I felt like I went to sleep as Rihanna and woke up as Britney Spears …
—Rihanna, as told to Glamour magazine.
If you have ever watched E! True Hollywood Story, chances are, you already know the outcome. Great fame, greater fallout, stardom and scandal stretched out across headlines. Feb. 7 was the fallout for pop singer Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty; the moment her private life collided head-on with her very public persona. Since the night she was assaulted by her then-boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, after a pre-Grammy Awards party, the two have been divvied up by the media, each made out to play one of two parts—he, the victimizer; she, the victim.
Amid a haze of hearsay and speculation in the months following the incident, Rihanna has been silent. That is, until now.
She appeared Friday night on 20/20 for an exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer, sharing her side of the story in the first interview since February’s attack. Sounding dignified and in control, she talked about how she hid after the attack, feeling ashamed and alone.
"I felt very lonely,” she said. “I couldn't even go back to my own house because there were 200 people outside with cameras, paparazzi, journalists, fans, neighbors."
It was the end of a made-for-the-blogosphere romance. Sites like theYBF.com, tracked Chrihanna’s every move and PDA. Award shows, after-parties and romantic getaways all captured on-camera and devoured by the public. Until that night.
The details of what happened, Rihanna said, are “ugly.” After confronting Chris with a text message from another woman, things “escalated into him being violent.”
So violent, she said, that he had to have blacked out as he put her in a headlock, bit and punched her repeatedly. Her voice faltered a bit as she described what happened, but she appeared to hold her emotions in check.
“My next option was to get out the car and walk—start walking in a gown and a bloody face,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a plan. That whole night was not part of my plan.”
So, like Lindsay, Paris and Britney before her, Rihanna watched her pain become media matter for consumption. The Root‘s own Jimi Izrael speculated as to whether the battered photo of Rihanna, which leaked shortly after the attack, should have been made public or not. But, eventually, he, too, said the photo was fair game. Bruised eyes, swollen face, fat lip and all.
“I felt humiliated,” Rihanna said. "I was like, here goes my little bit of privacy.”
But while Rihanna was busy trying to figure things out, the world was watching—and writing about—her road to recovery and the stumbles along the way.
Despite PR strategizing on both sides, family statements, Chris’ lawyer-ing up and issuing an immediate apology, the speculations spread like wildfire and so did the headlines.
Was Rihanna/Chris Brown Debacle A Publicity Stunt? What Will Happen to Chris Brown and Rihanna? Chris Brown, Rihanna Back Together.
Through it all, Rihanna remained surprisingly tight-lipped. When she canceled a concert in the Middle East or returned home to Barbados, when she was photographed about town or strutted across Europe in all-black couture, she said nothing about Chris or the mess made of her image since February. Instead, the TMZ leaks did all the talking for her.
Parody clips of the attack began circulating on YouTube. A “Chris Brown Punch Out” game went viral. Folks even started making T-shirts with slogans like “Rihanna Deserved It!” and “I Beat it Like Chris Brown.”
Somehow a real issue of domestic violence became “spectacle,” as Rihanna said.
And as far as role models go, Rihanna wasn’t a willing poster child for domestic abuse. She didn’t clamor for a PSA appearance or speak out against Chris as he did damage control for his own image, appearing on Larry King Live last month, bowtie clad and full of “I’m sorrys.”
“I just, I didn't talk about it to anyone, to no one,” Rihanna told Sawyer. “Not my friends. Not my family … It's not something that I wanted to relive. It's not something I wanted to think about … I just put it away in a box … and just ignored it really."
During Friday night’s interview, Rihanna finally opened up, discussing her own family’s history of domestic abuse, past outbursts from Chris and why she regrets going back to him only three weeks after the attack.
Her eyes teared up just a bit as she explained how she couldn’t bear being held responsible for other young girls going back to their abusive boyfriends because of her. “Don’t react off of love,” she said. “Eff love.”
In the blogosphere, some cynics dismissed her 20/20 appearance as a plug for her upcoming album, Rated R. (Brown, who also has his album, Graffiti, set to release early December, also conducted a one-on-one interview the same night with MTV’s Sway.)
Rihanna cited another reason for breaking her silence:
"I knew I had to do this in order to move on for me and in order for my fans to move on with me because it would always be a question in their mind … I don't want that five years from now every time [fans] see Rihanna, they think of Chris Brown beating me.”
But one Twitter bug essentially said just that, dubbing the battered songstress “tha 2009 Robin Givens.”
“That's not who I am,” Rihanna said in the interview. “It's just one thing that happened to me.”
Saaret E. Yoseph is a writer and assistant editor for The Root.
Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at TheRoot.com. She manages and blogs for \"Their Eyes Were Watching …\"