David LaChapelle Sues Rihanna Over S&M Video: Mismatched Fetishes

Rihanna vs. LaChapelle

Well this is like a colorful cupcake that tastes like a crusty lick of Perez Hilton’s latex jockstrap. Fetish/fashion photographer David LaChapelle took a rubber glove and bitch-slapped Rihanna with a oh-no-you-didn’t lawsuit over her video S&M, claiming that RiRi copied his style in her video. The video, which has been banned in 11 countries, and has had uninformed press saying that the video is “about abuse,” is now the center of LaChapelle’s legal accusations that “the music video is directly derived from and substantially similar to the LaChapelle works.” In his lawsuit filed yesterday, LaChapelle said Rihanna appropriated eight of his images in S&M, and that Rihanna’s video copied the “composition, total concept, feel, tone, mood, theme, colors, props, settings, decors, wardrobe and lighting” of his work. He is suing for unspecified damages.

I am a fan of both artists, but I also have seen a lot of fetish and fashion photography and video over the past 10 years as a professional sex blogger, and I can’t say I agree with LaChappelle’s angle. I’ve looked at the images, and it just doesn’t add up. Most of all, I strongly feel that LaChapelle is in no danger of brand confusion – meaning no one is going to look at S&M and think that it’s LaChapelle’s work. This is my own opinion, of course, but I’m a fan of LaChapelle and I’m familiar with the images he alleges were copied. When I saw the video I did not say (or mention in my post, as you know I will do) that it reminded me of, or even looked like his work. His work is iconic – and I’m sorry, but the images in the Rihanna video were generic – generic fetish imagery.

Most of all, a significant number of them are actually different fetishes.

(The whole set is here..

Look at the main two images of this post above.

In S&M Rihanna is dressed like a lady of the house walking her “puppy” (Perez Hilton) and taking him out for a pee, in a classic fetish scenario that depicts human-animal roleplay in the most typical and classic manifestation: pup-play. Rihanna’s outfit and mannerisms of the puppy, as well as the puppy’s outfit, are typical for this subculture – as is the suburban setting. She is also smoking (capnolagnia).

However, in the LaChapelle photograph we have two vastly different characters, a different scene and a different fetish that is not typical at all: the female is dressed to depict rubber raincoat fetish (mackintosh fetish, big in the UK) and is in front of a public Russian-looking building, carrying a whip, and is walking a leatherman in a gay-male-leather-culture BDSM outfit on a lead, though he is most certainly not posing as a dog or puppy. It is like a weird mashup of fetishes that don’t go together: nice image, but it doesn’t make real sense in real BDSM because that scenario never happens. It’s contrived. Rihanna’s scene actually happens in real life BDSM scenarios.

I could dissect the rest like this, but I just wanted you to see why I think LaChapelle needs to take a pill – and look around at the contemporary world of fetish. Latex and rubber makers and models will look at these two images and think, WTF LaChapelle – yes they’re both pink, but really? Two very different kinds of hoods, which mean very different kinds of scenes, not to mention this is VERY generic at this point in time:

Rihanna vs. LaChapelle

There’s also this comparison, which isn’t even close (yes, that’s Lagy Gaga on the right):

Rihanna Lady Gaga

Rihanna vs. LaChappelle

Lastly, to say that Rihanna’s rigging (photographer Nikki Nefarious did the rigging with pink rope for Rhianna’s S&M video) is a copy of the suspension in LaChapelle’s photo just shows a total lack of understanding about bondage and rope scenes. Anyway, I hope someone who understands fetishes chimes in on this one, because since fetish is seen in such an uninformed and judgmental light, I worry that it’ll all get filed away under “freaky” and creative people will get stifled. This just seems ripe for misunderstanding.

Yes, I wrote Fetish Sex: the only – and most referenced – book of its kind. I know what I’m talking about, and I have taught sexuality students about fetishes twice a year for nearly a decade.

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  • OMG

    Uumm… not the first time that rihanna has been accused of plagiarism. Apparently, her video director stole images from a girl ( sorry don’t remember her name) for her video HARD. Funny enough, the same person who made the HARD video is the same person that directed the S&M video…just sayin

  • Redme

    Must be the hat. If the sub on a leash wore a ball cap instead, all would be well….

  • Aurora

    I must say more than anything else I don’t quite understand the basis of the lawsuit. Even if they were similar, can’t one artist borrow/steal the visual style of another artist, especially if they work largely in a different media? For example, Kanye West’s Harder Faster Stronger was done in the style of/as an homage to Japanese anime classic Akira. Akira’s director didn’t sue. Lady Gaga’s Alejandro seemed like a mashup of more Madonna videos that I care to mention. Madonna’s lawyers aren’t beating down her door. If someone shot a music video in the style of Kubrick or set up the composition to look like a series of Chuck Close paintings, isn’t that par for the course, free speech or fair use or some combination of the two. Or is LaChapelle’s beef that since he has moved into directing videos recently, he should get compensation for being the director’s muse. That seems utterly ridiculous. Think of how many rap video directors in the 1990’s probably stole ideas from Hype Williams’ playbook. Or if we go back to film, how many budding directors in the naughts, copied the style of the Matrix or bullet time. Or how many people have copied John Woo’s double-fisting guns. Isn’t that the nature of art? If it’s good or popular, people will copy it (Ahem autotune). Imagine if Picasso had tried suing all his contemporaries saying “Oy, cubism is my schtick. Hand’s off”. I love DL, but he’s being a big baby.

  • Some Guy

    Someone is all primed to be called in as an expert witness….

  • K.

    Excellent detailed analyses, Violet – and I strongly agree with you that these images are not the same at all …

    … also, as you mention, the danger of stifling creativity within an area that urgently needs to continue to be expressed and shared – if LaChapelle were successful in this claim, does this mean that *all* images of puppy-play can be said to be ‘copying’ LaChapelle?! As if puppy-play didn’t exist before LaChapelle’s somewhat over-stylised portrayals?! No – Violet’s analyses of the details within the images, and their many differences, are spot-on.

    I also recall a specific image, in the same vein as the newspaper print style, of Cyndi Lauper (can’t remember exactly where, but I remember the image from the ’80s or ’90s) – are both Gaga and Rihanna therefore ‘stealing’ this idea from Cyndi Lauper?

    As for the bondage image, for anyone who has ever enjoyed personal experiences of playing with bondage (and I’m no articulate expert, but do know my bondage just personally-speaking!) to compare Rihanna’s image of what could be described as a half/loose-hogtie, with LaChapelle’s image of suspension-bondage – no: first of all, the rigging is completely different; also, to be in either of these positions feels completely different, and even causes completely different sexual and emotional feelings. Perhaps anyone who claims these bondage images portray the ‘same’ act, should try them both and discover the great differences for themselves ;-)


  • Lauren

    I think the main problem is probably that another of her videos recently quite obviously referenced Tim Walker, so it’s hard to say if the LaChapelle parallels are unintentional when she (or the people responsible for making the video) has already ‘ripped off’ someone else’s work.

  • I read up on this yesterday – and while I didn’t think it out in terms of actual fetishes depicted in the imagery, I did come to the same conclusion – anyone involved in fetish lifestyle, even on the edges would recognize the scenes from Rihanna’s video as classic and common costume and acts.

    From a photographers standpoint – their prior history working together would make you look twice at her video and draw comparisons, but there is nothing there that says copy. LaChapelle is treading on dangerous ground – you can’t copyright an idea, and with all the copyright issues out there this kind of lawsuit could do more damage for future situations than anything else.

  • I thought it was just me that wasn’t understanding the basis of his lawsuit after seeing the photos. It was the first one that had me very confused. Although they both have a woman with a man on a leash portrayed as a dog, to me they were nothing alike for the same reasons you pointed out

    I don’t consider myself an expert in any way when it comes to fetishes and fetish photography but I’ve seen enough over the past few years as a sex blogger to know that a photo of a woman with a man on a leash and all fours is somewhat common.

    Thanks for putting into this so clearly into words here.


  • To be perfectly fair, I thought it WAS directed by LaChapelle when I saw it and was mighty surprised when I found out it wasn’t.

    You’re right, though, Violet. Those chosen images, don’t make a strong case at all.
    Does he have a case? [shrug] You can’t copyright a style or a tone, only a result. She was undoubtedly inspired by LaChapelle, and rightly so, but I’d be surprised if this case has any legs because she didn’t out right copy or steal any images themselves, only perhaps the tone, the colors, and the spirit.