After a week of schedule conflicts and flu fiascos, I finally get to sit down with Bebe Rexha. As I head over to Hotel Figueroa, I expect to find her sitting below her big blonde wig, with a full face of makeup and a hip new outfit. Instead I find Bleta Rexha, waiting casually, dressed comfortably and discreetly. She doesn’t wear a single drop of makeup, and her natural hair hides below the brim of her hat. I get a sense that no matter how much Bebe may glam up, Bleta, the no-nonsense New Yorker with Albanian roots, is always shining through.
In between coughs, sniffles, and sips of her Green Tea Latte with boba, Rexha opens up to me about her grueling lifestyle. “We count our flights. We’re on 56 for the year…Today’s Tuesday right?” Since her “Me, Myself & I” collaboration with G-Eazy in 2015, Rexha’s schedule has been blowing up. Over the past three years she’s also crafted duets with Martin Garrix, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Rita Ora, Charli XCX, Cash Cash, Ty Dolla $ign, Quavo, Gucci Mane, Lil Wayne and Louis Tomlinson (a former member of One Direction) just to name a few.
With this stacked lineup of collabs with Pop, Rap, and Electronic royalty, it would be easy to say Rexha has found her niche. But she's not interested in playing it safe. “I don’t like to be stuck in any lines. I just do what I want. I either fail really big or win really big. I’d rather take risks than be safe and boring. That doesn’t make hits, or change the landscape of music.”
This may help explain why she took a risk and collaborated with country hit-makers, Florida Georgia Line for her single “Meant To Be.” Country is far from Rexha’s comfort zone, but she seems to have adapted to the new terrain just fine—the track spent 31 weeks at number one on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. That puts Rexha in a unique position: she’s taken the title from Taylor Swift as the female artist with the longest running number one song on the chart.
But before she was defying everyone’s expectations and stealing milestones from major artists, she was busy penning lyrics for them behind the scenes. After a brief stint in Pete Wentz’s experimental band Black Cards, Rexha was signed with Warner Bros Records and began writing hits for top tier artists, like Rihanna and Selena Gomez. After a year of paying her dues, she finally released her debut single in 2014. When I ask Rexha what it was like sitting in the passenger seat, she memorably compares the experience to being hazed as a pledge in a frat house. “All I knew was that I wanted the recognition, and I wanted to be respected.”
But even now, with 5.2 million instagram followers to her name, the “Pop Disruptor” is still grinding away. She just dropped her debut studio album, Expectations, in June, and since its release she hasn’t stopped moving. Today, on her rare “day off,” she is tempted to hit the studio and write a couple tracks. She knows her team would kill her if she tried, so instead she’ll spend the day tinkering around with sage and singing bowls. “It sounds crazy, but that’s what I need to do to stay sane, because it’s such a crazy industry.” Hobbies like this help her avoid the pitfalls that have derailed many other careers. “I’m not a crazy partier. I’ve never fucked with heavy drugs. I can’t even deal with a hangover.”
But that’s not to say that it doesn’t affect her at all. As she’s openly admitted in “I’m a Mess,” a standout single on the new album, Rexha visits a therapist regularly to deal with her anxiety and insecurities. She may seem composed on the outside, but she admits that deep down she’s a sensitive soul. In a similar way, some of her most vulnerable, personal songs, like “Don’t Get Any Closer,” come disguised with upbeat tempos and an anthemic, confident chorus. With lyrics like, What if I let you in and you don't like what you see? / 'Cause it's not what it seems, let me tell you why / You have no idea, yeah, you only seen a piece / But now it's underneath, no, I cannot lie, it’s clear that though Rexha may seem like an open book, she’s not naïve—she controls what she wants us to see.
Perceptivity and self-control are important assets in a music industry that remains a notoriously difficult place for women. The double standards are apparent—female artists get far less airplay, while the industry often focuses more on their looks than their artistry. “I would love to go on stage with no makeup on, or no spanx, or no corset, but the second I do that I get 8,001 mean comments about me gaining weight and not covering my skin, or not doing my feet, or having a chipped nail. I never see that with guys! There is a difference between how women and men are viewed,” Rexha tells me, frustrated.
But Rexha has hope that the future of music will be more female-centric. On Twitter, she’s constantly calling attention to fellow female artists who are killing it in the industry. While in the past she may have compared herself, she says nowadays these artists push her to be better. “There will always be someone better than you. You can sit there and be negative or you can learn how to celebrate them and celebrate yourself…I feel really strongly about supporting other girls. We need to come together and feel empowered.”
Rexha isn’t afraid to call out the misogyny of the industry. She isn’t really afraid to call out anyone for anything. When a nearby shopper asks what we think of his sweater, she unapologetically tells him it makes him look sunburnt. And it does. Yet, he buys it anyways. Big mistake. But Rexha accepts that in life, her opinion may diverge from others. When Rita Ora’s “Girls,” a so-called “bisexual anthem” on which Rexha was featured, along with Cardi B and Charli XCX, received backlash from the LGBT community, she opened herself up to the conversation instead of firing away. “I can see what they’re saying and respect it. In life it’s always a two way street. People have the right to say what they want, and if that’s their truth that’s their truth. I was bummed though, because how do they know what my truth is?”
It’s clear people care what Bebe has to say, whether she tweets it or sings it. But even with all these people tuned in, she still manages to sometimes forget about her status. “I still feel like the girl who lives at my parent’s house that nobody’s ever really paying attention to, so I have something to prove all the time.”
But as much as her ambition drives her, she stays centered on what really matters. Sure, it’s fabulous to have a chart climbing debut album, adoring fans, heavy hitting collabs, and kind words from critics, but in the end you have to stay true to yourself, to love who you see in the mirror. Beneath Bebe, there will always be Bleta, and through it all, Rexha has not lost sight of that. “If you don’t love yourself then all the love in the world couldn’t help you. You’re born by yourself and you die yourself. It sounds terrible, but it’s true.”
It all comes back to her breakout single, “Me Myself & I.” The song that put her in the spotlight sums it up best: I don't need a hand to hold, even when the night is cold / I got that fire in my soul.
Written by Tori Adams
Photographed by Pierre Toussaint
Flaunt Film directed by Christina Bryson
Styled by Zoe Costello
Hair: Rio Sreedharan
Makeup: Kira Nasrat
Manicure: Shigeko Taylor
Photography Assistant: Chris Bagot