It's Valentine’s Day in New York, and Megan Thee Stallion is lounging in the backseat of her Sprinter van, watching footage of one of the people she loves most: herself. We’re shuttling from downtown Manhattan to the suburbs of Connecticut, where she’ll spend the evening shooting Legendary, a new competition series set in the world of ballroom. (Think Pose meets Project Runway.) At this moment, however, rap’s brashest and brightest star is sipping a green smoothie and quietly appraising her recent performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Like an athlete studying tapes, she’s searching for ways to improve her set, to make it “prettier,” she says. She eventually looks up from her phone and admits, “I’m my own biggest critic.” She’s also her own biggest cheerleader. In fact, when I ask her to rate her performance, her response is as quick as it is assured. No false modesty. No self-deprecating hedges. No need to pretend that she didn’t kill it.

“I would definitely give me a 10,” she says. “The outfits were awesome, the production came out really good, the whole team was happy, so we get a 10.”

Megan Thee Stallion (born Megan Jovon Ruth Pete) has been racking up 10s since bursting onto the scene in 2017 with “Stalli Freestyle,” a two-minute howitzer of a track that served as an omen of things to come and featured a slew of delightfully profane boasts like “Bitches offended by my sex appeal / I’m not a snack, nigga, I am a meal.” Her army of fans—“the Hotties”—immediately ate it up. Mixtapes, viral singles (“Big Ole Freak”), and projects like 2018’s Tina Snow and 2019’s Fever soon followed. In no time, she has proven to be one of the most compelling artists of her generation.

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One of her biggest hits to date, the anthemic party banger “Hot Girl Summer,” featuring Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign, inspired a movement and gave listeners permission to revel in their, well, hotness. The song’s thong-filled video has racked up more than 53 million views on YouTube, and the phrase “hot girl summer” became so ubiquitous that the Houston-bred artist trademarked it. Meg promises that summer 2020 will be a scorcher, the rare moment when the sequel is actually better than the original. Expect more twerking, more debauchery, and more “driving the boat”—her term for downing dark booze straight from the bottle. She flashes a smile that’s all mischief and declares, “We’re going to be nekkid and drinking D’Ussé all day.”

“Can a mommy of a five-year-old have a hot girl summer?” I ask only half jokingly.

“Yes,” she says. “Hot mom summer!”

“Well, I’d better start doing squats if I’m going to be naked.”

“Put your son on your shoulders and get to squatting,” she says. “Make it a hot mom workout.”

This, of course, is a large part of Meg’s charm. Even if you can’t spend an entire season scantily clad and liquored up, she gives you license to feel like you can. Everyone’s invited to her party, as long as you’re loving yourself and down for a good time. Her joie de vivre is infectious. Her unwavering confidence is too. Spend enough time in her presence and you may actually attempt to make your ass cheeks clap. You may even begin to believe that you’re limber enough to drop down low and sweep the floor with said ass. You are not. But back to Megan.

“I had no idea what to expect because she’s so powerful in everything that she puts out, and I feel like such a weakling in comparison,” says Meg’s fellow Legendary judge Jameela Jamil. (Celebrity stylist Law Roach and ballroom icon Leiomy Maldonado complete the panel for the HBO Max series.) “But she’s actually the sweetest, kindest person, and she has the biggest heart. It’s going to be really cool for America to see this other side of her.”

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The flourishing career and boat-driving hasn’t distracted Meg from her coursework at Texas Southern University. She’s currently working toward a degree in health-care administration, and she dreams of one day opening assisted-living facilities for the elderly in her hometown. “I never had a plan B; I always had two plan As. I knew I wanted to go to school, but I knew I wanted to pursue music,” she says. Due to her hectic work schedule, most of her schooling currently happens online. “When you really want to do something, you’re really going to put your mind to doing it. And I really want to do both. I have to do both.”

She’s always been driven, but the deaths of both her mother and great-grandmother in March 2019 put her desire to succeed into overdrive, says Selim Bouab, an A&R executive at 300 Entertainment. Bouab, who signed Megan after a yearlong courtship, says she’s the hardest-working artist on the label’s 100-person roster. “When the drama happened around the loss of her mom and great-grandma, we asked her if she wanted to cancel some days, and she said, ‘My mom wouldn’t want that,’” he recalls. “The day after the funeral, she went and did a radio show, and she hasn’t stopped working ever since.”

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After her Tonight Show appearance the previous evening, Megan parked herself in a local studio and recorded two more songs for her new project, titled Suga. “Suga” is also the latest addition to her stable of alter egos, which currently includes Hot Girl Meg (“my party girl, my wild side”), Tina Snow (“When I’m feeling that cocky pimp talk, that’s her”), and Megan Thee Stallion (“the super-confident all-around strong woman”). Suga, she explains, embodies her complicated, fallible side, and in recent weeks, Megan’s life has become the epitome of complicated. A very messy and public tussle with her first record label, 1501 Certified Entertainment, has threatened to overshadow her new music. In an Instagram Live confessional, Megan claimed that attempts to renegotiate her original contract were being thwarted and that 1501 executives were trying to legally bar her from releasing new material. While “FREETHEESTALLION” trended on Twitter, the rapper was in court fighting 1501 and its CEO, Carl Crawford, who called her a liar and a fraud in the press. A Texas judge ruled in her favor and granted Megan the right to release Suga. She celebrated the victory on Instagram, posting, “I will stand up for myself and won’t allow two men to bully me. I am NO ONES PROPERTY.”

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“I don’t know when it became the trend to be so motherfucking perfect, but I hate it,” she states. She’s dressed comfortably in a Puma tracksuit and fur Louis Vuitton slides. With the exception of foundation and a hint of lip gloss, she’s clean-faced and decidedly less glamorous than she usually appears. It suits her. As we weave through NYC traffic, her adorable and ever-present French bulldog, 4oe, paces about the van and occasionally passes gas. She apologizes for her pooch and continues. “I know that I’m a mess sometimes, and it’s okay to be a mess. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to scream. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to go through a thousand different emotions.” It’s also okay to be a bit scared. She’s been reluctant to call her latest effort an album. “That’s big pressure. That’s like a husband,” says Meg, a self-professed commitment-phobe. “Projects are like, ‘We’re dating, we’re getting to know each other, we’re getting comfortable.’”

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It’s a good time to be a female rapper. Historically, the industry has allowed room for only one or two to shine, but these days women are dominating the music charts. And yet, for all of the progress that has been made, a glaring double standard still exists, especially when it comes to skill and lyrical content, Megan believes. Critics have accused her of being too raunchy, too unapologetically and overtly sexual. “A man can be as mediocre as he wants to be but still be praised,” she argues. “A man can talk about how he’s about to do all of these drugs and then come and shoot your house up. But as soon as I say something about my vagina, it’s the end of the world?”

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The blatant hypocrisy irks her. “What are you really mad about? You cannot be mad about me rapping about sex. That’s not what you’re mad about.”

So, what are they mad about?

“It’s something deeper,” she theorizes. “Not only am I rapping about sex, I’m rapping about you making me feel good. I’m not rapping about licking on you. No, you’re going to do what I told you to do, and I feel like sometimes that can be a little intimidating....Sometimes it’s overwhelming to some men. They can’t handle it, they get a little shook, they get a little scared. But I’m not going nowhere, so get used to it.” And while she’s here, she’ll use her platform to rep hard for her estrogen army.

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“I know that women are powerful. I know that we are out here birthing people. I know that we are out here running shit, so I can’t even be mad at you for thinking that we should be held to a high standard,” she says. “We’re the ultimate beings. We are the superior beings.”

Though it’s hard to imagine, there was a time when Megan wasn’t always so self-possessed. She was a quiet child, which made her an easy target of one particular mean girl in elementary school. “Nobody put their hands on me,” she makes clear, “but it was just a lot of verbal abuse.” That all came to an abrupt halt one afternoon when she informed her mother of the bullying. In a curse-filled tirade, her mom encouraged her daughter to standup for herself and dress down her tormentor. A 7-year-old Megan did just that. “I went to school the next day and cussed the bitch out,” she proudly recalls. “After that, she definitely left me the fuck alone.”

She was raised by three generations of industrious women, and they all imparted invaluable life lessons. Her great-grandmother, a caregiver and entrepreneur who retired owning three homes, taught her to “always put that purse first.” Her grandmother, a special-ed teacher, encouraged her to always be kind. “It takes more energy to be a bitch than it does to just be nice,” Meg says.

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And her mother, Holly Thomas, a bill collector who rapped under the moniker Holly-Wood, introduced her to hip-hop. Young Meg grew up listening to Pimp C, Slim Thug, and Biggie Smalls and watched her mother chase her own music dreams. “I would see her fit in writing after work and before work,” Megan recalls. “I’m used to seeing that work ethic.” Her own sobriquet came from the streets. In the South, girls who are statuesque and genetically blessed are called stallions. A tan impressive five foot ten, she more than fits the bill. A slo-mo Insta-video of the star undulating in a skimpy bikini prompted actress Taraji P. Henson to post, “Can you please play fair. SHIT.”

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She began rapping in earnest in college, freestyling and battling at parties. Word spread about the pretty girl with potent lyrics. “I knew she was dope as soon as I heard her,” says Kelsey Harris, Meg’s best friend and personal assistant. The two have been buds since college, and she was the first to post Meg’s music to YouTube. “She freestyled over a beat by MJG, and I uploaded it, and, bam, she became that girl who rapped on campus.”

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Meg’s mother was initially taken aback by her provocative material—lyrics like “eat that dick up even when I’m going vegan” aren’t exactly mom-friendly—but she came around, and she managed her daughter’s career until a brain tumor cut her life short. The star grows quiet when she speaks about her late parents. She lost her father freshman year in high school. “My dad was definitely my best friend, but for the first eight years of my life, he was in jail,” she reveals. “When he got out, we were together everyday.” Her father’s love is one of the primary reasons why she refuses to settle. “I saw how he treated my mom, and I saw how my dad treated me,” she says. “I have so many strong positive influences. I’m not going to lower my standards.”

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As if she’s not juggling enough, Megan is currently writing a horror movie. She’s a die-hard fan of the genre and has grown tired of hackneyed reboots of ’80s classics: “How many times can you remake Halloween?” A collaboration with Oscar-winning writer Jordan Peele would be nice, she says. The only thing better, I offer, would be a duet with fellow Houston native Beyoncé. Her eyes light up at the thought. “Everyone knows I’m Beyoncé’s number-one fan,” she gushes. “When I met her, I wanted to faint, but I had to keep it cool.” Meg admits she often wonders what Queen Bey would make of her choices. “I know I’m not doing shit that Beyoncé would do.” She shakes her head. “Half the time, I’m like ‘Damn, Beyoncé would not be proud of this.’”

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The collabs will have to wait for now. After several hours in hair and makeup, Megan has emerged completely transformed from cute coed to swaggering, larger-than-life smoke show. She’s traded her jet-black wig for an electric-blue number that’s styled into two heavily teased ponytails. She’s rocking sequined gloves, thigh-high patent-leather boots, and bright-red-lacquered lips. As she struts down the catwalk on Legendary’s wonderfully over-the-top set, she stops at the top of the T and allows the audience to take it all in, twerking a tad before settling into her judge’s chair. The crowd erupts in applause and chants, “Meg! Meg! Meg!” No doubt, Beyoncé would be proud.

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This article originally appears in the May 2020 issue of Marie Claire.

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Photographer: Micaiah Carter Fashion Editor: Memsor Kamarake Hair: Kellon Deryck Nails: Coca Michelle Makeup: Sir John for L'Oréal at Management Artists Set Design: Griffin Stoddard for MHS Artists