Lizzo, a pop star who has built her brand on both body positivity and empowering upbeat hits, is facing a new lawsuit that levels serious allegations, including claims that she created a hostile work environment and engaged in sexual harassment. Lizzo has denied these allegations, which have raised questions both about her treatment of employees as well as the reality of the image she’s cultivated as a champion of plus-size women and women of color.
The lawsuit, filed by three of Lizzo’s former dancers this week, also alleges misconduct by her production company, Big Grrrl Big Touring Inc., and her dance team captain Shirlene Quigley. Among the claims included in the suit is that Lizzo pressured dancers into unwanted sexual situations, made statements that were perceived as thinly veiled comments about a dancer’s weight gain, and put people through grueling rehearsals that led to one dancer soiling herself.
In an Instagram post, Lizzo pushed back against these allegations, claiming they are as “unbelievable as they sound and too outrageous to not be addressed.” She has also hired Hollywood lawyer Marty Singer — an attorney who has previously worked with Jonah Hill, Kim Kardashian, and Chris Brown — to represent her in the case.
Known for hits like “Good as Hell,” and “Truth Hurts,” Lizzo has been synonymous with catchy hits that have an overwhelmingly positive message. Additionally, as a plus-size Black artist she’s repeatedly called out the criticism and abuse plus-size women of color face in society, and sought to promote better beauty standards. Previously, she launched a size-inclusive shapewear line called Yitty and also had a reality show called Watch Out for The Big Grrrls, which aimed to spotlight and cast plus-size dancers. (Two of the plaintiffs, Arianna Davis and Crystal Williams, appeared on the show.)
The potential harassment detailed in the lawsuit, though, calls this message and her image into question, while highlighting the relative lack of oversight for artists in the music industry.
“The stunning nature of how Lizzo and her management team treated their performers seems to go against everything Lizzo stands for publicly, while privately she weight-shames her dancers and demeans them in ways that are not only illegal but absolutely demoralizing,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Ron Zambrano said in a statement.
The allegations against Lizzo, briefly explained
The lawsuit — brought by plaintiffs Crystal Williams, Arianna Davis, and Noelle Rodriguez — alleges nine areas of misconduct in total related to their experience on Lizzo’s “Special” tour. Some of these claims are made against all three defendants including Lizzo, Quigley, and Big Grrrl Big Touring Inc., while others are only alleged of some of the defendants. Additionally, some of the claims are made by all three plaintiffs, while others are only made by individual plaintiffs.
The civil lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, and could result in monetary damages for the plaintiffs if it were to move forward and the defendants were found liable. Prior to filing the suit, Davis and Williams had been fired from the dance troupe, while Rodriguez said she resigned over how poorly her colleagues were treated.
The allegations made against all three defendants include a hostile work environment that featured sexual harassment, a failure to prevent or remedy sexual harassment in the workplace, and a failure to prevent or remedy religious harassment in the workplace.
The plaintiffs claim they were made to feel their employment was precarious, and that they had to comply with requests that made them uncomfortable in order to continue working. Some of those requests were of a sexual nature, including, among other things, pressure from Lizzo to attend a performance with nude dancers in Amsterdam, to eat bananas placed in nude dancers’ genitals, and pressure on one of the plaintiffs to touch a dancer’s breasts.
Other allegations were tied to religious harassment. The suit alleges Quigley spoke extensively about her religious views as a Christian and berated those who didn’t share these beliefs. It claims that one dancer’s virginity was frequently discussed against her will, and that dancers were pressured to participate in group Christian prayer, regardless of their religious beliefs. All three defendants did little to remedy such actions despite knowing about them, the lawsuit claims.
“I think all of the causes of action have some merit and some chance of succeeding. In my opinion, the strongest cause of action is the sexual harassment charge. I think it’s likely that a reasonable person would think that behavior created a hostile work environment,” Chicago-Kent employment law professor Nicole Porter told Vox. Porter noted that one possible defense could center on how much disclosure the plaintiffs had about the experiences they should expect to encounter in this role.
Another part of the suit highlights concerns Lizzo had allegedly expressed about Davis’s struggles on tour, including comments Davis perceived as “thinly veiled” concerns about weight gain. Such statements followed alleged remarks Lizzo previously made about Davis’s weight, which the suit claims led her to feel self-conscious and required to speak on the issue. The suit details, too, a grueling surprise audition dancers already hired on the tour had to undergo in order to keep their positions during which Davis soiled herself out of fear that she would lose her spot as a dancer if she went to the restroom. Davis claims she was then given transparent shorts to change into.
Lizzo has denied these allegations and has yet to signal what steps she plans to take next.
Why the lawsuit is so significant
The lawsuit underscores the poor working conditions in the music industry, and the lack of accountability that exists for such abuses. Long hours, difficult physical labor, and short-term contracts are common, while institutional oversight of individual artists isn’t always present. Other artists including Cher and Britney Spears have been sued by their employees in the past for alleged discrimination and battery, respectively, for example. Cher’s case was dismissed and Spears settled her case.
“The sort of workplace described by the plaintiffs lends itself to harassment and exploitation,” says Martha Davis, a law professor at Northeastern University. “In this case, for example, there were not clear lines between employees’ own time and their jobs while on the tour.”
The lawsuit has felt more surprising to some fans given the public positions Lizzo has taken on promoting women’s empowerment and celebrating plus-size bodies. Aspects of the lawsuit, such as the alleged statements concerning weight, appear to directly contradict those stances.
Other developments have brought attention to the case as well, including Beyoncé’s decision not to mention Lizzo’s name while singing a song that references her in a recent concert. And for some fans, past lyrics in Lizzo’s song, “Rumors,” have taken on a different tenor in the wake of the lawsuit. In that song, she refers to people trying to sue her, NDAs, and sings about not caring about legal matters.
The suit is also renewing discussions among pop culture observers online about the need for stars to be held responsible for bad behavior and the disparities that continue to exist on that front. Like anyone fielding such allegations, Lizzo should face the legal process and potential consequences for any harm she’s caused. But she’s also likely to get more blowback for such a lawsuit than a white, male star — like Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, both of whom have fielded allegations of abuse (and denied them) — would due to the sexism, racism, and fatphobia she has to deal with.