The Cost of Being Publicly Shamed

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Liz Barclay — Complex

Back in 2009, Lil Mama had a world of opportunity ahead of her.

In classic Horatio Alger fashion, she’d risen from homelessness to a smash single (“Lip Gloss”) and a gig judging America’s Best Dance Crew.

Things were on the up and up. Until she made a tragic mistake.

Perhaps inspired by Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift, she walked on stage during Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ VMA finale performance, and Twitter — still not quite a mainstream thing — exploded.

The audacity of her. Who did she think she was. How could she do this. To Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, no less.

It was one of the first real instances of Twitter mob mentality. Seemingly overnight, the entire internet was on a quest to destroy this young woman. Sure, some of it was funny, but a lot of it was downright mean and abusive. Even I was complicit (if not prophetic).

Well, it’s been a long six years since then, and Lil Mama has made a surprising comeback of sorts. Back in 2013, she starred as Left Eye in a made-for-television TLC biopic, which on its surface may not seem like a big deal, but was actually watched by millions of people who — gasp! —thoroughly enjoyed it.

There was also a song, “Sausage,” which kinda sorta went viral earlier this summer, and caught a lot of people by surprise.

This is all very nice, because everybody loves a good comeback story, and in the face of adversity, most entertainers are resilient, if not defiant.

But still, in spending time with Lil Mama, I was curious about how she dealt with the ridicule. How she stomached having to go online back in 2009, and get constant notifications that she was getting slammed again.

Turns out — it was really difficult.

“It hurt,” she told me. “It took a lot of mental strength, spiritual strength, and physical strength, not to want to hurt others, not to want to hurt myself. A person could be damn near suicidal.”

There was more that was said, some with words, and some with body language and facial expressions — because communication isn’t always verbal — and in the end, I could tell that this thing, this one moment in time, was kind of haunting her. She’d let it go, but other people hadn’t.

But maybe there was an upside, too. It was at the VMA’s and heck, nobody remembers anything from that award show except the bloopers and the absurd anyway. Sure, it was off script and it was off brand, but whatever — it was memorable.

In the aftermath, there were low moments, but her family and friends kept a sense of humor about it, and through that, everything seemed okay. Hardship and adversity is all about point of view, anyway. If you can laugh about stuff, you can make it through most things.

But regardless of how she may have softened the blow, this is the reality — Lil Mama was publicly shamed and there really isn’t much she can do now, short of becoming the next Drake or Kanye, that will allow people to see her in any different way. She has to wear that for life, which is tragic.

But — and you knew there was a but — there is a world where nobody cares, and Lil Mama is actually a really big deal. That world is the one I learned about when I spent some time with her.

If you’re interested, you can read about all of that by clicking HERE. Let me know your thoughts, if any, either here or directly at paulcantor@gmail.com

And the next time you think about hurling an insult at someone online, maybe just think twice and ask yourself — how would I feel if that was me?

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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