A TIME TO HEAL
In her bombshell lawsuit against actor Shia LaBeouf, singer FKATWIGS accuses
her former boyfriend of sexual battery, assault, and infliction of emotional distress. In this unfiltered interview, the singer opens up exclusively to ELLE about her ordeal.
“It’s amiracle that I came out alive,”
says FKA twigs. The British singer, born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, has spent the last hour painfully recounting the abuse she endured for nearly a year at the hands of her former boyfriend and Honey Boy costar, Shia LaBeouf. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her London home, where she’s been sequestered due to the COVID-19 Tier 4 lockdown, twigs manages to exude a raw vulnerability her audience has come to expect from her. An oversize hoodie that reads “janet”—an homage to Janet Jackson’s self-titled 1993 dance album—is thrown over her petite frame; her newly bleached blonde curls appear damp, her cheeks flushed. While speaking tome over Zoom, she maintains perfect posture, fidgeting ever so slightly by tapping her long acrylic nails together. She is explaining the “calculated, systematic, tricky, and mazelike” tactics LaBeouf would use to control her—the love bombing, the gaslighting, the social isolation, the sleep deprivation. “If you put a frog in a boiling pot of water, that frog is going to jump out straightaway,” she says, attempting to explain the incremental and insidious nature of the abuse. “Whereas if you put a frog in cool water and heat it up slowly, that frog is going to boil to death. That was my experience being with [LaBeouf ].”
The emotional, verbal, and physical violence that twigs experienced during the course of their abusive relationship came to a head over Valentine’ s Day weekend in 2019 after she and La Beouf traveled to a hotel spa. The details of that fateful night are outlined in a shocking civil lawsuit she filed against the actor in December of last year. As she alleges in the complaint, after drifting off to sleep in the hotel, the singer awoke to find La Beouf atop her, violently squeezing her arms. Putting his hands around her neck and beginning to strangle her, he whispered, “If you don’t stop, you are going to lose me.” The next morning, she claims, the abuse continued when LaBeouf threw her to the ground outside their hotel. Once inside his car and headed back to LaBeouf’s Los Angeles home, she says the actor began driving maniacally, demanding that twigs profess her love for him. As he swerved into traffic at an alarming speed, with cars beeping around them, twigs recalls bracing for the impact of the imminent crash. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I wonder what would happen to my body...if [we] smashed into a wall at 80 miles per hour?’ I was looking for the airbag and I couldn’t see the airbag sign, so I was thinking, ‘If he doesn’t have an airbag, will this car crush my sternum?’”
As twigs retells the story now, she is physically acting out each scenario, curling her taut dancer’s physique into a ball and covering her head with her hands. “I was thinking, ‘Oh no, if I crouch like that, and the front of the car crashes into my head, will it snap my neck?’” Her mind raced with terrifying possibilities. At one point, she considered jumping out of the moving vehicle as it barreled down the highway. “Do I jump out of the car at 80 miles an hour?”
LaBeouf eventually pulled over at a gas station, and twigs attempted to remove her bags to escape, but the actor slammed her up against the car and tried to choke her again. Screaming in her face, he forced her back into the car.
I ask the singer how she narrowly survived this abusive relationship. “I think it’s luck,” she says with a sigh. “I honestly wish I could say that I found some strength and I saw this light. I wish I could say, ‘[It is] a testament to my strong character,’ or ‘It’s the way my mother raised me.’ It’s none of that. It’s pure luck that I’m not in that situation anymore.”
At the time of her relationship, twigs had a successful career, a home she could fly back to, financial security, and a network of support. And yet she was in no way inoculated against abuse. “People wouldn’t think that it would happen to a woman like me. The biggest misconception is, ‘Well, you’re smart. If it was that bad, why didn’t you leave?’ ” Her response: “It can happen to anyone.” And when the lockdown began, and she realized how many women were potentially stuck inside with their abusers, she got very anxious. “It made me realize I need to come forward and talk about my experience.”
Growing up in Gloucestershire, England, the 33-year-old artist known as twigs (a nickname held over since childhood to describe the way her joints used to crack in dance class) was a bit of an outlier. As a child, the artist of Jamaican, Spanish, and English descent studied opera and dance. “I was the only Black girl in my hometown. I fought to get to London. I fought to get to New York.” A mix of talent and hustle catapulted her out of her small village at 17, when she moved to South London to pursue a career as a dancer. Using the money she earned working as a backup dancer for artists like Kylie Minogue and Jessie J, twigs was able to self-finance her first EP, aptly titled EP1, in December 2012. A year later, she worked with groundbreaking producer Ar ca to create her genredefying follow-up, EP2. Her albums—which feature am élan ge of voguing, wushu swordplay, and pole dancing, buttressed by breathless vocals and experimental R&B beats—have earned her industry praise and comparisons to Björk. Like the singular artist, twigs takes a highly conceptual approach to her music. Take 2019’s Magdalene, an album that explores the fallout from her relationship with her ex-fiancé, Twilight’s Robert