By Lola Ogunnaike and Photography by Williams + Hirakawa
In her most in-depth interview yet, the stripper-turned-mogul-turned-reality-star opens up about mending fences with the Kardashians, her relationship with Rob, and what she’s definitely not going to name her baby.
It’s just days before the trailer for her new reality series will be released, and Blac Chyna is strolling into a cavernous photo studio in downtown Los Angeles for her ELLE.com photo shoot. With the exception of her Porsche aviator sunglasses and Chanel slides, her look is understated—cashmere sweatpants, an oversize gray T-shirt, and a simple knit cap.
A cameraman for the show Rob & Chyna, which premieres in early September and will chronicle the budding romance between Chyna and her fiancé, Rob Kardashian—the only son in the estrogen-heavy, multimillion-dollar-generating Kardashian dynasty—dutifully trails behind her. At 5’2”, she seems no bigger than a Pez dispenser, but her presence on the set is immediately felt. She hugs members of the production crew before heading into hair and makeup.
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“Wigs are my best friends,” she says as she strokes a luscious black bob that sits atop her head. “They let you be whoever you want to be.” The shoot commences and Chyna slips out of her casual duds and into lacy black lingerie. She’s semi-naked, several months pregnant, and brimming with confidence.
Whoever she wants to be, Blac Chyna, a stripper-turned-entrepreneur and one of America’s most high-profile expectant mothers, will have an audience. Eight million Instagram followers devour her posts, and not since Kanye has there been a more talked-about infiltrator of America’s most infamous family. Part of the fascination undoubtedly derives from the prominence she so quickly obtained. Her agent, Sujit Kundu, says that Chyna currently “commands in excess of $50,000 for an appearance.” She oversees an activewear company, a makeup line, and a beauty boutique named Lashed. “If everyone I worked with had her hustle, my company would be a thousand times bigger,” Kundu says. “She’s probably among the top five most driven people that I work with.”
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It’s this same ambition that has caused some to question whether Chyna’s love for Rob is the real deal or little more than an elaborate PR move designed to turn her into a household name. In May, following the announcement of Chyna and Rob’s engagement, BuzzFeed writer Sylvia Obell penned a lengthy thesis attributing ulterior motives to Chyna’s maneuvers: “Chyna was making calculated moves to close in on her own empire with a precision and finesse that not even the Kardashians saw coming…. And so the Kardashians, a family often accused of stealing black men, black features, and black culture, got beat at their own game by a black woman.” Datwon Thomas, editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, offered a similar assessment of Chyna’s triumph over the Balmain-clad don Kris Jenner. “Chyna popped up, and all of sudden she’s pregnant, and now she’s got one of the most powerful pieces on the chess board,” he says, referring to Rob. As for whether she loves her husband-to-be: “I think she loves him,” says Thomas, “but I think it was a power move, initially. Let’s not kid ourselves. A lot of these celebrity couples are really only business deals.”
“My mom used to be a stripper,” Chyna says, “so she was like, ‘If this is what you want to do, be the best at it.'”
This theory—that Chyna’s affairs are intertwined with her ambitions—has deeply resonated with her fans, who have taken to social media in droves to celebrate her alleged Machiavellian-like machinations. “God give me the patience and strategic mindset of Blac Chyna when it comes to achieving my goals,” Mary Pryor posted on Twitter. “I’m weak that Blac Chyna is gonna be a Kardashian and Kylie ain’t even one,” wrote @NovelistPrice. Under a photo of wide-eyed Kylie Jenner, yet another Team Chyna cheerleader posted: “When you thought you could steal Blac Chyna’s baby daddy and not have any consequences. But now you her future baby’s aunt.” If you’re having trouble keeping up with the Kardashians’ convoluted family tree, here’s a quick primer: Rob Kardashian knocked up Kylie’s on-again, off-again boyfriend’s baby mama—Chyna. More on this later.
So was it love or opportunity that brought Chyna into the Kardashian orbit? And now that she’s there, what will she make of it?
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Born Angela Renee White in 1988, Chyna has been on her grind since she was a child. “I always liked having my own money and buying my own stuff,” she says. “I didn’t want to depend on somebody to do it for me.” When she was 15, she landed her first job at a McDonald’s in Charles County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. Management put her on the cash register immediately. “Normally you start on fries or burgers, but I was never back there,” she says proudly. “I guess it was because of my personality.”
After a series of fast-food gigs, she ended up waitressing at Hooters, and from there she moved on to the more lucrative world of strip clubs. Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college, so she deferred admission to Johnson & Wales University in Miami and stripped at local Maryland spots for two years. By age 20, she had saved enough money to pay for tuition.
The siren calls of the Miami clubs proved irresistible, however, and soon she was back on stage—performing as Blac Chyna, a moniker she lifted from one of her patrons. She lived on campus, attended classes during the day, and worked the local poles at night, a routine that took its toll. “I was falling asleep all the time in class,” she says. “It wasn’t working out for me.” She eventually dropped out of college, committing herself to stripping and modeling full-time. Her mother, a Dominican beauty who goes by the name Tokyo Toni, was fine with her decision. “My mom used to be a stripper,” Chyna says, “so she was like, ‘If this is what you want to do, be the best at it.'”
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Miami’s King of Diamonds, aka KOD, where Chyna danced during these early years, is regarded by many as the ultimate pleasure palace. Magnums of Dom Perignon go for $1,500, but patrons can also munch on $6 mozzarella sticks. “You can get a haircut, smoke a cigar, and get a lap dance all at the same time at KOD,” explains Thomas, who has visited the fabled flesh mecca—for research purposes, he makes clear. But the bottle service and snacks aren’t the attractions: The women who work at KOD execute feats that would put Cirque du Soleil acrobats to shame.
“You couldn’t miss me,” she says. “You would want to come meet me.”
When she was dancing at KOD, Chyna reigned supreme. “I don’t recall her being an overly enthusiastic stripper, and she wasn’t big on doing tricks or stunts on the pole,” says radio personality Angela Yee, co-host of the wildly popular, nationally syndicated morning show “The Breakfast Club.” (Yee has seen Chyna perform over the years.) But “she had such a distinctive look—she looked like someone who was going to be famous.” That look would earn her thousands of dollars—”The most I’ve ever made in one night is $15,000,” Chyna says—and legions of fans who were enamored with her otherworldly curves, elaborate floral tattoos, the cheek piercings that dotted her dimples, and her long, platinum wigs with heavy bangs. “You couldn’t miss me,” says Chyna, who bears so close a resemblance to Nicki Minaj that she was cast as her stunt double in the music video for Kanye’s “Monster.” “You would want to come meet me.”
Her reputation was cemented when the rapper Drake gave her a shout-out on his 2010 album Thank Me Later: “Call up King of Diamonds and tell Chyna it’d be worth the flight,” he rhymed. Drizzy’s imprimatur was a game changer—and an object lesson in the mechanism of celebrity in 2016. “Once the biggest rapper in the game name-checks you, your Instagram followers blow up,” Thomas explains. “The amount you can charge for club appearances blows up, and the money you can make in the club blows up, because now people are coming to specifically see you.”
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One of those people who made the pilgrimage to see Chyna was a young rapper named Tyga, a Compton-bred pretty boy, who, after seeing her, pursued her for months. (Tyga is now known, perhaps primarily, as the on-again, off-again love interest of Kylie Jenner.) “He wanted me to go on tour with him and Chris Brown,” Chyna says, but she turned him down. “I’m like ‘No, I’m not going on tour. I don’t know what type of game you think this is.'” Chyna finally gave Tyga a chance after he cast her as his love interest in his video for “Rack City” (48 million views and counting on YouTube). Chyna appears in the video as the rapper’s candy-cane-sucking accomplice, perched on his motorcycle like a hood ornament come to life.
The gig paid her just $2,500—”I should’ve gotten more. He’s kinda cheap,” she says, only half-jokingly—but soon she and Tyga were dating in real life. At the start of 2012, Tyga moved his lady out of the clubs and into a $5 million home in Los Angeles. Now she was sitting courtside at Lakers games and posting belfies (that would be: butt selfies) with her new, similarly well-endowed bestie Kim K., whom she met through Tyga.
Later that year, Tyga and Chyna welcomed a son they named King Cairo. Life was good. “It was like Pretty Woman,” Yee explains. “The girl made it out of the strip club, and now she’s a mom, dating a rapper who wants to marry her. That never happens.” But the Instagram-filtered Cinderella story came to an end in 2015 when Tyga allegedly began dating Kim’s barely legal sister Kylie. (Tyga initially denied that the two were romantically involved.) The family members rallied around Kylie and quickly distanced themselves from Chyna.
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Cue the rapid-fire social media air strikes. Tyga posted a picture of Kylie on Instagram with the caption: “Certain things catch your eye, but only few capture your heart.” Chyna dissed Kylie’s over-inflated lips and posted texts from Tyga begging her to rekindle their romance. Kylie then posted pics of the watches and luxury cars Tyga gave her as gifts. Kanye’s ex, Amber Rose, sided with Chyna and went on the attack. TMZ gleefully chronicled every moment of the fracas.
Chyna claims the taunts didn’t hurt her. She and Tyga were on the outs when he took up with Kylie, she says, and she’d already moved on. “When you don’t want to be in a relationship with somebody anymore, you don’t give a fuck what they’re doing,” she declares. “I was just like, Thank God I’m out of that situation. And honestly, it was the best thing that I could’ve done, because my life has changed so much for the better.”
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She soon revealed at least one major way in which her life had changed. In early 2016, Chyna announced her relationship with Rob Kardashian with an Instagram post captioned, “The Beginning.” Shortly thereafter, she moved Rob into her home, cut his carb intake, and began guiding his reinvention.
Chyna has been credited with turning around Rob’s fractured life. Rob B.C. (before Chyna) was a recluse who gorged on junk food (he recently admitted to spending $13,000 in one month on takeout) and had cut himself off from his close-knit family (he ditched Kim and Kanye’s wedding). Rob A.C. (after Chyna) exercises, eats home-cooked meals, and happily engages with fans on social media. During a recent episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the sisters begrudgingly acknowledged the tremendous impact Chyna has had on their brother. “She gave him confidence. More power to her,” says Kim. “Some pussy’s getting him to remove his braces and shave his beard and work out,” added Khloé through gritted teeth. Kanye put it more bluntly in his song “Highlights”: “Black Chyna fucking Rob helped him with the weight/Wish my trainer would tell me what I overate,” he rhymed.
“When I linked up with Rob, he was at a point where nobody could really help him,” Chyna says. “But I’m the type of person that likes to motivate my friends and help them figure out how they can do better. That’s how we really started off.” She’s proceeded by giving him his space. “When I’m around Rob, I’m never all up in his business, asking questions. I let him be himself and relax,” she says. “I’m not a therapist. If he opens up, and I say the wrong thing, he may shut me out. Sometimes it’s just best to let people talk about it and get it off their chest. That’s how I’ve been carrying the situation with me and Rob, and so far it’s worked out.”
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Chyna’s dedication seems to have elicited the same kind of devotion in Rob. Being equal parts life coach, consigliere, and geisha has won her a seven-carat diamond (worth more than $300,000, according to various gossip sites) and her man’s loyalty. When she was arrested in January for public intoxication and possession of a controlled substance, Rob drove 19 hours from L.A. to Austin, Texas, to bail her out of jail. And in a recent episode of KUWTK, Rob appears to side with Chyna over family. “Y’all aren’t, like, that welcoming of this relationship,” he says to his mother, “so you can’t just expect me to be like, ‘Oh, let’s all hang out.'”
Chyna says that Rob came up with the idea for their show, and she was immediately on board. “Doing a show allows us to get our side of the story out to the world,” she says. With her future husband, she says she’s able to be truly authentic. “Most of the time when you’re around the opposite sex, you kinda have to put on a show and not completely be yourself,” she says. “Around Rob, I’m always able to speak my mind and speak freely and not care. I can do the craziest stuff or say the craziest stuff, and he doesn’t judge me. Like if my stomach hurts, I don’t have to pretend. I can go straight to the bathroom. It’s those little things that really make a big difference.”
“When I linked up with Rob, he was at a point where nobody could really help him.”
The show will give Chyna a chance to show this side of herself, and it will also give her the opportunity to prove that she won’t be defined by her past or what people may think of her. “I wanted to show people my personality, that I’m not just a pretty face or what some people paint me out to be: this bad person, this stripper ho. I want them to see me as a mom, a businesswoman, a growing being.” Chyna says that her fiancé appreciates her entrepreneurial spirit. “He likes my work ethic, how I’m a hustler,” she says. “I don’t care if it’s one dollar or a thousand dollars, I’m going to go out and get it.” Executives at E! are, not surprisingly, betting that Rob & Chyna will be another boon for the network. “There is a pop-culture fascination with this couple, the unique twists and turns of their relationship and the various family dynamics. We think E! viewers will very much want to see the true story that goes beyond the headlines,” says Jeff Olde, executive vice president of programming and development at E!.
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As for what the show means for Rob and Chyna, it’s a little less predictable. Reality television is littered with the carcasses of couples who have withered under the spotlight. Messy divorces, jail stints, infidelity, and bankruptcy are all far from uncommon. In fact, it seems the surest and most expedient way to not-happily-ever-after is to invite millions of schadenfreude-sipping couch potatoes into your lives. And on this week’s KUWTK, Kim, Khloé, and Kris spoke about the apparent tension that had arisen between Rob and Chyna.
But Chyna, when we speak, is optimistic: “We’ll bring people into our world, and then they will start rooting for us, and when you have people rooting you on…it always makes things better,” she predicts. “Rob is going through his depression, but I feel like if he has the support from his fans and people from the outside, it will help. It helps to have people around to give you that confidence.” Chyna and Rob plan to tie the knot after she gives birth later this year, and she says she wouldn’t rule out a wedding special that captures their journey to the altar.
“I don’t care if it’s one dollar or a thousand dollars, I’m going to go out and get it.”
For now, at least, she can count on a certain level of support from the family. Once the Kardashians accepted that Chyna was here to stay, Kim reportedly brokered a truce, and the Calabasas cold war was over. “We all have a really good relationship right now,” Chyna claims. “Everybody is talking. Everything is good.” When I try to probe deeper, she snaps. “I said everybody is fine now. Can you please move on?” We move on.
Her pregnancy is also progressing smoothly, she says. No morning sickness or cravings. That must mean you’re having a boy, I tell her. According to ancient/sexist lore, baby girls rob their mothers of their beauty and wreak havoc on their bodies. She’s quiet for a long beat, but then giggles. “You all will find out [the sex of the baby] during the premiere of our show on September 11,” she teases. Will their scion have a “K” moniker, like all of his (or her) famous aunties? “No,” Chyna says unequivocally. “The baby won’t have a K name. We both agreed.” As for what comes next for her, she’s still working on it. “Once I have this baby, I will figure out what’s next,” she says. “I’m not focusing on anything else right now.”
Photography by Williams + Hirakawa
Styling by Annina Mislin
Hair by Janet Michelle
Makeup by Jolisa Jackson