This story is taken from the autumn 2023 issue of Dazed. Buy a copy here.
Quenlin Blackwell is entering her “bad bitch era”. She’s on a break from a shoot – not ours, but that’s OK – when she dials in and makes the revelation. Her hair is hidden underneath a wig cap, so her face, which I must say is drop-dead gorgeous, is the centre of attention. “For a moment, I was on my funny, joke-joke-joke era, but I know there’s a balance you have to [strike] being a comedian and also being beautiful,” she says. “Comedians have to have a little grit for the joke to land properly. If I’m bad as fuck, with my edges laid telling you a joke, you’re looking at how pretty I am and not what’s coming out of my mouth. So I have to give it in doses. I give jokes then I say, I’ve given you enough jokes to feed y’all – let me be bad. So I’m entering my hot girl era once again.”
If feeding her audience a balanced diet of sarcastic humour and glamorous slays is how the 22-year-old comedian, internet superstar and budding model has kept us engaged for just shy of a decade, then her peers should take note. At just 13, Blackwell came into our lives and had us wheezing with laughter on Vine, posting under the username @quensadilla on the now-defunct video platform. A natural-born humorist, Blackwell’s Vines found the perfect balance between relatable and unhinged. Standouts include: her aggressively popping and locking to the Law & Order theme tune, thrashing her neck around at a whiplash-inducing velocity to strum a guitar with her braids or, my favourite, when she righteously unleashed a hose on a vulture that had the audacity to perch on her chimney and screamed, “THIS IS NOT YOUR LAND!”
A southern girl through and through, Blackwell spent most of her adolescence in Dallas, Texas, having moved there with her family when her father was incarcerated. “I grew up in a middle-class suburban town, and I was a lower-middle-class Black person who moved from a different state because my father went to jail. So it was a very different environment for me,” says Blackwell. “I feel like Texas taught me how to deal with the entertainment industry because people have different feelings than they say to your face. Which was [what it was] like growing up Black in the south, of course! So growing up in that [sense], my environment was really foreign but the love in my life from my mum, sisters, extended family and my father through the phone was incredible. I have a family that gets through life through jokes, so it was a great upbringing.”
Born on January 17, 2001, Blackwell is the embodiment of a Gen Z girl. Like many of us in Gen Z, our childhoods consisted of an amalgamation of media consumption. The vast world of cable, YouTube and then the birth of social media. When I ask Blackwell what media was in rotation growing up, a bolt of enthusiasm rushes through her as if the gods had called upon her to answer this question. “Yas, girl, what media was I consuming? What media wasn’t I consuming? I feel like we are the generation of ‘Let’s see what happens when we let people only consume media and take out the community. Let’s give people community through media.’ My brain thinks through media and cartoons from how many cartoons I ingested as a child. The Mighty B, SpongeBob and every Disney Chanel show. Hannah Montana was my icon. Michael Jackson was dead by the time I was, what, seven?” When I quip that “we didn’t know Billie Jean”, she swiftly responds, “No, but I did know all the Camp Rock songs, all the Hannah Montana songs. ‘The Climb’ was my ‘Billie Jean!’” A fair point: Miley Cyrus was our Teena Marie; that white girl could sing down.
Having two sisters who were a decade older than her and often split off, Blackwell was alone to wreak havoc, and that’s when she picked up the camera. A cheerleader growing up, her first viral Vine was a cheerleading stunt gone bad performed on a chair. In hearing her references, you can see how they influenced her comedy. In cartoons and Disney Channel shows like That’sSoRaven, you often see a level of physical comedy that Blackwell leaned into. There were no stuntmen or chiropractors on standby, just a young Blackwell with an iPhone, often alone unless she was with her bulldog or chickens, giving it her all.
At the risk of sounding like an oldhead, Vine was a simpler time. The videos were six seconds and looped, they were funny and you could have a chuckle and go about your day. Some would chalk it up to youthful nostalgia, but I disagree. You couldn’t get into profound discourse in six seconds; it was just fun! In that slender timeframe, Blackwell captured the spirit of being an unfiltered teen with a range of emotions akin to those in a junior year Yale School of Drama class. Her entertainment never felt like an act or a persona – it was just Quen being Quen. Sadly, Vine’s lifespan was as short-lived as the videos on the app, and in 2017 the platform made its way to the funeral home, marking the end of an era. That was six years ago and yet Blackwell is still here, her star power expanding as her loyal audience continues to grow.
When Vine ended, it showed why some of its stars should have only been allowed to exist in six-second windows. The platform catapulted Shawn Mendes into stardom; it’s also responsible for creating Jake Paul, so there’s that. What is it about Blackwell which has given her longevity and the ability to branch out and become a bona fide star of her generation? The answer has everything to do with what the French allegedly call je ne sais quoi. In conversation, Blackwell will give you a joke, throw in some shade, and sprinkle in some Oprah ‘ah-ha!’ moments in between. There’s something about her that makes you want to root for her. We’ve watched Blackwell grow up before us, and building an audience before entering the entertainment industry as we know it was an advantage because her fans feel like they truly know her. Childhood stars of the past were packaged to the public by adults one way – but in reality, they lived completely different lives behind the scenes until they imploded before our eyes. With Blackwell, there was no veil at risk of being lifted, because she displayed her truth in front of us.
“If you think of yourself as ‘the funny girl’, then you will be the funny girl. If you think of yourself as a multidimensional, multi-talented person and show that consistently, there is no way to pigeonhole that” – Quenlin Blackwell
“Y’all have been with me since childhood; I don’t know anything else,” she says. “That’s how I’ve been able to cultivate an audience that sticks with me through all the evolutions of my life; it’s because they have seen me evolve from childhood through puberty [to] being a young adult. With a lot of creators, I feel like what happens is they resent the audience that built them, then they get confused why their audience doesn’t like them any more when they change up their whole flow. Personally, I never put on a flow to get on the internet. I just started talking to everybody how I’ve been talking my whole life. I never had a character I had to prune because I’ve been myself.”
After Vine, Blackwell shifted her focus to Twitter. The star brought her awareness of engaging an audience to the platform pre-Elon Musk and became a popular personality on the app. With her riotous humour, it makes sense why 1.6 million people live for her tweets. By 17, she was living in LA. She was never interested in going to college unless it was to work in the entertainment industry – which she was already doing. “I was put on this earth to distract people from what they are going through,” she says, “to entertain people, to make them laugh. There’s no college for that.”
The move turned out to be less of a culture shock and more like a bigger high school with nicer houses. Her presence on TikTok came a bit later, in 2019; the app she affectionately calls “Vine with a facelift” has her biggest following at the time of publication, eight million followers and counting. It’s not uncommon to see famous friends like Lil Nas X casually popping up in her videos. The internet loves to joke that she knows everybody – we’ll get to that later – but the best example is SZA tweeting a video of a voice note Blackwell sent the singer screaming in anticipation of her Phoebe Bridgers collab.
While she still reigns on social media, this era is a significant shift in Blackwell’s career and life. Online she may appear to be an avalanche of chaos, but in reality, she is a young artist who is determined to be the best, and whose main trepidation in life is being subpar. As the members of the Sag-Aftra continue their strike, Blackwell is taking acting classes three times a week so she’s ready when Hollywood resumes. “My fear in pivoting to any other place in my career is mediocrity,” she confides. “I am not transitioning into being an artist, musician or actor [right now] because I am not doing something [just] because I have an audience and [am] feeding them shit. I will study the history; I will learn the craft before I do it. I take art seriously.”
Blackwell began her ascent to fashion-darling status a few years ago. In 2021 she was in a holiday campaign for Jean Paul Gaultier alongside Gigi Goode, and she has worked with brands including Coach, BOSS, Calvin Klein and SKIMS. “I’ve always wanted to make myself look like a cartoon character,” she explains. “I want to wear stuff that separates me from those who dress alike.” LA, where everyone was dressing “nuts”, became Blackwell’s playground to step into her fashion bag.
Then, halfway through our conversation, another revelation: Blackwell is expecting. Her first child, a fashion brand called Riquera, is tentatively expected to drop this year. As she talks about it, her face lights up. Having been adjacent to the fashion community since she was a teenager, she’s soaked up the knowledge around her and has built meaningful relation- ships with members of the industry. For Blackwell, she knows this is her time. “I know how a good garment feels; I know who the good producers are,” she says. “I’ve studied the craft. Let me see if I can come up with my own thing. I’ve never sold my audience anything besides an ad – an ad for another person. Now I get to put my all into a singular thing and have it be mine. I’m really excited to do that.”
“I’m not being meek; I’m not being docile. I’m screaming, bitch; I’m gonna scream into the microphone. And you’re going to enjoy” – Quenlin Blackwell
If ‘stealth wealth’ nourishes your soul – firstly, how sad, Riquera is not for you. Blackwell describes the brand as “if The Row had a sister that grew up in a group home and wasn’t about all that rich shit and her best friend was Miss Sixty and Hysteric [Glamour] type shit”. The first drop gives the LA girls everything they want: a moment for the club, another to go vintage shopping and a sweatsuit ensemble perfect for an impromptu Erewhon trip. It’s a sexy, cute and considered drop to ease her way into the game. Blackwell is eager to mention she’s doing all the designing – she is the conductor of this orchestra and has invited some of her favourite artists to work on the brand. This is her labour of love.
Blackwell came up on the internet, where Black women have often been at the forefront of culture. Still, their contributions don’t always go acknowledged. Does she think she’s gotten her due in terms of her cultural impact? “No,” she says. “Not when I walk into my friend’s houses who have been doing the internet thing for two years and they’re getting quadruple what Black people are getting paid. I still can’t wrap my head around why because it doesn’t make sense, but I’ll get my due soon and it will be great. I feel like my due is in how comfortable my life is compared to how hard I’ve worked.”
The industry is quick to place an artist in a box once success materialises, but for Blackwell, this hasn’t been an issue. “I can move however I want in my career because I don’t think of myself as one singular thing,” she says. “If you think of yourself as ‘the funny girl’, then you will be the funny girl. If you think of yourself as a multidimensional, multi-talented person and show that consistently, there is no way to pigeonhole that. But if you give someone one thing to work with, you can’t be mad at them for working with the one thing.” We agree that you can’t make someone see your greatness. “I’m not going to convince you how hard I am. If you can’t see it, then I’m glad you don’t know because you don’t get it.”
In the era of fake news, one inescapable truth is that being in your 20s is fucking exhausting. You’re vacillating between wanting to heal your inner child and chucking the bitch off a cliff like that monkey did with Simba. Having got the memo early, Blackwell tells me she’s braced herself to lean into the discomfort of this period. Even that admission alone shows she’s faring quite well. She has autonomy over her plans and, most importantly, realises the key to being limitless is ensuring you aren’t the one creating your limits. One thing that’s given her a newfound clarity is sobriety. For the past 11 months, she’s been sober from all substances, including coffee and nicotine, and it’s allowed her to show up for herself like never before.
In 2019, Blackwell tweeted two side-by-side photos of herself – one at her lowest point and the second, her thriving, captioned “a mental health glow-up. I’m so proud of myself, dude. I literally LOOK healthier”. It went viral. Blackwell has been candid about her struggles in her adolescence with mental health, particularly depression, anxiety and anorexia. As she has overcome her obstacles over the past few years, it’s been heartwarming to see her live her best life and embrace the fruitfulness of her season.
“What’s made my life easier is radical self-acceptance,” she shares. “You see all the girls being like, ‘We delulu’, but delusion has really gotten me to where I am in my career and my mental health. The eating disorder was me trying to be somebody I’m not. Depression is me trying to be somebody I’m not. Depression is me trying to [work out why] I’m not at this place, [why] something should have gone this way. Once you radically accept yourself as you are right now – not the future version of yourself, the present version – everything changes.”
Blackwell has been mastering the art of short-form videos for a lifetime. Now she’s gearing up to play with longer-form content on YouTube, while working on a podcast, Public Indecency, slated for release this year: expect some of her celebrity pals to make an appearance. “Everyone is like, ‘How do you know all these people?’” says Blackwell. “That’s the question I always get, girl. The reason I know all these people is because all these people know ME!” The conversations will reflect the intimate nature of their friendships offline and are rooted in capital F-U-N! “Let the girls chuckle; let the girls be indecent. We like the class when it comes to treating people right, but I’m not finna change who I am just to be more digestible for you. I’m not being meek; I’m not being docile. I’m not being quiet. I’m screaming, bitch; I’m gonna scream into the microphone. And you’re going to enjoy.”
Before our time together ends, I have to get her beauty tips. Blackwell is a beautiful girl. Scratch that: she is stunning. I don’t know what’s going on in her bank account, it’s not my business, but the balance is so high on her face card that she could give a PPE loan to the population of southern California. “I don’t give a fuck how I’m doing mentally if I can pull together a look, I know I’m doing good at the end of the day,” she says. “I feel like with how I do my serves, slay and my eats – don’t take someone else’s face and try to make yours theirs. Learn your face, learn your face! Learn your eye shape, what lip colours make you look soft, what lip colours look bold. Learn your eyebrows! A thin brow can slay a girl, DOWN. A bob is one of the chicest things you can do. Black hair is so versatile; our hair is an artform – like, trying to just straighten your hair all the time and not do anything crazy, there are 2,000 different options. Get you some cornrows with a crazy design and stunt on them. Stop trying to blend in with these people. That’s how I feel I serve. How do I make myself look separate but not so separate that I look nuts?” She chortles.
In 2013, Quenlin Blackwell thought being on the Ellen DeGeneres show was the pinnacle of fame and success. If she just made enough videos, she would get to perform in front of a live audience. In a recent TikTok entitled “I was made to make y’all happy”, Blackwell posted a montage of her classic Vines and YouTube moments, including her iconic drive to get a hot pickle. Fans of the comedian from the beginning filled the comment section, telling the starlet how impactful she was to their childhoods. Ten years on, Ellen is gone like the hair on Steve Harvey’s head, Blackwell is in her prime, and all it took to perform in front of her audience was to pick up her camera and be herself.
This story is taken from the autumn issue of Dazed, which is on sale internationally from 14 September 2023. Pre-order a copy here.
Hair RACHEL LEE at MA+ using ORIBE, make-up REBECCA WORDINGHAM at BRYANT ARTISTS using AUGUSTINUS BADER and MAKE UP FOR EVER, nails SYLVIE VACCA at CALL MY AGENT using OPI ENDLESS SUN-NER, set design LUCIE TESCARO, movement direction RYAN CHAPPELL, photographic assistant PIERRE NOWAK, styling assistants ANIELLO LUCA MIGLIARO, CHARLOTTE DENEUX, make-up assistant TOMA MARANDEAU, digital operator ANTOINE BERNARD, production CHLOË LEBRUN and DIVISION, production assistant PERRINE SEIGNOUR, executive talent consultant GREG KRELENSTEIN at GK-ID PROJECTS