What initially strikes me is her punctual arrival at the studios on the peripheries of Paris. In this business, questionable notions of time run amok in talented circles. Yet today, Doja Cat is a welcome anomaly – a notably bald breath of fresh air, despite the 8am call time. I had spent the morning remarking on the state of calm with the other crew members. The mood feels void of that particular foreboding that comes with the typical demands of celebrities. Though perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that Doja has been riding a wave of success just lately that has seen her debut on the Coachella main stage, win her first Grammy and rack up multi-platinum records, all while perched on the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 200 for six months with her third album, Planet Her – a first for any female rapper. Still, Doja Cat, whose name is an amalgamation of her favourite strain of weed (before relinquishing the habit) and her favourite animal (she has two oriental short-hairs called Ray and Alex), has spent the past year grappling with the media, whose headlines often cast a heavy shadow of doubt over her wellbeing.
In March this year, her performance at Asunciónico festival in Paraguay was cancelled due to stormy weather, and fans took to Twitter to voice their displeasure when Doja allegedly failed to show up to greet people camped outside her hotel. Her response to the furore marked the more sobering reality of the cult of celebrity and its demands: “i fuckin quit i can’t wait to fucking disappear, and i don’t need you to believe in me anymore,” she wrote. “Everything is dead to me, music is dead, and I’m a fucking fool for ever thinking i was made for this this is a fucking nightmare unfollow me.”
A self-reflective apology soon followed, expressing gratitude and speaking to Doja’s desire to learn from her fans, but eyebrows were raised nonetheless. Then, in August, she decided to shave her hair off. So when, an hour before our conversation, Doja’s stylist and creative director Brett Alan Nelson lightly taps me on the shoulder with a warning to anticipate her potential reluctance to talk, I am hesitant. There was once a time when she had spent years confined to her room, making beats and trolling strangers online with a face full of acrylic paint as the ‘war paint girl’. Bouncing between virtual spaces such as Funnyjunk, Tinychat and Periscope as a strange face online was the norm, so how was our homebody cover star handling being front-facing on the world’s stage?
Truthfully, when the moment arrives, Doja is quite forthcoming, her bare-faced expressions at times vulnerable, confused, quizzical, but mostly matter-of-fact. She possesses a curious, childlike quality that competes with a mature air of certainty. “When I was home, I would just have fun on the internet,” she says of her early adventures online. “I would take pictures in my room all day, do crazy make-up, put paint on my face and flaunt it on the internet. I loved getting those reactions; it was just my favourite thing, looking like a freak. I really enjoyed that.”
Sitting before me in one of those awkward-but-comfortable positions, Doja seems at ease. As she stares contentedly in the mirror at the Play-Doh-pink dye being applied to her buzzcut, she glosses over the media frenzy surrounding her every move and her impulsive reactions. “They’re like, ‘Oh, this can’t possibly be her simply having fun. She has to be out of her mind. She has to be cuckoo,’” she says with a whiff of dissatisfaction. “Also, I have a really bad impulse control; I like to react to things really quick. If I’m in the right mood, or the wrong mood, I will snap back and I’ll have fun doing it. It makes me feel better or it doesn’t, because then the reaction I get back is tenfold and I’m like, ‘Uh-oh, I made a mistake.’”
The air of calm on set is also different from the pandemonium she describes as par for the course during photoshoots. “That’s usually how it is. Today has been great because normally when I’m on set, it’s pretty wild but tolerable. I don’t think we are ever all completely stressed out. It’s usually Brett; it’s very personal to him.” Nearby, Brett is lying flat across the floor on his back and lets out a short laugh in agreement as he briefly pulls his face away from his phone, before disappearing behind the screen again. JStayReady, Doja’s hairstylist, seems to be just as relaxed. “When there were a lot of wig changes, it would be [stressful], but she has no hair [now],” he says, while touching up the dye he’s been applying. “Honestly, I’m chilling. It’s great. We’re dying her hair on set, and that’s it; we’ve never done that before.”
“I have never felt more beautiful in my entire life, which is very strange” – Doja Cat
After an impromptu kickback at her house last year, Doja removed her wig, undid two months’ worth of regrowth since being braided for her Coachella set, and revealed partings that had left tan lines down her scalp. Her ex-boyfriend gave her a buzzcut that she debuted on one of her infamously interactive and troll-littered Instagram Lives. It shocked the internet, friends and family who had spent time trying to talk her out of the bald new look. Pretty girls have long hair, after all, or so they say. Her realisation that she was stressing too much about things – and that it didn’t help to constantly be switching wigs and styles – was sudden but inevitable. She couldn’t quite understand why people were so against it but went ahead regardless, in typical Doja fashion. At first, she looked like a “wrinkly penis – I looked like I had an exposed brain”, but she was happy with the shape of her head. With her characteristically raspy eagerness, she asserts, “I have never felt more beautiful in my entire life, which is very strange. I felt beautiful when I had long hair. I definitely felt like a hot girl then, but I always do. There’s something so exhilarating about change; (it) showed me a different side of myself. I feel so new, fresh and sexy. I also feel better without make-up: having this bare head and so little make-up is a fun experience. It’s new, and I love it.”
Newness is familiar territory for Doja, who had spent the previous week debuting a series of experimental looks at Paris Fashion Week. The last time I saw her was at the Thom Browne show, front row alongside Janet Jackson and Anna Wintour. I’d heard she’d also had a ball at Beyoncé’s secret Renaissance party with Tiffany in Paris a few days prior. Earlier in the week, at A.W.A.K.E. Mode, she’d gone full Shirley Eaton with a golden paint job, Fantastic Planet meets RuPaul’s Drag Race for Monot, and then took the idea of a ‘beat face’ rather literally with her bruised and lacerated make-up at the Balenciaga show. The latter was something she had dreamed up weeks prior, mentioning the initial idea in a call we had scheduled with her team to discuss creative – one which she personally joined, a choice out of whack with celebrities who tend to hide behind a wall of management. She often falls victim to claims of being fake-edgy, but can understand why. The truth is, she’s just an explorative person on an eternal quest for newness. It’s part of the allure of this industry, the constant moving, changing and shifting of trends – stagnancy drives her crazy.
Does she feel like she is in control, or is there a silent demand placed on her as a woman in an industry that demands new eras with each EP release? New styles, new cuts, new colours? “Recently, I’ve been feeling like I am more in control, but I think that I have always been in control,” says Doja. “I can be very permissive when I work with people. I’ll let them put a lampshade on my head, and I won’t say anything.” Brett, never too far away from his client-turned-bestie, is quick to attest that, although true, this only happened once. “I’ll do it because I like to explore, but sometimes I’ll look back at it and ask, ‘Why the fuck did I do that?’” Doja continues. “I’m glad I do that because you have to look like an idiot to find out how not to be one. You have to know how to be a fool in order to know how not to be a fool. That’s all I’ve been learning.”
Celebrities can lean on fashion as armour or a means to shroud their true selves in outlandish fits. Doja uses it as another medium to traverse and bring imagined worlds to life. Though often circling her chronically unserious nature, which finds its roots in the more flippant corners of the web, there isn’t a singular look or motif. There is a consistent inconsistency that sees her jump across styles. This has been the case since she mooed her way into the zeitgeist in 2018. Part internet kitsch, part troll, severely silly and certainly strange, “MOOO!” was a viral YouTube hit offering an early glimpse into Doja’s characteristic fusion of meme-y humour, lo-fi bedroom production and irreverence towards ideas of what constitutes a modern pop star. Released just before the TikTok algorithm began dictating the tempo of pop, the track marked the end of one viral era and the beginning of another, which she equally conquered with her funk-infused hit, “Say So”. It’s what feels like a lightning-speed ascent, and like any young woman in the throes of growth and development, she defines and redefines who she is or who she might want to be, even if that means falling victim to speculative headlines.
“Now, to me, beauty is going against it. I love when you take something that is maybe classically beautiful and twist it and make it your own” – Doja Cat
When Doja arrives on set, camera-ready, the music starts up, and she moves her 5ft 2in frame without thought. There’s a natural ease in her movement from her years of dance training, no doubt (search hard enough, and you might find a viral clip of her impressive pop-and-locking skills). She can strike poses without prompt and knows how best to frame and contort herself for the camera. She’s far from camera-shy, running across the set on the balls of her feet to peek at shots in between takes. Her confidence in her style can also be found in her comfort around her body, even though it is often a playground for the world to overanalyse. The proudly posted topless selfies taken at her Masquerade-themed 27th birthday party debuted on Twitter a couple of weeks after our conversation to attest to this. However, it would be misleading to suggest that this was always the case, as she’d spent years yearning for perfection. This distorted, idealised vision of beauty was tainted by the toxic demands of our popular culture – no cellulite, breasts up to here and what waist?! Her hectic touring schedule laid potential plans for surgery to rest. “Now, to me, beauty is going against it. I love when you take something that is maybe classically beautiful and twist it and make it your own,” she says. “For me, it’s more of an ‘are you happy?’ kind of thing. I want my fans to learn they don’t have to be like anyone else and the thing they want is already there. They just haven’t found it yet, and once they do they’ll be like, ‘How the fuck did I not see it? How did I miss this?’”
Doja Cat, born Amala Dlamini in Tarzana, California, spent her first five years living with her maternal grandmother in New York City. She keenly recounts moving back to California and bouncing between the artistic influences of the women in her life. Her grandmother drew heavy-set women in bikinis on the beach or with beautiful backdrops. Meanwhile, her mother’s love for space and nature manifested in more ethereal and galactic paintings: “I think I take from both of them,” she says. She recently built a studio in her Beverly Hills home, where she has taken up painting herself. “I love to paint monsters; that’s my favourite thing. So I’ll doodle a monster and then put it on a big canvas. It’s been an interesting process.”
Around the age of eight, she lived in Sai Anantam ashram, a serene 48 acres of land in the Santa Monica mountains. Founded in 1983 and run by Turiyasangitananda, better known to cosmic jazz fans as Alice Coltrane, Doja would work the land and join Coltrane on her legendary Sunday services. “That had a huge conscious and subconscious influence on me,” she reflects with a wishful, distant gaze. “Every Sunday, we would go to the temple and sing bhajans [chants] with Alice and all the people on the land. I’m happy to have come from such a special part of the culture; I loved all the musical influences around me. It was amazing to have Alice in my presence as a kid.”
Suddenly, Doja interrupts her rose-tinted memories to set another record straight, this time regarding her Blackness, or perceived lack thereof. Born to a white Jewish mother and a Black South African father, her biracial identity is a point of contention for many. “I read something the other day where someone said I was never surrounded by Black people, and I have no Black influence in my life, which is so unbelievably crazy to me,” she says. “Growing up on the land, it was all Black energy. My family was Black. My mum was the only real white influence in my life. It’s easy to make assumptions about people you don’t know. I don’t think people are trying to destroy my light or make me unhappy; I think it’s just that they don’t know.”
When she isn’t addressing the headlines and righting public wrongs, Doja Cat spends whatever time she can gaming. Though a more subtle influence on her as a person and an artist, she teases that we should expect its sway on her upcoming creative, with cult-classic titles such as Fusion Frenzy, Oddworld, Abe’s Odyssey, Earthworm Jim and SSX Tricky all influential on her visual style in particular. There is something in that nostalgia that she is seeking to embrace. “I keep it buried down deep in me. But I feel this is the time for me to bring it out. It’s easier for me to express myself now, so you’re going to see a lot more of that in the future. But I did have a really hard time attacking that feeling inside of me and letting it blossom. There were some sexy elements to that [gaming] era that I loved. And I feel like the gaming world has kind of gone off the deep end; I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. I miss the crop tops in video games;
I miss when things were sexy. I do, I do.” She groans begrudgingly. “I wish my character could be a sexy girl, and you don’t have that any more. You don’t have that appeal. And I get it; it’s a game, and whatever. And I know I grew up at a different time, and I’m an old lady. I am ready to accept that. Suck my cock!”
The bubbly synths she often uses are lifted straight from gaming culture, lending a futuristic energy on one hand and a 16-bit throwback vibe on the other. Though it’s not the most substantial influence on the bald ambitions of Doja Cat’s next move. In February, she released a single that hinted towards the direction of her new sound and style, a cover of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin”. The 2020 EMAs offered another clue, when she crawled out of a TV screen to perform a metal rendition of “Say So”. When I quiz her on her most recent musical inspirations, her answer is somewhat unexpected: Machine Girl, Deli Girls, Orbital, The Chemical Brothers, Death Grips and a lot of Beastie Boys. “Opus III is a huge inspo for me right now,” she says. “If you wanted a teaser into what I’ve been thinking about, that’s what I’ve been on a lot. And just to make it clear, Beastie Boys is a huge inspiration to me. Beastie Boys will hit you with hard, loud and crazy rap, but they’ll also hit you with real raw 90s punk, which I love, or smooth techno that feels sexy and sleek. And you’ll be like, ‘Where the fuck did this come from?’” So far, Doja has fused mostly pop, R&B and rap to create her sound and there are some reservations around sliding into a more punk realm. She doesn’t want things to feel like a mockery and says that it won’t be on the nose, but inspired. “I want to take some of the beautiful elements of vocal distortion and play those into the music. I don’t know if what I’m doing is going to be pop, but I want to keep that in mind for when I go into the studio.”
By her own admission, the loose parameters Doja draws around her music sometimes make for less cohesive results than she would like. Right now, she is exploring whether this current mood of punk-fuelled catharsis will take her into a new era of consistency. But without the mess, would it even be Doja? Feeling her way around the subject, she hits on the perfect phrase for her ability to pinball wildly between moods and genres. “I think what I’ve fallen into is controlled chaos,” she explains. “I’m crazy about putting different genres into the same album or even into the same song.” Up next, she tells me is “a bouquet of things. There’s songs from a year and a half ago that I made and I’m like, ‘These need to come out.’ I have a project that’s going to be quite consistent, hopefully, which is coming up next and is the real album, the real project. But before that, I would like to put out some singles that don’t really connect to it in any way. They’re just fun things that I would like to put out.” So the album is coming? “The album will come and it’ll be its own moment on Earth.” Whatever the sound she chooses to inhabit next, the through-line will always be Doja: brash, bold, and brilliantly chaotic.
Hair JARED HENDERSON, make-up LAUREL CHARLESTON, set design SAMUEL OVERS, lighting NOAH BEYENE, photographic assistants EGON DETTHOFF, DANI BASTIDAS, PAUL JEDWAB, styling assistants GLEN MBAN, ANDRA-AMELIA BUHAI, CARI LIMA, MANAVI DANG, ZOE MINARD-LIÉVAIN, LIZA HRACHOVA, KATIE DULIEU, set design assistant MITCHELL FENN, digital operator MAGNUS BERGQVIST, production DAY INTERNATIONAL