OPINION: Lady Gaga has a Predator Problem
The first time I had to confront Lady Gaga’s fraught history with famous predators was years ago in the discount aisle of Barnes & Noble.
There’s nothing like it: beautiful, glossy coffee table books for $5, high-quality art books cheaper than the coffee being hocked over at the attached Starbucks. On this particular trip, I happened to come across a 360-page behemoth of a photo book chronicling Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster and Born This Way eras. As a lifelong Gaga fan, I was enamored.
The trouble is this: the photos were shot by Terry Richardson.
As it happens, the book was titled Lady Gaga x Terry Richardson. I didn’t notice Richardson’s name tailing Lady Gaga’s on the spine of the book at the time because the cover bares no title, just a shot of Gaga with her blonde hair slicked back, sporting chunky shades and a black leather jacket, her name studded across the back in rhinestones.
In case you missed it, Terry Richardson is a photographer with a track record of sexual harassment and assault going back to 2005. He found himself under renewed scrutiny following the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the launch of the #MeToo movement in 2017, culminating in Condé Nast and a slew of brands severing ties with him.
I’ll admit it, I was conflicted. The photos looked cool and they gave an uncensored, unabashed look into one of pop music’s most exultant performers. “It’s only $5,” I thought. “Is $5 really ‘supporting’ anyone?” And Lady Gaga herself is a survivor. Isn’t her narrative worth supporting?
In the end, I left empty-handed.
If you somehow missed out on Terry Richardson’s fall from grace, you definitely haven’t missed R. Kelly’s. Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part docuseries aired on Lifetime, detailing two decades of abuse, sexual assault, and enslavement of black underage girls and women. The series was reportedly a struggle to make; Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Mary J. Blige, Questlove, Lil Kim, Dave Chapelle, and Erykah Badu reportedly turned down requests for interviews, executive producer dream hampton said to The Fader.
Lady Gaga has been a vocal advocate for victims of sexual assault, and is a survivor of sexual assault herself. She’s supported Kesha through her trial against Dr. Luke and spoken in defense of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh.So why does she keep associating with sexual predators? Lady Gaga has remained silent in the face of both the revelations against Kelly and Richardson’s ejection from the ranks of the Hollywood elite.
“Do What You Want With My Body” with R. Kelly on “Artpop” was part of the reason why I panned it.
— Ernest Owens (@MrErnestOwens) January 4, 2019
hampton criticized Gaga, saying , “I wanted to know how Lady Gaga could be on SNL with him as someone who advocates for domestic abuse survivors and was, you know, had this ridiculous performance with him on SNL.”
In 2013, Lady Gaga went as far as to defend R. Kelly after he appeared on her track “Do What U Want.” “R. Kelly and I have sometimes untrue things written about us so, in a way, this was a bond between us,” she said.
That “bond” culminated in the never-released music video for “Do What U Want,” directed by none other than Terry Richardson. The video was characterized as “an ad for rape,” according to PageSix. The plot mirrors Gaga’s real-life hip surgery. She, the patient, asks R. Kelly, “Will I ever be able to walk again?” To which he responds, “Yes, if you let me do what I want with your body. I’m putting you under and when you walked up, you’re going to be pregnant.”
After delays spanning months, one of which coinciding with renewed and mounting controversy around both Kelly and Richardson, the video was finally shelved. Richardson had denied accusations in March 2014 and then again in his New York Magazine feature. Gaga’s camp maintained that she was “in the dark” about the allegations against Richardson, according to TMZ.
Ultimately, TMZ leaked a clip of the music video.
In the clip, Kelly appears to sedate Lady Gaga, after which the “fun” begins. A brigade of nurses and Kelly proceed to have a sexy party over Gaga’s unconscious body. The video also features Richardson, who, in typical form, shoots a very naked Gaga as she romps in crumpled up tabloids about her.
Though Gaga distanced herself from them after controversies surrounding their behavior arose, Richardson was still present backstage at her Roseland Ballroom residency and they even worked together as recently as in 2016. She also tweeted in support of Kelly’s song “Shut Up.”
— Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) May 19, 2014
That brings us back to the question: why does Lady Gaga persistently surround herself with sexual predators? As a vocal advocate for victims of sexual assault, lauded by former Vice President Joe Biden for her voice in supporting survivors, how is it that she’s been able to justify aligning herself with some of the industry’s most notorious abusers?
While all of this is grim in and of itself, just another disappointment to add to the pile is that Lady Gaga has never apologized for involvement with these predators. She opted to stand by Kelly in 2013 and chose not to participate in Surviving R. Kelly. After Richardson was publicly excommunicated in 2017 from the world of high fashion photography, no apology or acknowledgment of his wrongdoing was issued by Gaga or her camp.
In the wake of Surviving R. Kelly, apologies have been more forthcoming even if it’s too little too late. Chance the Rapper issued an apology for collaborating with R. Kelly and outright disbelieving the black girls and women who’d been victimized by Kelly.
“We’re programmed to really be hypersensitive to black male oppression,” he said. “But black women are exponentially [a] higher oppressed and violated group of people just in comparison to the whole world. Maybe I didn’t care because I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were black women.”
Meanwhile, Lady Gaga was at the Golden Globes, accepting an award for her work on A Star Is Born. Simultaneously, another controversy was playing out as Bohemian Rhapsody accepted the award for Best Motion Picture Drama. Bryan Singer, who directed most of the film before being fired, was noticeably absent from the thank-yous amid allegations that he sexually assaulted a 17 year-old boy a decade ago.
Full disclosure: I wound up buying that book.
On a whim over the summer, I googled it and found the book for $1.99 on thrift book site. After giving it the same thought it gave it several years ago, I bought the book feeling comforted by the fact that none of my money would be going into the pockets of a predator. (At the time, I was thinking of the situation as survivor vs. predator. After reflecting on things again more recently, I realized that this was not the case as the predator was under the employ of a survivor. There was no “winning” side). Ultimately, I felt I could just enjoy photos of an artist I’ve loved for a decade.
The photos make it immediately and inescapably apparent that you’re watching the life of a young star play out through the lens of a sexual predator. The book details not just her stage life but private and intimate moments as well. Lady Gaga has always been open and unabashed in her nudity but flipping through the pages of Lady Gaga x Terry Richardson, you realize how impossible it is to separate the art from the artist. In the pages of the book, Lady Gaga’s moments of grief, triumph, and joy are inextricable from the cloying gaze of a man who has hurt dozens of girls that are just like her, perhaps just less lucky.
Edit: Lady Gaga issued an apology on Twitter for working with R. Kelly. She will be removing “Do What U Want” from all streaming services. She did not comment on why she chose not to participate in Surviving R. Kelly, nor on her association with Terry Richardson.