Culture

Meet the Chicago Teen Behind ‘On Fleek’

Nicki Minaj
03/27/15
In the Magazine
Nicki Minaj is one of many celebrities to adopt the phrase “on fleek,” believed to have been created by a Chicago teen last summer. Steve Marcus/REUTERS

For a few hours on March 1, it seemed as if the phrase “on fleek” would bring down the music industry. Nicki Minaj called out fellow artist Christina Milian for selling merchandise with the phrase “Pretty on fleek,” words that Minaj raps on her latest album. “I saw Christina sellin tshirts that say Pretty On Fleek. I was waitin on my percentage at the door! *tilts head*,” Minaj wrote on Instagram. Milian’s apparent response, which no longer appears online: “Been saying on fleek everything for a while now.”

The two celebrities patched things up on social media later in the day, but the beef over who owns “on fleek,” which essentially means “on point,” left out the person truly behind the phrase—a high schooler in the Chicago suburbs named Kayla Newman, who says she came up with the term on the spot and used it in a six-second video posted to Vine last June.

“We in this bitch, finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek, da fuq,” she says in the video, stroking her eyebrow.

Newman had been using Vine, a video-sharing service that lets people post brief clips, since early 2014. One day in June, after she got her eyebrows done for the first time, she sat in the car while her mother shopped at Burlington Coat Factory and decided to make a video. Though she had posted clips here and there, this would be one of the first times that she spoke directly into the camera. And those words were “on fleek.”

“It just came to me out of the blue,” says Newman, who turns 17 in three days and goes by Peaches Monroee online. “I never heard of the word, and nobody else had heard of the word. I just said it, and I guess that’s what came out. That’s about it.”

With so many people re-posting and remixing the video on such sites as YouTube, it’s difficult to quantify the popularity of “on fleek.” The original video has had 28 million views on Vine, and on Instagram people have mentioned #onfleek some 200,000 times.

Brands and celebrities have repurposed Newman’s creation as well. Taco Bell described itself as “on fleek” in October, racking up more than 15,000 favorites and 19,000 retweets. A few days later, International House of Pancakes posted a similar tweet and won even more favorites and retweets. Chris Brown and Lil Wayne have publicly uttered the phrase, and last week The New York Times included it in a language quiz about Internet-era slang, headlined “Are You on Fleek?”

“‘On fleek’ was absolutely part of the vocabulary that was being used by our guests, and we jumped into the conversation,” says Kirk Thompson, vice president of marketing at IHOP. He says that the decision to use the phrase was planned out, coming from “an expert panel of people that work on our social strategies,” including the marketing firm MRM/McCann. “That was one of our very best,” he says about the tweet.

Newman still finds it shocking that her words have made it into rap songs and corporate marketing strategies. “I didn’t know it was going to make history,” she says.

When her original clip first went viral, Newman was scared. “I got nervous because I didn’t know if I wanted my mom to see this,” she says. After all, her mother works at a church and doesn’t like it when Newman and her younger brother use profanity. “She wasn’t tripping about the fact that I cussed,” she says.

“It kind of threw me for a loop,” says Denise, Newman’s mother, whom has since come around and even appears in her daughter’s videos from time to time.

Urban Dictionary has a "fleek" entry from 2003, defining the word as “smooth, nice, sweet,” and another entry from 2009, defining it as “awesome.” But “on fleek” in its current iteration seems entirely Newman’s invention. She sells “on fleek” merchandise online, though other people have trademark applications pending, including a company that describes itself as “New York’s premier organic brow threading bar.”

“‘Fleek’ has a kind of sensibility about it,” says Ben Huh, founder and CEO of Cheezburger, a network of websites devoted to memes and viral content. “Whether it’s [the similarity to] ‘fleet’ or the elongated ‘e’ sound, those things do have an impact.”

Huh adds that of all the social media services, Vine makes it particularly easy to grow and disseminate viral content because users tend to “remix” other people’s videos, leading to more eyeballs. “Because of the limited number of seconds that is its format, a lot of people are creating a high volume of videos,” Huh says. “People learn by trying, and so what happens is, as people create new things, many of them won’t work, but every once in a while a gem will come out.”

The Internet has myriad think pieces about the meaning behind “on fleek,” but Newman says the words contain a deeper message: It’s about being fabulous, comfortable in your own skin, an idea she wants to convey to her Vine followers. “I’m of course a big girl, so I always go for the big girls because I feel like they’re overlooked. I want to make them feel like they don’t have to be a [certain] size to define their character,” she says.

Her message seems to be getting across. Newman says people have contacted her from all over the world about how much her videos mean to them. In one piece of fan mail, a young gay man told her he had considered suicide but Newman’s positive messaging helped change his mind. “I was like, wow. Shocked. Me? How can that happen from just saying a few words?” she says.

Still, Newman is just a teenager. She had to delay an interview in order to study for the ACT test, and getting her driver’s license and planning for college are on the not-so-distant horizon. She’s also trying to come up with more phrases so that she’s not a one-hit wonder. “I’m trying to think of some, but it’s like, with me, it’s just gonna flow.”

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