Emily Ratajkowski, NYT Best-selling Author, Entrepreneur, and Model

Photo by: AWNewYork/Shutterstock

Saudi Arabia is trying to save face.

That seems to be the underlying purpose of a massive festival called MDL Beast, which recently recruited supermodels like Alessandra Ambrosio, Jourdan Dunn, Halima Aden, Irina Shayk, and Elsa Housk to party in the city of Riyadh.

Other attendees—many of whom flew in on private jets—included Luka Sabbat, Peggy Gou, J Balvin, Ed Westwick, Winnie Harlow, Sofia Richie, Scott Disick, Olivia Culpo, and Armie Hammer. Many attendees apparently received "6-figure sums" or offers as high as 8 figures in exchange for their presence and social media posts.

Ostensibly, the bevy of stars and their entourages were there to attend a three-day musical festival, which attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees. Their presence was part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ongoing attempt to modernize the country and maintain its lucrative relationships with other nations while distracting from the country's history of violence.

It seems to be working. Reports described the event as reminiscent of Woodstock or Coachella, and included a "rave" and "surrealist performers."

According to Armie Hammer's Instagram post, the event "felt like a cultural shift" and "will lead a cultural revolution."

Sofia Richie echoed the sentiment, posting an image of herself and friends, originally with the caption "Saudi Girls." The caption appears to have since been removed, but the photo—which remains—was taken at Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which is the same place where the Crown Prince detained political opponents in 2017.

Saudi Arabian influencer Nojoud Alrumaihi responded to critics and expressed support for the so-called cultural revolution, writing, "It's so sad to see posts based on complete ignorance and absolute media propaganda. While Saudi is pushing so much to change and to become the place it visions to be, we see posts like this from someone who never probably spoke to ONE Saudi person."

Emily Ratajkowski Declines Invitation to MDL Beast, Calls Out Human Rights Abuses

Not everyone was as quick to join the party. According to model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, who declined an invitation, attending the event went against her values and belief in human rights.

"It is very important to me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, freedom of expression and the right to a free press. I hope coming forward on this brings more attention to the injustices happening there," Ratajkowski told Diet Prada, an Instagram account that calls attention to injustices in the modeling and entertainment industry.

The Diet Prada account also posted a long critique of the campaign, citing Saudi Arabia's history of human rights abuses and violations.

In another critique of the event, former Teen Vogue editor Phillip Picardi questioned the integrity of the positive messaging that ensued from the festival. "A lot of the messaging of the captions is about portraying SA as changed and accepting, and the trips appear to be coordinated with the government or tourism board," he wrote. "You can't really 'buy' that kind of messaging, and how was your experience there tainted by who organized your trip and what you can or cannot say?"

Model Teddy Quinlivan also made her opposition public, putting things a bit more bluntly. "If you're an influencer and you're promoting tourism to a place to [sic] openly kills journalists and LGBTQ people as well a list of other horrible and archaic laws and politics: You're a f*cking SELL OUT," she wrote. After receiving backlash, she quipped on Instagram, "I've been called a sl*t and a wh*re more times in the last 24 hours by Saudi Arabian trolls and bots than I have in my entire life."

Karen Attiah, a journalist and friend of Khashoggi, also blasted the festival's attendees, citing the inevitable corruption that stems from accepting a sum in exchange for publicity. "I, along with activists and journalists have been living for the past year with risk and intimidation for daring to speak out about Jamal Khashoggi's murder, Mohammed bin Salman and the abuses under his watch," she tweeted. "For Glamour UK to take money from KSA.. it's a slap in the face."

"The dark side of influencer culture is that it really is the ultimate expression of capitalism. Money over human lives. What good is your platform if you overlook Saudi regime's murder and torture for a few bucks? These influencers are just for-hire human billboards," she added.

Jamal Khashoggi's Murder Continues to Reverberate as Five Are Sentenced to Death

The list of Saudi Arabia's injustices is long. Saudi Arabia has actively funded the war in Yemen, which has led to what the United Nations described as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis."

The nation has also been condemned for the detainment and torture of woman activists, for regressive treatment of women, and for "the arrest, imprisonment and harassment of large members of the Shi'a Muslim community and other minority groups" and the "long-standing exploitation and abuse of migrant workers," according to Amnesty USA.

While this has been ongoing, Saudi Arabia gained international attention for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Today, the Monday after the festival, five men were sentenced to death for killing the journalist in 2018 after a trial concluded the verdict was not premeditated.

The list did not include any top Saudi officials, nor an advisor to the Crown Prince, according to CNN. Many viewed this as a slap in the face, as U.S. intelligence agencies have posited that the murder was ordered by Mohammed bin Salmad himself.

In a tweet, UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard—author of a 101-page report on the murder—condemned the verdict, writing that "the sentence today is anything BUT justice."

The Implications of Visiting Saudi Arabia: BTS, Nicki Minaj, and the Politics of Performance

This is far from the first time that stars and influential people have sparred over whether or not to collaborate with Saudi Arabia.

In July, BTS made the decision to perform in Riyadh, having been personally invited by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmad. They faced criticism but defended the decision. "If there's a place where people want to see us, we'll go there. That's how we feel," bandmember Jimin said at the time. The K-pop stars joined the ranks of artists like Mariah Carey, Enrique Iglesias, and David Guetta in deciding to perform in Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, the same month BTS performed, American artist Nicki Minaj made the decision to pull out of a Saudi Arabia show. Like Ratajkowksi, she cited support for women, the LGBTQ community and free press, according to her statement.

Thor Halversson, president of the UN's Human Rights Foundation, lauded Minaj for her decision at the time. "This is what leadership looks like," he said. "We are grateful to Nicki Minaj for her inspiring and thoughtful decision to reject the Saudi regime's transparent attempt at using her for a public relations stunt… Minaj's moral stance differs from celebrity performers like J-Lo and Mariah Carey, who in the past have chosen to line their pockets with millions of dollars and stand with dictatorial governments as opposed to with oppressed communities and imprisoned human rights activists."

All this raises a knot of questions. When is art separate from politics, or is it ever? Are influencers and advertisers separate from politics?

In a situation where artists and influencers' positive PR is literally being purchased by the state, it's hard to say that these people can or should separate themselves from the political implications of their actions. While music and performance can create a bridge across political and ideological differences, in today's political theatre—when public personas are inextricable from their political contexts—musicians and content creators are increasingly obligated to actively align themselves with human rights, or face the Internet's ire. However, in a world where influencers still flock to Saudi raves, one question that remains is: At what point does an apolitical stance become indistinguishable from taking the position of the oppressor?


The Story Behind Gucci's Plagiarism of Disabled Artist Sharona Franklin

Gucci should practice what it preaches instead of performing false advocacy while stealing people's work.

For a few weeks, Sharona Franklin thought she was going to be working with Gucci.

Franklin is a Vancouver-based artist who creates jelly cakes embellished with delicate botanical arrangements and distinctive beading patterns, among other works of art. A disabled woman living in social housing, Franklin makes artwork that is intended to subvert stereotypes about domestic practices while dismantling disability stigmas. It focuses on themes ranging from transhumanism and bioethics to genetic engineering, medical treatments, and reproductive agency.

Her work bridges tradition with futurism; It's biodegradable and edible and yet impossibly delicate and intricate. It's a testament to art's ability to mold the ugliness of capitalism into something both meaningful and ephemeral. In recent years she's gained a following on Instagram and has received recognition for her work from outlets including The New York Times.

Her interactions with Gucci officially began on May 9th, when she received an email inviting her to collaborate with a "large Italian fashion house." After several exchanges, she was contacted by a team from Gucci which included Trevor De Cotta, Bicci Paola, and Alessio Canu, who said they wanted to use Franklin's work as a part of their SS 2020 Cruise.

Franklin scheduled a call with the representatives May 17th, and that same day, she sent them a signed NDA. The call was moved to the 20th, at which point she talked on the phone with De Cotta. "During the phone call with Trevor [De Cotta], I explained my inspiration for my work, how I'm influenced by 70's aesthetics, botanicals, domestic practice and social action," she told Popdust. "I talked with them about using Gucci ribbons, belts and buckles with vintage sourced platters, recycled materials which I always use, and botanicals and baby's breath."

During the call, De Cotta provided more details about the event's location, dates, and requirements. Franklin requested two days to make the cakes on location in Rome, and the Gucci team promised to respond with flight dates and a contract.

On June 10th, Franklin received an email from De Cotta asking about the exact dates she could come to Italy to work. She responded that day and waited ten days, but never heard back. She followed up on June 19th, and received a response on June 22nd, which read, "Due to the budget they are looking into someone else to execute this in Europe, as I mentioned initially we were speaking to a few people about the jelly concept. Unfortunately we [can't] make it work this time, perhaps there may be something in the future." No budget had ever been discussed with Franklin, and "that was the last I heard from the Gucci team," she said.

Dangling a collaboration before an artist for such an extended period of time only to revoke it with little explanation is poor form for Gucci, a company that certainly has the resources to vet and correspond quickly with its collaborators. Still, perhaps this would not be a cause for extensive controversy had Gucci not copied Franklin's work.

On October 8, Gucci posted images of the jelly cake creations they ended up using in the cruise campaign. The jellies they used were developed by another artist named David James White, who deleted his posts once comments about the plagiarism started flooding in. Popdust reached out to White for comment but did not receive a response.

Though White deleted the images, they remain on Gucci's official Instagram account, and Franklin is certain that Gucci plagiarized her work. "All elements of my work were stolen by Gucci, [including] composition, color choices, the mold shapes, fabric choices, jellies including the inlays, putting items in them and with fake, dried and fresh flowers and vintage silver platters," she said. "Gucci even copied my words in my interview with The Know Culture in which I talk about my jellies being inspired by the 70's aesthetics, bionic adaptations, herbal medicine, conviviality and fancy dinners."

You can see the creations side by side here:

After being asked several times about whether her work had been stolen, Franklin posted an Instagram story about what happened. The controversy was picked up by various accounts online, including the famous Diet Prada, but Gucci has not deleted the photos of its jellies or apologized for its actions.

It's well known that fashion companies copy and steal from artists who often lack the resources to take effective legal action, but this is especially hypocritical from a company like Gucci, which has clearly been attempting to brand itself as a socially responsible, ethical fashion brand. Gucci's newest initiative, "The Changemakers," is an attempt to perform a kind of diversity that the brand has clearly been failing to back up with tangible action or adequate compensation.

When multibillion dollar companies like Gucci steal from artists like Franklin, it's a shame, but not entirely a surprise, as Gucci has faced controversy and plagiarism accusations before. In 2017, they were accused of ripping off Harlem couturier Dapper Dan and faced accusations from two separate designers, Stuart Smythe and Milan Chagoury. That same year, they were also accused of stealing the work of a young artist named Pierre-Louis Avery, a claim that Alessandro Michele denied.

Gucci's creative director Alessandro Michele has also openly advocated for plagiarism in the name of artistic practice. While this philosophy is entangled with complex questions about authenticity, originality, and ethics in the art world, it should never permit a massive fashion house to steal from individual artists, particularly disabled artists who already face stacked odds from a system that perpetually threatens their survival and quality of life.

For her part, Franklin has some suggestions for Gucci. "I think they need to reconsider the way that they communicate, the way the industry is set up, the way that bodies are dehumanized, the way that production is dehumanized, I think all that's really important," she told Fashion Magazine. "And the way they outsource work—a lot of artists are getting ripped off, a lot of third-world workers are being exploited. All of that needs to change."

When asked what she wants from the company, Franklin's answer was simple. "I would like to be financially compensated and apologized to by Gucci," she told Popdust. "I'm a disabled artist and live under the poverty line. Disabled artists live in extreme disadvantage in the workplace, fashion, and art community. This is intellectual property theft and plagiarism of a disabled artist. It's unjust and morally corrupt. Gucci is a $47.8 billion dollar corporation. Saying the Gucci production budget could not afford me is a blatant lie."

In the meantime, she's continued to create undeterred. When we reached out to Franklin for comment, she was in the middle of making a cake.

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