When John Geraghty was 14, he entered a local singing competition called New Jersey Teen Idol. He won, but he remembers being awestruck by runner-up Cari Fletcher. “I had no idea if I had a crush on her, if I wanted to be her, or if I wanted to work with her,” he recalls. They stayed in touch over the next few years, and Geraghty watched closely as Fletcher competed on The X Factor in 2011 (as part of a short-lived girl group). Following her elimination on the show, Geraghty, then a college freshman, made his pitch to her: “I have no experience but a lot of passion, and you have a lot of potential. We should work together.”
Today, Fletcher, 26, who records under her last name, has become one of the buzziest queer pop stars, thanks to last year’s Billboard Hot 100-charting “Undrunk,” and Geraghty manages her with help from his “co-pilot,” Carter Gregory, who signed Fletcher to Capitol in 2018. Together, the two executives (who are both 26) are uplifting the kind of out-and-proud artist they wished they had seen growing up. “She normalizes what it means to be a queer artist,” Gregory says. “Young queer kids around the world can look to Fletcher and see her being herself and being open and free.”
They’re also doing so in jobs they never imagined they’d have. “I thought there were certain roles that existed for women and gay men [in the industry], like being a publicist or starting as an assistant,” says Geraghty, who credits a digital marketing internship at Billboard in 2013 with helping him realize he wanted to be a manager. “After a while, I realized I couldn’t wait around.” Adds Gregory: “I want to open the door for other young queer kids and people of color.”
Fletcher jokes that working with her best friends feels like “scamming” an industry. “Sometimes we’ll be hanging out on the couch drinking wine, cc’ing each other on emails as if we’re not right next to each other, wine-buzzed and scheming, plotting the future of Fletcher,” she says. “We’ve supported each other through a lot of crazy life transitions, from leaving home to finding ourselves — John and I came out to our parents the same week — to trying to break into the industry.”
Geraghty and Fletcher’s success together began even before they graduated college: Her song “War Paint” topped Spotify’s viral charts in 2015, while she was attending New York University. Yet instead of accepting the first label offer they got, they chose to grow her career independently to give themselves more leverage later. Geraghty and Gregory, who had bonded over their love of pop at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, made their way to Los Angeles, where Gregory managed songwriters and producers at Milk and Honey and helped arrange sessions for Fletcher. Meanwhile, Geraghty started networking at a breakneck pace. “I made it a point to meet a different manager every week,” he says. “I saw there was a community of gay managers out there servicing some of the biggest pop stars in the world, and that gave me the confidence and determination to do this.”
When Gregory landed his job at Capitol, he knew it was time for Fletcher to level up. Weeks before his start date, Carter recalls, “I was calling in like, ‘Yes, she’s one of my best friends, but she’s going to be one of the most important and dynamic pop stars to come, we need to sign her!” Other labels were interested, too, so Fletcher, emboldened by her independent success, secured ownership of her masters as part of the deal (with help from her attorney, Aaron Rosenberg, who appeared on Billboard's inaugural Pride List and has made a career of uplifting fellow queer voices in the industry). It also didn’t hurt that Capitol is “the gayest label ever,” Geraghty jokes, with several out artists (Sam Smith, Troye Sivan, Halsey) and a staff that included many women and queer people in leadership roles. At other labels, Geraghty says, “Fletcher was looking around the office and seeing all straight white men and looking at the walls and seeing artists that all looked the same.”
Fletcher had already finished her most recent EP, you ruined new york city for me, by the time she signed to Capitol, and it didn’t take long for its lead single, “Undrunk,” to win over radio programmers in early 2019 with its sticky melody and ultra-candid lyrics. “She brings people into her life in such a descriptive way,” Gregory says. “Oversharing is caring for her.”
A key placement in the rebooted The L Word: Generation Q earlier this year also helped grow her following. “The [original] show really helped me with accepting my own identity and was a doorway into what life could be like for me,” says Jenny Swiatowy, vp/head of creative sync licensing at Capitol Music Group (who also appears on Billboard’s 2020 Pride List). “So when the show came back, I knew I had to get all our LGBTQ artists, especially Fletcher, involved.” Last December, Swiatowy sent a demo of Fletcher’s “Bitter,” a then-unreleased collaboration with producer Kito, to the show’s music supervisor, who used the song in the climax of a January episode. “It’s the moment when Tina [a character from the original series] comes back, which is a huge deal for anyone who watches the show, so everyone was talking about that but also [asking] ‘What’s that Fletcher song’?”
Before the track’s official release in May, a fan-made YouTube clip of the song racked up over 90,000 views, and airings of the episode contributed to roughly 25,000 Shazam queries, according to Swiatowy.
Now, the team is focused on figuring out how to keep that momentum going in 2020 amid a pandemic. Just as the novel coronavirus put the live-music industry on pause, Fletcher dropped the would-be summer anthem “Forever” and was preparing for a North American arena trek with labelmates Niall Horan and Lewis Capaldi. Yet thanks to her time as an independent artist, Fletcher isn’t afraid of the DIY approach as she now cuts vocals and films visuals from her parents’ house. “I feel like I’ve returned to what I’ve always been doing,” she says. “I’m just a fucking simple kinda-ratchet bitch from New Jersey — I don’t need much.”
Besides, Geraghty has always known that building something from the ground up takes time. “We learned very early on that we would rather do it on our terms with the people we trust than compromise our creative or our morals,” he says. “Team Fletcher has always [said], ‘We’d rather take five years than one year if we get to be who we are and say what we want to say.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 13, 2020 issue of Billboard.
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