The scaffolding TMZ headline became a tower of terror for Rihanna fans: “Johnny Depp. Savage X Fenty Guess Appearance. In Rihanna’s show!!!”
Variety confirmed that, yes, Johnny Depp would appear in Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Vol.4 on Wednesday, streamed exclusively on Amazon Prime. Depp is the first male celebrity to be a featured guest at one of Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty shows (even though he isn’t mentioned in the press release, which means he was supposed to be a surprise). Past celebrity guests have included Cindy Crawford and Erykah Badu.
Savage X Fenty is Rihanna’s global lingerie brand. Its brand ID is built around “diversity and inclusion in sizing, access,” wrote Forbes, “and marketing can lead to an even greater goal, equity in feeling sexy.”
Aligning itself with Johnny Depp could mortally wound Savage X Fenty’s favorability rating among women, which makes the Johnny Depp stunt even more baffling. It’s also bizarrely predictable.
Rihanna used to court controversy like Madonna slipping out of a dress in front of a burning cross. Her tweets were like burning effigies blended with a dark sense of irony. In the 2010s, Rihanna embraced her bad bitch persona the way Elizabeth Taylor became America’s Cleopatra and (as Hedda Hopper once argued) turned the world into her oyster.
Normies have spent a decade staring aghast at Rihanna’s unbridled lasciviousness. Rihanna feuded with her rivals in public, translated her pettiness into public executions on Twitter, turned streetwear into “revenge dresses,” rolled her eyes behind oversized shades, with glittering rivulets of sweat rolling off her back with as much fucks-left-to-give as Diana Vreeland flirting with a surfer.
Rihanna blew kisses to the feminist media and the men still running those ancient stone tablets of masculinity once known as “men’s magazines.” She was accused of glamorizing abuse, turning someone else’s religion into an aesthetic, and got her “S&M” video banned in eleven countries.
But Rihanna’s self-destructiveness always seemed to be part of a shrewdly played publicity strategy. She turned controversy into dollar signs. She was never “canceled” the way Lana Del Rey was because Rihanna could quickly turn scandal into social justice. Her foundation has donated $15 million to social justice causes. She dissed Trump in an Instagram photo, where she was seen graffitiing “Fuck Trump” in a hoodie — a newly designed piece by Fenty, her brand. She added, “ELECTION!!! Wake up! Stay woke!” She sold lots of hoodies. She took out the trash (i.e., Trump) and endorsed Biden-Harris, in another post. Everything she did was carefully staged, monetizable, stylish, alluring and glittering with dollar signs. That’s how Rihanna became the youngest self-made female billionaire. She also became an “unproblematic fave” during the Trump years. She was rarely transgressive for the sake of being transgressive. It was a PR winning streak…
After recently announcing that she would headline the Super Bowl, Rihanna followed up with her return to music with the single “Life Me Up” (for the Black Panther sequel). Then, like a surprise attack on an unsuspecting target, it was announced that Savage X Fenty (which posted 200 percent revenue growth last year) would join the rehabilitation campaign of Johnny Depp, who has been accused of abusing his ex-wife, Amber Heard, and became the feminist media’s public enemy number-one during last year’s defamation trial (TikTok’s “Trial of the Century”), which found that Depp was defamed by Heard.
But why would Rihanna risk so much just to give Johnny Depp his moment? The Savage X Fenty news was leaked on the same day that Johnny Depp began his appeal of the defamation verdict (which awarded Amber Heard $2 million; Depp got $10.35 million). Amber Heard also deleted her Twitter — likely related to Elon Musk (her ex) taking over the app — but then again, who knows.
None of this explains why Rihanna would create such an incendiary PR crisis just to give Johnny Depp a few seconds of publicity. But the move has accomplished something else: Savage X Fenty has produced the most talked about, tweeted about and controversial runway of the year. People are also boycotting Rihanna’s cosmetic products and lingerie, but how long will that last? Is the negative PR worth the number of media impressions and additional eyeballs? How long will people even care about this? When Johnny Depp made a surprise appearance at the 2022 MTV VMAs — which initially caused mass hysteria on Twitter — the blowback lasted about a week. Nobody is boycotting MTV.
Will they boycott Rihanna? White women in the media are playing this very carefully, so they probably won’t. What they’ll ultimately do is back away. Rihanna is not Lana Del Rey. She is not an easy target or a “Karen.”
Either way, Savage X Fenty’s Johnny Depp moment is already in the can (his name is mentioned in the end credits). This is happening. The other looming question is whether all publicity is *still* good publicity for Rihanna, who could either be the mad queen — a self-destructive tyrant who has lost touch with reality — or a strategic military commander who remains one step ahead of her critics.