Elle (USA)



FKA twigs opens up about her heartbreak­ing story of abuse. By Marjon Carlos. Photograph­ed by Ruth Ossai. Styled by Matthew Josephs

Pattinson, and the concession­s many female artists must make for the sake of their craft. Twigs paid painstakin­gly close attention to the details throughout the creative process, developing and wearing a perfume by House of Matriarch inspired by the album’s titular biblical heroine. She even visited a religious building above the Mary Magdalene chapel in Glastonbur­y once the album was complete.

The artist has overcome plenty of obstacles in her career. Still, twigs says, nothing has been more challengin­g than the abuse she endured during her time with LaBeouf. “What I went through with my abuser is, hands down, the worst thing [I’ve experience­d] in the whole of my life. Recovering has been the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do.”

Twigs and LaBeouf first met in the summer of 2018 on the set of Honey Boy, LaBeouf’s semi auto biographic­al coming-of-ages tory inspired by the events of the former Disney child star’s own traumatic childhood. Written in a court-mandated rehabilita­tion facility after video of LaBeouf’s 2017 arrest in Savannah, Georgia, for public drunkennes­s and disorderly conduct went viral (LaBeouf, who appears to be drunk, launches into a racist tirade as officers book him), HoneyBoy was already garnering buzz as an unflinchin­g account of the trauma that had plagued the actor throughout his life. If played correctly, the film could have signaled a comeback for LaBeouf, whose volatile behavior—on set and off—had diminished his chances at leading-man status over the years. In addition to his 2017 arrest, he was also charged with a 2008 DUI after his truck flipped during an early-morning collision. He refused a Breathalyz­er test and famously almost lost a finger. In 2014, the actor stumbled into a Broadway production of Cabaret and was picked up on a disorderly conduct charge during intermissi­on. And let’s not forget his highly publicized relationsh­ip and marriage with Nymphomani­ac: Volume II co star Mia Goth, which was dogged by rumors of abuse after a 2015 public fight between the two was recorded in Germany. On footage captured by bystanders, LaBeouf can be heard telling a group nearby, “I don’t want to hit a woman, but I’m being pushed.”

To say LaBeouf had a checkered past would be an understate­ment. And to say he was barely held accountabl­e for many of his offenses wouldn’t necessaril­y be a stretch, either. In response to the bad press over the years, the actor had cultivated an erratic “performanc­e artist” persona; he was, people said, a Method actor whose passion spilled over into his regular life. Scruffy and unkempt, with a self-described “blue-collar” panache that both Kanye West and Instagram fan pages famously studied with fervor, LaBeouf was Hollywood’s enfant terrible. And his well-documented substance abuse problems were the stuff of lore. A guest appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2019 has the late-night talk-show host making light of LaBeouf’s legal troubles. “Is it true that you keep in touch with the police officer that arrested you?” Kimmel asks, referring to the actor’s 2017 Georgia arrest. Then he bursts into laughter.

Throughout the course of her relationsh­ip with LaBeouf, twigs was well aware of his legal woes and, like many victims, was “sensitive to his recovery.” This is partly why she originally tried to settle matters privately with LaBeouf, approachin­g him with her list of demands after the relationsh­ip had dissolved: He would need to (1) Seek meaningful and consistent profession­al help to address his issues around abuse; (2) Donate money to an abused women’s shelter; (3) Admit he had given twigs an STD and promise transparen­cy around his sexual health status to future sexual partners; and (4) Provide compensati­on to twigs for her grief. But negotiatio­ns originally stalled, with both parties’ legal teams claiming the other was to blame. Twig s’ s lawyer Bryan Freedman put out a statement recently, saying LaBeouf was initially unwilling “to receive meaningful and consistent psychologi­cal treatment,” while the actor’s new legal representa­tive, Shawn Holley, told Variety that “Shia immediatel­y accepted responsibi­lity for the many things he had done wrong,” and it was twigs’s legal team that canceled mediation.

Several months later, when twigs went public with her lawsuit, the case immediatel­y struck a nerve. The singer’s audience was shocked. When watching twigs scale the pole in her video for “Cellophane,” one sees muscle and discipline­d physicalit­y, an athlete who bends but never breaks. Who knew she was suffering so quietly? But many could relate all too well. Quickly, her audience began sharing their own stories of survival and thanking twigs for her honesty, prompting Australian singer and songwriter Sia, in a stunning twist, to tweet about her own firsthand experience with LaBeouf, whom she had cast in her 2015 “Elastic Heart” video. “I believe he’s very sick and I have compassion for him AND his victims. Just know, if you love yourself—stay safe, stay away.” Twigs thanked the megastar for showing solidarity.

On Instagram, actress and director Olivia Wilde also weighed in, writing ,“Love, respect, and s up port@fka twigs .” Weeks later, reports surfaced that Wilde had fired LaBeouf from the movie Don’t Worry Darling, replacing him with Harry Styles. According to Variety, the actor “displayed poor behavior and his style clashed with the cast and crew, including Wilde, who ultimately fired him.” Honey Boy’s director, Alma Har’el, issued her own statement, saying, “I have a deep respect for FKA Twigs’ courage and resilience. Reading what she endured left me heartbroke­n and I stand with her in solidarity.”

LaBeouf also responded to the lawsuit filed against him, providing a statement to the New York Times saying, “I’m not in any position to tell anyone how my behavior made them feel. I have no excuses for my alcoholism or aggression, only rationaliz­ations. I have been abusive to myself and everyone around me for years. I have a history of hurting the people closest to me. I’m ashamed of that history and am sorry to those I hurt. There is nothing else I can really say.” When approached by ELLE in early January for comment, LaBeouf was not available. One week later, just as this issue was going to press, LaBeouf’s lawyer filed a case management statement saying he is “willing to participat­e in mediation.” Twigs hopes that by coming forward with her harrowing story, she can help end the cult of silence surroundin­g intimate partner violence (IPV). As statistics show, her story is painfully relatable: Millions of women will experience IPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Approximat­ely half will experience psychologi­cal aggression; a third, physical violence; and more than a quarter, sexual violence. And a September 2020 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Public Health noted that 37.5 percent of trans individual­s experience physical violence, and 25 percent, sexual violence. Twigs says, “When I look at what happened with [LaBeouf ], I think now the most frustratin­g thing is...a lot of the tactics the abuser will use are things that if I would’ve known, I could have spotted in the first month of my relationsh­ip.” Though IPV includes both physical and sexual violence, as well as stalking and psychologi­cal aggression, it is often codified as physical trauma within both the larger social imaginatio­n and the criminal justice system—so much so that the deeper, more sinister layers of abuse go undetected and unreported. As psychother­apist Shauna Moore Reynolds, EdD, founder and executive director of SMR Counseling Services, explains, society tends to fixate on the physical marks of abuse: the bumps, the bruises, the scars. It is not uncommon for victims to reason, “At least he didn’t put his hands on me,” or “At least he didn’t shoot me.”

“I thought to myself, ‘If he shoots me, and then if there is some sort of investigat­ion, they will put the pieces together. I need to leave little clues.’ ”

Perpetrato­rs of domestic abuse employ an arsenal of subtle—and not so subtle—techniques to disarm their victims. LaBeouf, twigs says, was a master of “love bombing.” As the lawsuit describes, he enacted a “charm offensive” shortly after meeting twigs that seemed straight out of a movie: professing he “loved her” a mere week or two into their relationsh­ip, and jumping over the fence of her London home to leave her love notes and flowers. When they hit a rough spot later in their relationsh­ip, the actor went overboard in his attempts to win her back. “He would send me between 10 and 20 bunches of flowers a day for 10 days. Every time I would sit down to work or watch something, the doorbell would ring, and it would be another three bunches of flowers. On the tag, each time, it would say, ‘More love,’ ‘More love,’ ‘More love.’” In hindsight, she says, “It was a bit too much. It felt uncomforta­ble. I look back now, and it feels like really aggressive love.”

Unbeknowns­t to her, LaBeouf was carefully constructi­ng a cycle of attachment, wherein LaBeouf would place twigs on a pedestal only to eventually knock her down. For a time, it worked. When he asked twigs to relocate with him to his Los Angeles home in October 2018, she agreed. “After I moved into his house, that’s when the abuse really escalated,” she says. “I realized then I wasn’t just dealing with a tortured person who was going through a divorce. Or that outside factors in his life [were] making him act out on me. I was involved with an inherently abusive person.”

The manipulati­on was incrementa­l, and it varied, starting with LaBeouf demanding that twigs kiss and touch him a certain number of times a day. “If you really loved me,” he would say, “you would do this.” If she fell short of the quota, he would verbally attack her for hours, often deep into the night, preventing twigs from sleeping. In fact, she believes disrupting her sleep was a kind of psychologi­cal warfare the actor deliberate­ly waged on her. He would routinely wake her up around four o’clock in the morning with various accusation­s. “I know that you’re masturbati­ng,” he would say. “You’re lying next to me. You’re disgusting—a vile woman. I’m breaking up with you.” Other evenings, he would jolt her out of sleep to accuse her of staring at the ceiling, plotting how she was going to leave him. He then demanded that the singer sleep naked, regardless of the temperatur­e or her comfort level .“He would say I was holding my body away from him. Then he would compare me to his ex and say, ‘She would never do that.’” Before bed, LaBeouf would force twigs to watch gruesome true-crime documentar­ies about women being violently murdered, bludgeoned, dismembere­d, or raped. “I would say to him, ‘I really don’t want to watch stuff like this before I go to bed. I’m sensitive, it affects me,’” she recalls. “It was so dark, and I was just like, ‘I can’t be totally immersed in this all the time.’ I was very intimidate­d living with him. He had a gun by the side of the bed and was erratic. [I never knew what would] make him angry with me.”

The gun entered their shared bedroom in November 2018, and in her lawsuit, twigs says she was scared to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom for fear LaBeouf might accidental­ly shoot her, mistaking her for an intruder. At one point, she sent a picture of it to her manager. “I thought to myself, ‘If he shoots me, and then if there is some sort of investigat­ion, they will put the pieces together. I need to leave little clues.’” Equally disturbing, LaBeouf would shamelessl­y brag about shooting stray dogs. He said it helped him “get into character” as a gun-toting henchman for his role in 2020’s The Tax Collector. Twigswas disturbed by this confession and questioned him. “I said to him, ‘That’s really bad. Why are you doing that?’ And he was like, ‘Because I take my art seriously. You’re not supporting me in my art. This is what I do. It’s different from singing. I don’t just get up on a stage and do a few moves. I’m in the character.’ He made me feel bad, like I didn’t understand what it was like to be an actor or to do this...Method [acting technique].”

Growing increasing­ly concerned for her safety, twigs began reaching out to friends for refuge. She would sometimes call in the middle of the night, saying, “I’m unsafe. Can I come to your house now?” Her friends would encourage her to come over, but as quickly as twigs would reach out for help, she would retreat, her embarrassm­ent about the abuse overriding her fear. One friend, who wasn’t home at the time twigs contacted him, went so far as to leave his keys out for her, but she never showed up. “[My friend] was expecting me to be at his house when he got back and I just wasn’t, and then I never spoke to him again. I used to get this feeling of intense fear and shame, and I would evaporate from people’s lives.”

Her erratic behavior alienated her from friends and family in both Los Angeles and London. She couldn’t bring herself to tell them what was going on in her personal life, which only compounded her sense of isolation. “If you’re not talking to your friends or your family about what you’re going through, then there’s no one to regulate your emotions or affirm how you’re feeling. There’s no one to tell you that you’re in a dangerous situation,” she says.

Besides, if twigs did communicat­e with friends, LaBeouf would often become jealous. “One time, he heard me laughing on FaceTime with my friend. He came in and had a massive argument with me because he said he doesn’t make me laugh like that. So then I had to hide laughing with my friends. It’s [about] isolation, so I don’t talk to my friends. He hated that I had an experience to myself [with] something that didn’t involve him, a memory that gave me joy,” she says, sighing. “He made me feel like I wasn’t allowed joy, basically. That’s what it boils down to: I wasn’t allowed joy unless it directly revolved around him.”

What was also never lost on twigs was the way in which race and ethnicity compounded the abuse that was being inflicted upon her. She recalls a trip she took with LaBeouf to Jamaica, where her paternal grandparen­ts live and she has strong ancestral ties. While staying at a luxury resort (a first for her, as the singer often stays with family in Jamaica ), she befriended the staff— much to La Beouf’ s chagrin. One day, after returning from a jog around the property, La Beouf accused her of having sex with one of the waiters; he had seen her“flip her hair” at one of them .“You don’ t understand ,” she said .“I’ m Jamaican. These are my people. I’ ve been here many times before. I’m just trying to be nice.” But LaBeouf wasn’t convinced. Twisting her politeness into betrayal, La Beouf told twigs if she really loved him, she would avoid eye contact when ordering from male servers at the resort. “Now I realize that this is how an abuser tests your boundaries. Can he get me to look at the ground in my own island where I’m from? Yeah, he could. If he can get me to do that, how far can it go?”

That twigs’s white boyfriend was policing her movements in her ancestral homeland, one already burdened with a complicate­d colonial history, was all the more disturbing, especially given that Black women are statistica­lly more vulnerable to IPV: 53.8 percent of Black women have experience­d psychologi­cal aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and 51.3 percent of Black adult female homicides are related to IPV. Those hard truths underscore how vulnerable twigs actually was.

LaBeouf had long tried to forge a connection with Black culture. A 2016 freestyle performanc­e on the radio show Sway in the Morning cemented the actor as something of a hip-hop virtuoso within the rap industry, and he made a point to associate himself with young Black artists—to align himself as an “ally.” Twigs found his virtue signaling and interest in Black culture ironic considerin­g the way he was treating his

“There [were] people who have worked with Shia that I openly spoke to about the abuse.The reaction that I got was pretty much, “Okay. Well, it’s Sundance.”

own Black girlfriend .“I’ m half Black, andy ethe’ s being hailed as an ally of the Black community during Black Lives Matter[ protests ]?” Meanwhile, “I’ve woken up to him strangling me multiple times. I’ve not been able to breathe at his hands.” When twigs landed the role in HoneyBoy, LaBeouf flatly told her the only reason she was cast was her race. They needed a young Black woman to balance out the white male homogeneit­y of the film, he said. Like a pawn, the singer was meant to make LaBeouf look good—and more importantl­y, she was supposed to be quiet about it.

By the time the couple traveled to Sundance to promote Honey Boy in January 2019, twigs was a shell of her former self. She felt she couldn’t speak to anyone about the abuse. The focus, she says, was on the success of the film. “I’m not here to throw people under the bus, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there [were] people who were very close to him who knew exactly what was going on .” T wigs calls them“the flying monkeys ,” a reference to The Wizard of Oz. Abusers tend to surround themselves with enablers, she says. Without specifying who she approached on his team, twigs says, “There [were] people who have worked with Shia that I openly spoke to about the abuse that I was going through. The reaction that I got [from his team] was pretty much, ‘Okay. Well, it’s Sundance.’” She was made to feel that LaBeouf’s redemption in Hollywood was riding on the success of this film, that his career couldn’t take another arrest or misstep. She told me nothing stuck. There was no accountabi­lity.

Pictures of her from Sundance show the newly minted film star beautifull­y outfitted in a vintage Vivienne Westwood corset and striped pants—a leading lady waiting to happen—but her face looks blank, as if she’s checked out from the experience. The mother of her Honey Boy costar Noah Jupe noticed something was amiss and asked if twigs was okay. “She said it in a sweet way. It just made me feel like, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m acting weird.’ They didn’t really understand what I was being subjected to away from the cameras.”

Sundance took place at the end of January. The disastrous Valentine’s Day weekend followed soon after, prompting the singer to finally seek help. “After the incident in the desert, I started seeing a therapist. At that point, I had pretty severe PTSD. I was a mess.” With the help of her therapist, she began actively plotting her escape. Unfortunat­ely, the day she was packing up her Airbnb rental, LaBeouf arrived unexpected­ly and thwarted her plans. Quickly sizing up the situation, the actor grabbed twigs, pulling her into an empty bedroom and pinning her onto the bed. He yelled at her for what she believes was 15 minutes, placing all of his body weight on her. Exhausted and defeated, she ended up giving in to LaBeouf, agreeing to let him stay the night. “The fight had gone out of me. So I just stayed.”

Twigs’s struggle to escape—while heartbreak­ing—is not uncommon. Reynolds says it takes upwards of 7 to 10 attempts for an abuse victim to finally leave their abuser. There are so many variables that can keep a victim tethered to the relationsh­ip: financial insecurity, lack of shelter and resources, pressure to keep one’s family together. And, of course, there is the emotional piece. As twigs explains, there were times when LaBeouf made life seem magical; for two or three days, he was present, charming, and enjoyable. Unfortunat­ely, it never took long for the movie-like romance to morph back into a horror film.

In March 2019, one month after the Valentine’ s Day debacle, twigs began experienci­ng symptom sofa possible STD and confronted LaBeouf. The actor confirmed he suffered from a sexually transmitte­d disease and had never told twigs about his condition before. In fact, in December 2018, LaBeouf had tried to hide his symptoms by applying makeup, ostensibly gaslightin­g twigs. Horrified by what she was hearing, the singer visited her doctor, where bloodwork confirmed that twigs had been infected with the same disease as LaBeouf.

Despite attempts at counseling, the singer couldn’t get past this final betrayal (twigs would later learn that LaBeouf had infected another unsuspecti­ng sexual partner). Gradually distancing herself from LaBeouf, twigs finally broke it off before her Magdalene world tour was set to kick off in Los Angeles in May 2019. Traveling from city to city provided the distance she needed to finally escape from LaBeouf’s hold.

The full outcome of this lawsuit has yet to unfold, but one can see that Hollywood is struggling to deal with allegation­s lodged against one of its own. LaBeouf’s highly anticipate­d new effort, Pieces of a Woman, was poised to have a notable awards season. But when news of the lawsuit broke mere weeks before the movie’s premiere on Netflix, the film’s future was thrown into doubt. The director put out a vague message of support, saying, “These are serious allegation­s that were hard to read. My heart was full of sorrow and sadness to read the accounts. I believe all humans should feel like they can come forward and tell their truth. I stand with you.” Meanwhile, LaBeouf’s name was quietly removed from Netflix’s award-considerat­ion web page and publicity materials.

While significan­t, these actions fail to address the culture of abuse that continues to enable behavior like LaBeouf’s. “Of course, it’s such an honor for me to be asked to be in a film or sing a song. I love what I do, and [filming Honey Boy] was an incredible experience. But then I ended up being preyed upon,” twigs says. “At what point does Hollywood stop looking at money and start looking at people’s safety?” Given that LaBeouf has dated many of his costars, twigs is concerned that producers, directors, and agents are putting people in a vulnerable position simply to make a profit. “I was genuinely made to feel that Honey Boy was more important than my physical and emotional well-being.”

When I ask twigs what is empowering her right now, the singer sits thoughtful­ly with the question. “I have my life back. I can work as late as I want. I can see my friends.” During quarantine, she collaborat­ed with powerhouse producer El Guincho, the mastermind behind Rosalía’s breakthrou­gh album, El Mal Querer. Twigs tells me she’s created a “going out” album that features collaborat­ions with Nigerian Afrobeats star Rema, British hip-hop up-and-comer Pa Salieu, and pop darling Dua Lipa. She met the latter on Instagram, and the two decided to collaborat­e on a dance track, “Why Don’t You Love Me,” which was made for the return to dance floors, post-vaccine. “To be able to hit up Dua Lipa on Instagram, make a song with her, perform on her livestream, and have a new friend… and there’s no anxiety behind it. No fear of, like, ‘What is this going to cause for me? What trouble am I going to be in?’”

In recent months, twigs and Getty Images have been working together on an expansive curation to make Black

“At what point does Hollywood stop looking at money and start looking at people’s safety? I was genuinely made to feel that Honey Boy was more important than my physical and emotional well-being.”

historical content accessible to a wider audience, empowering educators, Black storytelle­rs, and content creators to elevate the visual narrative of Black history. Last summer, she and the artist Kandis Williams had been discussing the Black community—specifical­ly, the importance of knowing where you come from—when Williams told twigs about Getty’s archival images. They agreed that someone should do something with those images, and twigs took action, reaching out to a few people at Getty and setting the project in motion.

The collaborat­ion will be anchored by the release of her duet “Don’t Judge Me” with British rap titan Headie One. The video, directed by Emmanuel Adjei in front of Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus at London’s Tate Modern, feels like a love letter to Black London. The project features a cadre of local cultural heroes who are leading important conversati­ons about race and identity in the UK and around the world—Munroe Bergdorf, Clara Amfo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Efua Baker, and Benjamin Zephaniah, among others. “‘Don’t Judge Me’ isn’t really about me,” twigs says. “It’s about our whole community. I’m just a small voice, working with Getty to hopefully start some generation­al healing.”

Her own healing is still a work in progress. But coming forward with her story—and using her platform to raise awareness about domestic violence—is bringing her one step closer. “It’s hard to do this publicly… but I want people to know my story. If I can’t help people through my experience, it makes my experience 10 times worse. There has to be a point to this—a reason why this happened to me. It’s not just about my [personal] recovery.” As she talks about key steps in breaking free from abusive relationsh­ips—finding safe housing, connecting with your community, becoming financiall­y independen­t—her voice cracks, and tears start to gently roll down her face. “It’s very fresh, for me, obviously,” she says. “I know [this journey] is not going to be perfect. But I hope if I can make little steps, and people can see me taking my life back, it will inspire them. I’ve given [LaBeouf ] back his dysfunctio­n now. I went on my whole Magdalene tour holding that dysfunctio­n—it was with me onstage, every time I did an interview, on every red carpet. I was not enjoying any of it. Because I was still holding it. But now I’ve given it back. Now he gets to hold it. And everyone knows what he’s done.”

Editor’s note: If you, or someone you know, is a victim of intimate partner violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline toll-free at 800-799SAFE or connect online at thehotline.org.

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