Cardi B Shares Her Extraordinary ‘Rags to Riches’ Tale: A Cinderella Story in Real Life

When 𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩 visits her favorite nail salon in the Bronx, she enters through a raggedy hallway covered with a rug emblazoned with the image of a $100 bill. The salon, which overlooks a bustling avenue of pizza shops, sports-gear superstores, and boutiques with weaves in 70 colors, is a temple to money, excess, and sexiness, symbolized in the application of nails that look like diamond-encrusted Buck knives. Portraits of two icons of pulchritude hang on the walls—namely, Marilyn Monroe and the very 2019 version of Marilyn: Cardi.

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Mariano VivancoVera Wang gown; Jimmy Choo shoes, Cardi’s own ring

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With a posse that includes her dad, her half-sister, her half-brother, and two Drogosize bodyguards whose names I don’t catch but imagine to be Bulwark and Spear, 𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩, 26, heads toward a private side room. She surrenders her hands and feet to Jenny Bui, her sharp-tongued nail tech of more than half a decade, even back when she didn’t have the money to move out of this borough.

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Mariano VivancoDolce & Gabbana dress; Cartier Paris Vintage ear clips; Van Cleef & Arpels cuffs; René Caovilla sandals

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A tiny, makeup-less sprite in magenta leggings and a playful Moschino sweatshirt, Cardi talks about where she’s at today. On one hand, she says, “I feel like my life is a fairy tale and I’m a princess—rags to riches, people trying to sabotage,” she says. But she also complains fervently about being over the fairy-tale life and wanting peace and quiet. “Before, I cared about everything—relationship, gossip. Now I don’t feel like I have the time to please people,” she explains. “I don’t care about anything anymore—just my career and my kid.” What about money, the thing she raps about caring for quite a bit? “Well, I care about my career because of my money,” Cardi says, giving me a “c’mon, stupid” face.

“Before,” in this context, means before the tectonic shifts that have taken place in Cardi’s life in the past year: that she became a global superstar; relocated from New York to Atlanta to live with the charismatic rapper Offset, her new husband; gave birth to an unplanned but much loved daughter, Kulture Kiari, in July; then, five months later, after the drip-drip-drip of rumors about Offset’s infidelity, announced on Instagram that the marriage was over.

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𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩 and Offset at the 2018 American Music Awards

Today Cardi tells me that Offset has been to her apartment, but they haven’t seen each other and are “not really” talking, which is a bit hard to believe after she shows me videos of her gurgling baby on her iPhone and happens to scroll past a photo of Offset with a time stamp reading today. When I ask her if she’s getting back with Offset, I can almost hear her curious entourage, who have arranged themselves on sofas on the perimeter of the room, lean forward to catch the answer. For a moment, the only sound is Bui engaging in some hard-hat-level sanding and scraping of the star’s three-inch nails. Then Cardi says both, “I don’t think so,” and “Who knows? You never know, you can never tell,” neither of which is exactly a definitive answer.

I’ve interviewed dozens of pop stars, and Cardi, despite the massive entourage and the bear-claw-like nails, seems the most normal. She’s not the most down-to-earth or the most perfect, and she’s definitely not the least into social media, but she knows who she is and where she came from, and has somehow managed to keep expressing genuine emotions in the face of blockbuster success. And while her emotions can sometimes seem out of control, who hasn’t been there? We might not have screamed and thrown a shoe at Nicki Minaj at a Harper’s Bazaar event this past September (in retribution, Cardi has said, for various slights from Minaj, including liking a negative comment about her parenting skills), or allegedly ordered an attack on two female bartenders at a strip club visited by Offset (a judge issued orders of protection in December for the accusers), but we’ve all been mad as hell. And the unbearable cuteness and sexiness of Cardi, a raunchy L.O.L. doll, quickly erases those moments, drowning them in adorable high jinks.

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Balenciaga dress and shoes; Bulgari earrings

Leaving aside the fake nails and boob implants, with 𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩 the artifice is in the artwork. In the space of less than a year, her music, videos, and fashion have made her a star of Lady Gaga proportions. She releases hit after hit; following last summer’s “I Like It,” the first Latin trap song to rise to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, with “Money,” a song, unsurprisingly, about money. In the video, she wears gorgeous clothes (she’s got “10 different looks and my looks all kill,” she raps), including outfits referencing Thierry Mugler, a gold bikini inspired by 1990s Lil’ Kim’s, and a custom Christian Cowan bodysuit fabricated from dozens of actual watches. She’s a post-Kardashian American superstar, a master of selfies, belfies, late-night Instagram videos, and all other manner of self-promotion— and also a creative genius. In 2019, no one needs to pick.

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Cardi B’s Most Memorable Fashion Moments

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Raised in the Bronx, 𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩 was the naturally rebellious daughter of a Trinidadian-born cashier mother and a Dominican Republic–born cabdriver father. Her mother was strict. Nevertheless she joined the notorious Bloods gang, moved out of her mother’s home and in with a boyfriend and, finding herself broke, took a job as a cashier at a grocery store. To build a nest egg, she became a stripper. To build a bigger nest egg, she became a hot girl on social media. In 2015, she was cast as a lovable loudmouth on the VH1 reality show Love & Hip Hop: New York, then began releasing her own mixtapes. Her debut single, “Bodak Yellow,” went to the top of the charts, and it took her only one album to achieve escape velocity: Invasion of Privacy, arguably the best debut album from a female rapper since Lil’ Kim’s 1996 Hard Core.

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It’s an intense time for Cardi, now one of the biggest rappers—and one of the most famous women in the world—caring for an infant and dealing with a semi-estranged husband. Her answer is to be as real as she can. As much as she may imagine herself as a princess, she talks about admiring Meghan Markle for becoming a real one. “She must just be like, ‘Who am I?’” Cardi says, referring to Markle’s having to live by the royal family’s rules. Not being able to be herself would be the worst punishment for Cardi.

Up and down, joy and pain, sunshine and rain—we’ve experienced all her days on her social media channels, where she posts close-up, emotional videos like an Instagram mime. She’s not your typical grasping celebrity, and doesn’t get off on endless adulation. “I work with somebody who gives me compliments all day, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, can you just stop?’” she says.

𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩’s fans have been so protective of her that when Offset broke in to her set at a concert, walking onstage with a $15,000 rolling floral display made of 2,000 roses that read TAKE ME BACK CARDI, they exploded on social media with anger over a man who refused to take a woman’s “no” at face value. (A backstage video showing one of Cardi’s reps escorting Offset to the stage did little to dim the outrage.)

I ask if any family or friends influenced her decision to leave Offset. “No, I decided on my own,” she declares, looking me straight in the eye. “Nobody makes my decisions about my life but me.” Before they broke up, Offset begged Cardi to see a therapist. “I didn’t want to go to marriage counseling,” she says, in a firm tone of voice. “He suggested it, but it’s like, ‘I don’t want to go.’ There’s no counselor or nothing that could make me change my mind.”

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Mariano VivancoVera Wang Shawl, collar, shirt, bustier, and shorts

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Like many women who’ve experienced heartache and alleged infidelity, she seems caught between wanting to stay and leave. As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Eat Pray Love, Offset is “[her] lighthouse and [her] albatross in equal measure.” But Cardi also knows that dating new guys might be bizarre. “I have a kid, and I’m also famous,” she says quietly. “So I can’t just sleep with anybody. People talk. You know, if I date somebody in the industry, that’s another person in the industry. If I date somebody who is not in the industry, he might not understand my lifestyle.” Since the breakup, she’s been getting a ton of messages from guys but ignoring them. “It’s like, ‘Bro, why would you want to holler at me right away? You’re weird.’ If you think Imma automatically hop onto you after a marriage, that just means you think I’m a sleaze. And I’m not. I have a kid—I have to show an example.”

Bui, who has been listening intently to our interview while crafting Cardi’s nails, waves a hand and then interjects, “You’re so old-fashioned!”

“Jenny, just because I’m out there and very sexual doesn’t mean that I have to be whorish,” says Cardi. “I like to have sex. That doesn’t mean I have to have it with everybody.” She pauses, then adds, “Not that I judge women who want to have sex with the world.”

Done with her rant, Cardi turns her attention to her nails. “Damn, that’s sharp,” she says to Bui, whistling a little under her breath. “The polish will make them less sharp, right? Because we can’t forget about the baby.” Ignoring her, Bui says only, “Don’t move.”

Throughout our conversation, Cardi has been jiggling her leg up and down like a schoolkid. I ask her how long she’s had that habit. “Forever, and you know what? People always talk shit about it, but now it’s like, ‘Ha ha,’ because when I do it my daughter likes it,” she says.

Despite the indelible image of 𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩 breast-feeding in the “Money” video, wearing a black gown open at the bodice, she isn’t breast-feeding Kulture, whom she’s nicknamed KK. “It was too hard,” she explains. In fact, she spent most of the time after the baby was born in a haze of postpartum depression. “I thought I was going to avoid it,” Cardi says. “When I gave birth, the doctor told me about postpartum, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m doing good right now, I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ But out of nowhere, the world was heavy on my shoulders.”

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Realizing that taking KK with her on the tour bus was unrealistic but unable to bear leaving her at home, Cardi dropped out of a lucrative tour with Bruno Mars. She started feeling better a couple of months after the baby was born, she says, and her mother has been helping out; 𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩 hasn’t hired professional help because she isn’t sure she can trust anyone outside her family.

As a new mom, 𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩 is still experiencing aches and pains. “For some reason, I still don’t feel like my body’s the same,” she says. “I feel like I don’t have my balance right yet. When it comes to heels, I’m not as good at walking anymore. I feel like I’m holding a weight on me. I don’t know why because I’m skinnier than I’ve ever been. But there’s an energy I haven’t gotten back yet that I had before I was pregnant. It’s just the weirdest thing.”

45 Things You Didn’t Know About Cardi B

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The baby is starting to help 𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩 balance her emotions, though. “Sometimes I’ll see something online and it’ll piss me off, and then my baby will start crying or something, and it’s like, ‘You know what? I’ve got to deal with the milk. Forget this.’” She’s thinking about pulling back a little from social media. “I’ve noticed that every time you respond, you just make things worse, so I’m over it. I’m just over it. I really don’t need it, and sometimes it just brings chaos to my brain.” She adds, “I can stay off social media. I’ve been trying.” For months after KK was born, Cardi didn’t put pictures of her on social media, and certainly didn’t sell any to the tabloids. She says Offset wanted to put a picture up, but she was unsure.

“As soon as she was born, one month in he was like, ‘She’s so beautiful. Watch how people gonna go crazy.’ ’Cause a lot of people were saying mean stuff, like that we don’t post her because she’s ugly. He was like, ‘I’m about to post my baby right now.’ But then we were very concerned because we were getting a lot of threats, so he said, ‘The world don’t even deserve to see her.’” Eventually Cardi wanted to put a photo up because “it’s really annoying and we don’t have a life. We have to hide her all the time. I can’t go to L.A. or Miami and walk down the beach with my baby. I want to go shopping with my baby. I want to take a stroll with my baby. Sometimes I feel bad for her because all she knows is the house.” But can’t you put on a baseball cap? I ask. Will people still recognize you? “Yeah,” she says. “It’s my nose.”

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Mariano VivancoChloé gown, earrings, and bracelets

Bui applies a final coat of purple paint on 𝑪𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊 𝑩’s nails—a brief discussion ensues about whether the shade is the exact “baby purple” Cardi has requested—and then she talks about needing to get home to go to sleep. “I’ve got a big meeting in the morning in Boston,” Cardi says, nodding slowly. “Lots of money in Boston.” She begins horsing around with her six-year-old half-brother, ribbing him for being rebellious the way she used to be. “He’s a child of the corn!” she wails. “He’s just like me.” (Her half-sister adds, “Like you, sharp but sweet.”) Bui says she thought that when Cardi hit it big, she wouldn’t see her in the salon again. “I told her, ‘You’re going to forget about me,’ ” Bui says. “And she said, ‘Never.’”



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