the opposite.
My favorite video on Bregoli’s channel has a fairly unenticing title. “Danielle Bregoli reacts to BHAD BHABIE ‘HI BICH / WHACHU KNOW’ roasts and reaction vids” doesn’t exactly scream, “What a fantastic way to spend nine minutes of your dwindling life!” But it’s the best indication I’ve seen of Bregoli’s truest talent. In an infinite landscape of shockingly dull 22-year olds showing off Sephora hauls to millions of subscribers, the scathing wit of Bregoli’s videos is almost refreshing. You really have to watch it to get the full effect, but the best part is when Bregoli responds to a deeply uncool Perez Hilton video, wherein the 40-year old man named after a Republican socialite brays about how stupidly Bregoli spells “Bhabie.” “Hasn’t he been around since, like, the ’70s? No one even reads blogs anymore!” Bregoli says witheringly, curling her mouth around the word “blogs” as though she’s talking about a rotary phone. By the end of the video, almost every one of the YouTubers have begrudgingly admitted that the song’s kind of fire, Perez included.
Preparing for our meeting the night before, I’d assumed the crucial mission of my day with Bregoli and company would be to somehow pierce through the inevitable veil of Atlantic-coached PR spin: that Bregoli had dreamt of being a musician since first hearing Trina’s “Da Baddest Bitch” (which was released—oh god—three years before Bregoli was even born), or some other smokescreen that stressed how organically all of this unfolded.
“Did you know you wanted to rap as a little kid?” I ask the tiny person barely past childhood, as her acrylics take shape. “No, I had no idea,” Bregoli answers without pausing. “I didn’t know I wanted to rap at the beginning of 2017 either.” “Really?” I respond, startled by her transparence. “So what was the moment you realized you wanted to be a rapper?” “I think it was kind of like, I have this platform, being famous. I can see how I want to use it,” she continues casually, picking warily at her bacon/cream cheese bagel with one hand. “So I went to a studio and they were like, Oh, my gosh, you’re not bad at it. You have the ability. And then [Atlantic] was like, we wanna sign you. And I was like, okay!”
Going through Bregoli’s Youtube later, I found a video that seemed more vulnerable than any of the “content” I’d seen from her, even if it was more “reacting to reactions.” In it, she describes her first-ever recording session in April of last year. “I was kinda scared,” she said, imagining the worst possible response. “What if people just think it’s a joke? What if it doesn’t blow up? I was scared. Like, for real. This is real life. But it turns out, like, Bitch, I’m a rapper, okay?!” With that, Bregoli laughs wildly and sticks her tongue out. It’s the face of someone who’s just gotten away with the biggest finesse of her then-14 years of life.
“I was bad, but I was one of the kids that never got caught. If anyone ever knew I did something, it was because I told them. ‘Cause I’m a really good liar.”
Danielle Bregoli was born in 2003 in Boynton Beach, Florida. Her father, a sheriff’s deputy for the Palm Beach Police Department with whom Danielle is currently estranged, separated from her mother not long afterwards. Her mother, Barbara Bregoli, was diagnosed with breast cancer when Danielle was four. In a 2009 article in the Palm Beach Post, Barbara recalls her daughter rubbing aloe on her chest to soothe her radiation pains and making friends with the hospital staff; in photos, an angelic-looking Danielle tenderly rubs noses with her mom; her ponytail almost as long as it is today. In our conversation, Bregoli describes her part of Boynton as the quieter side, but her school—“for troubled girls,” she says—introduced her to the other side of town.
“I wasn’t stealing cars at like, six,” she assures me, as though that was a possibility I was entertaining. “But I’ve always been bad. I used to drive this little Barbie car and tell random people, ‘Fuck you!’ and flip them off.” She giggles. Although she never considered being a musician, or tried to write a song, she describes herself as creative all the same. “I used to be a good story writer,” she recalls, amused. “I could make up a story with like, eight people in it and tell you where they all lived, what color their houses are.”
But her truest talent, Bregoli freely admits, eyes gleaming, was deception. “Yeah, I was bad, but I was one of the kids that never got caught,” she says. “If anyone ever knew I did something, it was because I told them. ‘Cause I’m a really good liar, so I end up snitching on myself.” She points to my phone. “I could really get you to believe this is a fake iPhone.” Why would she want to snitch on herself, I ask—did she like the feeling of being in trouble? “I don’t know if I like the feeling of being in trouble, or if I just like the feeling of you knowing that I just tricked you,” she answers with a smile.
In school, Bregoli fit in with everyone, even if she never got too close. “The school was tiny, and you’d sit with a bunch of different girls at a bunch of different tables,” she recalls, as though it were ages ago. “They all had their own personalities, the tables: the emo girls, or the regular girls, or the mean girls. And I was able to sit at every table. They all loved me. Even the tables that didn’t like each other, I could sit at both of them and blend right in.” Was it because you were nice to them, I ask? “It was because I can relate to so many different situations,” Bregoli replies. “Or at least I think I can.” Or maybe, I offer, she was such a good liar that she could mold herself into whoever they wanted her to be. “Exactly,” she nods.
As far as close friends, Bregoli has only ever had one, but they don’t talk anymore. Among her small handful of tattoos, the name “Zandalee” is scrawled across her left ring finger. “She was a prostitute; I met her at the school,” she tells me. “That girl would do anything for money. When I became famous, she partnered with my dad, because my dad said that if they ruin my fame, he’ll give her money. You know how they say shit goes sour after you tattoo someone’s name? This happened within like 24 hours of the tattoo.”
These days, Bregoli tells me, her best friend—and only friend, really—is Frank, who grew up nearby in Broward County and started working as her bodyguard at the beginning of 2017. Her phone background is a photo of his newborn son who, along with Frank’s seven-year old daughter, she adores. Despite their 20-year age gap (and two-foot height gap) their relationship is genuinely sweet, and he is intensely protective of Bregoli, perhaps to an extreme. In an Uber later, while Bregoli rambles along to whatever comes on the radio into her Instagram livestream, he silently monitors the incoming comments. When one appears that reads something along the lines of “Kill yourself,” Frank begins typing furiously.
“What’d you say?” asks Adam. “I’ll beat your brother’s ass,” Frank admits, laughing but not remotely joking, and snatches Bregoli’s phone from her manicured claws, putting her on time out. Keeping Bregoli out of trouble is a constant part of Frank’s day. You can see him trying his best to de-escalate a recent face-off between Bregoli and Woah Vicky, a clearly white 18-year-old Instagram star who claims Ancestry.com results show she’s African-American; but Bregoli darts around him to land a couple blows.
But despite Frank’s good intentions, I can’t help but feel a little sad that Bregoli appears to have no one even close to her age to talk to. And though she carries herself maturely in conversation, with her quick wit and low tolerance for bullshit, she behaves in her element like I’d imagine any 15-year old would. Throughout the day, Bregoli sporadically breaks into her own rendition of Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” re-styling its hook as, “Poopy gang, poopy gang, poopy gang!” As our Uber from Crown Heights to Midtown dragged, she grew increasingly hyper with her phone privileges revoked, shriek-laughing and tangling herself in her seatbelt as if it were a straitjacket. She begs to stop at McDonald’s each time we pass one; Frank tells me the biggest change in her spending habits, since getting rich, is the hundreds of dollars in McDonald’s she Postmates each week.
As for Bregoli’s favorite rappers, the list goes: Lil Pump, Trippie Redd, Smokepurpp, XXXTentacion, and Kodak Black. Four out of those five are from Florida (excluding Trippie Redd, though he may as well be); two of those five (XXXTentacion and Kodak) have serious sexual assault or battery charges attached to their names. Early last year, Bregoli starred in Kodak’s “Everything 1K” video, perched atop a Rolls Royce in a “Cash Me Ousside” T-shirt; the second Bhad Bhabie track ever released was a remix of Kodak and XXX’s “Roll In Peace.” She’s friends with most of her Top 5 in real life, too; she tells me she wants her next tattoo to be a small “K,” for Kodak, on her finger.
To expect a 15-year old to be aware of this music’s baggage would probably make me delusional; I don’t know if there are any easy answers. And it’s just as complicated to try and pinpoint whose responsibility, exactly, might it be to step in here. Bregoli’s estranged father, Ira Peskowitz, has spoken to the press at length about his concern over his daughter affiliating with these popular men with harrowing criminal records, and his disgust at the adults who’ve seemed to condone it. “Danielle bonds with anybody who shows any type of care for her,” he said last year. “When someone comes and puts their arm around her, she’s vulnerable, she just opens up to them.” But it’s impossible to tell from the outside if Peskowitz’s comments are born from genuine concern for his daughter’s well-being, sheer greed, or something deeply complicated in between. Bregoli responded to his statements with a single, scathing tweet: “please stop interviewing this piece of shit before his people call me AGAIN asking for 10k or they gon’ keep talkin to press.”
“Aww, is she on the Disney Channel?” the security guard asks when we finally arrive at Complex’s midtown office for a photo shoot, the final item in our day’s itinerary. Dan laughs: “Imagine the opposite of that.”
At the shoot, Bregoli is obviously tired, hitting restless, unsmiling poses with her gaze fixed on the images popping up on the photographer’s screen; it’s clear she’s a little self-conscious about the way the portraits are coming out. Ariana huddles up in an attempt to lift her client’s sinking spirits. “Something I always tell my artists when they’re doing photo shoots: sometimes it helps to put your own music on in the background,” Arianna says gently. “It just boosts your confidence.” Bregoli looks baffled. “No, not my music!” she yelps. “Play Pump!” “Gucci Gang,” once again, fills the room, and Bregoli gets back in the zone, covering her face with her hands and glaring out through the cracks.
While she changed from a white tee and jeans to a hoodie and jeans for the shoot, her manager Adam addresses me candidly: “I always tell people: don’t blame her, blame me.” He doesn’t specify what exactly he means by “blame,” but we both know anyway. He tells me he called up Bregoli the day after the Dr. Phil episode ran. Signing established social media stars or reality TV personalities with a built-in network appears to be Atlantic’s M.O. these days, from Cardi B to Walmart Yodeling Kid. The label doesn’t seem concerned with spending time and money building an artist’s fanbase when they can get one pre-fab. In other words, no matter what you think of Bregoli’s rap career, it’s clear she’s more symptom than cause.
Earlier at the nail spot, I’d asked Bregoli if she thought she wanted to be a musician for the long run—if this rap thing was a vocation now. “If that’s what the world wants out of me, then yeah, I might,” she said calmly, without hesitation. “If my albums sell, I’d be more than happy to. But I’m not desperate to do anything. I could go back to Boynton if I really wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for everything, but I don’t wanna make it seem like I wouldn’t be able to survive without fame. ‘Cause I did it for 13 years.” She pronounces the number as though it’s an eternity. “My goals for the next part of my life: Whatever I’m handed, I’m gonna make the most of it. If it’s good for me, I’m gonna take it.”