Wanna Thompson, 26, has long considered herself a Nicki Minaj fan.
As a freelance writer living in Toronto, Thompson also counts herself as a cultural critic with a focus on hip-hop, and with her insights, she has built an audience via her personal website and social media feeds. So when she posted a tweet one evening late last month about Minaj’s recent musical direction, Thompson hoped only to spark a conversation among the rap obsessives with whom she regularly communes.
“You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content?” Thompson wrote to her then 14,000 or so followers. “No silly” stuff, she added with an expletive. “Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She’s touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed.”
What happened next was one part dystopian sci-fi, and one part an everyday occurrence in pop-culture circles online: The Nicki Minaj stans — or superfans — attacked. Then, galvanising them further, Minaj chimed in, too.
In the week since publicising the acidic messages she received directly from Minaj, whose next album, Queen, is scheduled for release in August, Thompson said she has received thousands of vicious, derogatory missives across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, email and even her personal cellphone, calling her every variation of stupid and ugly, or worse. Some of the anonymous horde included pictures Thompson once posted on Instagram of her four-year-old daughter, while others told her to kill herself. Thompson also lost her internship at an entertainment blog in the chaotic days that followed, and she is now considering seeing a therapist.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Thompson said through tears in an interview, calling herself “physically drained” and “mentally depleted.”
Such are the risks of the new media playing field, which may look level from afar but still tilts toward the powerful. As social media has knocked down barriers between stars and their faithful (or their critics), direct communication among the uber-famous and practically anonymous has become the norm. But while mutual praise can cause both sides to feel warm and tingly, more charged interactions can leave those who have earned a star’s ire, like Thompson, reeling as eager followers take up the celebrity’s cause.
“Her fans mimic her behaviour,” Thompson said of Minaj, who responded to her critique after some of the rapper’s 21 million followers brought the initial tweet to the attention of their queen.
Minaj has been particularly present online lately, rallying her troops in the run-up to her new album, as early songs from the project have failed to stick commercially. (Of her two songs as a lead artist currently on the Billboard Hot 100, none is higher than No. 81.) Minaj and her team declined to comment for this article.
In response to Thompson, Minaj started obliquely, posting a list on Twitter of her own songs that she considered mature. But in a tweet the next day, Thompson revealed two direct messages from Minaj — much of it in unprintable language — in which the rapper called her “ugly” and implored, “Just say u jealous I’m rich, famous intelligent, pretty and go!” (Minaj also took issue with Thompson’s characterisation of her age; “I’m 34,” Minaj wrote, before correcting herself in the next message: “My bad I’m 35.”)
It was far from an isolated incident. The practice of the celebrity “clap back” has earned its own recurring spotlight from influential gossip purveyors like The Shade Room, and stars are often praised for batting down some of the thousands of cruel, unfounded comments they receive every day.
The incident also affected Thompson’s professional life.
Since April, she had written remotely as an unpaid intern for KarenCivil.com, the namesake blog of the hip-hop media personality Karen Civil, who also advises artists on social media and brand strategy. Minaj is a client of Civil’s — a fact Thompson said she did not know when she wrote her initial tweet. But as Thompson’s assessment picked up steam online that night, its signal boosted by outraged Nicki Minaj fans, she was told by KarenCivil.com staff in an internal group chat to delete the tweet.
Around the same time, Thompson realised that she had been messaged privately by Minaj. “If I just posted the DM I got,” Thompson tweeted cryptically, “I will lose A LOT. I want a career in writing and who will hire me after this? But this DM is DISGUSTING.”
Civil said that she and her staff believed Thompson’s tweets were referring to their internal chat to her, and did not know at the time that Minaj had sent Thompson a direct message. Hours later, Thompson received an email from the site’s chief operating officer, Christian Emiliano, informing her that her internship position had been terminated.
Emiliano wrote that Thompson had been asked to be “respectful to any of the clients” with whom the site’s leadership “are working with or are building a relationship.” The email also stated that Thompson had violated a nondisclosure agreement “by talking about an in-house and contained incident.” (Thompson denies violating her NDA.)
Civil said Minaj did not order Thompson’s firing. Civil added that she contacted Thompson to smooth things over, and condemned the “cyberbullying” that resulted. “It’s a very sad situation when fans take it upon themselves to say these things,” she said.
As for Minaj’s role in the barrage, Civil added that the immediacy of social media is “a gift and a curse.” “If someone is feeling attacked, they respond,” she said. However, “It’s never right to bully anybody in any situation. It’s not fair.”
For days after, the ordeal continued to light up social media, raising questions about the interaction between fans and their commentators, as well as about an entertainment media landscape that blurs the line between journalistic coverage and promotion. There was even a popular hashtag: #Istandwithwanna.
But Thompson said that while she stuck by her opinion on Minaj’s music, she wished she had never made it public.
“If I knew it would get this much harassment and that my daughter would be affected, I don’t think that I would have posted it,” she said. “Every person has a right to defend themselves and react to certain statements. But when you start to insult somebody, you’ve crossed a line.
“You have a responsibility as a public figure to present yourself in a certain way.”