PR experts break down the controversy and whether singer will rebound

Lizzo is continuing to make headlines one week after being sued by three former dancers for sexual harassment, facilitating a hostile work environment and other troubling claims. The Grammy winner has denied all wrongdoing. As the controversy unfolds, there are more questions than answers.

Have more dancers come forward? Did the lawsuit have anything to do with the cancellation of the Made in America music festival? And what does this mean for the singer’s positive brand and reputation in the long run?

Here’s the latest…

Are there more accusers?

Last week, Arianna Davis, Crystal Williams and Noelle Rodriguez sued Lizzo, her production company (Big Grrrl Big Touring, Inc.) and Shirlene Quigley, the captain of her dance team. In the complaint viewed by Yahoo Entertainment, they claim they were weight-shamed and faced religious and racial harassment, assault and false imprisonment, among other allegations. (Not every allegation was brought against each defendant.) The law firm representing Davis, Williams and Rodriguez says other people have come forward with similar claims.

“We have received at least six inquiries from other people with similar stories since we filed the complaint,” Ron Zambrano, partner and employment litigation chair at West Coast Employment Lawyers, told Yahoo Entertainment on Wednesday. “Noelle, Crystal and Arianna have bravely spoken out and shared their experiences, opening the door for others to feel empowered to do the same. Some of the claims we are reviewing involve allegations of a sexually charged environment and failure to pay employees and may be actionable, but it is too soon to say.”

Yahoo is unable to independently verify identities of the six people Zambrano referenced. It’s also unclear whether the aforementioned allegations involve Lizzo or the other defendants in the lawsuit. The law firm is in the review process and says it’s too preliminary to state whether anyone else will join.

Was the Made in America festival canceled because of the scandal?

On Tuesday, it was announced the long-running music festival in Philadelphia, founded by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Entertainment, will not happen in 2023. In a statement, organizers cited “severe circumstances out of production control.” Lizzo was set to be a headliner during the Sept. 2-3 event, and naturally, some wondered if the controversy surrounding the singer was why it was axed. A source close to the situation told Yahoo the lawsuit had nothing to do with Made in America getting canceled.

How damaging is this to Lizzo’s image?

Forbes believes “this discord threatens the core of her brand” — and experts seem to agree. Yahoo Entertainment spoke with two crisis PR managers who break it down.

“The current scandal surrounding Lizzo is so shocking because much of what she is being accused of — workplace harassment, weight-shaming and sexual harassment — are contradictory to the platform of inclusivity, acceptance and general positivity that Lizzo has publicly built for herself,” Ronn Torossian, co-Founder & chairman of 5WPR, explains. “These allegations would be bad if brought against anyone, but to be brought against Lizzo brings an extra sense of disappointment to her fans and the public.”

While Torossian says that “all the allegations are discomforting,” the “most damaging” claim is sexual harassment.

“You could argue that she’s a hard worker and expects her employees, in this case, her dancers, to meet her level of work ethic and dedication and represent the brand in a specific way. But there are circumstances no one should ever be expected to accept within their place of work, including sexual and religious harassment,” he adds. (The religious harassment claim involves Quigley.)

What has Lizzo said?

The 35-year-old singer has not spoken out since her initial statement in which she denied all accusations.

“My work ethic, morals and respectfulness have been questioned. My character has been criticized. Usually I choose not to respond to false allegations but these are as unbelievable as they sound and too outrageous to not be addressed,” she said last week.

“These sensationalized stories are coming from former employees who have already publicly admitted that they were told their behavior on tour was inappropriate and unprofessional,” Lizzo added, noting she has “high standards” when it comes to her employees. “Sometimes I have to make hard decisions but it’s never my intention to make anyone feel uncomfortable or like they aren’t valued as an important part of the team.”

Rodriguez, Davis and Williams slammed Lizzo’s response and accused her of “gaslighting.” Juda Engelmayer, president of HeraldPR, a crisis communications firm, called the statement “awful” and “almost dismissive.”

“She needs to work harder at an apology and appear to mean it and understand what it is she did,” he adds. “That’s not very likely in the short term.”

At the same time, Torossian notes: “As this is a lawsuit that could result in a formal trial, she needs to be aware that any statements she makes publicly from this point on, could hurt her defense.”

Will Lizzo get canceled?

The short answer is no.

“She will always have fans, and depending on how this plays out legally, she will most likely have a successful career for years to come. But there will always be a large population who will not forgive her and won’t let her forget this,” Torossian says. However, he adds, even celebrities of Lizzo’s caliber “never come out completely unscathed.”

Engelmayer believes that “unless a stream of more complaints come,” Lizzo will survive the scandal, which he calls “neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm” in terms of celebrity controversies.

“Lizzo can benefit from her reputation as being respected previously for various social, ethnic, gender and body-positive roles she’s played,” Engelmayer says, but thinks that if there are “more allegations, it becomes more difficult to recover.” And if there are legal consequences, even civil, “the impact will deepen.”

Engelmayer sees a way back for the superstar, and if he were advising her, this is what he’d say: “You’re in the public sphere, and have made your career as not merely a music sensation, but a public advocate for body image, women and LGBTQ matters, among others. You have to consciously live your life as if you’re in a bubble being watched and judged. Yes, you’re human and prone to human failings, but when you make your image that of an advocate, you take on more responsibility and must understand the consequences of being in truth, something less of what you preach. Apologize for real. Express true understanding of the failing and the issues and swallow your pride and just show compassion.”

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