Photography by Ysa Perez
A hoe never gets cold, which is why Cardi B is bare-legged and coatless when she shows up to meet me just a couple of days after winter storm Jonas immobilized much of the east coast earlier this year. The 23-year-old is sheathed in a slinky gold dress, paired with monstrous red heels from which her toes—nails painted lavender—burst forth into the January freeze. I can’t imagine a pair of gloves that could possibly contain the bedazzled gray manicure that gives her slight fingers the appearance of being several inches longer than they are. Cardi may look ridiculous standing next to the mountains of snow piled on the sidewalk, but she does not look cold. She prophesied as much to her millions of followers a year ago in an Instagram video promoting a wintertime appearance at a Toronto strip club. “Canada, it’s cold outside but I’m still looking like a thotty,” she says in the clip, twirling around a hotel hallway in a tiny top.
Today, Cardi has chosen the Amish Market in TriBeCa for our interview; her job here as a full-time cashier was, as she has repeated in the press run surrounding her role on the sixth season of Love & Hip Hop, the last one she held before she turned to stripping at 19, before she took the first of several steps that led to her current celebrity. When she was fired for blessing a co-worker with a considerable discount, one of the store’s managers suggested she might be better suited for a different line of work. “He was like, ‘You’re so pretty, you got a nice body.' He told me to go across the street to New York Dolls, the strip club. That’s when I started stripping,” Cardi says, looking around the deli, whose holiday decorations are still up a month after Christmas. She spots a long-serving employee from her tenure at the market and freezes for a second, perhaps imagining an alternate outcome for her choose-your-own-adventure of a life. “Damn, he been here foreeeever,” she says of the man. “Who woulda known? I woulda never thought I’d do some shit like this.”
Cardi was born Belcalis Almanzar to a Dominican father and a Trini mother uptown, navigating between Washington Heights and the Bronx during her formative years. You can hear all those geographies in her accent, which elongates vowels and rounds off consonants, dropping some entirely. She describes her upbringing—her parents’ split, her strained relationship with her stepfather, her early realization that life is an extended exercise in disappointment—in practical terms, a tendency she will later attribute to her astrological sign: the balanced, detached Libra. “You know, when you’re a kid, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, I wanna be a astronaut!’ or like, ‘Oh my gosh, I wanna be an actor.’ But then when you’re in high school, reality kicks in,” she says. “When you young, you always talking about, ‘When I grow up I wanna buy my mom a house. I wanna buy my mom a car.’ But everything turns to reality and it’s like, ‘Shit, I need to buy my car first.’”
With vague ambitions but no specific plans as to how to go about achieving them, Cardi enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College after high school. She took courses in history and French, and landed her then-job at the Amish Market; BMCC is just down the street from the store. But working full-time while trying to be a student was a difficult balance to strike and, after a few distracted semesters, she decided school wasn’t for her. “I was working all week [at the market] and I still was making only, like, 250 fucking dollars,” she remembers. During her first shift at New York Dolls, Cardi made $300 in eight hours.
She soon moved on to more lucrative strip clubs around the city; at Lace 2 on 42nd Street, for example, she learned to be a little more confident giving lap dances in a thong. Later, at a club she describes as “urban,” she realized speaking in Spanish was a trick to beating the colorism that ties income to skin color. “Thoughts of your parents pop up in your head and it’s like, ‘Yo, this is so disgusting.’ And I hid it for like two years from my family, from everybody. You know what I told them? I told them I was babysitting for some real rich white people.” As the money stacked up, so did concerns about becoming a cliché. Cardi set an important goal: she promised herself that she’d quit by 25, the age at which she thought she ought to have a kid. On her 23rd birthday this past October, she worked her last shift as a stripper.
These days, Cardi is best known for pithy proclamations like “a hoe never gets cold,” disseminated as Instagram videos and amplified by fans on other social media networks; she goes viral as often as every few days. On a recent episode of the pop culture podcast Who? Weekly, Aminatou Sow described Cardi as a “quote machine,” an accurate reference to the sharp, concise witticisms she doles out daily, and which then catch on with her millions of followers. Her penchant for real talk—she speaks shame-free about having been a stripper and a self-avowed hoe, and makes effortless, hilarious connections between sex, money, and power, three of society’s most taboo topics—has earned her a vast, devoted fanbase and a singular position in today’s cultural landscape.
As a popular stripper in the city, Cardi had accumulated the attention of a few thousand Instagram users—club regulars, bartenders, “little drug dealers and scammers” who thought she was hot. She posted selfies, memes, and videos of herself candidly yapping into the camera. Gradually, more and more people beyond her informal network in the Heights and Brooklyn began to watch and share. When Bobby Shmurda reposted one of her videos a couple of years ago, her page blew up; her face and voice soon became mainstays of Tumblr and Twitter. One video in particular tipped her popularity over the edge, she says. It was a 13-second clip that doubles as a neat précis of her ethos: “People be asking me, 'What do you does?',” Cardi says in the clip, laughing. “‘Are you a model? Are you, like, a comedian or something?’ Nah, I ain’t none of that. I’m a hoe. I’m a stripper hoe. I’m about this shmoney.” Real talk.
“People be asking me, ‘What do you does? Are you a model? Are you, like, a comedian or something?’ Nah, I ain’t none of that. I’m a hoe. I’m a stripper hoe. I’m about this shmoney.” - Cardi B
The bulk of her videos, of which there are hundreds, tend to fit into three loose categories: addressed to women, addressed to men, and addressed to nebulous haters of all genders. She advises women on how to flip the script on deceitful men by manipulating them, she warns dudes not to underestimate her, and she reminds detractors that she’s very much thriving. It’s Pinterest-style inspo for the Shade Room demographic. For instance, if you’re upset by a peer’s relentless subtweets, a friend might send you confidence in the form of a video of Cardi giggling maniacally into the camera, “You a hater hoe, and I’m a greater hoe. You a dick-chaser hoe, and I’m a money-maker hoe.” When that same friend is having relationship problems, you might return the favor by tagging them in an Instagram clip of Cardi proselytizing her philosophy about how to maintain power in monogamy. “Let that nigga know you not fucking somebody else, but make him feel insecure at the same time! Make niggas feel like shit!”
As Cardi and I talk in the market’s dining area, I notice a young man staring at her in awe. He’s neither the first nor the last person we catch trying to stealthily take photos of her. “She’s the reason I get up in the morning. She keeps me going,” he will tell me later, tapping through an iPhone to show me his Instagram. Among his most recent uploads, there are four videos reposted from Cardi’s account. The sentiment is shared by unlikely characters; Cardi’s manager, a New York entertainment veteran named Shaft, tells me the Oscar-winning director Lee Daniels is a fan, too. “I go to your page to keep me happy,” he says Daniels once told her.
The intersection of reality TV and social media births new celebrities at a rabid pace, incubating a new economy where anyone with enough followers can function as a mini-media property through which to advertise flat-tummy teas, teeth-whitening products, and club appearances. But Cardi exists wholly outside of that pipeline; unlike many of the characters whose exploits are documented by gossip entities like Shade Room, MediaTakeOut, and Baller Alert, it was Cardi’s existing fame that landed her a role on Love & Hip Hop, the zeitgeisty VH1 reality franchise that follows the tangled lives of people peripheral to the music industries of New York, Atlanta, and Hollywood. Aspiring and established rappers, producers, DJs, promoters, and artist managers—and their love interests and family members—chase lofty ambitions and superintend dramatic relationships before a national audience.
Though she was originally chosen to appear as a lowly supporting cast member, Cardi tells me, the producers soon realized they had placed their bets on the wrong stars. A few episodes into the season, it was clear that her years of posting videos on Instagram had doubled as unintended practice for the reaction room, which is where reality stars are born. The more quotables you can deliver straight into the camera, the more likely viewers will latch on to you. And Cardi has quotables falling out of her pockets. “Yo, it’s so crazy, like, them motherfuckers [the producers] really doubted me. It’s like, why would y’all doubt me? Like, I have seven hundred thousand bajillion followers,” she says. “I’m telling them like, ‘Yo, I have a brand. I’m not even a artist and I fill out clubs. Three thousand, whatever the crap, I fill them shits out!’ But they didn't care about that. They just wanted to make me look as the stripper, a struggling stripper.”
She advises women on how to flip the script on deceitful men by manipulating them, she warns dudes not to underestimate her, and she reminds detractors that she’s very much thriving. It’s Pinterest-style inspo for the Shade Room demographic.
Consider, for example, Joseline Hernandez, the similarly typecast stripper-turned-breakout star of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, whom audiences first met when she appeared on its first season as a romantic foil to the serial philanderer Stevie J. Cardi understands the game and that VH1 benefits as much, if not more, from her as she does from them. Her booking fee, which has leveled up considerably in the past year, is significantly higher than the per-rate episode the show provides, she says. Despite the immense success it has brought her, all of the newfound attention via the internet has not entirely rewarded her in kind. Many of the new followers she’s acquired through Love & Hip Hop seize on her accent and her biography for target practice. A cursory look through the comments on Cardi’s Instagram turn up responses from people calling her names, reducing her to her former occupation. But how, I ask her, could a “dumb bitch” successfully execute the contemporary pipe dream of turning an Instagram account into a career—singlehandedly, at that?
“A lot of people think I’m just a dumb ass, like, hoe ass bitch because I can't talk English properly and it's just, like, yo if I was dumb, I would not be in the position that I'm in,” she says. “It’s just like damn everybody wanna be famous but, like, people don’t realize being famous don’t make you like rich. Like, yo you really gotta work to get rich.”
Though Cardi isn’t ashamed of her past, she’s more concerned with her future, of turning her fame into a viable career that can support her family. The show, then, is part of that work, another avenue through which to get closer to a sustainable future. Music, she thinks, offers the best chance for that kind of success. Over the past few months, she has released a single—the aggressive “Cheap Ass Weave,” on which she raps over the beat for Lady Leshurr’s viral “Queen’s Speech 4” freestyle—and appeared alongside Popcaan on a remix of Shaggy’s “Boom Boom.” A forthcoming mixtape will similarly span multiple genres and bridge the hip-hop and Caribbean music she grew up listening to. Cardi’s team is confident about the impact her tape will have, and that confidence is infectious. But how her reinvention as an artist will actually be received is up in the air—the music industry is difficult enough to navigate for established acts, and Cardi is appropriately anxious. “A lot of people be like, ‘Oh, you’re not gonna be young forever. You’re not gonna be a whore forever,” she says. “It’s, like, ‘You think I don't know that I'm not gonna be young and pretty and healthy forever? You think I don’t know that? You don't think I’m trying?”
We say goodbye in TriBeCa before Cardi heads uptown. After stopping by a boutique to be fitted for a dress she’ll wear on the reunion episode of Love & Hip Hop, she’ll check out a bodega that she’s considering buying for her father, who wants to quit his job as a cab driver. Her mother, who has worked as a cashier for years, also has plans for a business that she would like Cardi’s help with. “I don’t like taking risks. I never planned to open a bodega. But I have a big pressure on my shoulders. I can't sleep good at night, me living in a condo in Edgewater but my parents are not. My parents can’t be in the Bronx working regular-wage jobs,” she says. “I have to do something.”