As Lady Gaga kicked off her twice-delayed The Chromatica Ball tour this week, trouble brewed from the stage wings.
Days before the start of the 18-city world tour — Gaga’s first since 2017’s Joanne — five of her longtime backup dancers took to social media one after the other to share that they wouldn’t be returning. The dancers accused head choreographer Richard “Richy” Jackson of what they labeled abusive behavior, claiming he had created an “unsafe” and “unhealthy” workplace.
“He abused me; he embarrassed me; he made me feel terrible in the workplace, just because he could,” Caroline Diamond, who worked with Gaga for the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show and Joanne tour, said in a video. “Gaga was my dream … I chased it and I got it, and she is the dream, and then you get there, and this man makes your dream a nightmare.”
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Rolling Stone spoke with an additional five dancers who echoed claims that Jackson created a toxic working environment, which resulted in two of the dancers saying they voluntarily walked away from what was otherwise a dream job.
Although neither Gaga nor Jackson have addressed the allegations publicly, Rolling Stone has learned that Gaga’s team is taking the dancers’ concerns seriously and is looking into their allegations. (Representatives for Gaga and Jackson did not reply to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)
All of the dancers who spoke out against Jackson spoke highly of Gaga and were adamant that she had nothing to do with the situation, as she wasn’t present for much of the dancers’ rehearsals with Jackson.
But by sharing their stories now, former Gaga dancer Knicole Haggins tells Rolling Stone that it’s an “opportunity for things to change for the better and for people to feel that they don’t have to be quiet in order to keep their job.”
Jackson has held the position of Gaga’s head choreographer since 2011, taking over the gig from his former boss Laurieann Gibson, who created the routines for Gaga’s music videos “Poker Face,” “Born This Way,” and “Telephone.” During Gibson’s four-year tenure with Gaga, Jackson served as her assistant choreographer but still wielded sizable influence. Since then, Jackson has been the choreographer for Gaga’s tours, music videos, Super Bowl halftime show, as well as working for JoJo Siwa, Mario, and Grace VanderWaal.
Dancer Montana Efaw was the first to speak out against Jackson. Up until last week, the names of the dancers who made the cut for the Chromatica Ball had been kept under wraps. Impatient fans began reaching out to longtime dancers, such as Efaw, to see if they’d confirm whether they were part of the tour.
Efaw, who started dancing for Gaga when she was 18 years old in 2009, posted an Instagram Story explaining that she would not be part of the tour. “To be completely open and honest with you guys, her choreographer Richard Jackson was a horrible person to work for,” she said, later writing he had been “mentally abusive to me for years.” (Efaw did not go into further detail about Jackson’s alleged behavior.)
“After a series of unfortunate events, I just took it as a really clear sign that it’s time for me to move on and not work with him anymore,” she added.
Longtime Gaga dancers, including Diamond, Graham Breitenstein, Kevin Frey, and Sloan-Taylor Rabinor chimed in with their own statements and explanations for why they weren’t part of the tour, also referring to their experiences with Jackson. (Breitenstein and Rabinor started dancing for Gaga in 2009, and Frey in 2012. They had been involved in almost every project since they were hired, including Gaga’s 2019 Las Vegas concert residency. Diamond and Breitenstein did not respond to requests for comment, and Efaw, Frey and Rabinor declined to comment further than the statements in their posts.)
In a Twitter post, Breitenstein said he began assisting Jackson in 2016 and during that time had “worked really hard and did all [he] could to make sure that dancers were taken care of, and always put first.” But, without saying why, he says that their longstanding friendship and working relationship came to an “abrupt end last year” and that, Breitenstein says, spelled the end of his time working with Gaga.
While Rabinor didn’t mention Jackson by name in her Twitter post], she said “leadership” during her time with Gaga was “detrimental to me as a human being.
Frey also didn’t directly name Jackson, but referred in his post to an “individual” who he claimed was “unqualified and unfit to lead a group of adult professional artists.” “Those that have the power to make those changes have been informed,” Frey wrote. “I am hopeful they will investigate and make changes that are conducive to creating a professional, healthy, and safe working environment for everyone.”
“Gaga was my dream … I chased it and I got it, and she is the dream, and then you get there, and this man makes your dream a nightmare.”
French dancer Celine Thubert had been one of Gaga’s earliest dancers and was by her side during the emerging pop star’s promotional tour in 2008. She says that until now, she hasn’t shared details of her experience as a dancer working with Jackson because it had been “too emotional” for her to talk about, but was encouraged by others who spoke out.
“Like any professional dancer, this was my whole life,” Thubert tells Rolling Stone. “It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice, and when you get your dream job crushed by a toxic person, it’s horrible.”
Thubert claims Jackson was “disrespectful” and would “call me names or make fun of my accent,” before trying to ice her out from Gaga’s dance team over the filming of the “Poker Face” music video.
Thubert claims she was supposed to be part of the video, which was shooting in between touring, but says she received a call from a friend one day that Jackson was holding private auditions for the video. Thubert says she showed up to the studio anyway and saw “the whole team, with dress rehearsals and dancers learning choreography.”
“The only person who came to me was Gaga; she was very emotional and told me that she’ll figure out something for me to still be a part of the video,” Thubert says, but nothing came of this. “I realized then [Jackson] replaced me with no notice, no email, no phone call. They didn’t even call my agent. That’s how I got kicked out [of the video] with no respect.”
When Gaga was asked the following year what happened to Thubert and another female dancer, the then-23-year-old replied, perhaps in a nod to her album, “The fame got to them. Around this time, Gaga dropped all her female dancers and hired four new male dancers for her tour with New Kids on The Block in late 2008.
Anthony Lofendo was one of the new male dancers, telling Rolling Stone that even in the early days, Jackson “talk[ed] down to people.” “It was just never a positive experience with him,” he says.
One dancer, who worked with Gaga in 2010 and 2011, recalls having overall pleasant interactions with Jackson while Gibson was in charge. But during the auditions for the Born This Way tour in January 2012 — after Gibson had left — the source claims that Jackson seemed to be “on a total ego trip.” (The dancer requested their name be withheld out of fear of retribution.)
The dancer said the auditions were “incredibly disrespectful of dancers’ time,” by being held on a weekend, the male and female auditions overlapping, and Jackson making only one round of cuts at the end of a nine-hour day. (Normally, the source says, auditions would be more streamlined, men and women auditioned separately, and at least one round of cuts occurring earlier in the day.) “I’ve never been to an audition like this in my life — never before, and ever after,” they said.
Lady Gaga with her dancers, including Montana Efaw, Sloan-Taylor Rabinor and Kevin Frey, during her Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2017
Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Jackson also had 10 auditioners dance at a time, instead of the usual four to five people, according to the source. After the routine was finished, he allegedly would have the dancers line up and would “size everyone up” for five to 10 minutes. “He would ask people random questions like, ‘Where are you from? What’s your sign?’” the dancer recalls. (Lofendo says he was also present for such auditions, recalling how Jackson would go on tangents that were “never really about the choreography.”)
Instead of talking about the dancers’ auditions, the source claims, Jackson would go on “rants” about “what it’s like dancing for Gaga, what you need to be prepared for, why you’re not ready for this, or what you need to do.”
“He’s life coaching people based on watching them dance for 30 seconds and it was just unnecessary, disrespectful [and] rude,” they add. “He wasn’t giving people valuable feedback about their dancing; it was about their personas and their energy.”
Another former dancer, who worked for Gaga for four years and asked for their name to be withheld, says during the rehearsals for the Born This Way Ball, which was scheduled to start in April 2012, there were “multiple instances” of Jackson not considering the dancer’s time or the toll extensive rehearsing was taking on their bodies.
But they recall one incident days before the team departed for the first show in South Korea that they say prompted them to speak up about Jackson’s treatment of the dancers.
Rehearsals had been nonstop for the past two weeks and up to 14 hours long, with dancers looking forward to the only two days they had off, the dancer says.
However, on the last day of rehearsals, Jackson allegedly had the dancers waiting around for hours and by the time he started staging a number, it was evening, the dancer says. After running through the routine a few times, Jackson called off the night, telling the dancers they seemed tired, and practice would pick up in the morning.
“I think this is the first time I realized, ‘Oh, this isn’t okay. This isn’t okay with me,’” the dancer says. “So, I spoke up for the first time [to Jackson],” adding that they believe it was the first time someone pushed back against Jackson.
The dancer claims after they asked Jackson if they could finish rehearsals that night or pick back up in South Korea, with two other dancers voicing support for his suggestion, Jackson “basically didn’t respond.” Instead, he “got on the phone and he looked at us and said, ‘I’ll see you in Korea,’ and then left the room.”
Knicole Breahn Haggins, who was hired in early 2012 for that tour, also recalls the interaction similarly, saying she was one of the other dancers who voiced her agreement about finishing things that night. When the dancers gathered for their first rehearsal in South Korea, Jackson berated them all, according to the former dancer and Haggins. Then, as the former dancer recalls it, “all hell broke loose.”
Haggins says that Jackson zeroed in on her. “One of the first things he said was, ‘You’re new and you don’t have a right to talk about what you need and don’t need to do,’” she recalls. “That was the first moment I felt silenced.” The former dancer claims that after challenging Jackson, they felt that the choreographer began “staging me very poorly” and “ostracized me from the group [and] completely ignored my existence.”
“[Jackson] just really took it out on me a little,” the dancer says. They wound up finishing out the tour, but say they knew they wouldn’t be returning. “I chose for myself that it was healthier to not go back,” the dancer says, adding “I didn’t even realize [until] two years after that tour how traumatizing it was.”
“Like any professional dancer, this was my whole life. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice, and when you get your dream job crushed by a toxic person, it’s horrible.”
Haggins says she ended up choosing to leave Gaga’s dance team in 2014 after another instance after South Korea’s dustup where Jackson allegedly singled her out in front of the other dancers. Disappointed by an error that she wasn’t named in the end credits of Artpop’s “G.U.Y” music video while other dancers were, Haggins says she posted a vague tweet about how she was feeling, writing “feeling discredited.” The next day in rehearsals, Haggins says Jackson ripped into her.
“It became this whole, ‘You’re not allowed to say how you feel, and you’re not allowed to speak about what type of day you’re having,’” she says. “[He] started twisting it and using it, completely out of context. I felt so shell-shocked.”
Haggins claims the biggest blow came when Jackson brought up something she had come to him in confidence about concerning the financials of her recent contract — which was hundreds of dollars below her previous rate — in a room full of her colleagues. Becoming emotional, Haggins explains that she was confused and hurt, and felt Jackson betrayed her trust. “Like, where is this attack coming from? When I haven’t done anything wrong?” she says.
After she was left out of Gaga’s 2014, 10-day residency in New York, Haggins says she chose to walk away, but decided to write Gaga a letter about why she was leaving, though she doesn’t know if Gaga ever received it.
“That job, the people, and her specifically [were] so empowering to me that I felt like if I don’t stand up for myself, then what have I learned here?” Haggins explains. “Because working for her changed my life and empowered me to feel like I was strong enough to make that decision for myself.”
“It wasn’t because I wanted to out anybody or shame anybody or point fingers, but it was like, there’s people that don’t uplift your message that are causing this turmoil behind you and you don’t even know,” Haggins adds. “We don’t even feel like it’s okay to tell you because it’s not even our place.”
A sixth dancer who worked for Gaga from 2009 until 2013, who asked for their name to be withheld, says they disagree with Jackson being labeled “toxic” or “abusive,” instead saying there were other issues at play, such as Gaga’s hectic schedule and the demanding nature of the job.
“In general, being a dancer is hard — the entertainment industry is hard,” they say. “I don’t think that I would put the sole blame on Richard for any situation … I think that things were hard, but I think we’re all human.”
The dancers who spoke out are hoping that their experiences bring about some change, not just to Gaga’s team, but for all dancers to feel empowered to speak up for themselves in an industry where they often feel disregarded or as if they don’t have a voice.
Diamond, who claimed in the video she posted on Twitter that Jackson made her “feel terrible in the workplace” also said in the video that while she had learned a lot from her time on Gaga’s dance team, “I don’t believe that anybody should experience trauma so doors can open and just so hindsight can happen.”
Rabinor wrote in a follow-up Instagram post last week that she was “proud” of her dance community. “How dare I tell the next generation of dancers to know their worth if I don’t model the same action with the highest integrity,” she wrote. “Traumatizing experiences shouldn’t be bulldozed over. They should be handled and worked through so that change for the better can happen.”
“It’s about how we set up better environments,” Haggins adds. “Instead of continuing to pass down how things were [and] continuing that cycle.”
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