Adam Kluger had a plan to save music. It was 2008: Piracy was up, streaming hadn’t taken off and the physical album had long been eclipsed by the digital single. On top of that, it was the middle of the recession; industry people were looking for ways to make up their losses. Kluger was a fast-talking 22-year-old in Los Angeles with a dream of a product he called “brand dropping.” Rappers were constantly name-checking products — why not get the brands to pay for placement in a verse?
He peddled the concept to record executives, presenting his plan as a source of easy money. They turned him away, citing artistic integrity. He got in touch with Interscope’s vice chairman, Steve Berman, a name he knew from skits between songs on Eminem records. Berman wasn’t into brand dropping, but he did need a novel revenue stream to cover the costs of video production. He gave Kluger a list of the label’s new artists; perhaps he could make some suitable arrangements.
Kluger focused his efforts on younger artists, making the case that taking the cash was not creatively bankrupt but could in fact further their vision. By the end of that summer, he had his first win — a deal between a clothing brand called Vixen’s Visions and a new pop act named Lady Gaga. Over the course of the next several years, Kluger became a kind of sponsored-content hustler, making arrangements between artists and brands: Christina Aguilera and the Oranum psychic hotline, Flo Rida and the porn site Live Jasmin, Jason Derulo and the singles site Plenty of Fish. As Kluger saw it, he was just a middleman, taking a cut of the pay in exchange for providing a matchmaking service. By the fall of 2016, he was working on one of his biggest deals yet, between Britney Spears and the dating app Bumble.
“It was almost a million dollars,” Kluger recalls. “I was on a flight to L.A. in November, for the video shoot, and the brand Bumble tried to go around me and go directly through Britney’s lawyers, which doesn’t happen. They tried to beat the middleman.” Spears saw things differently. TMZ reported that Spears’s camp believed that Kluger had been fraudulently acting as her representative and that he pocketed more than 40 percent of the $800,000 sponsorship fee. Her lawyers sent a letter threatening to sue. (Bumble declined to comment on the record.)
“I was so pissed off at the way that I was treated publicly from it that I decided to quit the music business,” Kluger says. He took a vacation to blow off some steam — New York, Costa Rica. By the time he got back, it was 2017, and he was still pissed off — especially at Bumble. “I was like, ‘I built this company. I helped make this [expletive] popular.’ Then I was like, ‘I can make anything popular.’ ” Kluger hatched another plan, this time to save his own reputation. “I’m going to find something that’s just so obscure, and I’m going to make it popular,” he decided. “I’m going to pull every trick I’ve ever pulled with brands and make someone into a walking, talking brand to prove my worth.”
As Kluger’s deal was hitting the fan, the web was caught up in a drama of its own over an absurd clip from daytime TV featuring a Florida teenager. Danielle Bregoli, of Boynton Beach, was a guest on a September 2016 episode of “Dr. Phil” titled “I Want to Give Up My Car-Stealing, Knife-Wielding, Twerking 13-Year-Old Daughter Who Tried to Frame Me for a Crime!” Bregoli had done all that and more, leading her desperate mother, Barbara Ann, to contact the television shrink for assistance. In the segment, mother and daughter sit facing a live studio audience. Barbara Ann begs Dr. Phil for his help, while Bregoli seems to revel in the spectacle of conflict. When the audience laughs at Bregoli’s affectation — part Florida, part Brooklyn, part misconceived Black Vernacular English — she calls them all “hoes,” then invites them to fight: “Cash me outside, howbowdah?”
“Catch you outside?” Dr. Phil asks. “What does that mean?”
“Catch her outside,” Barbara Ann explains. “Means she’ll go outside and do what she has to do.”
Following the show, Dr. Phil sent Bregoli for an extended stay at Turn-About Ranch, a residential program in rural Utah for youths with emotional and behavioral problems. As she fed and groomed horses, without internet access, clips from the “Dr. Phil” segment went viral, first on YouTube, then on Instagram, then on nearly every streaming site. Soon, her provocation had become a catchphrase — a brash multipurpose declaration of hardness. Walmart sold a T-shirt with the transliterated phrase on the front: CASH ME OUTSIDE HOW BOUT DAH. By the time Bregoli returned to Boynton Beach in January 2017, the internet knew her as the Cash Me Outside Girl — yet another disposable star, or yet another victim of a stage mother, or yet another white girl getting famous off black culture. Nobody seemed to agree on the subtext or on the best way to spell her slogan, but everyone agreed that she wasn’t meant to last.
Everyone but Kluger, who by then was living in Miami. He first heard the words “cash me outside” as a vocal sample in a song on a local radio station. Back at his office, he looked up the track, which led him to the clip from her “Dr. Phil” appearance. At that point, Bregoli had been home from Turn-About for only two days. Kluger found her phone number by searching online. Bregoli answered the phone but told him she couldn’t talk until Barbara Ann got back from the store. Barbara Ann invited him over. The next day, he made the hour drive through the South Florida sprawl, parking his Mercedes on their plain suburban street.
As Kluger recalls, “I said: ‘I want to manage you. Give me some time, I’ll make you a star. I’ll make you guys rich. We want to make this thing happen.’ With no hesitation, they were like, ‘O.K., done.’ They had no clue what that meant.”
Seven months later, Bregoli was a rapper, reborn on the charts under the stage name Bhad Bhabie. If the rebirth was quick, it wasn’t predestined; it happened through a kind of alchemical futzing that aimed to convert her fleeting viral fame into something that might degrade less quickly. On her first day home from Turn-About Ranch, she joined Instagram under the username @slimthugga and soon found her followers compounding by the day — 10,000, 20,000, 40,000. For all she knew, every one of them loathed her; her first thought was: How do I fight all of you? Kluger didn’t quite have a business plan worked out, but her question was in line with his vision for her future. He would let her be herself online, without constraints, regardless of what was considered age-appropriate or in her best interests. He would be her manager, not her parent.
SOURCE: Jamie Lauren Keiles
The New York Times