Former dancers have initiated legal action against American musician Lizzo, reminding us arts workers deserve the same workplace protections as any other industry
Last month, multi-Grammy winner Lizzo graced stadiums across Australia with her electrifying performances. Glowing five-star reviews celebrated Lizzo, the stage name of Melissa Viviane Jefferson, for attracting audiences of that are inclusive and celebrate love. Over the past three years, Lizzo has shifted from cult performer to a global icon with her fourth album and international tour.
Lizzo is known for her unique blend of self-acceptance and body positivity. Her personal brand radiates “unbridled joy and unapologetic self-confidence.” As a vocal supporter of fat positive language, Lizzo has faced significant criticism and hostility online.
However, a recent revelation has sent shock waves through fans and media circles, demonstrating a potential disconnect between her public persona and the behind-the-scenes music industry culture.
Three former dancers have taken legal action against Lizzo, her dance captain, and her production company, Big Grrrl Big Touring, levelling allegations of sexual harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment.
The legal documents, filed in Los Angeles, outline nine charges against Lizzo and her team, many of which fall under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The charges allege Lizzo and her management pressured dancers into unwanted sexual situations, weight-shamed employees and failed to prevent religious and sexual harassment in the workplace. The dancers also claim that, as their employment was precarious, they felt they had to comply with requests that made them uncomfortable or risk losing their jobs.
Media and fan commentary has underscored the apparent disconnect between the messages of love and self-acceptance promoted by “brand Lizzo” and the reported experiences of the plaintiffs.
While Lizzo disputes their accounts, the issue will now play out in both the courts and social media. In the middle of this, the dancers’ claims resonate with the experiences of many musicians and arts professionals in Australia.
“Legally, the concept of a workplace extends beyond the physical location of work. It encompasses “any place where individuals engage in work-related activities associated with their role as a participant.” For touring musicians, this definition goes beyond the stages they perform on, encompassing after-parties and social events”
Sexual harassment and bullying in Australian music
In 2022, an independent review of the Australian music industry exposed rampant instances of sexual harassment and bullying.
More than 1,600 individuals participated in the Raising their Voices study, which revealed pervasive inequalities and poor workplace behaviour within the industry. Women and marginalised communities were most likely to be victims of harassment and bullying. Harassment of those associated with the music industry goes beyond workers, extending to audiences and others such as partners and service providers, pointing to a broader cultural concern demanding immediate attention.
Responding to the report, Federal Arts Minister Tony Burke emphasized: “All Australian artists and arts workers deserve safe and equitable workplaces. Safety doesn’t only encompass physical security, but also entails an environment free from harassment and bullying”.
Under the umbrella of the new national cultural policy, the government also established the Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces. This institution is tasked with overseeing improvements in pay, safety, and welfare within the arts sector.
Australia’s legal obligations for workplaces are clear. The Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Act 2022, enacted in December 2022, introduced a positive duty for employers to ensure a safe and respectful work environment.
Organisations are required to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment and eliminate behaviours that foster a hostile workplace. Importantly, this must be done regardless of any complaints or allegations.
The workplace is more than an office
Two considerations arise when discussing appropriate workplace conduct in the arts. Firstly, the definition of the workplace is crucial. Raising their Voices shows sexual harassment occurs in various settings, including offices, music venues, work-related gatherings, and during tours.
Legally, the concept of a workplace extends beyond the physical location of work. It encompasses “any place where individuals engage in work-related activities associated with their role as a participant.” For touring musicians, this definition goes beyond the stages they perform on, encompassing after-parties and social events.
What you should expect as an artist
Artists should expect an environment free from bullying, harassment and any form of discrimination. All workers must feel safe to exercise their workplace rights and call out any perceived unjust treatment. Some 71% of Raising their Voices respondents felt their career progression was negatively impacted by speaking out.
Workplace behaviours are largely driven by organisational culture, or “the way we do things around here.” A positive culture is one based on respect, clear communication and constructive conflict management.
Leaders are vital in role-modelling acceptable workplace behaviours. In the music scene, where many workers are “gig workers”, leaders play a crucial role. Good leaders demonstrate workplace norms and ensure the organisation has appropriate policies and processes in place.
As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese declared at the launch of the national cultural policy, “Arts jobs are real jobs.”
This statement underscores the fact arts workers deserve the same workplace protections as any other industry. Arts leaders must not confuse entertainment with an unrestrained party atmosphere.
It remains crucial for arts workers, whether in management or creative roles, to fully comprehend their rights and responsibilities. Equally important is the recognition that being on tour, despite its allure for audiences, is fundamentally work.