Last week, when TMZ reported Rihanna had cast Johnny Depp in her upcoming Savage X Fenty Vol. 4 fashion show, I didn’t want the news to be true. Despite the fact the tabloid had also broken the story that Depp would appear at MTV’s Video Music Awards, I hoped against hope that TMZ had simply been too eager on a half-baked tip and accidentally misreported a mere rumor. Even when Rihanna didn’t deny the news, I repeatedly asserted to colleagues and friends that once her team took note of the backlash, his part would be cut. Then, I saw advanced screeners, and there he was.
Exactly midway through the show, as a dozen shirtless male dancers make their way through the depths of a shadowy forest, the camera pans to an unlit tree. A slipshod pony-tailed Depp, clad in what appears to be olive green silk pajamas, a matching robe, and his signature Venice Beach jewelry collection, emerges from behind its trunk and begins sauntering toward the lens to OutKast’s “So Fresh, So Clean.” For a few seconds, the dancers flank Depp as he continues his stride. He smolders, he smirks, and at times, he blessedly breaks eye contact with the camera. The cameo—reported as the show’s first-ever male “star segment”—lasts less than a minute, and concludes with him embracing a different tree. Compared to the rest of the show, it’s boring; so nonessential that I’ve yet to conclude why it was necessary at all.
In the aftermath of the TMZ report, Depp devotees rejoiced that Rihanna, a public survivor of domestic abuse, reportedly invited an alleged domestic abuser and purported survivor, to participate in the show. Here was even more confirmation that their demigod must be innocent. “Real survivors recognize real survivors,” tweeted one supporter. Meanwhile, Rihanna stans questioned her team, her publicist, and her thought process.
It’s to be expected that Depp’s supporters have ignored the fact that, despite prevailing in the 2022 defamation trial, he lost his libel suit against The Sun, the British tabloid that dubbed him a “wife beater,” in 2020. After hearing ex-wife Amber Heard’s range of abuse allegations, a judge deemed them “substantially true.” Of the 14 alleged incidents heard in court, the judge concluded that 12 had occurred.
Many of the details were painstakingly re-aired in the recent Fairfax, Virginia, trial. Throughout weeks of testimony, Heard accused Depp of breaking her nose, slapping and kicking her, repeatedly sexually assaulting her, and threatening to kill her. Unsealed documents from the trial—made public thanks to a misguided campaign from Depp supporters—only affirmed the aforementioned. Among the unsettling claims was a 2014 text exchange where Depp’s former assistant, Stephen Deuters, confirmed an altercation that Heard mentioned during days of testimony, writing, “He was appalled, when I told him he kicked you, he cried.”
Depp, according to Heard’s team, admitted to the incident and later texted her: “Once again, I find myself in a place of shame and regret. Of course I am sorry…I will never do it again…My illness somehow crept up and grabbed me…I feel so bad for letting you down.” Depp’s disturbing text messages to friends Marilyn Manson and Paul Bettany were also especially egregious. “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!!” Depp wrote to Bettany. “I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she is dead.”
It remains unclear why Rihanna would choose to platform someone with credible evidence of abuse. MSNBC columnist Emma Gray surmised that she was simply operating as a savvy entrepreneur: “Nothing sways people’s values in a late-stage capitalist society quite like a big fat paycheck. And right now, Depp is an in-demand moneymaker, someone who the rich and famous have heartily embraced back into the fold.” I’d argue that’s what makes her decision that much more maddening.
Since the beginning of time, alleged abusers have secured the public’s graces through those who hold Hollywood’s puppet strings (and pocketbooks). Therefore, it wasn’t a shock when, in the weeks after the Virginia defamation trial, Depp secured a seven-figure deal with Dior, made millions on mediocre art, announced a new album, received a starring role in an upcoming film, and nabbed a directorial gig. Innumerable cases will tell you it’s part and parcel of the entertainment industry to side with a man like Depp; swaths of the internet, too. But that Rihanna, a billionaire business magnate might act like, well, any other billionaire business magnate, feels exceptionally cynical given her own history with domestic violence.
I’m old enough to remember when Chris Brown violently attacked Rihanna in 2009. I can also recall the photographs—leaked by a person she described to Vanity Fair as “a very nasty woman who thought a check was more important than morals”—which served as heartbreaking evidence of just how violent the assault was. According to a sworn statement from a Los Angeles detective, the pair had gotten into a verbal argument that swiftly escalated. By the time police arrived on the scene after a neighbor called 911, Rihanna was unrecognizable and Brown had fled. He pleaded guilty to one count of felony assault and received five years probation, 180 days of community service, and domestic violence counseling.
Similar to the response to Amber Heard’s abuse allegations, everyone from fellow rappers to industry leaders to legions of fans drew battle lines. Despite ample evidence, and more accusations of assault, many coalesced around Brown—Lizzo recently defended him, calling him her “favorite person”; Drake collaborated with Brown in 2019; and Eminem, who worked with Rihanna on a song about domestic abuse, rapped in 2011: “Of course I side with Chris Brown/I’d beat a bitch down, too.” Even ASAP Rocky, Rihanna’s current partner, jested about the abuse on the 2022 track, “D.M.B”: “I don’t beat my bitch/I need my bitch.” I’d be remiss not to note that Brown continues to go platinum, further cementing himself as one of the richest men in hip-hop, while Drake remains empowered to cast further doubt on another woman’s accusations.
Depp’s appearance in the show is even more befuddling given how often Rihanna herself has spoken out about domestic abuse. In 2018, when Snapchat used an abhorrent advertisement for a mobile game that asked users if they’d rather slap Rihanna or punch Brown, she issued a fire and brimstone statement, calling on the app to remove the ad immediately: “This isn’t about my personal feelings, cause I don’t have much of them...but all the women, children and men that have been victims of DV in the past and especially the ones who haven’t made it out yet...you let us down! Shame on you. Throw the whole app-oligy away.” More recently, when Draya Michele, a model and media personality, made an offensive comment about rapper Tory Lanez firing a gun at Megan Thee Stallion, insinuating it was something to aspire to, Rihanna tweeted: “Dumb bitch that shit ain’t fucking funny.” She then cut all ties with Michele, who’d been a Savage Fenty Ambassador.
It’s important to bear in mind that Rihanna, like many survivors of domestic violence, has since defended Brown, and even collaborated with him on a 2012 song. Rihanna’s relationship with her own perpetrator is her business and decisions like that, unfortunately, are not at all uncommon. According to the U.S. Justice Department, more than half of women have been physically assaulted in their lifetime. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 American women has experienced intimate partner violence, and approximately 1 in 5 women in the U.S. has experienced a completed or attempted rape. Perhaps Rihanna had little say in the show’s production, and it was her team that made the decision to tap, as Gray deemed, “an in-demand moneymaker.” But this, too, is bleak.
In no universe will Rihanna, global superstar and billionaire entrepreneur, and I ever be friends. Somehow though, this choice stung all the same nerves as seeing my peers go to my ex-boyfriend’s gigs, even after I told them that his weaponization of his suicidal ideations and suggestions that I was to blame kept me awake for days on end. Or when I confided in former teammates that a colleague had violated my body only to be doubted or slut-shamed because I continued to work with him. My perpetrators are married, successful, and frankly, richer than me. Meanwhile, I can’t afford proper therapy for how they indelibly marred my life—I’ve lost relationships, jobs, and opportunities as a direct result of their decisions. And I still cannot publicly speak about all that’s been done to me because I have absolute confidence that I’ll be interrogated, judged, and ultimately reduced to an Amber Heard-esque punchline.
When I first reported on Rihanna’s decision to cast Depp, I joked that it was a choice. Choosing not to believe a person who alleges abuse is one thing. Liking an alleged abuser’s Instagram post is also shitty. But actively giving someone’s alleged perpetrator another stage he didn’t need? Maybe Rihanna’s fan base is too significant, and it’s likely she’s too rich to pay it much mind. Regardless, Depp’s appearance, even if it is a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, is a stark reminder that an alleged abuser’s public absolution can be aided even by a pair of silk pajamas.