How 'on fleek' went from zero to zeitgeist: It's about being fabulous

It didn't take long for a chance phrase coined by a teenager online to be picked up by the biggest stars in rap.

For a few hours on 1 March, it seemed as if "on fleek" would bring down the music industry. Nicki Minaj called out fellow artist Christina Milian for selling T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with "Pretty on fleek", words that Minaj raps on her latest album. "I was waitin on my percentage at the door! *tilts head*," Minaj wrote on Instagram.

The two patched things up, but the beef over who owns the phrase "on fleek", which essentially means "on point", left out the person who came up with the phrase – a high school student in a Chicago suburb named Kayla Newman, who first used it in a six-second video posted to the social network Vine last June under the name Peaches Monroee. "We in this bitch, finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek, da fuq," she says in the video, stroking her eyebrow.

One day last June, after she had her eyebrows done for the first time, Newman sat in the car while her mother went shopping and decided to make a Vine. "[Fleek] just came to me out of the blue," says Newman, who has just turned 17. "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."

Her video has had more than 28 million views, and on Instagram people have mentioned #onfleek some 200,000 times. If you are over the age of 16, and/or are not in the possession of teenage children, you may not be au fait with the phrase, but businesses have been quick to catch on. The US fast-food chain Taco Bell described itself as "on fleek" in October, racking up more than 15,000 favourites and 19,000 re-tweets.

A few days later, another American food brand, International House of Pancakes, posted a similar tweet. "'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. He says that its decision to use the phrase came 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. Singer Chris Brown and rapper Lil Wayne have publicly uttered the phrase, and The New York Times included it in a language quiz late last month about internet-era slang. Newman is shocked. "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 her daughter uses profanity: "She wasn't tripping about the fact that I cussed." But no worries.

Urban Dictionary has a "fleek" entry from 2003, defining the word as "smooth, nice, sweet," and another from 2009, defining it as "awesome". But "on fleek" in its current iteration seems to be Newman's invention.

The internet has myriad think pieces about what "on fleek" means, but Newman says that it's about being fabulous, comfortable in your own skin. "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 people have contacted her from all over the world about how much her videos mean to them. A young gay man told her that he had considered suicide, but Newman's positive message had helped change his mind. "I was like, wow. Shocked. Me? How can that happen from just saying a few words?"

Newman now sells "on fleek" merchandise online, although other people have trademark applications pending. But she is just a teenager, so there are many things pulling on her schedule. She had to delay this interview so that she could study for her university entrance exams, and getting her driving licence and planning for college are on the not-so-distant horizon. But she's also trying to come up with more phrases. "I'm trying to think of some, but it's like, with me, it's just gonna flow."

© Newsweek, Inc.

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