Karen Civil is jaywalking across busy Slauson Avenue in the scorching afternoon sun, trailed by her entourage and dressed in a gunmetal-gray sequined gown. As the crew cuts through traffic, the driver of an eastbound car pokes her head out of the window — and not because she's pissed.
“Girl,” she yells across the street, “you're beautiful!”
Civil flashes her trademark grin. It's doubtful that the woman is among Civil's 1.8 million followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — which means it's doubtful she knows who Civil really is. But no matter. Just like that, Civil has another fan.
The 30-year-old social media maven might look like an Instagram princess, but her ascent was no fairy tale. “I get this thing where people are like, 'Man, you got to tell me what to do' — like I have a cheat code to being successful.” The actual path is devoid of glamour. “It's hard work, it's trial and error,” she says. “I failed, but I never let failure get to my head or to my heart.”
Civil has helped some of the biggest names and brands in hip-hop get even bigger. She got her own big break back in 2010, when she helped Lil Wayne launch a website, WeezyThanxYou.com, to keep up with fan letters while he was jailed for a year at Rikers Island on a gun charge.
“I was doing great,” she says. “I bought my first car.” But it dawned on her that she might be a little too comfortable. She had the car and a three-bedroom apartment in the town where she grew up, Elizabeth, New Jersey. She had the Weezy site and a digital marketing gig. She knew exactly what her next steps were. That was the problem.
So she ditched all that and moved to L.A. in 2010, where, based on her social media prowess, she landed a job at Beats by Dre.
“The first year was the hardest for me. I really didn't have no friends, I didn't know who was for me, who wasn't,” she says. “I felt like Los Angeles was breaking me.”
Her next break came in the form of a pair of gold headphones.
It was a long shot, but she tweeted at then–New England Patriot Chad Ochocinco, asking if the wide receiver — who had gold fronts on his teeth — would be interested in 24-carat headphones from Beats by Dre.
She didn't know him at all and didn't think he'd respond. He did. Somehow, she convinced him to buy Beats by Dre headphones for the entire team to celebrate its 2011 Super Bowl appearance. She orchestrated a similar move at the 2012 NBA All-Star Game, getting Lil Wayne to wear diamond-encrusted Beats headphones courtside.
“All these moments, you're getting millions of dollars in media,” she explains. “That's the way my mind works: creating a moment where everybody wins.”
In time, Civil went off to start her own digital marketing firm, keeping Beats as a client. Last year, she landed an even bigger project. Based on her huge social media following and success reaching millennials, Civil was tapped by Hillary Clinton's campaign to help with outreach to young voters. Essentially, she was tasked with making Clinton hip.
“I wasn't too much into politics, but she and her team made me realize what's going on in America, things we need to be thinking about: closing the wage gap, minimum wage, equal rights for everyone, climate change.
“She was for us. And I thought life was going to change on Nov. 8.”
Election Day also was Civil's 30th birthday.
“I had the cake ready, with sparklers, Lady Gaga was there. I was thinking, 'This is what the new America's going to be. Look at the change we had in eight years — we're going to have another change.'”
The change was not the one she expected. But the brief time she had with Clinton was a new level of inspiring.
“I can go back and tell my family this story: We dusted off our shoulders together, we high-fived, we fist-bumped. It was an incredible experience.”
Or, in social media parlance, it was fire.