How Women on Twitter Brought Down a Music Publicist Accused of Sexual AssaultLatest
On Sunday, January 17, Amber Coffman, a member of the band Dirty Projectors, was having breakfast with two girlfriends at a bar in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. They spent part of the time venting about their experiences with harassment from men, a conversation that picked up the following night at Coffman’s house between a larger group of women. “I was talking about how when it happens to other women I can be so fierce and stick up for them,” Coffman later told Jezebel. “But when it happened to me, I was paralyzed.”
A private talk among friends became public later that night, on Monday, when Coffman posted a series of tweets accusing music publicist Heathcliff Berru of inappropriate sexual conduct. On Tuesday, Life or Death PR President Nick Dierl announced that Berru had resigned as CEO. On Wednesday morning, after a swift and thorough outpouring of harassment claims from women on Twitter, Berru issued a statement about his resignation from the company he helped found.
First to her over 12,000 followers on Twitter and then to a magnified audience as she was retweeted over 100 times, Coffman recounted an incident two years ago in which the publicist, according to her tweet, “RUBBED my ass and BIT my hair at a bar.” Coffman also shared on Twitter that she was angry with herself for not punching him in the moment. She claimed, via tweets, that she’d heard similar stories from other women in the music business about the publicist, and, finally, she shared his name.
“It was Heathcliff Berru, at Life or Death PR and MGMT,” Coffman tweeted. “I’ve been told many women have had scary stories about him for years but are scared to speak up. And dudes overlook it and keep hiring him.”
The series of tweets from Coffman had, to her surprise, done what nothing else had to that point; other women in the music industry almost immediately began sharing similar harassment claims about Berru. Their stories, once out in the open, demonstrated evidence of an “open secret” in the music industry: ongoing creepy, abusive behavior of men, from the very powerful (Kesha is in the middle of a lawsuit with her label head, producer Dr. Luke, for alleged sexual assault and battery) down to moderate levels of influence, such as Life or Death PR, a small but known company that caters primarily to indie music acts.
Jezebel spoke to several women who have claims about Berru’s behavior, both on the record and off the record under condition of anonymity. No charges or lawsuits have been filed against Berru at present, but the accusations were widespread and varied, pouring out—rapidly—over Twitter in the span of 24 hours. As has proven correct for women in other power-imbalanced industries, social media was the most efficient way to be heard.
The repercussions were swift, too. Berru, who founded Life or Death PR in 2008 and accumulated a clientele of over 70 major and independent music acts (including D’Angelo, Of Montreal, Killer Mike, Kelela and Tyler, The Creator) resigned on Tuesday amid multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, alleged harassment or assault. Several clients have left the company, including Wavves, DIVV and Kelela, citing the accusations against Berru.
Life or Death released a statement announcing Berru’s departure and stating disapproval of the alleged actions. Berru didn’t respond to an email I sent to his personal account requesting comment or to multiple phone calls, but early on Wednesday, he released a statement in which he admitted to drug and alcohol problems. In this statement, Berru addresses the women who’ve accused him generally but does not go into specifics, and he states that he’s seeking help in the form of rehab.
In a phone interview with Jezebel, while recalling her encounter with Berru, Coffman said she was first introduced to him in Los Angeles in 2014. A week later, back in New York, she says she saw him at a bar on the Lower East Side during an afterparty. There, she claims Berru drunkenly groped her and put her hair in his mouth. “He started rubbing his hand up and down on my rear end,” she says. “I totally froze up.” Coffman says she walked away and told three of her guy friends, who confronted Berru. “He was still standing there and started making comments to me and grabbed my hair and started biting it,” says Coffman. She says Berru told her, “Can I just tell you that you’re incredibly cute?”
Coffman says she told friends and her label at the time, Domino Records, about the incident. (A rep for Domino told Billboard they had “no official comment but stand by Amber and her account.”)
“Usually when a guy acts like that, you don’t think that you’re the first. At the time that I told the story, a friend told me that she knew many, many people who this had happened to,” says Coffman. “I didn’t think to go public with it. I realize now that I was afraid of looking vindictive or harsh or causing too much trouble.”
After Coffman’s revelation on Twitter, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino responded to her in a tweet: “Thank you @Amber_Coffman for bravely speaking the truth. Heathcliff Berru is a scumbag and I’m glad someone finally spoke up,” she wrote. (Cosentino’s publicist at Press Here Publicity told Jezebel over email: “There’s no further comment beyond what she’s already posted on Twitter.”) In response to Coffman, Yasmine Kittles, one-half of the electronic duo Tearist, alleged that in 2009, Berru pinned her to her couch and forced her to grab his penis. She tweeted a thank you to Coffman for sharing her story.
Beth Martinez, the owner of Danger Village PR, replied to Coffman on Twitter, too, writing: “I was too ashamed to tell anyone for years, and took me years to realize how fucked up that was. my stories aren’t even comparatively bad to what has happened to other girls by this person. he repeatedly put his hand down my shirt while driving me home after I told him to stop many times.”
This tweet was indicative of a larger trend among the women, some of whom expressed concern that their experiences weren’t violent or wild enough to warrant talking about at length or making public. There seemed to be an impulse to chalk it up to basic, crass, creepy behavior and move on, because the potential response suggested by Berru’s continued success—essentially, that these incidents were no big deal—wasn’t worth the effort.
Since tweeting her story, Coffman says women have messaged her with similar accounts, and that some of the women aren’t comfortable sharing their tales in an open space. “What happened to me is the mild version of what happens to women. I don’t feel sorry for myself or anything. It seems like a lot of other women have had way worse things happen with this guy,” says Coffman. “I was like, well fuck it, I’ll just say his name, what do I care. After I said it, I looked at [Life or Death PR’s] roster, people I know on there, artists that I really like a lot and I don’t want to cause them trouble, but these are the kinds of things that stop women from saying anything.”
As is standard with sexual assault and harassment, some of the women who’ve come forward with claims against Berru say they figured people wouldn’t believe them. It’s compelling, then, that Twitter—often the beacon of false news and misinformation—was the source of the revelations, all starting with Coffman. As the news spread, one woman’s story inspired another, which inspired another and even bolder accounts—a result of the climate we now live in, where sexual assault stories go viral. Jezebel reported on a similar unraveling late last year involving a Complex editor alleging abuse.
“It wasn’t until Bethany from Best Coast said something that I felt more relieved, like okay, another person corroborated this story,” Beth Martinez tells Jezebel over the phone. “I thought, it’s not just me saying this and looking like a crazy person.”
The accusations against Berru have since been covered everywhere from Billboard to Page Six to The Cut, with many of the initial reports, tweets and updates coming from music outlets like Consequence of Sound and Pitchfork. Over the phone, Coffman says she was surprised how much traction her tweets had gained, but not that shocked that other women had their own stories involving Berru. Coffman’s publicist Judy Miller Silverman, of Motormouth Media, issued a statement to Jezebel over email, writing, in part: “No matter what the level of predatory behavior, it should never be tolerated and it was by many people in a systemic way for a long time.”
Outside of Twitter, another accusation came from singer Roxy Lange, who told Brooklyn Magazine that Berru sexually assaulted her in 2007 when she was then 21. “He kept trying to force me to give him a blowjob in a cab and wouldn’t stop pushing my head into his lap forcefully, with his pants unzipped and penis out in the open,” Lange alleged. “After I got out of the cab, he followed me up 3 flights of stairs and forced his way into my apartment, attempting to force himself on me but he was luckily too drunk and coked up to get hard so he gave up.” During her recollection, Lange called Berru “a disgusting, loser scumbag who doesn’t respect women.”
In our phone interview, Martinez recalled her encounter with Berru in 2009 at a bar in Chicago. According to her account, Berru was giving her a ride home when he made a move in the car. “We were driving through Chicago and he reached over and was fondling my breasts under my shirt. I kept telling him stop and I think he did it two or three times before we got home,” says Martinez. He apologized the next day over text, she says, and asked her not to tell their mutual friend about it. In 2012, after Martinez had moved to L.A., she says Berru groped her again at the Echoplex. “He grabbed my ass a few times and I told him to not do it and he repeated the action,” she says, noting the varying but no less damaging degrees of sexual assault.
“There are situations where you’re partying with someone and they try to put their dick in your mouth and you say no and they keep doing it and you never say anything,” she says. “I think those are important stories to tell.”
In a phone conversation with Jezebel, Tearist’s Yasmine Kittles stutters while remembering her 2011 experience with Berru in Los Angeles. After a previous introduction, Kittles says Berru invited her to a concert to hang out and talk business; he’d been trying to talk up his experience in the industry by sending her examples of his work. Kittles says that while driving her home after the show, Berru invited himself to her place to watch her band’s new video, despite her telling him she was tired. “No one had ever said anything negative about him to me,” she says. “You feel like you’re around people who would let you know who to look out for.”
During our conversation, Kittles says she frequently tried giving Berru signals, even speaking in the “‘I’m a friend’ tone,” she says, after he grabbed her ass. A while later, she recalls: “He grabbed my arm and pulled me down to the couch. He pulls me into this hug and it was going for too long. I tried to pull away to be like, okay that’s enough, and I couldn’t pull from his grip. I realized he’s holding me with one hand in this grip. I’m trying to get loose and in the moment, he grabbed my wrist and held my wrist. His dick was 100 percent out.”
Similar to other women’s accounts, Kittles says Berru apologized for his behavior over text the next day. After seeing others’ stories about him on Twitter, Kittles avoided reliving it. “I was humiliated. The whole time I was regressing. The whole time I was becoming this tiny thing,” she says of the incident in her apartment. “After I pulled my hand hard enough, adrenaline finally kicked in I guess. I kept saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ and that’s what made me angry at myself. But you can’t help it. I could’ve said any words. It would’ve been the same. He did what he wanted to do. He made me feel powerless.”
After fully operating through most of Tuesday, Life or Death PR’s website currently states that the site is “under maintenance.” (For context, as a music writer, I’ve communicated with Berru over email about his clients on multiple occasions over the years, and Jezebel has worked with Life or Death PR in its capacity as a publicity company.)
In a November 2015 interview with his alma mater DePaul University’s student-run paper DePaulia, Berru talked about his early days as a PR agent. “I began working with Wu-Tang Clan, LCD Soundsystem and all these bands that have now become successful. I essentially lived at the office because I moved to New York with no money saved up,” he said. “I crashed on the subway, friend’s couches, and did that for two years. I just continued to work and had the work ethic from pulling all nighters and trying to make something happen.”
After his resignation, a rep for Life or Death PR wrote to me in a statement also sent to other media sites:
Life or Death has a zero tolerance policy for the type of conduct alleged in today’s on-line postings. We take these allegations very seriously.
The men and women who make up this company do not, and will not, condone or tolerate any conduct described in the on-line postings. Life Or Death is 3 men and 3 women who are committed to promoting art and serving the clients that we’re so privileged to represent. We are taking measures to ensure that the alleged behavior did not, and will not, make its way into company operations or impact our commitment to promoting art and assisting our clients.
The statement added:
We are grateful to Heathcliff Berru for all the work he’s done to date and his creative vision at the company. We appreciate and support his decision to step down as CEO of Life Or Death.
When asked to specify whether Berru still maintains ownership of the company, the rep responded to me over email: “He is no longer associated with the company in any way.”
Several acts have publicly severed ties with Life or Death PR after the accusations. Wavves posted a Donald Trump meme on Twitter that read “You’re fired.” DIIV announced on Tuesday: “DIIV will no longer be working with Life or Death PR.” Kelela also left, tweeting: “Just wanna say I stand with all the women who are courageously speaking out. I am no longer a client of @LifeorDeathPR/heathcliff.” Speedy Ortiz also announced their departure via Twitter, when leader Sadie Dupuis wrote, “We’re thankful to the folks at life or death we worked w directly (not heathcliff). but after hearing these stories we’re no longer w/ LoD.” Killer Mike wrote a series of tweets voicing support for Berru’s recovery and for his victims: “I’m glad the employees (former) of Life or Death had a plan ready for clients and we chug along without Cliff but with hope that he grows into the best version of himself we all know is there. My best wishes again to Amber and all the women involved. Your bravery is admirable.”
In his personal statement, Berru acknowledged and apologized for his actions in a qualified way. “There have been several reports about my alleged inappropriate behavior which deserve a response,” the statement begins. “I am deeply sorry for those who I have offended by my actions and how I have made certain women feel. If I crossed the line of decency or respectfulness in situations when I was drunk and under the influence, there is no excuse of course. To be clear, while my conduct may have been inappropriate, I have never drugged anyone or engaged in that type of behavior.”
Part of Berru’s statement reads:
I have already lost my wife, abandoned my family, and destroyed those I love as a result of my shameful, embarrassing, unacceptable behavior. I deeply apologize to them as well. By no means do they deserve to feel the pain of my actions. Please give them the space they deserve. They were the light at the end of a dark tunnel. I was married during some of these years and hid my problems from everyone well. Especially her and her family. Totally inexcusable.
Berru ends the statement by separating himself and his actions from his company. “In no way do these allegations reflect on Life or Death PR, its staff, or anyone associated with the company. These are my issues, not theirs,” he writes.
A consensus from some of the women—a familiar one—is that their male colleagues tended to turn a blind eye when hearing about the alleged harassment or assault from Berru. “I think this guy was very popular and he was a party guy and had a lot of connections, so a lot of guys probably don’t see why they need to speak up about it,” says Coffman, referring to Berru. “That’s classic. That happens everywhere in every field all over. So many women artists and people working on the sidelines are told to bite their tongues, that they need to be quiet because it’s better for their career and that’s just unacceptable.”
Martinez expressed similar frustration with the lack of response from peers on both a personal and professional level. “I don’t know why the men I told about this continued to be friends with him,” she says of Berru. “I think part of it is men have a really hard time understanding.”
She believed her experience with Berru wasn’t as bad as the other stories she’d heard. “I’m not giving these interviews because I want to get back at Heathcliff. I don’t care about that. I care about women in the position I was in then where I felt powerless and I felt like I had done something wrong,” says Martinez. “I felt like I couldn’t speak up.”
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