Remember Fame? In the first season of the iconic ‘80s film-turned-show, Debbie Allen’s character, a tough-as-nails dance instructor, famously addressed aspiring superstars on their first day at a LaGuardia-esque high school. She asked, “You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying.” In 2019, right here is the Instagram Explore page. While Allen’s character was referring to the art school that the popular musical drama centred around, today, the price of fame is paid in other ways. For artists who experience runaway success like L.A.-based singer-songwriter-dancer-director DaniLeigh, born Danielle Leigh Curiel from South Florida, fame is found on Instagram. There, it can easily look like one ascends to popularity with the haste of a double-tap.
“Everything is driven by social media nowadays,” DaniLeigh peeked from underneath her platinum tendrils to explain her viral come-up an hour ahead of taking the stage at The Drake Hotel in Toronto. Comfortable and confident, her ‘lax demeanor showed no signs of nervousness. “It’s kind of like, when are you going to make it on the Explore page?” She often spoke with her hands, putting her perfectly pointy blue manicure on full display.
This stop of her headlining tour comes seven months after the release of her single, “Lil Bebe”, a well-charted, heavily-streamed bop that manages to be infectious without becoming annoying. The lyrics are simple (“My lil’ Bebe/Change your price tag/There’s a upgrade/On a watch, yeah”) but the melody is what makes it an earworm, sounding almost like a nursery rhyme with bassy, trap production. The single, which currently stands at over 100 million global streams, has spawned celebrity dance covers and an equally-successful remix with the song’s namesake, Lil Baby. Though she spent the latter part of last year as an opening act, DaniLeigh ended off the year dropping her excellent debut album, The Plan, now has her own marquee.
But beyond the production and songwriting on “Lil Bebe” and DaniLeigh’s innate star quality, the single’s success can also be attributed to Drake—sort of. Despite grinding towards success as a backup dancer and choreographer for several years, DaniLeigh received unprecedented attention when a video of her dancing to “In My Feelings” by Drake went viral.
“All eyes were on my page the moment that challenge was happening,” she reflected. This was Drake’s summer hit that inspired countless dance covers, an inescapable social media challenge and triggered yet another breakdown from North West’s dad (you good, sis?). “That video went so viral that it was just everywhere. It was the first time that everyone saw me.” Within hours of posting her take on the #ShiggyChallenge, DaniLeigh’s following grew exponentially.
The next day, she teased her single, “Lil Bebe,” and the rollout happened so serendipitously that it’s hard to imagine it was predestined. “It definitely wasn’t planned,” DaniLeigh assures. “It was a blessing: God.”
“I was planning on dropping the single before I did the #ShiggyChallenge and I was working on my album, The Plan,” DaniLeigh continues. “[The Plan] was already ready before the #ShiggyChallenge. It just so happened that the #ShiggyChallenge went crazy, so I was like, ‘Oh, perfect. Thank you for all these new followers!’ I had a bigger platform to give my music to.”
The single was released almost immediately after the video went viral and within a month, she was on the road for the ill-fated Later That Night tour with Jeremih and Teyana Taylor. Her time as an opener for Jeremih was short lived. When Teyana Taylor blasted him on Twitter for being a “Lazy, sneaky, jealous, conniving, selfish, lame ass nigga,” Jeremih was ousted from his own tour and it quickly morphed into Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. Tour, where DaniLeigh went from opener to special guest, all while her single spread like wildfire.
Fast? Not quite. If DaniLeigh’s elevation to one of pop’s brightest new stars feels abrupt, you’re missing half the story.
What’s remarkable about DaniLeigh’s ascension to viral fame is the literal legwork that preceded it. Since her family uprooted from South Florida to Los Angeles when she was 16, she’s had an impressive dance career, which includes touring with Meghan Trainor and receiving a personal call from Prince to direct, choreograph, and star in his music video for “Breakfast Can Wait.” At 24, she had long paid her dues in the industry but despite several years of hard work, it was a 50-second video, where she doesn’t even sing, that propelled her career as a pop star.
Did the rapid spread of her #ShiggyChallenge eclipse all of the years of work that she had put in? The relationship between the road to stardom, and viral attention is a bit more complicated.
I’ve been working since I was 16; I’m 24 now. It’s been a very long time and a lot of hard work.
She was already signed to Def Jam and ready to release her debut album last fall, but in 2019, it’s nearly impossible for any number of industry connections or the weight of professional clout to compete with the impact of a single viral video that circulates around the world many times over. What was once a personal, auxiliary element of an artist’s branding is now the go-to for fan engagement and is a major indicator of an artist’s popularity and the success that emerges as a direct result of that. By positioning herself directly on our Instagram feeds, DaniLeigh’s viral moment was the perfect set-up for her single.
“‘Lil Bebe’ blew up out of nowhere and that was a shock for everybody because you never know when you have a hit on your hands.” She explains this in the same sultry, hazy tone that exudes West Coast cool and makes her songs sound so effortless. Despite the rapid rise of her viral dance video and subsequent single, DaniLeigh remains steadfast: “I don’t consider myself an overnight success.” “I’ve been working since I was 16; I’m 24 now. It’s been a very long time and a lot of hard work. ” She continues that instead of a quick rise, her ascent “has felt like a journey.” “It definitely doesn’t feel fast. I stopped school when I was 16 and I moved to L.A. So I have only danced and worked. This is all I know.”
For emerging artists, the formula of leveraging viral popularity may soon become standard, and in some ways, has already started. DaniLeigh advises new artists to “find what’s viral about [them]” and establish a niche in order to achieve similar success. “With me, people love to see me dance. Every time I post a dance video, those are my best videos. And I get to do it to my music.”
“I’ve always been doing music while I was dancing. I was on tour with Jeremih and we would be in the studio in the back, but I was his dancer. I was getting my money but trying to make it as an artist — no one was really respecting me as an artist because I was a dancer. I was dancing behind [other] artists, so who would take me that seriously? My biggest obstacle was completely stepping away from dancing for [other musicians] and focusing on my music and gaining that respect as an artist. Now I’ve got it, so it’s cool.”
Today, it’s almost unheard of for artists to forgo online marketing or achieve success without a consistent Instagram presence. None of this is to imply that fame comes only with a poppin’ presence online, or that this is always easily attainable. Fame still costs; but the currency has evolved. The novelty of a “social media-driven celebrity” makes new artists easy targets for purists and older heads but at this point, there is no way around or away from it. So much of our lives are take place online now and although one can opt-out, it can be isolating for both consumers and artists.
The truth is, it took DaniLeigh almost 8 years to give the semblance of overnight success but now that she is where she wants to be, she is confident in her staying power. “[As] an artist, I’m killing it right now,” she says with a smile. “As a songwriter, I’ve got a number 1 record with J-Lo (DaniLeigh penned the song “Dinero,” which features DJ Khaled and Cardi B ). “Now it’s about getting my Number #1 as an artist.” And she’s confident that it will work out. From her success as a dancer to her triumph as a songwriter, she hopes that the same good fortune that sustained her dance career and launched her music career will persist. “Everything that I have tapped into,” she declares confidently, “I’ve achieved.”