On set, 23-year-old singer-songwriter Slayyyter wears a black streak of plastic-looking hair in her wild mane of peroxide blonde extensions. We're together in New York and she's modeling in her first real photo shoot. Only a year ago, the St. Louis native released a song called "BFF" on Soundcloud and had just over 2,000 followers on Instagram.
Now, Slayyyter is on her knees for her final shot of the day. She's wearing a bandana, a denim mini skirt and leather accessories. "You're Bret Aguilera," photographer Oscar Ouk shouts playfully, cross-referencing both Christina Aguilera's iconic Stripped era, and Rock of Love's Bret Michaels, which is the main inspiration for this shoot. Slayyyter jams her thumbs into her waistband and looks coyly at the camera. A wind-machine just feet away blows her extensions into her face.
"Is this what models do all day?" Slayyyter wonders. She's genuinely asking. "Like the ones who pose on a rock by the ocean, wearing a bikini when it's freezing?"
Ten-hour shoots are completely new for the singer, who, up until recently, was recording rough cuts of her glitchy, internet-famous pop tracks in her bedroom closet. Posing seductively alongside a cast of diverse, half-naked models emulating Rock of Love's trash glamour aesthetic, is also a far cry from her recent gig as the receptionist at her hometown hair salon. In-between shots, she pulls aside extra Kyra Chérie (known on Instagram as Taco Bell DSL) to confess that she's a "huge fan." Today, Cherie is playing a supporting role to Slayyyter.
"I literally fold towels all day," Slayyyter told me in 2018 after releasing another song, "Candy," online. "It's so tragic."
Last October, I reached out to Slayyyter after becoming excited by how close to Britney Spears' Blackout her music sounded, both in its sleazy electronic beats and nasally, robotic vocals — uncanny qualities that can be found in all of her songs thus far. On "Candy," she sings lines like, "Boy, can you eat me right," embodying the same knowingly scandalous energy Britney once portrayed in her "...Baby One More Time" video. But it's 2019, and women in pop can sing more freely about their pussies today (see: King Princess, Brooke Candy, Miley Cyrus, et al) than what passed muster in 1999.
"There's nothing wrong with being sexual and having desire," Slayyyter said at the time. "It's normal and natural. I wish people weren't such freaks about it. My mom hasn't heard ['Candy'] yet, though." This, too, from a woman who later flipped Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" to say, "All I want for Christmas/ Is to get fucked/ Take a big hit/ Get my tits sucked."
Rayly Aquino, Bettie, and The Boy Dad
Now, with hundreds of thousands of followers across platforms, healthy media buzz, more than a quarter-million active Spotify listeners, a big-budget music video (and several smaller-budget ones), a mostly sold-out mini-tour, fans ranging from Charli XCX to Grimes, and a full-length debut mixtape, Slayyyter's mom has heard everything, and despite her wish she would sometimes sing "nice, classy songs," is ultimately very supportive. "Of course she worries about me singing about sex — I'm her daughter," she says with a shrug. "She wishes I weren't so vulgar."
Her older sister, who works in finance, is also a Slayyyter ally, showing off her kid sister's album art (which presents the singer topless, back arched on a neon tanning bed, exposing a tramp stamp bearing her own name) to her Missouri friends. It seemed all Slayyyter needed to do to win over her family was make her own way — something she was able to accomplish successfully thanks to her vision, hard work, and harnessing the branding power of the internet in 2019.
After our shoot wraps, Slayyyter's clip-ins are out and her black streak of hair is still in. "I literally wouldn't be here if it weren't for the internet," she says, underscoring a prevalent phenomenon of today's star-making machine. She laughs, "But it's not like I'm somebody special. I'm like as D-list as you can be, which is fabulous, and it also means I still can't get into certain clubs. No line-cutting for me, I ain't shit!"
Slayyyter first emerged online last year with a batch of songs produced by fellow internet scions like underground producer Ayesha Erotica, whose productions of singles like "BFF" and "Candy" were critical to establishing Slayyyter's signature sound. While fans quickly took to Slayyyter's music, no one really knew what she looked like. As it turns out, this was intentional — an internet parlor game she established to separate who she really is from the business of being a visible public figure. Even Slayyyter's name is a variation of who she really is: born Catherine Slater, according to Wikipedia, she says her performance moniker was inspired by the cult Dazed and Confused character of the same name. To ensure all her social handles were identical, she added three y's. This also resonated with her early audience, made up of queer music fanatics who frequently flung the exclamation: "Slayyy!"
Slayyyter often posts Photobooth photos and videos of herself obscured beneath layers of filters and visual effects. Sometimes she's juuling, and other times, she's photoshopped into referential collages of Lindsay Lohan and other infamous late '00s figures wearing Juicy Couture sweatpants (like in the one she submitted to PAPER). When her body is visible, more often than not, Slayyyter shows skin because as everyone knows, sex sells. She's a master at shameless self-promotion, almost always trading in sex jokes as a plea for streams on Twitter and Instagram. In describing her aesthetic, Slayyyter said last year, "I love pop culture. My favorite Twitter account for the longest time is Pop Culture Died in 2009. I love everything like that. It's fun and silly. I love the color pink, Barbie, that kind of stuff. And of course I love The Simple Life. How could you not?"
Dutch Welch and Slayyyter
While Slayyyter's hyper-meta indulgence in pop culture tropes is well-received by her growing fanbase, the pop artist's online sexual expression sometimes yields a range of more negative responses, Slayyyter says, from male creeps who quickly get blocked to women like "Carol," a troll who once replied to a picture of Slayyyter's cleavage with the comment: "Does she have to wear her underwear to sell her songs?? Why is she posing like that??? Cheap and nasty!!" Slayyyter laughed that one off, posting a screenshot of the comment to her IG Stories, thanking Carol for her remarks. But sometimes the comments are more vicious, and specific. She tells me that one woman in a Reddit thread said her eyes were too far apart and her nose was too big. But even those she makes light of. Comments that could otherwise be intended to harm are often deliberately interpreted by Slayyyter as compliments, with a knowing wink to her large queer following. As a self-described "Twitter comedian," she's always down to take the piss out of herself, if less because she likes to, than because she has to. "It's not cool if you're constantly upset about every little slight online," she says.
"Some people online describe me and my music as bottom-rate, Walmart clearance section Britney Spears," Slayyyter continues. "I love it because hello, I am that! It's honestly such an honor to be thought of in the same breath as Britney Spears."
In person, Slayyyter's a shyer version of the sexed-up cyborg she presents as inside our phones. It prompts so many questions: Is Slayyyter real, or is she fucking with us? And what is "real" on the internet in 2019, when scams, catfishing, and fake stories are compelling enough to lure millions of eyes and prompt lucrative TV and film deals?
Standing in the sunshine outside our shoot, as if to show just how real she is, Slayyyter holds up her wrists to reveal a runny spray tan.
Growing up, Slayyyter says she wasn't the most popular girl in school, but was a "known fag hag" who loved to sing and dance in talent shows. Her first performance as a fifth grader saw her dancing to "Push It to the Limit," made famous in 2007 by Corbin Bleu in the Disney Channel Original Movie, Jump In! "The eighth grade girls booed me off stage," Slayyyter recalls, laughing.
Earlier this summer, she kicked off her mini-tour with two performances at Elsewhere in Brooklyn. The concerts were sold out within minutes and full of iconic female pop concert tropes, including non-working in-ears, which meant some light lip-synching, as well as timely hair flips, a pink sequined bodysuit, seizure-inducing light shows, and hordes of jumping, screaming teens (the show was 16+).
Rayly Aquino (Pants: Pace Leather)
Clearly, this is a long way from Slayyyter's uncomfortable youth of being booed and, like many young queer people coming into their own, coming to terms with her sexuality. "I literally didn't know it was okay for me to like girls," she says. Her year spent trying to fit in with sorority girls at Mizzou didn't help, and she eventually dropped out. Now an openly bisexual woman, having a visibly queer fanbase reassures Slayyyter that all those years of self-doubt stood in the way of what was most important: writing the music she heard in her head, where she knew her sexuality, at least, had a safe home. Her recent performances during Los Angeles Pride and at queer New York events such as Ty Sunderland's Devil's Playground and Bushwig only affirms her place in this world.
Though Slayyyter's current status as internet pop queen has been hard-earned, she hasn't done it all alone. Slayyyter says that for her mixtape, she's been "lucky" to work with a range of underground internet upstarts, including Robokid, Ayesha Erotica, That Kid, Guard, Donatachi, and others. Together, they are part of a resurgence of fan-forum culture, where stans take to message boards like Reddit to disseminate everything from leaks to breathless adoration for their stars. Slayyyter's followers also dream up collaborations or ruminate on as-yet-unheard ones. In May, Azealia Banks announced the two were collaborating on a track reportedly called "New Victim." (Slayyyter confirms that song is no longer happening.) That said, the music comprising Slayyyter is practically designed for internet fandemonium, as Slayyyter's producers smartly mix together modern, glitched out hyper-pop with youthful early aughts nostalgia.
With the help of her collaborators, Slayyyter has created her Britney-esque avatar across several eras: there's "Devil," an updated riff on "I'm a Slave 4 U," complete with rhythmic, breathy panting and a grimy snake-charmer beat. "Celebrity" and "Touch My Body" bear the EDM-flavored funhouse sounds of Britney's post-Blackout glow-up (Circus, Femme Fatale). There's also a touch of Lady Gaga's "Heavy Metal Lover" on "Motorcycle," which finds Slayyyter having the hots for dudes — or chicks — on bikes. (It's also what inspired this shoot; she rhymes "black hair streaks" with "you're my Rock of Love, I'm your biker queen.")
Kyra Chérie, Slayyyter, and Grisel Lopez
But it is truly Slayyyter's voice, Britney-fied as it might be, and commitment to pop authorship that sells the entire project.
"I used to get in fights with these pretentious dudes all the time about loving and wanting to create pop music," Slayyyter says, rolling her eyes. "They are so embarrassing because they make so many dumb assumptions. Like, yes, I write my own shit. I co-write, too! And yes, I love rock music and I also play guitar and I sing. I love a good lip-sync as much as anyone, but I sing live. And even if I did none of those things, it doesn't make me any less legit. But of course we all know that kind of criticism is reserved for women who make pop music. No one comes for male artists like that."
The importance of authorship was driven home for Slayyyter by Taylor Swift. Like many, Slayyyter closely followed the on-going controversy surrounding Swift's masters — songs from her six-album catalog on her former label home, Big Machine Records, that were bought by Scooter Braun.
Slayyyter, Sean Joseph Kennedy, Rayly Aquino, and Bettie
"She's Taylor fucking Swift and I stan her honestly," Slayyyter says. "The whole thing of her fighting for her masters is wild. It shouldn't be that way. Women should absolutely have the rights to what they create. It's like, how could they buy her music from her like that? She wrote all those songs and is the reason any of those men get to line their pockets, let's be real."
For now, while Slayyyter is still independent and calling the shots on her own career, she's making sure her story and music are not defined by anyone else but her. Though, someday, she'd admittedly love a major-label budget to fund her vision, but not interfere. "Kinda like a sugar daddy arrangement," she says cheekily.
"That would be my advice to anyone wanting to start making music," Slayyyter says. "Mine the internet for the branding tool it is and focus on what you do, making great shit, owning it, and don't worry about anyone or anything else — the rest, whether it's fame or infamy, will happen organically. So far, that's been my story, and I hope it continues that way."
The songs on Slayyyter — while made in collaboration with the internet, often on shoestring budgets or money saved from salon and waitressing gigs — sound big and aspirational. Online, her fans call the project S1, creating the prophecy of her best work still yet to come. (In fact, Slayyyter says she is already working on S2.) Lady Gaga established the 2000s blueprint for this kind of pop fortune-telling, singing about the lavish life she didn't yet have, but someday wanted to live on The Fame: "Doin' it for The Fame/ Cause we want to live the life of the rich and famous."
Drew Schaefering and Slayyyter
Slayyyter's "Celebrity" is a similar exercise in manifest destiny. In the bouncy chorus, she sings, "They play me on the radio/ The paparazzi follows me wherever I go/ I think I need a TV show." She continues, "Boy, are you in love with me/ When you see me in magazines?/ I'm Hollywood's new mistress/ I've made it onto the D-list."
Back in St. Louis after her national mini-tour, Slayyyter was drinking with friends at a local bar when she spotted a young woman wearing the T-shirt merch she co-designed and released before heading out on tour. "I had to bring her over to my friends who were all making fun of me, and I made them drink with us," Slayyyter says. "And to my friends, I was like, see, I'm real! She wasn't, like, hired to be there or anything." But it's clear her fans are real, both online and in real life. I was at her Elsewhere show and saw tangible evidence.
"I know so many people who listen to me and support me by name and I'm enjoying every part of this," she says, gesturing to the studio and the crew inside it. "So I can't say I'm like, 'famous' yet. People don't even recognize me on the street really. Doesn't fame happen when you hate all this?"
Pace and Dutch Welch
As if by magic (or perhaps manifest destiny), two young people walk over to where Slayyyter and I are sitting.
"Oh my fucking god, are you Slayyyter?" one of them asks. The other stands to the side awkwardly, clutching a pizza box.
"Um… yes... I am?" she says tentatively, standing up and seeming genuinely caught off-guard. "Oh my gosh, this is crazy."
"We can't wait for S1," the young fan gushes. "We were at your Elsewhere show from the mini-tour and gagged. We both work super boring day jobs, so to see you there and to feel the energy of your show was really incredible."
"Oh my god, thank you so much," Slayyyter says breathlessly, as if a fan herself. "This has never happened… Wait, DM me so I can follow you both on Twitter."
(Left to Right) Kyra Chérie, Grisel Lopez, The Boy Dad, Dutch Welch, Drew Schaefering, Slayyyter, Pace, Rayly Aquino, Sean Joseph Kennedy, and Bettie
Slayyyter is out now.
Photography: Oscar Ouk
Styling: Star Burleigh
Hair: Koji Ichikawa
Makeup: Andrew D'Angelo
Hair Assistant: Mai Kimura
Photog Assistant: Danny Q, Hector De Jesus
Models (Left to Right): Kyra Chérie, Grisel Lopez, The Boy Dad, Dutch Welch, Drew Schaefering, Slayyyter, Pace, Rayly Aquino, Sean Joseph Kennedy, and Bettie