Before there was a Bebe Rexha, there was a Mama and a Papa Rexha. Before there was a big-mouthed, bighearted, vulnerable, psychic, supportive, nerdy, and foulmouthed musical genius, who refuses to be the overly polished, too-smooth female avatar manufactured on a pop music assembly line, there was a childhood in Staten Island, where young Bebe was told by her Papa: "No boyfriends, no kissing, no music." This admonishment came because, before there was a Bebe, a 21-year-old Papa Rexha had come to America from Albania, fleeing the poverty and reduced options that marked the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Overwhelmed by his residency in a country whose languages he didn't speak, he grew into a smaller, more scared version of himself, seeking comfort and happiness at home and in the Albanian cultural traditions he tried to impart to Bebe, saying things like: "No boyfriends, no kissing, no music."
Enter Mama Rexha, born in America to an Albanian family, whose own dreams of being a fashion designer were squashed by the patriarchal culture in which she was raised; she wasn't about to let the same thing happen to her daughter. Bebe's talent was always undeniable; she's a coloratura soprano—you know, she has one of those high, high, high voices that tweet and twitter like the most magical of birds. "Fluting," Bebe calls it. Mama Rexha recognized that her daughter had more than just raw talent, though, she also had a work ethic. Bebe spent her time nerding out on the computer, teaching herself to make beats, and so Mama Rexha borrowed some cash from her brother and booked Bebe a few recording sessions. Then came: a failed pre-Juilliard audition where, lacking the intensive coaching from which, Bebe says, the "rich bitches" benefited, Bebe made the faux pas of singing the seven-minute Leonard Bernstein aria "Glitter and Be Gay" (how was Bebe to know that wasn't the kind of song used at this kind of audition?). But, then came: a personal comeback in the form of winning the title of Best Teen Songwriter in a contest thrown by the folks behind the Grammys; syncing up with Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz as part of the experimental music project Black Cards; going solo, and playing the Warped Tour; and writing some of the biggest pop songs to ever get lodged in your head— Eminem's "The Monster," Iggy Azalea's "Team," Selena Gomez's "Like a Champion," to name a few. And now, Bebe is finally front and center, and pushing Expectations, a gritty, guitar-driven pop offering that explores the violence of shedding your skin, burning yourself out, hitting your limits, and reckoning with your mess.
“I think I scare men. I feel like everyone’s scared of me—guys and girls.”
Part of the allure of Bebe is the way in which she reckons with the messiness of life. In the past year, she's has made headlines not only for her powerful pop stylings but also for her bold, outspoken presence. A recent saucy clapback at Twitter trolls reads: "I should write a song called 'You sit by a screen and write mean things to other people to make yourself feel better about how shitty you feel about yourself and I pray one day you find peace but for right now you can go fuck yourself.'" (Insert laugh-crying emoji here.) She got a wee bit dragged for her part in Rita Ora's ambisexual anthem "Girls." (Criticism: The lezzie lovers in the lyrics get it on with a guy, turning a girl-on-girl love song into a tacky Girls Gone Wild stunt. My gay take: I dunno, sometimes gay girls get it on with a guy—or, is that just me? Also, it's a pop song.) She added her #MeToo in support of Kristina Buch and Peyton Ackley, two artists accusing music producer Detail of sexual and physical abuse so egregious it bordered on enslavement. ("It's scary for females to come out and say something," Bebe tweeted. "He tried to do the same thing to me when I was a new artist.") And, there was her viral video slamming designers for declining to dress her for the Grammys because she's "too big." She capped off her viral call for body love and female empowerment with a very Bebe "Anddddd my size 8 ass is still going to the Grammys." It would seem like being such a bombastic presence on the interwebz comes naturally to her.
"I think I just get so anxious, I kind of have diarrhea of the mouth," Bebe told me from her cozy, pillow-cuddling perch in a Malibu hotel bar, across the street from the ocean on a foggy, rainy night. A low table, crammed with caffeine, hydration, and a couple of cookies, sat in front of her. She wore a black, leather-trimmed blazer over a tight black Balenciaga T-shirt, black skinny jeans, and a pair of pointy-toed, white mules she swiped earlier in the day from the 12-hour-long photo shoot for this story. She must have been exhausted, but she looked fantastic, her bleached bob stylishly held back with a battalion of bobby pins, her wide eyes a perfect canvas for a rusty-burgundy shadow.
Part of the allure "I actually stop myself," she said about her video verbosity. "I don't want to be the person who's complaining all the time. But sometimes I push myself to put it out because if I don't have a voice or I don't stand for anything..." she shook her head; that's just not her. "I don't need to be just another pretty girl that makes a million dollars. There's nothing wrong with that, to make money and be pretty and make music, but I want to know that I'm doing something out in the world."
Still, if the average person struggles with the toxicity of the internet, imagine what it must be like for a young, outspoken female pop star. "I kind of try staying off, a little bit," Bebe said. "I try to do a little cleansing. You read one stupid thing, gosh. It breaks you apart. It can ruin your whole day."
Before I could barf a bunch of heart emojis at the adorableness of Bebe—who tends to curse like a sailor— saying "gosh," she launched into an anecdote about falling into a K-hole of despair when a troll called the Grammynominated country jam "Meant to Be" a "flop." She had to call her manager to talk her down. "He's like, 'It's almost 50 weeks at No.1, Bebe, it's not a flop. Can you please stop reading fucking Twitter things?'" she laughed. "I have to stay off the internet. I can literally lose my mind."
Bebe's willingness to speak her truths saturates her music with the intimacy that the best pop music has, the sensation that one of your best friends, or even a secret part of your own psyche, is crooning out at you. But in a tragic example of patriarchy, the boldness that makes her such a goddess in her work is a little scary to the menfolk.
"Yeah, I think I scare men," she said, nodding, but making an inclusive correction: "I feel like everyone's scared of me, guys and girls." But then she backtracked a little again: "Because I like to say things, and they're scared I'm going to say something about them. Sometimes I get nervous, and I say stupid things. I'll come off really hard. Guys especially, they can't handle me. I break every guy. I feel like I always have to be—it's terrible to say 'the man' and 'the woman,'" she stopped, frustrated with gender and language. "Isn't it crazy how it's like, 'man,' 'woman.' I wish there were different terms for it." She was frustrated because she wasn't talking about gender, but about energies, vibes. Not so much man-woman, but a yin-yang groove, some sort of flow of giving and receiving energies, that relationship dream balance. The binary isn't for Bebe; Bebe doesn't identify as straight, explaining to me, "If I want to make out with someone, I'll just make out with them. I don't care who you are. I'm big on energies."
"Sometimes I feel like I'm so masculine in my everyday life," she explained, "and when I go home, I would like to not have to keep this wall up. Go home and let it all loose. Have somebody take care of me, because I feel like I'm taking care of everyone around me. I would like to be taken care of." She sighed: "It's really hard."
It's not that Bebe isn't looking for love or for a partner, it's just that it's complicated. "I'm just so over it right now," she said about romance, instantly breaking the manygendered hearts of those currently reading this article. "Literally, in my song that's coming out ["Last Hurrah"], the lyric is like, 'I'm done with the ladies, I'm done with the fellas.'" She paused, and I swore I could see the joy and excitement she has about her music flare up, as she momentarily forgot that she started quoting her song because she's pissed about love. "Sometimes, when I write songs, I have to be really careful," she said. "I can write them in a moment when I'm not really going through it at that very moment, and then the song comes to life. And this song, it's literally like, 'I'm done with the drinking, I'm done with the smoking/ I'm done with the playing, I'm done with the joking/ I'm done with the ladies, I'm done with the fellas.' And it's, like, me, right now!"
Indeed, a reckoning with past choices seems to be a dominant theme for Bebe at the moment. From the twangy "Ferrari" that opens Expectations, with its admittance of the lonely chase of empty highs, to the anthem-y "I'm a Mess," which quotes a therapist, to the jazzy "Don't Get Any Closer," an ode to the singer's aforementioned walls, the album is the perfect soundtrack for anyone going through a Saturn return, getting sober, entering therapy or any such life-changing moments. But she shook off any suggestion that she's in the midst of a crisis.
"That's always me, though," she explained. "Always, always, always. I overthink too much. I can never write a song that's like, 'I'm just chillin' on the couch.'"
Not that anyone turns to pop music to hear our own slovenly sweatpanted life sung back at us. If we've fallen into a ditch, we look to Bebe and her ilk to illuminate the hope that maybe we're not going to stay there forever, maybe we're not a sad-sack beached on the ocean of life. Instead, maybe we can be glamorous in our pity party, maybe a Ferrari's sitting outside waiting for us after the party's done, and we're only an engine-rev away from getting back in the fast lane. The melancholy is still there, it's just glitzed up.
Because Bebe likes some angst in her art even though, she said, "My mom hates it… My mom's like, 'Can you just write a happy song?' And I'm like, 'Okay.' I tried. I went to a party, an industry event, and I had anxiety and was like, Okay, try to be calm, and I couldn't do it. I was nervous, you know? And now the first line in the song is: 'I wrote a happy song, and I tried to sing along but I was faking it, I was faking it.'" She explained, "The whole song was about me trying to be happy and then being like: 'Let me sulk in this sadness and dance right now!' It's funny. It's sarcastic, my song. There's a sarcasm to it."
It's true, and the sarcasm is an element of that BFF intimacy in her music akin to the way friends complain about our lives to one another, each of us taking turns at playing the drama queen, knowing we have it good, mostly, but needing to vent about the disappointments and heartaches, the frustrations and longings, taking it seriously but not too seriously, always with that hit of knowing, selfdeprecating, sarcasm.
But listen: If you are reading this and thinking, I would totally know how to yin out to Bebe's yang! I would make a nice pillow for her wall to fall off onto when she comes home from a rough day being a music goddess. I would rub her feet while she scarfs down platters of salty byrek and charred qofte and sweet trilece. Because not only do have I the wherewithal to Google "Albanian delicacies," I am passionate enough to take an Albanian cooking class so that she may be fed the food of her people and feel truly loved and seen! If you are thinking all those things, if you feel ready to love a hard lady with a tender, artistic soul, here is a Bebe-specific tip: She doesn't want to go on dates.
“I don’t need to be just another pretty girl that makes a million dollars. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I want to know that I’m doing something out in the world.”
"I have a weird thing," she told me. "Guys try to take me on dates, and I don't do dates. I don't like being so intimate with people watching. I'm the person [who] when I go to a restaurant and someone's on a date... oh my god! I'm the biggest eavesdropper! I start giving everyone at my table the head's up, like, 'They don't like each other, she went into the bathroom.'"
"A guy took me out one time," she continued, "and I was like, 'Can we just get scratch-offs?'"
Scratch-offs, for those of you who did not grow up among cash-strapped magical thinkers, are those little lotto cards you buy at the 7-11 and scratch off with pennies, creating a gray ash that gets over your hands, and sometimes resulting in the winning of actual money. "Scratch-offs are my favorite," Bebe enthused. "It's all I do, I love it." More special insider info about Bebe: She loves perfume and buys a bottle anytime she ever flies anywhere, oftentimes basing her selection on the aesthetic qualities of the bottle. And, should you ever need a sprinkle of spicy Tajin chili powder, say for your watermelon or your Bloody Mary, she usually carries a tiny shaker in her purse.
There is something so elementally sweet about a person who buys perfumes based on the bottle or carries her favorite spice around with her, and it made me ask the question that had been building in me as I learned about Bebe Rexha, listened to the mournful power in her songs, was wowed by her willingness to speak out and go on record as a kisser of girls, and then respond with care when called out by some more regular kissers of girls. The question reached its crescendo as we sat together on a foggy night in Malibu and she spoke so openly about her struggles of the heart: What does Bebe Rexha do to protect herself?
"I overthink too much. I can never write a song that's like, 'I'm just chillin' on the couch.'"
The question left her quiet for a moment. "I don't know," she skirted, and then: "I don't. That's why I feel like I'm just so open to the world all the time. I'll find myself in situations where I'll just get really sad out of nowhere. I've been in so many situations where it's so creepy, where I can just read people. If I have a conversation with them, I know everything." A natural empath, she told me a story about catching a vibe off of a man working in a bakery. A simple "Are you okay?" led to the man coming out to hug her, sobbing. His mom had just died. "He didn't look sad," she recalled, "but his energy was so heavy. It's crazy. I just feel things." Another story involves a Buddhist compelled to grab her by the arm as she entered a massage joint ("I'm like, 'Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa, Dude!'") to tell her that in a past life she'd given up everything to live in a church and help homeless people. In this life, he said, she would have to wait three years for major success to come to her. That was about four years ago.
"Isn't that crazy?" she said. "Why do these things always happen to me? Crazy shit."
I suggested that she might be a witch. "Maybe I am," she shrugged thoughtfully. After all, Eastern Europe's magic game is strong. "Are you kidding me?" she agreed, wide eyes wider. "Yes."
While we're on a witchy tip, it is important, for maximum understanding of Bebe Rexha, to know she is a Virgo. The most hardworking of the zodiac, the overthinkers, the anxiety-ridden, the givers, the helpers, the ones who love to be of service.
"We're very intense," said Bebe, who, by the way, completely believes all this zodiac stuff. Her brother and father are chill, retiring Cancers, while she and her mom are the ambitious Virgos. "We're perfectionists," she continued. "We're critical, but we're very loving. We're tough on the outside, but I think we're very mushy. Very sensitive. Very sensitive."
Mama Rexha is named Bukurije. "It means you're beautiful; like, 'You are beautiful.' 'Bukur' means 'beautiful' and 'ije' means 'you are.'" Bebe is very close to getting a tattoo— her first—of her mother's lovely name in a heart somewhere on her body. She tried to make it happen on a recent video shoot, but her team wouldn't let her do it.
"I was in the mood," she said. "I was like, 'I just want to get a fucking tattoo!' Everyone kept talking me off the ledge." She relented then but thinks the urge will return sometime soon, and she will etch "Bukurije," with its powerful double meaning, onto her body. "My mother and I, we would die for each other, you know? We're sort of hard-core when we're around each other, sort of tough. I love her more than anything."
And thinking about how her mother once scrimped and saved and borrowed to help Bebe get a few hours in the recording studio, because she wanted the world to know about Bebe's talent, her incredible drive, it must blow Mama Rexha's mind to see the mind-blowing success her daughter has had as a songwriter, and now as a full- fledged pop star.
"I think we're all just kind of shocked," Bebe said. "'Cause this stuff is not normal. It's crazy, and it's like, When is it going to be over? You're just like, One day it's going to be —" she snapped her fingers in the air. "You'll wake up, and it's all over."
But, nah. Bebe's ability to write hits for herself and for others, the rich, even lusty timbre of her vocals, her urge to innovate and chase the next inspiration, her grit and her immigrant-stock work ethic will keep her in the game as long as the game goes on. But before Bebe can get on with the game, she needs to get some rest. One of her managers slid over and asked me to wrap it up. I racked my brain for last-minute questions: Person she's most enjoyed meeting? Katy Perry, who taught Bebe, traumatized from a grueling experience on The Warped Tour, that touring can actually be joyful. Place she's most enjoyed visiting? Finland, for the steak and the cheese. I packed up my things and prepared to brave the misty Malibu night. But Bebe didn't move from her curled-up cuddle on the bench, still tucked around her pillow. "I'm tired now," she said, finally. "I don't want to get up." ◊
"I have to stay off the internet... You read one stupid thing, gosh. It breaks you apart. It can ruin your whole day."
- PHOTOGRAPHER: RAMONA ROSALES
- VIDEOGRAPHER: DANI OKON
- LINE PRODUCER: ALEXANDRA HSIE
- STYLIST: WILFORD LENOX
- HAIR STYLIST: KELSEY GUSTOVICH
- MAKEUP ARTIST: KIRA NASRAT
- NAILS: BARBARA WARNER CHANEL BEAUTY LE VERNIS WEARING VAMP
- STYLIST ASSISTANT: AVA JONES
- DIGITAL TECH: MICHAEL GULDE
- PHOTOGRAPHER ASSISTANT: SIMON MCDERMOTT-JOHNSON
- PHOTOGRAPHER ASSISTANT: NICOL BIESEK
- PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: ALISON YARDLEY