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.

Diet Prada ™ on Instagram: “What’s worse than an all white @revolve influencer trip? Cashing big fat checks in exchange for #content creation (aka propaganda) to…”

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?

Music Lists

Naomi Campbell Lashes Out at ELLE Germany: “We Are Not a Trend”

The magazine put out an ill-advised campaign that proclaimed "Black is back."

ELLE Germany has come under fire for a new editorial campaign called "Black Is Back," which was offensive from start to finish.

The first problem begins with the ill-advised title, which seems to imply that blackness is a new trend, something that can be put on and taken off.

That wasn't all. The editorial used a photo of a model named Naomi Chin Wing with a caption that referred to a model named Janaye Furman. To add insult to injury, an issue called "Back to Black" of course features a white model on the cover.

Daily Mail

Naomi Campbell lashed out at that, posting the caption, "This makes me so sad to see this, @bethannhardison @the_real_iman and I are here if you are not clear on the guidelines of diversity," Campbell writes. "Your mistake is highly insulting in every way ... I've said countless times we are not a TREND. We are here to STAY." She continues, "I too in my career have seen pictures of others models called me just because of the color of our skin, and recently seen many pictures of models of color being called being @adutakech... do you know what it feels like to do the job (@naomichinwing) and not even be given the right name credit?"

Adut Akech, a model who recently faced a similar issue—a photo of a different model was used in an interview with her—also commented, "SO SICKENING!! I'm over it honestly."

For her part, Janaye Furman posted herself sipping tea with the caption #blackisback.

The magazine's actions were first called out by the account Diet Prada on Instagram, which reports fashion industry missteps.

ELLE Germany responded with an Instagram post of their own. "This obviously was not our intention and we regret not being more sensitive to the possible misinterpretations. Misidentifying the model Naomi Chin Wing as Janaye Furman is a further error for which we apologize. We are aware of how problematic this is. This has definitely been a learning experience for us and, again, we deeply regret any harm or hurt we have unwittingly caused," it read.

Though this campaign is particularly riddled with missteps, this is far from an isolated incident. The fact that fashion magazines seem to have such poor sensitivity towards race reveals a chronic lack of diversity in higher-up editorial positions, and a lack of care and sensitivity in general. We can call-out publications for their mistakes all we want, but what we really should be calling for is an increase in diversity in all spheres of the media industry.

As one commenter wrote on ELLE Germany's Instagram post, "Perhaps if you had people of colour on your team (whose opinion you value), it may perhaps be an opportunity to make better executive decisions?"

Surface-level representation means nothing if it doesn't use input from the actual group that's being represented, and too often, diversity is used as a performance, something used to sell products. This is a problem that extends to the whole magazine and media industry. A 2018 study from The Guardian reveals that of the 214 bestselling magazine covers published in the UK last year, only 14 of them featured people of color on the front. The issue extends to children's magazines, meaning that so many kids still aren't seeing themselves represented in positions of power. While magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair have made efforts to prioritize diversity, it isn't enough.


SATURDAY FILM SCHOOL | "You're tearing me apart Lisa!"

"I got the results of the test back. I definitely have breast cancer."

A24/ Warner Bros. Pictures

Could we count the ways James Franco and Tommy Wiseau are similar?

Whether he's actually sedated by Pineapple Express or just really happy all the time, James Franco appears to be eternally stoned. Browsing through Franco's filmography on IMBD, a true fan could detail when Franco's pothead aesthetic went from novice smoker to the guy who does bong rips and dabs for breakfast. His wide, jubilant grin is a telling sign, contorting his face into layers of wrinkles as his eyes open just enough, indicating his earthly cognition.

James Franco has done it all or has at least tried to. He has an M.F.A. from Columbia, a master's in filmmaking from NYU, and was even a professor at NYU, UCLA, and Colombia just for kicks. Outside of his scholastic endeavors, most people know Franco as Spidey's best friend (and frenemy in the inexcusably bad Spider-Man 3), or as the other half of the Hollywood bromance with Seth Rogen. Seth Rogen is the peanut butter to Franco's jam and The Disaster Artist, inspired by a memoir of the same name, is the bread to their midafternoon lunch. This buddy comedy interprets how its source material, the cult sensation The Room, came to be: Given the Franco and Rogen treatment, one of the worst movies ever made now stars Franco as Tommy Wiseau and, to no one's surprise, Franco lands the woozy, slurred performance by acting like a knockoff brand of himself.

Could we count the ways James Franco and Tommy Wiseau are similar? Yes and no (in fact, James Franco has probably written a term paper psychoanalyzing the parallels of Wiseau's imago with his own). Would Franco have been a Wiseau had he not found his comedy niche or a Rogen to counter his wild antics? Yes and no. The Disaster Artist conveys how someone can make a piece of art so bad that it's lauded by everyone for its badness. How can something so tacky, so cheap, and so weird still find itself in arthouse theaters around the States? And how can a movie that has the aesthetic of a back-alley porno get Hollywood recognition from one of the finest bromances to grace the silver screen?

Well, for every Tommy Wiseau desperate for fame and fortune, there's a friend who's willing to back up his bad ideas because of…friendship. Yep, The Disaster Artist is about friendship and the early stages of creation, what it feels like to have an idea you believe in enough to become a pariah. Franco is joined by his little brother, Dave Franco (who plays Greg Sestero), an aspiring actor who, unlike Wiseau, has a shot at acting. The Disaster Artist is a hilarious enactment of some of the best worst acting you've ever seen; the Franco brothers share a weirdly poetic exchange onscreen as friends trying to make it big, and Seth Rogen (as Sandy Schklair) sits in a chair winking at the audience like: "Look, we get the joke and then some."

Watching The Room is similar to watching any movie in the Twilight franchise: it's a cringeworthy experience, yes, but it's also your favorite comedy of all time, a noteworthy addition to the films your friends come over to hate-watch with you on Friday nights. The fun is there because Tommy Wiseau was somehow able to convince a cast of actors and a production crew to film the type of movie you'd believe in after five bowls of Pineapple Express, one filmmaking tutorial on YouTube, and a pep talk from a hobo wearing Chanel slippers. It doesn't matter if the actors you've convinced to star in your romantic melodrama are all doing laxative commercials to pay rent, or that your voice slightly sounds like you're from a faraway land where a Yiddish and New Orleans accent intertwine. You too can dream big and make a wonderfully bad movie.

Classroom Takeaways

Here's a fun drinking game. Take a shot every time Tommy Wiseau seems confused by the cameras in front of him. Have a paramedic on standby.

POP⚡ DUST Oscar-worthy Score: ⚡

Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.

POP⚡ DUST | Read More About Film/TV...

BOX OFFICE BREAKDOWN | Top Films of 2017

"Call Me By Your Name" ...and I'll Call You By Mine

THE REAL REEL | Catt Sadler Says Bye to E!

SATURDAY FILM SCHOOL | Every athlete has a story and 'I, Tonya's' is anything but picture perfect


German nutcase IT worker Rolf Buchholz, 53, on his way to a nightclub event in Dubai, was prevented from entering the country by customs officials who deemed him a 'security risk.'

The club dispatched two employees to speak to border officials, without sucess.

Mr. Buchholz, who entered the Guinness Book of World Records two years ago as The World's Most Pierced Man, was deported to Istanbul, tweeting his frustration to his indignant followers.

Now, let's stop and consider the fact that Buchholz also works as an 'erotic model.' I guess because he also has piercings in very special places.

It sounds like Dubai is the place to be. What's your take on this?


There comes a moment in every hip hopper's career when he contemplates the face tattoo. For Rick Ross, this time came at the age of 38, and he went for it. Like, really went for it.

The Maybach Music Group head honcho debuted his latest inkage on Instagram—the words "Rich Forever" just beneath his lower lip. The phrase is not only his Instagram handle, but also the name of his enormously successful 2012 mixtape.

Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. Well...right below it.

Man that's a lot of dough...

Selfridges, a department store in London, recently purchased the world's most expensive doughnut—Krispy Kreme's $1685 gilded doughnut—for National Doughnut Week. The doughnut itself is filled with champagne jelly (Dom, natch) and includes an edible 24-karat gold leaf, an edible 23-carat gold-dusted Belgian white chocolate lotus flower, and edible diamonds (!). Talk about literally putting your money where your mouth is.

In an effort, perhaps, to help one forget that they just spent that much money on a friggin' doughnut, the masterpiece is served with a cocktail of 500-year-old Courvoisier and champagne (again, Dom, natch).

Quick reminder that a glazed doughnut at Krispy Kreme is 99 cents. And delicious.