Rihanna, what were you thinking when you picked Johnny Depp for your Savage X Fenty fashion show?

How, when, where and why would it seem like a good idea to cast a man who joked with a mate about killing his ex-wife?

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Saturday 05 November 2022 13:17 GMT
Rihanna introduces Fenty Skin

I have always liked Rihanna. Well, as much as you can like someone you have never actually met. But as many of us know all too well, your greatest strength is often your greatest flaw – and the thing that initially attracted you to someone later becomes the thing that repels you.

I have always admired Rihanna for how effortlessly she exudes that timeless I don’t give a f*** category of cool that never goes out of fashion. But upon learning she is going to feature Johnny Depp in the November fashion show for her Savage X Fenty lingerie brand, I am thinking maybe she should give more of a f***.

How, when, where and why would it seem like a good idea to cast a man who verbally abused his ex-wife, Amber Heard, in audio recordings? (He told her: “Shut the f**** up … Don’t f***ing pretend to be authoritative with me. You don’t exist.”) Moreover, a man who joked with a mate in text messages about killing Heard. In a message to Paul Bettany in 2013, before Depp and Heard were married, Depp said: “Let’s burn Amber.” He added later: “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will f*** her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.”

Not to mention the other vile slurs he used to refer to Heard in texts to his ex-agent Christian Carino: “50 cent stripper” and “gold-digging, low-level, dime-a-dozen, mushy, pointless, dangling, overused flappy fish market” being the ones that stick in my head. “I wouldn’t touch her with a goddam glove. I can only hope that karma kicks in and takes the gift of breath from her,” he added. Or the time that Depp branded Heard a “worthless hooker” and “joked” about how he would “smack the ugly c*** around” in texts to an unnamed individual before he married her.

Upon hearing the news Depp would be appearing in Rihanna’s fashion show, I immediately started to speculate. Is this an example of Rihanna being “out of touch”, as has been suggested on social media? Has she actually read the court documents in the recent Depp v Heard case? Is Rihanna the victim of a scheme hatched by a PR mastermind who lives by the age-old mantra that there is “no such thing as bad publicity”?

Unsurprisingly, I am not the only one who was shocked that the Barbadian pop megastar cast Depp for a cameo in the show, which is due to be streamed on Amazon Prime Video next week (Wednesday). Rihanna’s fans have also voiced alarm online. This is because of the legal battle Depp was recently embroiled in with Heard, but also because Rihanna was subjected to a violent attack by Chris Brown, her boyfriend at the time and a fellow musician, back in 2009. She was left with a black eye, a busted lip and bruising on her face. A photo of her injuries went viral. Brown pleaded guilty and received five years of probation and a community service order for the assault.

To recount the origins of Depp’s court case, the Pirates of the Caribbean actor sued Heard back in March 2019, claiming a column she wrote for The Washington Post about domestic abuse was defamatory and requesting $50m (£44m) in damages. Heard submitted a $100m countersuit. Although the article did not include any reference to Depp, his legal team argued that the piece contained a “clear implication that Mr Depp is a domestic abuser”, which they maintain is “categorically and demonstrably false”.

After a six-week trial in Virginia in the US, which millions of people around the world watched, Heard was ordered to pay Depp $10m in compensatory damages and $5m in punitive damages. The jury found Heard made “false” statements about the pair’s marriage and acted with “actual malice”. Meanwhile, Heard was awarded $2m, after the jury found that Depp had defamed her via his lawyer. But both Heard and Depp are set to appeal the verdict – with Heard alleging that errors in the trial prevented a “just and fair verdict”.

The high-profile battle came after the High Court in London ruled in 2020 thatThe Sun had not defamed Depp by referring to him as a “wife beater”. A judge described the statement as “substantially true”, as well as finding 12 of Heard’s 14 abuse accusations were proven to be “substantially true”.

All of the above makes it staggering that Rihanna has picked Depp – of all people – for her cameo. In an attempt to try and make sense of the repercussions of this decision, I asked Dr Adrienne Barnett, who specialised in family law while practising as a barrister for more than 30 years in the UK, what she thought.

“This decision will inevitably be seen as an endorsement of Depp and will send a strong public message that high-profile, privileged men’s violence against women is unimportant and should be forgotten,” warned Dr Barnett, a senior lecturer in law who specialises in domestic abuse and the family courts.

“It is a stinging insult to millions of women globally who are victims or survivors of domestic abuse and who have already suffered from Depp’s public degradation of Amber Heard. What message does Depp’s appearance in this show give to women who are trying to find the courage to disclose abuse? It is very much hoped that the decision to include Depp will be reconsidered.”

Despite this, in the far recesses of the internet, there is no doubt that people love Depp. Yet, while his cult-like demigod status among his fans is undeniable, it also transcends his apostles. People who are not avid Depp fans are protective and defensive of him. Like the family friend who asked me whether I’d been “made to write” about the Depp v Heard trial, before saying “she’s full of s***, isn’t she”. You can’t help but wonder if this is perhaps a sentiment shared by Rihanna.

But the question remains in my mind: Rihanna, what were you thinking when you picked Depp for your fashion show? Forget the manifold issues with this decision from a human perspective; it also seems like a strange move from a PR perspective. This was a trial that provoked sick and twisted responses from droves of people on social media. Twitter and TikTok were inundated with memes and lip-syncs mocking Heard’s testimony about the alleged violence and abuse she suffered at the hands of Depp – as well as seeking to prove she was lying.

Misinformation about the case abounded on YouTube, where one-sided clickbait videos provided an unbalanced depiction of the trial. Not to mention the memes that surfaced and actively saluted the harrowing, violent messages Depp sent about Heard.

Why would Rihanna want to associate herself with a case that invoked some of the most gruesome misogynistic content to emerge on the World Wide Web in its history? What was she thinking?

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