Cardi B's Empire

Getty Images; Splash News; E! Illustration

At this time last year, a lot of people were just learning about Cardi B.

Well, not the millions of Instagram followers who already adored the "annoying dancer on social media that be talkin' hella crazy with the long nails and the big ol' titties"—as she introduced herself when she joined Love & Hip-Hop: New York in 2015. And if they didn't know her before, devoted fans of the VH1 series were quick to fall for the loquacious, no-nonsense Bronx native with the big mouth and even bigger dreams.

It was only a matter of time before the rest of the world caught up.

Having enjoyed a year that included releasing her first album, performing at the Grammys, winning Top Rap Female Artist at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards, getting name-checked by Bernie Sanders, having a baby and marrying Offset of Migos fame, everything is coming up Cardi B.

And now the social media-ruling star is a 2018 People's Choice Awards finalist for Female Artist, Album and Song of 2018—and voting remains open for round two.

"There are so many moments that I share with the world and there are moments that I want to keep for myself!" the newlywed, who's spent a lot of time considering her relationship with social media, shared on Twitter as news of her top-secret wedding made the rounds.

"Getting married was one of those moments! Our relationship was so new breaking up and making up and we had a lot of growing to do but we was so in love we didn't want to lose each other, was one morning in September we woke up and decided to get married. We found someone to marry us, and she did, just the two of us and my cousin. I said I do, with no dress, no makeup and no ring! I appreciate and love my husband so much for still wanting for me have that special moment that every girl dreams of when he got down on his knee and put a ring on my finger and he did that for me!! Well now since you lil nosey f--ks know at least ya can stop saying I had a baby out of wedlock."

And to think it all started with an Instagram account, a reality show and an infectious summer single.

You're forgiven for still not knowing what "Bodak Yellow" means, but there's little chance you haven't heard the hypnotic tune, which spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 after dropping last June (making her the first solo female rapper to own the top spot since Lauryn Hill) and was crowned Single of the Year at the 2017 BET Hip-Hop Awards.

"When it comes to this music thing, I ain't playin' with it. I'm puttin' my heart, my foot and my money in this thing!" she assured on Love & Hip-Hop, which is often more about the former, plus a hundred other delicious dramas, than it is the latter.

Love & Hip Hop: New York, Cardi B

VH1

Cardi B—born Belcalis Almanzar—was in the thick of it all, relentlessly hustling to get her raps heard while not shying away from the career as a stripper that she craftily parlayed into Instagram stardom. She had a boyfriend—a "cute young fine thug thing" she'd met while dancing—but he was in jail and she sensed as 2016 came to a close that they were growing apart.

"I never thought I was going to be popular, I never thought I was going to be famous," she told Vibe in 2016. "That s--t went out the door for me when I realized I'd be stripping for a living."

Enter social media, and her uncanny ability to not only entertain, but connect with thousands—and then millions—of strangers.

Her mother hailing from Trinidad and her father from the Dominican Republic, her first language was Spanish and she grew up close to her sprawling family, especially her grandmother in Washington Heights, whose home she'll still use to conduct interviews. Thanks to her sister's (real) name Hennessy Carolina Almanzar, people would call teenage Belcalis "Bacardi"—which in turn was refashioned into "Cardi B."

Her look—the wigs, the eyelashes, the nails, the boobs (enhanced, as is her butt)—can best be described as fabulously extra, and her eclectic accent has become a musical instrument, her smash-up of dialects, plus the words she makes up on the fly, serving to assure that you're listening to Cardi B—and there's no one else quite like her. 

Cardi B, 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards, Show

Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

As a teenager she graduated from Renaissance High School for Musical Theater & Technology and took some courses at Manhattan Community College. She worked at an Amish suprmarket in Manhattan for about seven months—and when she was fired for being late too many times, the manager suggested she go to the club across the street and try her hand at exotic dancing. She was desperate to move out of her then-boyfriend's house, where she'd been staying since her mother kicked her out and her father had forbidden her from trying to move in with her grandma.

So, she went across the street and started stripping, and would continue to do so until she was 23.

"If I like my body and I want to show it off, I'm well within my right to do so," she told Vibe, regarding the inevitable critics who don't see the strength and dignity in her origin story. "And if it's a way for me to make money—why not? Why not make money from me, from what I got? Why not? It is what it is. Would it make a difference if I told you I went to school?"

That being said, "I don't feel like anyone should follow what I did. I don't feel like you should be walking around thinking, 'Yeah, I want to be a dancer,'" she added, when asked what she might say to young ladies who admired her trajectory.

"But I'll say this: always have a goal, always have a second plan. Because in every field, whether it's dancing or something else, you gotta work hard for it. If a girl was to ask me, 'You think I should be a stripper?' I would tell her straight up, 'You could be. You gonna make money. But you gonna spend a lot of it, too, and you might start using drugs.' Because there's so much young girls that go in the strip club and some people be like, 'Loosen up, get a drink. Loosen up, pop a molly,' and then you start doing it regularly."

Cardi B's actual advice, for anybody, is to be real. (For instance, while sometimes she would allow herself a second or third take while making an Instagram video, if couldn't think of the right way to express herself on take one, but she never did more than three.)

"It was my personality that got me where I'm at," she said. "So, I can't tell anybody to do this or that and be on Instagram. But I will tell you that you can use your personality and be bubbly and be yourself in any field that you're in. That alone will take you far, for real."

Cardi B

Carl Timpone/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

She admitted that, when she first started stripping, she originally pictured herself moving on to be a video vixen, à la Blac Chyna(our comparison, not hers), but she soon realized that didn't offer the sort of financial security—or autonomy—she craved (which is also why she didn't quit to pursue music full time, because she had money to make and was making it dancing). So she astutely accepted the opportunity to further pad her bank account that reality TV provided.

Cardi also told Dazed in 2016 that, since she didn't go to college like some of her cousins, she wanted to prove to her mom, whom she's described as being very "serious," that she was going to make something of herself regardless.

Cardi B had unwittingly been preparing herself for a reality show all along, having survived the inevitable drama that arises between ladies at work in her profession. "Everybody wants to know about your man, about your life. Everybody wants to know about who you're messing with. People will lie to you and to your customers," she told Vibe.

More than some, "these girls be hating. Then you gotta worry about these girls setting you up to rob you, for example. It's a lot of things. And you see the things that I'm telling you? Only a stripper could tell you these kinds of stories. A lot of people be like, 'You can be a stripper because they just shake their ass. It's easy money.'"

In November 2015 Cardi B made her debut on Shaggy's "Boom Boom," and then released her own music video, for "Cheap Ass Weave." She released her first mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1 in March 2016, which led to her UnderEstimated tour.

"My mom came to my concert and saw all the people who came out," she told Dazed. "She was flabbergasted and started crying. I don't take any of it for granted at all."

ESC: NYFW Alexander Wang, Anna Wintour, Cardi B

David X Prutting/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

With the new projects came even more exposure, and Cardi B, who had also been working on releasing an eyeshadow line (the eventual Washpoppin Cosmetics), was turning up everywhere the hip-hop dream is sold. Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 2 came out in January 2017, she partnered with MAC Cosmetics and Rio Uribe's Gypsy Sport for a New York Fashion Week event, and she got signed by Atlantic Records.

But despite being both an Instagram influencer, reality TV star and an up-and-coming artist, she wasn't exactly embraced by everybody right away. Which, of course, she gave zero figs about.

"A lot of designers, yes, they did told me no, they didn't really wanna work with me, and I said to myself, you know what I'm gunna buy they pieces until they wanna work with me, and on top of that, I'm gunna show them lil bitch could rock they s--t," she told Hot New Hip-Hop in April 2017. "Sometimes a lot of people, when people reject you, they'll be like 'nah, f--k them,' sometimes you cannot say 'f--k them,' sometimes you gotta be like, listen, I'ma prove to them that I'ma fashion, f--king, icon."

Then, on June 16, 2017, "Bodak Yellow" came out and Cardi B hasn't been off the radar since.

A year later, not only has she gone from 6 million to 26.1 million Instagram followers, she's been on the cover of Rolling Stone, sat next to Anna Wintour at New York Fashion Week and we can only imagine how many designers were clamoring to dress her for the 2018 Grammys and Met Gala (Ashi Studio and Moschino did the honors, respectively). She was nominated for two awards—Best Rap Song and Rap Performance for "Bodak Yellow"—performed "Finesse" with Bruno Marsand appeared in the pretaped Fire and Fury audio book audition sketch.

Jay Z, Cardi B, 2018, Grammy Awards

Lester Cohen/Getty Images for NARAS

She told E! News on the red carpet, "I'm feeling good, I'm feeling nervous, overwhelmed—everything! Butterflies in my stomach and vagina!"

Cardi B

Instagram

We're wondering how her lady parts are feeling now, with her first studio album, Invasion of Privacy, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in April, prompting congratulations from the likes of Rihanna, Erykah Badu and Missy Elliott.

50 Centgave her a shout-out, too, and Cardi responded, "You see @50cent is a nice person...He just be on his bully sometimes!! Thank you."

If she doesn't have use for something, it's bullies. Cardi B deleted her Instagram account last month after famed instigator Azealia Banks called her "an illiterate, untalented rat," among other things, in a radio interview.

Before pulling the plug on her page entirely and making her tweets private, Cardi wrote, "I never asked to be a example or a role model I don't want to change my ways because I'm famous that's why I just mind my business. This is coming from a woman that bleached her skin but want to advocate. GOODBYE. Im not apologizing or kill myself because of who I am."

She tweeted, "I'm tired of the bulls--t.I need to enjoy my pregnancy,family ,new projects and my partner .Listen to Invasion of privacy ." (Her Instagram page has since returned.)

Meanwhile, Cardi B has been applauded for her feminist ways, including her unwillingness to take crap from any man and for unapologetically living her life as she sees fit, which in turn has taken her to great heights, earning her admirers—and haters, naturally—from all walks of life.

"I may not be your typical" kind of feminist, she mused in 2016. "Who's to say that I can't inspire a woman who works at a Fortune 500 company as much as she inspires me? I think that's important to know."

She doesn't think she's inspired a generation of women to try stripping as a step up the ladder. Rather, "I just feel like I influence people because I'm like—I was practically homeless."

And look at her now.

In September 2017, in an interview with Paper magazine, she wondered if she would ever feel as though she'd done enough. "Every single time that I set a goal and I accomplish the goal, I feel like it's not good enough. I'm only telling you the truth," Cardi said. "At first I wanted to make a certain amount of money, then I made that amount of money, and that wasn't enough. Then I always wanted to be a respected artist; now I'm getting respected but I still want more. Maybe you're just never fully satisfied."

Fast-forward to today and she remains proud of what she's accomplished and unashamed of the road she took to get here, but she acknowledges how much different the attention feels now that she's made it this far. 

"People put this pressure on me and these expectations on me and trying to compare me to other women, and it's like, 'I never asked for that shit. I never asked for that shit,'" she lamented last week in a new interview with Apple Music's Beats 1 Radio. "I came into this game trying to make money, make music and go on my way. A lot of people want to tear me down because they want to put me up there, and I never asked to be put up here."

Cardi B, Offset, 2018 Pre-Super Bowl Party, Maxim Party

Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for blu

She's continued to use her Instagram platform to speak out about whatever she's feeling in the moment, be it the importance of women being financially independent and not letting some deadbeat boyfriend leech off them, or, more recently, her concern about where, exactly, her tax dollars are going—a spur-of-the-moment monologue that went viral (and caught the ear of Bernie Sanders' camp).

"It's something that's natural to me. I really don't care," Cardi B told Dazed back in 2016. "I feel a certain type of way about things and I'm gonna say it regardless. At the end of the day, before I was an artist I was a human being who paid attention to society."

And yet at the same time, for all her joyously spontaneous, out-there moments on social media and TV, and her stream-of-consciousness lyrics on her records—"I see the world as my friend and I'm gonna talk to them about what I talk about," she told Dazed—she's fairly private about matters of the heart. She's been engaged since October to Offset, of Migos fame, who popped the question on stage after less than a year of dating—and less than a week after she posted an Instagram captioned "Single." They had collaborated on her January 2017 track "Lick" and first stepped out as a couple the following month at the Super Bowl. He got her an 8-carat diamond ring, and she bought him a $320,000 Rolls Royce Wraith for his 26th birthday.

"People see the jewelry and the money, I see the hard work you put in and how caring you are for others," she wrote him on Instagram. "You take care of family, your kids, gang and friends! You always challenge me to work harder and be better! True King raised by a Queen ?? I loveeee you ,You deserve the world and Me ????"

Cardi B, Offset

Thaddaeus McAdams/Getty Images

In the months since she's only added more capital-M Moments to her story.

None of which could compare to her pregnancy reveal (until she revealed she was secretly married for eight months, that is), Cardi confirming the speculation with her spectacular silhouette in a tight white dress while she was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in April.

The rumors had been swirling for awhile, but after giving her fans so much, she had become a little tired of people expecting even more, so she drew the line.

Cardi B, Pregnant

"I can't address all the rumors and everything. I have been so open to people about myself, people cannot expect me to open about everything," Cardi B told Beats 1's Ebro Darden in May. "Certain things to me, it has to be private. Like you cannot invade my privacy. I'm not a damn animal at the zoo, that you just could see everything. No!"

But it turned out it was finally time to share the happy news after all, and she exclaimed, "I'm finally free!" backstage at SNL.

Daughter Kulture was born on July 10.

Of course, with four-times the Insta followers has come 400-times the scrutiny. 

"This is why I did not wanted to say nothing," Cardi wrote in a post on Instagram Stories that she later deleted in response to some of the less positive cracks about her pregnancy news. "People be so thirsty to scrutinize and try to destroy something that it suppose to be a blessing."

The trolls living under the Internet bridge seem to be what has given Cardi B the most misgivings about living life in the public eye, since she made the leap into more mainstream fame.  

She herself enjoys rapping about drama but she's not looking for it in real life—"if you ain't f--king my man or taking my money from me, stopping my money, I don't really give a f--k about you," she said on Beats 1.

"I used to tell myself that I will always be myself. Little by little, I'm feeling like I'm getting trapped and muted," she admitted to Rolling Stone in October after a handful of posts-gone-awry. She also said, "It's not as fun to do music. My mind doesn't flow as free 'cause I have so much on my mind."

But she has also repeatedly stressed that she's going to just do what she can, get rich and enjoy the moment—because she's well aware that, one minute people may care about you a lot, and the next minute no one is paying attention.

"I cannot turn my life back around," she told RS. "I'm already a public figure, I'm famous...It's like, I might as well keep it going, might as well make the money. People are always going to talk s--t—I cannot make myself unfamous." 

And judging by the response to the aptly named Invasion of Privacy, as well as to Ms. Cardi B herself, she's not destined to be just a one-hit wonder.

"Number 2," she wrote on Instagram after seeing that "I Like It," featuring J Balvin and Bad Bunny, was a hit on the Billboard Hot 100. "Sooo proud of myself!How amazing !Life is great !Thank your Lord."

(This story was originally published April 9, 2018, at 6 a.m. PT)

Watch E!'s People's Choice Awards Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018 at 9 p.m., only on E!

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