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New lawsuit suggests what we see isn’t what we get with Lizzo

While plaintiffs could suffer effects of lawsuit, consequences for Lizzo may be marginal at best

On the titular single of Lizzo’s fourth studio album, Special, the multidisciplinary musician, songwriter and rapper croons, “In case nobody made you believe you’re special/Well, I will always love you the same, you’re special.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of the image that Lizzo has come to represent for her fans in her rise to stardom: a talented woman who chooses joy and self-love in the face of the rampant anti-Blackness and fatphobia thrown her way and is an evangelist for that message to all who choose to embrace it.

Given that, the NBC news headline, Former Lizzo dancers were weight-shamed and pressured while at strip club, lawsuit says, landed before the public with a thud. The headline suggested a person whose private life veered from her established brand identity — fatphobic and coercive versus good-natured and body positive. The more significant details of the suit offered even more concerning allegations levied by three of Lizzo’s former dancers (Arianna Davis, Noelle Rodriguez and Crystal Williams) — a hostile work environment, sexual harassment, religious harassment, racial harassment, false imprisonment, disability discrimination, and assault – a laundry list that seemingly flies in the face of the woman who rapidly changed the lyrics to a song once her disabled fans informed her of its ableist legacy.

During her acceptance speech for her Emmy award-winning competition series, Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, Lizzo talked about how important the show was to women who looked like her.

“When I was a little girl, all I wanted to see was me in the media. Someone fat like me, Black like me, beautiful like me,” she said. “One year ago, these women were filming this television show that would change their lives forever. They are Emmy-award winning superstars who are going on a world tour. Make some noise for my big girls. I love you guys so much.”

In current fan culture, to support and love your favorite artist is to believe the artist is an extension of your values and principles. And Lizzo’s public gestures of affirmation, in turn, validated that she not only represented but ostensibly uplifted all people, especially fat women.

The recent lawsuit has turned Lizzo’s image on its head. 

Once the complaint became public, a bevy of other people came forward to share their stories. A former dancer and creative director allege that the complaint mirrors their experiences. A director claims to have dropped out of filming Lizzo’s documentary because the singer was “arrogant, self-centered, and unkind” as well as a “narcissistic bully” whose “message was a curated facade.” And a woman claimed that her boyfriend of 10 years cheated on her with Lizzo after co-hosting the MTV show Wonderland. One of Lizzo’s disabled fans also accused her of ableist mistreatment at a show after she was trampled by a fan who was invited on stage; and singer/songwriter Elle Baez disclosed on TikTok that she suspected that Lizzo’s team had repurposed her music video concepts after she applied to compete on Watch Out for the Big Grrrls and withdrew from consideration after contesting the terms of the agreement. Most recently, lawyers representing the plaintiffs announced they are vetting new allegations from at least six people who toured with Lizzo.

In response, Lizzo questioned the women’s credibility and their honesty. 

“These sensationalized stories are coming from former employees who have already publicly admitted that they were told their behavior on tour was inappropriate and unprofessional,” she said in a statement on social media. “Sometimes I have to make hard decisions but it’s never my intention to make anyone feel uncomfortable or like they aren’t valued as an important part of the team.”

Lizzo’s lawyer, Marty Singer, a prominent attorney who has represented a large swath of Hollywood, offered a statement to TMZ alongside footage of Davis enthusiastically singing Lizzo’s praises while auditioning for Season Two of Watch Out for the Big Grrrls in April, months after she said the incidents in the lawsuit took place.

Several of the individual allegations are uniquely concerning — namely, those asserting sexual harassment, assault, and false imprisonment levied against Lizzo and her dance captain, Shirlene Quigley. The dancers allege that they felt coerced into attending an outing to Bananenbar, a sex club in Amsterdam, and participating in sexual acts that they were vocally uncomfortable with. Rodriguez alleges that Lizzo aggressively approached her with her hands clenched into fists after she resigned in solidarity with Davis. Davis also claims that when Lizzo discovered that a dancer had recorded a meeting, the entire group was harangued until she revealed herself as the culprit. The dancer said she recorded the meeting because of her vision disability and wanted to ensure she didn’t miss anything. The lawsuit also claimed the dancer was immediately fired yet forced to stay behind against her will as security ensured all footage had been deleted.

Unfortunately, many of the details of the lawsuit have been deemphasized in favor of a more sensationalist arc. Fat woman is an unkind, fatphobic hypocrite is much more eye-catching and sensational than Lizzo accused of fostering a sexually inappropriate, abusive, and hostile work environment via coercion.

The current discussion about Lizzo and these allegations hones in on the notion of an artist violating an informal social contract she had established via her fans and the public — that she embraced fatness in all forms — as opposed to being a public figure who is just as susceptible to industry standards as everyone else. Weight pressures in the professional dance world are the (unacceptable) standard. Accepting the story as stated by the plaintiffs, one of the biggest issues that arises isn’t that Lizzo is uniquely cruel, but that the dance world is uniquely unprotective of its workers’ labor — an ecosystem where dancers serve as gig-based freelancers, underpaid and overworked and taxing their bodies with little in the way of job security.

In employment law, even with the lower burden of proof in civil court, claims have to have evidentiary heft to support the allegations, an issue that claims of coercion often run into. “When worker decision-making is at issue, the law tends to be, in dramatic fashion, under-inclusive, deeming interventions consistent with rational judgment when they probably are not,” writes law professor Michael M. Oswalt in the UC Davis Law Review. “Coercion operates like a legal ‘light switch’… there is no way to test, in other words, whether an opinion, promise, prediction, or even threat has genuinely distorted free will.”

This threshold can be hard to surpass in claims where much of the coercion is implicit or understood via subtext. It doesn’t make the issue any less valid for public evaluation, however, publicly stating that the allegations amount to “looming feelings,” as two of the plaintiffs did during an interview with TMZ, can be difficult to substantiate in a legal process, which is less about getting to the truth of the matter but what can be proven in adherence with existing statutes.

The biggest concern is whether these young women are moving from one exploitative environment to another. A viral press and social media moment is just that — a moment. Despite her public reticence and the recent cancellation of the Made in America festival, where she was scheduled to headline, Lizzo remains a wealthy celebrity with a high-powered team behind her prepared to fight any allegation that comes her way.

It is unclear how much the plaintiffs’ lawyers prepared them for the fight that’s ahead: One can only hope that they understand and are prepared for all the stakes involved in naming and shaming a celebrity. For three fat Black and Latino women to go to the press and the courts and choose to tell their story about life in a very insular industry — without much in the way of a social or financial safety net — is a righteous choice. The capitalist system we survive in, however, rarely rewards righteousness.

By coming forward, these dancers may have effectively ended their careers without a guarantee of proper compensation for the duress they claim to have endured. Should their efforts fail, Lizzo will eventually move on, and this incident will fade into an asterisk on her Wikipedia page, potentially with a few more coded references in her next album. That is the nature of celebrity – an apparatus where consequences are marginal at best and, given a few tactical moves, rarely as debilitating as the initial reaction may seem.

Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based culture writer by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa. She explores identity, cultural production and technology via a race critical code framework as a critic, reporter, feature/profile writer, and essayist – with a particular emphasis on francophone accessibility in in the anglophone Black diaspora. Her work has been featured in a publications such as New York Magazine, Essence, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, BuzzFeed, Vox, OkayAfrica, The Root, Mic, The Baffler and Harper’s Bazaar.