How Doja Cat Ripped Off Her Shell—And Why She’s Happier For It

6 minute read

Doja Cat is a creature born, bred, raised, and elevated by social media. The internet is her playground, her teacher, her inspiration, her disciplinarian, her delight, and her punishment. In person, Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini, 27, is polite and cautious, and tends to look off to the side while formulating answers to questions. But on social media, she’s Doja Cat—and she has claws. “I feel like we’re all enjoying that argument on Twitter, the mess that comes with rude comments and stuff like that,” she says in an interview after her TIME100 cover shoot, which she conducts without cleaning off the lipstick smears on her face from the final few frames. “I like to dive into it. It’s part of who I am.”

Doja rose to prominence in 2019 after she went viral with “Moo,” a playful, lo-fi music video of her dressed (more or less) as a cow singing and rapping with a generous use “moo” puns. In the handful of years since, she has released two platinum-selling albums; won a slew of awards, including a Grammy and three VMAs; and become one of the 50 most streamed artists on Spotify. She has also become so avidly watched that even her recent breast-reduction-recovery updates—mostly provided via her social media feeds—made headlines.

“I grew up on the internet, constantly available to people, and I put myself there,” says Doja. “I’ve kind of become addicted to it. I think a lot of us are, but it’s become part of my career.” She understood early that music is now a visual medium almost as much as an auditory one, and her constant reinvention of her look, and ever more unorthodox use of makeup have been perhaps the most vital part of her artistic expression. At the Schiaparelli Haute Couture show in Paris in January, her head and torso were covered in red body paint and bedazzled with crystals, rendering her (almost) anonymous.

Thousands of performing artists have social media streams to interact with their fans, but few are as personally involved with them as Doja Cat. “I enjoy it,” she says. “Actually I deeper than enjoy it.” She uploads things others won’t: close-up shots of the multiple pimples on her forehead, random vulgar words with no context, a pre-sneeze snapshot. After a commenter told her she was setting a bad example by having cosmetic surgery at such a young age, she told them they could “eat my long quiet and warm farts“—not usually the type of response favored by those with professionals in charge of their PR. Days after the fashion show, she responded to critics disappointed that her all-red crystal look didn’t include eyelashes by donning an eyelash mustache and goatee.

“I am very impulsive. And I see it as a form of entertainment for the people that are reading it and watching it. And I’m also entertained,” Doja says. “Social media has been a really big part of what I do. I’m just learning to control how much I put out, and the way that I put those things out.” And how is she mastering it? “Messing up. Making a big mistake, like just getting lit and going on [Instagram] Live and then seeing it the next day,” she says. “That’s kind of helped me step back, which is nice. It doesn’t feel good at first, but it’s helped a lot. I don’t know how else I would have done that.”

Social media may be her weakness, but Doja also cites it as the chief source of her inspiration. “I am kind of a recluse. I like to stay at home a lot,” she says. “I get a lot of my inspiration from Instagram, and different artists on Instagram.” She first developed her music on SoundCloud, dropping out of high school at 16, sitting under a blanket on a mattress on the floor, recording raps over beats she found there and uploading them for a tight circle of listeners. “I had my own little group of fans that I cherished and I kept close,” she says. “I was on live every day making music with them. And then it just kind of blew up over a meme.”

From the ages of about 8 to 12, Doja lived on a Californian ashram headed by Alice Coltrane, the wife of jazz musician John Coltrane, after Doja’s artist mother moved there from her grandmother’s house in Rye, N.Y. (Her father, who has not been a big part of her life, is South African actor and dancer Dumisani Dlamini.) While there, she learned her first dance moves from the Bharatanatyam tradition. While she doesn’t dance that way anymore, “I think that helped shape how I emote on stage because it’s a very emotional form of dance,” she says.

The ashram’s strict routines, including head-covering, didn’t sit well with a tween as expressive and spontaneous as Doja, so her family left and moved to suburban Tarzana. But in some ways, she is returning to some of the simplicity of that life, including cutting down on her appearances and shaving her head (on Instagram Live, obviously) last year. “I just realized that hair wasn’t for me, unless it was a wig,” she says. “When I shaved my head, it just gave me this sense of self that was different from any other time in my life. I almost feel like 10 to 15 years younger. I feel like I’m just pushing myself out there and just accepting myself for who I am, no matter who can see me. It’s kind of like I ripped off my shell. I feel a lot happier.”

If Doja can maintain the delicate balance with the push-pull of social media, fame, and influence, she has a lot of other spheres she’d like to conquer; she wants to act, design clothes and furniture, and even try stand-up. (Her favorite comic is Dave Chappelle.) In the immediate future, however, she’s planning a new album, possibly called Hellmouth, a name she tested out on social media but is not sure will stick. She’s also teasing fans about what genre it is. “I might just mess with everybody and completely turn the tables on them,” she says. “But I like the idea of Hellmouth because it sounds good. And it’s provocative.” In other words, it’s quite a lot like her.

Doja Cat Time 100 Cover
Photograph by Paola Kudacki for TIME

Buy a print of the TIME100 Doja Cat cover here.

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