Hip-hop star Nicki Minaj has exploded onto the music scene with kaleidoscopic costume changes and hard-hitting lyrics, but there’s a surprising side behind the public persona.
You would not expect Nicki Minaj and Valentino Garavani to have much to say to each other, but front row at the Oscar de la Renta spring 2012 runway show, they exchange greetings worthy of a pair of dowager duchesses. “You look sensational!” “You look fabulous yourself!” Minaj, 29, is hardly your typical Oscar client. The performer is famous for her Harajuku Barbie appearance, a mélange of tiny skirts, bustiers, and leggings in a riot of cartoon hues, invariably topped with a towering pastel wig and Miss Piggy eyelashes. This highly mannered, instantly recognizable look stands in contradiction to the feminist content of many of her lyrics, such as “I’m fightin’ for the girls that never thought they could win,” from “I’m the Best.” But the unlikely combination of cotton-candy style and bold (sometimes frankly obscene) substance has proved a source of fascination and adulation.
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In an astonishingly short period of time, Minaj has been nominated for three Grammy Awards (Best New Artist, Best Rap Album, and Best Rap Performance), named the 2011 Rising Star by Billboard magazine, and garnered Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist and Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album honors at the American Music Awards for her 2010 debut, Pink Friday. (Her second album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, is scheduled to be released imminently.) Her appeal extends far beyond her legions of young female fans—whom she calls not her “little monsters” but her little sisters—to adults captivated by the unexpected cadences of her raps and the raw honesty of her words. Given her strong sartorial, and rhetorical, proclivities, Minaj would seem to prefer a riotous, club kid–ish catwalk show. But here she is at Carolina Herrera (“so regal and special”) and at de la Renta (he has been known to watch her videos on YouTube). Then again, why wouldn’t this wildly individualistic performer, whose five-year plan includes an autobiography, a stack of Grammys, and movie stardom, defy assumptions? It isn’t the first time. Minaj discovered the power of costume when she dressed as Freddy Krueger for the “My Chick Bad” video with Ludacris two years ago. “It made me feel so free. It was me inside.”
She recounts this from a Manhattan hotel suite, clad in leggings, a custom-bejeweled jacket from the Versace for H&M line (she performed at its extravagant launch), and an early–Marilyn Monroe fuchsia wig. Minaj also reveals a far soberer side than her stage act might indicate. “A huge part of me wanted to be a lawyer! I would do a really good job as a prosecutor,” she alleges. That’s not the singer’s only alternative personality—famous for creating stage alter egos with names like Roman Zolanski, she confesses that she sometimes imagines herself clad in a bikini and high heels, cooking dinner for a breadwinning husband.
Born in Trinidad, Minaj came to the States when she was five, grew up in Queens, and attended the prestigious LaGuardia high school for the performing arts (it was the model for the school in Fame). Her fashion education also began there. “I was dressing in Tommy Hilfiger baggy shirts and Boss jeans, but then I met a person who dressed like a tiny lady—pantsuits, heels, lots of makeup. I thought she was larger than life. She once did my makeup—I had never seen myself made up before. I didn’t want to wash it off; I felt like I had one day to live this fantasy of being a glamour girl.”
She currently lives in a condo in L.A., where she moved for the weather but also to escape “some bad memories.” Though she declines to divulge much about her personal life, she readily admits to snuggling up in hotel beds, unwinding after a performance by watching Forensic Files and Judge Judy. Minaj insists she’s terrible at small talk and never goes out much, except for the occasional foray to a favorite restaurant. “I went to Negril the other night, and I brought, like, ten of the fans who were waiting outside with me, and bought them all food!”
Now Minaj is expected to be a glamour girl every day. Her ensembles—“They’re costumes, not outfits”—are often custom-made or imported from Japan, where little-known designers like Shojono Tomo supply items like the nutty plastic apron Minaj wore during New York Fashion Week last September. (If she has yet to market her distinctive naughty–baby doll look, Minaj has already entered the world of cosmetics, launching a nail-polish collaboration with OPI and becoming a 2012 M.A.C. Viva Glam spokesperson.) In her downtime, she is far from label-obsessed. “If I can combine designer things with other things, I’m a happy camper.” Not so with accessories. At one time she was spending $50,000 a month on “Giuseppe, Versace, YSL, and Fendi shoes. And I bought tons of Vuitton bags. When you’re a young girl from Queens, you’re going to stock up on those bags.”
Still, Minaj is adamant that her legacy will not be one of a free-spending, know-nothing celebrity. She’s planning “an enormous foundation to nurture girls. The Nicki Minaj girl is a fun, artsy girl who can become a fierce force to be reckoned with on Wall Street! They hang on my every word, so I tell them, go to school, be ambitious. The worst position is to be financially dependent on the man.” And what of that alternate Nicki, serving her lord and master a martini by the pool? The fuchsia waves shake furiously. “I could never be that girl!”