In Focus

Lizzo: The poster girl for body positivity, whose empowering image is now under threat

The ‘Good as Hell’ singer has crafted a globally successful brand of body positivity and self-love, backed up by a litany of empowerment anthems. But as the star faces shocking allegations in a new lawsuit, Kate Ng digs into how she got here

Thursday 03 August 2023 13:26 BST
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The singer is at the centre of a lawsuit filed by three of her former dancers
The singer is at the centre of a lawsuit filed by three of her former dancers (Shutterstock/iStock)

Woo, girl, need to kick off your shoes/ Got to take a deep breath, time to focus on you.” “Thick thighs save lives.” “I am my inspiration.” Empowering and full of affirmation, lyrics like these helped turn Lizzo into the poster girl for self-confidence. Just a couple of months ago, she lit up Glastonbury’s Worthy Farm, performing a set that many said should have earned her a headliner slot. Building on two years of dominating the airwaves with her inspiring messages and impressive flute solos, Lizzo was at the top of her game.

But new allegations of sexual harassment and fostering a hostile work environment have thrown that image into doubt. On Tuesday (1 August), three of Lizzo’s former dancers accused her and her production company Big Grrrl Big Touring of a series of shocking claims – including fat-shaming, disability discrimination, false imprisonment, assault, and more. The lawsuit was filed by Arianna Davis and Crystal Williams, who competed on Lizzo’s Amazon Prime reality series Watch Out for the Big Grrrls in 2021, and Noelle Rodriguez, who performed in the singer’s “Rumors” music video.

It has long seemed as though Lizzo’s rising star was unstoppable. The pop superstar, born Melissa Viviane Jefferson, has become not just one of the most adored names in music, but a fully-fledged global superstar, with numerous appearances on screen, her own aforementioned TV series and global tour, entitled “The Special Tour”, which began last September.

She’s also won the hearts of millions with her sincerity and fervent wish for fans to love themselves, no matter what they look like. It’s felt personal for her, Lizzo regularly addressing criticism of her weight and calling out bullies and trolls while advocating for Black women in the music industry. She’s also condemned racism and the marginalisation of minority groups such as the LGBT+ community. Her songs have similarly become sing-along anthems for those who felt seen – and heard – by her.

Dancers who filed lawsuit against Lizzo describe star's alleged 'weight-shaming'

But the recent lawsuit threatens to send Lizzo’s star hurtling back down to earth. The 44-page suit details claims that Lizzo allegedly “hounded” her employees to “touch” nude performers during a trip to Amsterdam strip club Bananenbar against their wishes. A separate incident alleges that the star made her dancers take part in an “excruciating” 12-hour audition after accusing them of drinking before performances – with her later firing Williams after she had challenged the singer’s assertion. Meanwhile, Davis also alleged that Lizzo told her she seemed “less committed” to her role in April, which she understood as a “thinly veiled” comment about her weight.

On Thursday (3 August), Lizzo released a response to the allegations, calling them “false” and describing her former employees’ claims as “unbelievable” and “outrageous”. She alluded to how it has impacted her, calling the days since the suit was filed “gut-wrenchingly difficult and overwhelmingly disappointing”. Likewise, the lawsuit sent shockwaves through her fandom and beyond. Many expressing their shock online are aghast at the details included in the 44 pages, allegations that do not seem to align with the pop star they thought they knew. Since news of the lawsuit broke, Lizzo’s ex-colleagues, including another former dancer Courtney Holliquest, former creative director Quinn Wilson, and filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison, have come forward to support it.

In an Instagram Story, Allison, who was initially hired by Lizzo to direct her 2022 documentary Love, Lizzo, described the “Truth Hurts” singer as “arrogant, self-centred and unkind”. This description is in sharp contrast with the personality that Lizzo shares with her fanbase, which often encourages kindness and consideration for others.

The term ‘body positivity’ only exists because of body shaming. People should naturally be body positive, and body positivity should be something that’s built into our culture

Lizzo

Lizzo’s pre-fame beginnings were humble: while trying to break into the music industry, she lived and slept in her car for a year. This period of the star’s life, which occurred at age 21 after the death of her father, contained “traumatic experiences” for the singer, she has previously said. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly after her documentary was released, Lizzo said: “I don’t think about it often, but recently I thought about it a lot where I’m having this full-circle moment of like, wow, I’m in my house that I’ve purchased and I’m watching this documentary about my life, talking about when I was sleeping in my car and on Thanksgiving. It’s very cyclical and full-circle.”

After moving to Minneapolis, Lizzo became a regular performer on the underground circuit as she performed with indie hip-hop groups. In 2013, she released her debut album Lizzobangers, which was described by The Guardian as “at times joyfully nonsensical”, with “lethally pointed” rap bars. Reminiscing about her underground days during an appearance on YouTube series Hot Ones, Lizzo said: “I dropped so many Lizzo bangers there and they supported me so f***ing much in Minneapolis.”

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It was all upwards for Lizzo from there. The following year, she was named by Time magazine as one of the 14 music artists to watch in 2014. In response to the killings of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Lizzo wrote “My Skin” for her subsequent album Big GRRRL Small World. The song was also about body image, as Lizzo wrote in Vice: “This is a summoning of bodies: all shapes, sizes and shades to unite in their pride, and wear their skin like the gift it is.”

But it was after Lizzo wholeheartedly embraced a message of body positivity that she became a household name. Her next two albums, Coconut Oil and Cuz I Love You, sent her career stratospheric. “Good as Hell”, widely considered a huge self-love anthem, was released as the lead single from Coconut Oil and featured on the soundtrack for the 2016 film Barbershop: The Next Cut. Lizzo began speaking more openly about body positivity and self-love, and declared her intention to “fight for the right to be you and to be beautiful and to be accepted”.

She told CBC Radio at the time: “The term ‘body positivity’ only exists because of body shaming. People should naturally be body positive, and body positivity should be something that’s built into our culture.” “Juice”, a pumped-up anthem bursting with confidence and self-esteem, went viral on TikTok and featured in the Netflix film Someone Great. “Truth Hurts”, also from Cuz I Love You, drew even more success and became her first No 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

A pre-fame Lizzo performs in 2016
A pre-fame Lizzo performs in 2016 (Getty)

With “Truth Hurts”, Lizzo became the first Black solo female R&B singer to reach the peak of the Top 100 since Rihanna in 2012 with her track “Diamonds”. She performed at Coachella Music Festival for the first time, as well as with her flute at the 2019 BET Awards, earning her a standing ovation. She then played on the West Holts stage at Glastonbury. She also ventured into acting, playing a supporting role in Hustlers, which starred Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, and voicing a character in the animated film UglyDolls.

Between 2020 and 2022, Lizzo continued to gain further recognition. She signed a production deal with Amazon Studios and released her reality series Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls in 2022. The show saw 13 women – including Davis and Williams – competing to be dancers for Lizzo. It received six nominations at the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards in 2021, winning three of them. Last year, she also released her fourth studio album Special, which featured the hit song “About Damn Time”. However, she also courted controversy after fans complained about the use of the word “spaz” in her song “Grrrls”. She later replaced the lyric and said in a statement: “As a fat Black woman in America, I have had many hurtful words used against me so I understand the power words can have (whether intentionally, or in my case, unintentionally) … As an influential artist, I’m dedicated to being part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world.”

While that storm blew over quickly once Lizzo acknowledged the hurt caused by her lyric and acted swiftly to change things, the current lawsuit she faces has much wider and more damaging implications. Whether or not it will turn her army of fans against their favourite singer remains to be seen, as many are still processing her response to the allegations. Just last week, she was praised for speaking kindly to an 11-year-old girl who asked her to help her deal with online bullies during the Australian leg of her Special tour. Lizzo told the young girl: “The words that we say have a long-lasting effect on people.” It may turn out that the singer realises this applies to her actions as well.

The Independent has contacted Lizzo’s representative for comment.

This article has been updated following the release of Lizzo’s statement.

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