In Slate’s weekly column Who?, the hosts of acclaimed podcast Who? Weekly explore the world of near-fame.
Before someone becomes famous, we don’t know who they are. So we don’t think about them, naturally. (They’re nobody, just like us!) But once someone becomes famous, it’s hard to remember a time when they weren’t, and their fame feels infinite in all directions; they were nowhere until they were suddenly everywhere. Asking what true celebrities are famous for is beside the point: Tom Hanks, Britney Spears, Denzel Washington, and Queen Elizabeth II simply are, and have always been, famous. But there’s a wide paradoxical gray area between both of those scenarios in which many human beings, the subjects of internet gossip or magazine covers or reality shows, reside. They are everywhere, like famous people, yet no one seems to know who they are despite their objective fame and success. As hosts of a lesser-known podcast about lesser-known famous people, we call those quasi-celebrities Wholebrities, or Whos for short. We’re scholars of demi-fame.
Each week, we receive tens of questions from our listeners asking us to identify the purportedly famous people who flood their news feeds and appear on the covers of their tabloids. Recently, no name has come up more frequently—no Who is more ubiquitous yet less explicable—than Bebe Rexha. To understand her fame might be a step in the direction to understand the entire ecosystem of hungry almost-celebs, all attempting to Instagram-story their way into our hearts.
Where did Bebe Rexha come from? Is she a singer? What does she sing? Why do I think of her as a country singer when she was on that Nicki Minaj song? Is she the same person as Rita Ora? Who are her fans? Do her fans really call themselves Rexhars? And why, exactly, is it so hard to figure out her deal?
Let’s speed through the 101: Bebe is a singer and songwriter. Bebe is a nickname she gave herself. She grew up in Staten Island, New York, like Joan Baez. Her birth name is Bleta, which means bee in Albanian. Thus, “Bebe.” Does it feel like a lot of pop stars are Albanian right now? That’s because both Rita Ora (Who?) and Dua Lipa (“New Rules”) are of Albanian descent. Rexha started as a songwriter, writing the memorable, Grammy-winning hook for Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster.” In 2015, she appeared alongside Nicki Minaj and Afrojack on David Guetta’s “Hey Mama”—the credits of which she was left off at first, being the least-known performer. “What ended up happening was that it looked like a lot of names on the title,” she told Billboard that year. “So they wanted to keep as many low features as possible.” Then: “Me, Myself, & I” alongside G-Eazy (a song that would weirdly end up on his album, not hers.) A gig hosting the 2016 MTV Europe Music Awards, on which she said, “I’ve been stalking Bruno Mars.” (She was interested in working with him, naturally.)
Notice a pattern? Rexha is constantly part of a collaboration. It’s not uncommon; new musicians appearing on bigger musicians’ tracks is a great way to get noticed, to pave the way for their own (solo) music. This can work for you (take Sia, Kesha, Ashanti), and it can also work against you—anyone remember Skylar Grey? (You can hear her on Macklemore’s “Glorious,” the song from the trailer for Crazy Rich Asians. You: That’s her?) Or Mary Lambert? (Not sure why the first two people who came to mind are Macklemore-adjacent, but OK.)
Later in 2016, Rexha released one more collaboration, “Meant to Be,” this time with the duo Florida Georgia Line. While discerning Nashville residents may know them as the namesake of the bar and restaurant FGL House (house cocktail: the “Tip It Back,” which is whiskey and Sprite), they are famous for their own breakthrough collaboration, “Cruise (Remix),” an old song of theirs that was reworked to feature Nelly and blasted out of every Jeep Cherokee in America in the summer of 2013. “Meant to Be” has now spent more than 35 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country charts; you know it from hearing it play in your local drugstore every time you stop in to buy conditioner. By collaborating with a band already known for its collaboration, Bebe, the wannabe pop star, somehow became a country singer overnight. As you could imagine, this would make things even more confusing.
Is Bebe Rexha a country singer? She probably wouldn’t call herself one. (In Billboard, celebrating her song’s success, she thanked “the country community” while carefully avoiding making herself part of it.) But she is, technically; “Meant to Be” may have hit No. 2 on the Hot 100, but when your song holds the record for the most weeks ever atop the country chart, you’re a country singer. But for someone trying to navigate the road from Whoness to Themness, this kind of category confusion doesn’t help! In what could be read as an effort to rid herself of her newfound title, Rexha just performed a new single, off a new album called Expectations, at the Teen Choice Awards this week—sending said song, “I’m a Mess,” up the iTunes charts. As planned, it sounds nothing like a country song. But the question remains: Does it sound like a Bebe Rexha song? (And what does Bebe Rexha sound like?)
It also doesn’t help that Rexha resembles a few women objectively more famous than her: Kylie Jenner, for one. “Nobody’s ever walked up to me and said, ‘Are you Kylie?’ But I definitely get that a lot,” she told People last year. “Sometimes I do see pictures, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, is that me or Kylie?’ ” Other women Rexha sometimes resembles: Paris Jackson, Sky Ferreira, and yes, to make things even more complicated, Rita Ora.
Maybe we’ve reached this point and you’re still confused. How can a woman with a 37-week No. 1 song, a woman famous enough to play big venues and have her music featured on both Top 40 and country radio, be a Who? The road towards Themdom isn’t merely long and winding, it’s also filled with unexpected detours and potential shortcuts—opportunities that could push you toward stardom … or not. We like to see our celebs as much as possible, sure, but it’s ultimately confusing if they do too much and stray from their lane. Whether that’s releasing a song when you’re known as an actress, being known by a professional title as nebulous as “influencer,” or even crashing the country charts when … Weren’t you supposed to be a pop singer? It’s confusing! Her options are limited. She could go wild or get political on social media. She could start a feud with someone more famous than her. She could rush-engage a Saturday Night Live featured player. Or she could become embroiled in a juicy scandal of some kind. Honestly, in today’s fractured media landscape, the easiest route to true celebrity for a pop singer might be to release an actual pop smash. It worked for another country star who didn’t want to be a country star. Get on it, Bebe Rexha.