By CLOVER HOPE
October 10, 2017
Over the past year, Niatia Kirkland, the rapper and actress known as Lil Mama, hit a reset in life and on social media. Discarding her rap alias, she now goes by her given name.
On Instagram, she took to posting photos that were designed to indicate a stylish transition from gaudy New York woman to sophisticated glam — using a platform that has the power to reincarnate people through the sublime superficiality of fashion.
This stylistic shift was Ms. Kirkland’s version of a Glow Up, the expression used to denote a reinvention brought on by a personal transition: a new job, new money, a breakup or simply maturity.
The Glow Up forces others to recognize something different or special inside and perceive it as worthy. It is the act of becoming. A better version of self, actualized through visual proof. A Glow Up can also be a temporary mask, but either way, people must notice that you aren’t who you used to be.
On Saturday night in Harlem, Ms. Kirkland gave herself a small and well-documented party for her 28th birthday. A few dozen close friends and members of the news media had been invited, along with photographers. The dress she chose conveniently made her glow: a sheer opal-black gown the same shade as a starry night sky, designed by Michael Costello.
“Anybody who’s insecure might have friends who tell them what to wear and how to wear it,” she said. “They may wear all these brands because people are giving them what their perception of being fly is. They won’t glow. They’ll just be fly. But people who glow, they glow from within.”
Like a glow worm, but not.
A prime example, Mary J. Blige, has appeared resolute and radiant in the midst of an ugly divorce. “Take a deep breath, baby/ ’Cause I’m petty so you ’bout to see me stuntin’/ You ain’t care enough to keep a good thing,” she sang on a track called (what else) “Glow Up,” from her 2017 album, “Strength of a Woman.”
“Get some more pictures!” Ms. Kirkland told the small room. “Get some better ones. Those were all practice.”
The name Glow Up, of course, implies that there’s something to rise up from, in Ms. Kirkland’s case an unfortunate reputation. Across the internet, she is best known for crashing the stage while Jay-Z and Alicia Keys performed at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, the same year that Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift.
Ms. Kirkland has since been the subject of a running meme about her facial resemblance to Bow Wow (who once also had a Lil’ prepended to his name but has long since Glown Up himself), and is the subject of jokes about the time she cried during a radio interview. More recently, she posted an ill-advised transphobic joke as a video on Instagram.
It’s easy to forget she had a hit song, “Lip Gloss,” almost 10 years ago. Then, she appeared to be trying too hard. Now, she said, she understands “the concept of less is more.”
Few reinventions happen without a plan, even if the plan is to just let it happen. When Ms. Kirkland decided to make a change, exactly one year ago on her birthday, she called Tyren Redd, an image consultant who now handles her photography and social media imaging.
Mr. Redd introduced her to the stylist Michael Mann and his business partner Tyler Jacobs. They became her glam team and started styling her for photo shoots and red carpets.
“For the past nine months, we have been, as they say, slaying looks,” she said.
At this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, she accessorized a flowing red Michael Costello gown with a bird cage — real bird included. (She released the bird from its cage, but it came back, resisting freedom.) At the Maxim Hot 100 party, she wore a plush bell-bottomed velvet pantsuit.
And at the Los Angeles premiere of her TV One movie, “When Love Kills,” she wore a striking butterfly wrap dress made by Mr. Costello (she met him at Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s 40th birthday party), inspired by Diana Ross, her muse. “She’s very glamorous,” Ms. Kirkland said. “I’ve been like that since I was a kid.”
Throughout her long Glow Up, stylized photos from events and photo shoots appeared on the Lil Mama Instagram page like fashion-influencer candid shots, and fulfilled their purpose of generating praise, standing in contrast to the easy jokes.
Under a picture of her in the velvet suit, one user wrote: “U did not come to play. Im rooting for u mama. Much love.” Another wrote: “She’s been giving me so much life with her style!”
“I love comments. I feel like the comments helped me a lot because they’re real people,” Ms. Kirkland said. “That’s constructive criticism. I’ve cried seeing things that were written about me before, but it was only because I was immature and didn’t know how beautiful I was.”
At the least, Glow Up compliments provide a confidence boost. At the most, they could aid in a potential redemption. “It was very organic for me, because I knew I was ready and I think that’s the key to anybody’s Glow Up,” Ms. Kirkland said. “Just knowing that you’re ready.”
At her birthday party, she veered into speaking in symbolism. When asked to pose next to a colorful chair, because it was colorful, Ms. Kirkland wondered: “What does the chair represent?”
What does the chair represent? What does the chair mean? What is a chair?
“I don’t think anyone’s perception of me matters,” Ms. Kirkland said, describing herself as “more than just a meme.” Even with the visual change, Niatia Kirkland is still Lil Mama.
“I don’t think people will forget anything about anyone. It never goes away, so it’s not about creating fashion to make people forget,” she said. “It’s about being who I am, stepping into my true self and doing things for me. If I look at people who may want to see me down or sad or looked at as a joke and say, ‘How can I please these people?,’ it’ll never work. I feel like I’m just being myself, and it’s working for me.”