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Bhad BhabiePhotography by Ben Taylor

Bhad Bhabie and her mom tell the story of how she wound up on TV

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15-year-old rapper Danielle Bregoli and her mom Barb Bregoli in conversation about their tumultuous, highly publicised, and deeply loving relationship

Danielle Bregoli appeared as a vision of impenitence on Dr. Phil in 2016 at age 13, opposite her mom, Barbara Ann Bregoli, in a segment titled “I Want To Give Up My Car-Stealing, Knife-Wielding, Twerking 13-Year-Old Daughter Who Tried To Frame Me For A Crime.” During the show, facing down a jeering studio audience, Danielle barked six words that would transform her life. You know what they are. Her catchphrase targeted a sweet spot in the American brain that’s engaged only when racially charged spectacle intersects with a ripe Funny Voice (think Borat). It went stratospherically viral, with an orbital velocity that still casts shadows over a narrow moment in time. If you are a masochist who wants to remember exactly what it felt like to be alive in late January 2017, please direct your attention to this inauguration protest sign, which reads, “ROSES ARE RED/ PUSSY GRABS BACK/ CASH ME OUTSIDE/ HOW BOW DAH.”

That’s where Bregoli’s story could have ended. But the day after her Dr. Phil appearance, Bregoli was contacted by her now-manager Adam Kruger, who helped her pivot to a shockingly successful rap career as Bhad Bhabie. She was not the first white teenager to ride this lightning, and she will not be the last. But few in her lane have yet racked up nine figure play-counts or landed multi-million dollar development deals with Atlantic Records before they could legally drive (sorry Slim Jesus). Her music achieves lift-off with the help of timeless qualities found in pop stars from Bing Crosby to Kurt Cobain: she’s authentically funny, perfectly suited to her era’s iconic medium (streaming live on Instagram), and uses folk idioms in ways that feel both widely accessible and incredibly strange (“Hi Bich”). Love or hate her, there’s a satisfying two-dimensional symmetry to her story, in which a Gen Z free radical bootstraps herself to fame with not much more than a cartoon accent and Ronny J beats, fuelled by the twin nuclear isotopes of adult aggravation and teenage id.

But one detail never quite made sense to me. What does her mom think of it all? To date, the American public’s awareness of Barb Bregoli begins and ends with her frazzled Dr. Phil debut. Feeding the appetites of the kind of people who watch daytime TV in order to freak themselves out over rainbow parties and the knockout game, the show served up Barb as a sympathetic martyr: a single mother on the brink of “giving up” her daughter, the girl having been cruelly transformed into an unstoppable twerking imp by the perverse influence of hip-hop, or something. On the flip-side, for Danielle’s admirers, Barb’s role in the narrative hinged on her comeuppance – wet blanket grown-up tries to chastise teen in public forum, accidentally turns her into a cultural juggernaut who gets paid more in one deal than she's made her whole life. Suck it, mom!

As someone who followed the whole affair pretty tangentially, I’d always assumed that Barb must feel conflicted over her daughter’s career. A scroll through her Instagram puts that notion to bed. It’s full of moments like this, a candid snap Barb took of Danielle hanging with R&B lothario Ty Dolla $ign, captioned, “Grown ass people hating on a 15 yr old all because they are unsuccessful no bodies. Sorry you could not live out your dream like my kid!”

A cynic might say that Barb changed her tune when the label advances came in. A bigger cynic could allege that the whole thing was staged from the jump. These are both lines of attack that Barb is familiar with. “‘Oh, you hated your daughter and wanted to give her away, but now that she's making money you love her,’” she tells me, paraphrasing her critics, when we (myself, Barb, and Danielle) speak over the phone in early spring.

She’s even more dismissive of people who think she put her daughter up to it. “Have you ever heard of someone coming off of Dr. Phil and being where Danielle is today?” she asks. “As god is my witness, Danielle was on that show acting like Danielle. Not any time before that did my daughter ever say that catchphrase. People think it was an act. But it really, really wasn't.”

Barb explains that her motive for airing her family’s dirty laundry on TV was simple: desperation born from profound love. “Any parent who would move heaven and earth, and go on a show, and be embarrassed, truly loves their kid,” she says. “I put my daughter on that show to save her life. These people don't know me from a goddamn hole in the wall. Have they ever talked to me? Have they ever sat with my daughter? No. But they'll hate on her now. You know why? She's got a personality. She's got a gift.”

Barb’s grievance with how her relationship with her daughter has been characterised stems from what she sees as manipulative framing by Dr Phil and his crew of reality TV schlockmeisters.

“Moments before we stepped onto the set live on air, [the producers] turn around, and they say, "By the way, this is the title of the show,’” she recalls. “I'm standing there, going, ‘What? I don't want to give up my daughter, what are you talking about?’ But I had to go on the show to get my daughter help.”

“The show was a bunch of bullshit,” concludes Danielle.

She’s partially right. The thing is, Danielle was, in fact, her mother’s “Car-Stealing, Knife-Wielding, Twerking 13-Year-Old Daughter Who Tried To Frame (Her) For A Crime”. But Barb didn’t bring her on TV because she wanted to send her to foster care or leave her at a bus stop. She wanted to save her, from herself and her sketchy friends and whatever else she meant when she told Dr Phil she was “from the streets” while giggling like a maniac. Despite what a bifurcated nation of clucking daytime TV fanatics and teen drama-obsessed Youtubers might want to believe, mother and daughter aren’t really so different, after all.

“I grew up in Old Mill Basin in Brooklyn,” Barb explains.It’s an old Italian neighborhood near Sheepshead Bay, and she’s got the fragrant RHONY-adjacent drawl to prove it. “Right next door to Mill Basin was million dollar homes. Kids in Mill Basin were thieves, they were trouble makers, they were drug addicts. You gravitate towards who you gravitate towards.”

She explains to me why she’s forgiven her daughter’s unruly behavior time and time again: she sees herself reflected in it. “I was very tiny, like Dani, growing up. I feel like, when you're small, people pick on you. They wanna test you. I feel like we're a chihuahua that's gonna act like a rottweiler. I was always very strong-minded. You couldn't tell me nothing. I see Dani being the same way.”

Barb moved to Florida to work as a compliance analyst for a bank. There, she met Ira Peskowitz, a sheriff for the Palm Beach Police Department. Danielle Bregoli was born in 2003 in Boynton Beach, a coastal suburb about 15 miles south of West Palm Beach filled with high-rises and neat subdivisions. Peskowitz and Barb separated not long after. In 2005, after their split, Barb bought a house in a nice neighborhood of Boynton Beach and moved in with Danielle, aged two-and-a-half. As with many people living in Florida during the mid-00s, Barb’s real estate acquisition did not reflect a steady income. “When I bought my house in 2005, I didn't have a job,” she explains. “It was solely based on my credit score.”

Peskowitz was not in the picture. “It's always been just me and Dani,” Barb says. “It's never been anybody else.” She remembers her daughter as a “little witch” even from a young age. Not long after they moved in, “She literally locked my patio door and sat there and laughed while I cried outside,” Barb says. “My neighbour had to break my door down to get me back in. She was a little friggin’ nut job.”

Danielle’s earliest memories of her mother begin a few years later. “I just remember her coming to my pre-school and doing all the little events, the Halloween stuff.”

“What about when I was sick?” asks Barb. In 2007, she noticed a lump in her right breast. A doctor diagnosed her with cancer. Danielle was four.

“I don't remember that,” Danielle responds.

“You don't remember how you used to hold my hair when I would be throwing up?” replies Barbara, “Or how you used to put the aloe on me? You used to come with me to my radiation treatment.”

“No,” repeats Danielle. “I don’t remember that.”

The Bregoli family’s story intersects with a surprisingly comprehensive array of important themes in this country’s recent history. In addition to reality TV rabble-rousing and Florida’s overheated housing market, they’ve been haunted by the inadequacies of America’s healthcare system to provide for single mothers. Barb stopped working when her daughter was born, and went back to her job two years later when she bought her house. A year later, in June of 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer has come and gone several times, and she’s never been able to return to work.

A short pre-fame article in the Palm Beach Post from 2009 describes Danielle helping to care for her mom when she was just six years old. The article’s lede image features Danielle and her mother staring into each other’s eyes as they share an eskimo kiss. I can understand why she doesn’t seem comfortable talking about this time in her life with her mom and a reporter; at 15, I wouldn’t have either, especially not if I’d been a famous, rule-breaking rapper.

By the time Barb’s cancer was in remission, near the end of 2007, she’d lost her job. Eventually her long-term disability ran out. In the 2009 Post article, she’s described as “struggling” to stay afloat and pay her bills, while attempting to qualify for Social Security disability insurance. Child support from Peskowitz and financial help from her family allowed her to hang on during those years. Then, in 2014, her cancer returned.

Barb describes her battle with the disease as “very tough” on her daughter, who grew up with her mom in and out of the hospital since she was four and a half years old. “The first time I had it, because she was so young, she was more my caregiver. I think the second time I had it she was 11, and she was real mad. To be honest with you, that's when all the craziness started.”

Barb believes her daughter’s defiance is a defense mechanism. “Danielle had fear. She feared losing her mom, and that's how she reacted.” (Though Barb’s cancer has since retreated, she still gets a mammogram every six months; at the most recent check up, the doctors found something, which “turned out to not be anything, but at that moment, my daughter asked, ‘Did God give me this career only to take you from me?’”)

Danielle’s elementary school experience became increasingly fractious as she grew older. “I was always the popular kid that everyone hated,” she remembers. “There was no reason for anyone to hate me. I never really did anything wrong, they just didn't like me, so I had to fight back all the time.”

Barb remembers visiting her daughter at school “constantly”, even when she was sick, in response to disciplinary issues. “Dani was a gifted child and she was in gifted classes,” she says. But other parents would complain about her daughter’s behavior, and she was picked on, especially by other girls. “Dani had very long hair, pretty hair,” recalls Barb. “They were always jealous of her.”

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would be where we are... Some days I ask Dani, ‘Do you ever sit down and say, Look where I am?’” – Barb Bregoli

Danielle’s issues sent her bouncing between various schools. In sixth grade, she landed at what her mom describes as a “school for troubled girls,” populated by kids “with ankle bracelets, ankle monitors, on probation. And that's where she met Zandalee.”

For a time, Zandalee was Danielle’s best friend. “She was a prostitute; I met her at school,” she told Complex. “That girl would do anything for money.” Danielle claims that this includes defaming her in exchange for payment from Danielle’s estranged father; they are no longer friends.

But for a while, they were inseparable. “Zandalee and my daughter looked so much alike, they could've passed for twins,” recalls Barb. “[She] came from a broken home. Her father was always working, mother not in her life. We kind of took her in. She'd come to my house, she'd eat, if I took Dani shopping I would buy her clothes, too.”

Danielle’s rowdy friend introduced her to a crew of older kids with a taste for petty crime. “Dani was stealing my credit cards, and her friends were making big purchases,” asserts Barb. “Zandalee got jewellery, she got furniture for her room, she got brand new sneakers, she got clothes. She would make my daughter steal my credit card and she would go have a good time.”

“See, I must've blocked all that stuff outta my mind,” quips Danielle.

Barb: “Let's not forget you ordered a stripper pole for your bedroom!”

Danielle: “You mean the stripper pole Zandalee ordered?”

Barb: “But it was in your bedroom, right?”

Danielle: “She set it up in there, not me!”

And so on.

Mother and daughter agree, though, that the final straw occured when the girls stole Barb’s car.

“Zandalee wanted to go to Miami,” recalls Danielle. “She said, ‘We'll take your mom's car.’ I was like, ‘Okay cool.’”

The next day, Barb found the car near Zandalee’s house and decided to take a stand.

“I was trying to figure out a way to get Danielle help,” recalls Barb, “because she was on a wrong path.” The police told her that the only way she could get help for her daughter was by putting her in the system, “something no parent ever wants to do,” which meant having Danielle arrested for the car theft. She was marched out of their house in handcuffs.

The court system didn’t provide any real help, though; it was just a “revolving door” of court dates and hearings. At her wits’ end, Barb wrote Dr. Phil a letter. “Because we had the stripper pole, and the stealing of the car, it was a very enticing show for him,” she observes.

The shoot was not without incident – while the crew was filming at Barb’s house, Danielle stole the make-up artist's car and went for a joyride. “She went and picked up Zandalee,” says Barb.

After the show, Danielle attended an equine therapy program in the Utah wilderness. Though she’d later appear on Dr. Phil with footage that showed her stiffly petting a stallion named Chief, she does not look back fondly on the experience.

“I promise, you'd rather be in jail than be on this program,” she tells me. “They’d make you walk in the blistering heat and freezing cold. They'd starve you, and then they'd offer you food that they know you didn't like. They knew that I didn't like peanut butter, so they'd say, ‘Your only food is peanut butter sandwiches.’”

She wouldn’t suffer at the yoke for long. In her absence, the cult of Danielle Bregoli had begun taking shape. “When she came home, she went on instagram,” recalls Barb. “And she's like, ‘Oh my god.’"

It’s clear that Danielle’s brand of carbonated hyper-reality is a result of her environment: she’s Palm Beach County to the bone. In fact, her life isn’t so far from the lurid petty crime milieu of Spring Breakers and The Florida Project. But Danielle’s story comes with a twist ending that Harmony Korine and Sean Baker would probably blanch at for being way too Hollywood. That fact is not lost on either Bregoli.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would be where we are,” says Barb. “Some days I ask Dani, “Do you ever sit down and say, ‘Look where I am?’”

“She goes, ‘Never, Mom. You know why? Because if I do that, it might end.’"