The R. Kelly news cycle does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon, with renewed calls for his career to be ended coming amid a new flood of women who have decided to speak publicly for the first time about sexual, physical, and mental abuse they say they experienced at his hand. Kelly’s constant presence in headlines is probably bad for the singer himself, but appears to be a boon for at least one news organization: TMZ.
In the last 24 hours, TMZ has run three new stories about R. Kelly. Where other gossip sites have stuck to aggregating reporting done by places like Buzzfeed, the Washington Post, and most recently, NBC’s Megyn Kelly, TMZ has instead offered up a series of exclusives, posting video and quotes that no other publication has obtained. In reading these three posts, you may notice something curious about who the articles are favoring.
The first, posted very early Wednesday morning, shows video of Kelly and Joycelyn Savage—the central figure in Jim Derogatis’ initial Buzzfeed story detailing the “cult” of women Kelly allegedly keeps—shopping together in Chicago on April 28. The clip shows the two strolling through a department store, stopping to look at shoes and so Kelly can take a photo with a fan. It’s unclear who filmed the video, which was shot vertically on a phone, but both Kelly and Savage appear to be cognizant of the camera—at one point, they are shot from the front, and at another the camera lingers just inches from their backs as Kelly holds a sneaker in his hand. Public scrutiny regarding his behavior and career is as intense as it’s been in years, but Kelly does not seem to mind being filmed; if anything, he seems comfortable with whoever is behind the lens.
TMZ followed that up on Wednesday afternoon with another video of Savage leaving South Beverly Grill in Beverly Hills. There, she stops to talk to TMZ’s cameraman, who asks her questions about what she’s doing and the whereabouts of R. Kelly. “Now, why does your family always say you’re being held captive?” the cameraman prompts. “You’re obviously not, you know. You’re out here doing your thing.” To that Savage responds: “You know, it’s rumors out there. People are saying that, you know, I’m captive, I’m hostage. Well, obviously that’s not true. I’m out here enjoying life, doing my own thing.” TMZ does not say how it encountered Savage, only saying that it “got” her as she was leaving the restaurant; based on the video, this did not perturb her. In fact, both Savage and the cameraman seem to agree that a woman now suing Kelly for allegedly infecting her with an STD is simply making a “money grab,” a phrase that showed up in a subsequent post.
This morning TMZ posted the third story, headlined “R. Kelly on Sex Cult Allegations: It’s a Money Grab!!” It begins:
R. Kelly’s had enough with accusations he’s holding women hostage to serve as his sex slaves … straight-up saying it’s all just a ploy to get into his pockets and tarnish his legacy.
R. Kelly tells TMZ … allegations he brainwashed Joycelyn Savage and held her and others captive to be part of a sex cult is a false narrative conjured up by Joycelyn’s father and mother who are sour after the singer turned down their services.
The singer tells us Joycelyn’s father, Timothy, tried getting his attention through Joycelyn about herself and other relatives he thought could have a singing career. When that plan didn’t pan out, Kelly says Timothy fabricated stories — including sex cult tales — and demanded money.
Kelly also points to Joycelyn’s mother, Jonjelyn, getting upset Kelly’s backup dancers didn’t use Jonjelyn’s dresses for his tour. Kelly says Jonjelyn owns a clothing boutique she was trying to get off the ground.
If the post actually contained any quotes, it would qualify as a bombshell. Throughout the recent reporting on his personal life, various Kelly representatives have given quotes to the press pushing back on the notion that he brainwashes women in order to keep them captive in his homes. But Kelly himself has stayed silent, denying requests to comment on any of the allegations—except for TMZ.
Perhaps all this—two bits of exclusive video and an exclusive conversation with R. Kelly—is a coincidence, but that strains the imagination. The mall video could have been shot by a random person and sold to TMZ, but the camera is at times in extreme proximity to Kelly and Savage, and neither ever acknowledges its presence. If the video was shot by either an intruder or a fan, would Kelly have not said something? Maybe TMZ was tipped off to Savage being at the restaurant in Beverly Hills by another patron, but she is not a well-known figure—indeed, she has reportedly been locked inside R. Kelly’s house for years—and in the video is wearing sunglasses and a head scarf that even further obscure her appearance. What’s more likely, of course, is that the interview was arranged—the interaction between the cameraman and Savage gives off the air of a disjointed, pre-planned interview. That TMZ followed those two videos with an exclusive conversation with R. Kelly seems to lay the transaction bare. (Reps for both Kelly and TMZ did not respond to requests for comment.)
If anything, TMZ hasn’t exactly been hiding its role as the one major news outlet willing to spin news for R. Kelly. Last July, after Derogatis’ initial story, TMZ landed two exclusives, both of which attempted to beat back Derogatis’ reporting: the first was an interview with Savage that appeared to be shot from inside one of Kelly’s residences, and the second a video shot in a park in which Savage directly addresses her family, which had decided to speak with the press. Perhaps Savage’s life, as she says, is not controlled by Kelly, but if Derogatis’ reporting is to be believed (and there’s no reason to suggest it shouldn’t be) then the footage—representing Savage’s public reveal—would have to have been coordinated with not just Kelly, but also TMZ.
So why would TMZ be willing to run cover for R. Kelly, a widely suspected abuser of both children and adults? Levin reportedly tells his staff that the site “doesn’t do agenda,” and, despite doing things like putting the word “brainwashed” in scare quotes when referring to Savage, it’s unlikely that this is driven by a belief that Kelly is innocent. (TMZ does cover negative R. Kelly news, though not with exclusives.) Instead, it’s more likely that TMZ recognized, and is exploiting, a market inefficiency. If R. Kelly is too toxic for any media publication to help out—that is, to run more favorable press in exchange for, say, exclusives tips and info—then that lane is wide open for TMZ. The site, of course, has always been willing to do things that make other publications squeamish, including, apparently, getting in bed with R. Kelly.