Following the filing of an explosive lawsuit against Lizzo — and her denial of the claims within — the lawyer representing the women leveling the accusations is expounding on their claims.
Three of the singer’s former dancers — Crystal Williams, Arianna Davis and Noelle Rodriguez — are suing Lizzo, her production company Big Grrrl Big Touring, Inc. and dance captain Shirlene Quigley for alleged sexual harassment and creating a hostile and abusive work environment for multiple years, PEOPLE confirmed.
Speaking with PEOPLE via phone Tuesday, attorney Ronald Zambrano — who represents the plaintiffs —claims the women were traumatized up to the last day they were employed by the four-time Grammy winning singer in the spring of 2023. Shortly after, they sought his counsel.
“The theme that I’m hearing is that there’s an external persona that Lizzo presents, inclusivity and come as you are, but in private, it was very different,” says Zambrano. “And that’s what came across to me in talking to these young ladies. Lizzo was very different privately.”
According to the lawsuit, a week prior, dancer Crystal Williams was fired due to “budget cuts” and “not having the best attitude at times and coming across as snarky.”
Lizzo, whose real name is Melissa Jefferson, addressed the claims in her Thursday statement.
“These sensationalized stories are coming from former employees who have already publicly admitted that they were told their behavior on tour was inappropriate and unprofessional,” she wrote.
“As an artist I have always been very passionate about what I do. I take my music and my performances seriously because at the end of the day I only want to put out the best art that represents me and my fans. With passion comes hard work and high standards. Sometimes I have to make hard decisions but it’s never my intention to make anyone feel uncomfortable or like they aren’t valued as an important part of the team.”
(Quigley did not immediately respond to multiple requests from PEOPLE.)
When performer Noelle Rodriguez confronted Lizzo about the issue with Davis, the suit claims she told Lizzo she felt disrespected and resigned from the tour. Suddenly, as the suit states, Lizzo approached Rodriguez, “cracking her knuckles and balling her fists.”
“They were really freaked out that last day when Lizzo started yelling, screaming and getting in people’s faces and the dancers were… not just the plaintiffs — the other dancers were crying. It was just so intense,” Zambrano alleged to PEOPLE. “Lizzo pulled back to hit. Other dancers stepped in to avoid the forward movement.” According to the suit, as Lizzo left the room, she allegedly exclaimed, “You’re lucky. You’re so f—ing lucky!” and raised her middle fingers and screamed, “Bye, bitch!”
Meanwhile, according to Zambrano, Davis was forced to stay behind, detained in the room where the meeting had taken place with co-manager Molly Gordon and a security detail named Robo. As he allegedly rifled through files on her phone to find the recording that she told everyone she had already deleted, the Zambrano alleges that she was frightened and couldn’t wait to leave. After a thorough search, Davis was eventually released when nothing was found on her phone.
“She was really scared,” says Zambrano. “With these big security guys around, what are you supposed to do? They demanded her phone. I mean, they were in a foreign country, basically at the behest of this very powerful employer who is the person that got you into this other country. It’s a disparity of power. What choice do you have to really be like, ‘No?'” he says.
After the alleged incidents, Zambrano says that his clients told him they feared Lizzo. “They all told me they were scared that someone was going to come back and hurt them. That they had either bugged the room or were surveilling them. [The dancers] had this fear — that’s how paranoid Lizzo was starting to act those last few weeks — that they were being bugged. And that’s why my clients left so quickly in the middle of the tour. It hadn’t even ended. And, of course, it’s illegal what they did to Davis. She was held against her will. That shouldn’t happen.”
Back in August 2021, two days after the song “Rumors” — that the singer collaborated on with Cardi B — was released, Lizzo appeared on Instagram Live crying, saying that a racist, fat-phobic comment that was aimed at her hurt tremendously. While speaking to PEOPLE, Zambrano insinuates that the singer has another side to her that many don’t know.
“She didn’t seem very approachable or empathetic. There were cliques within the clique. Even though they were on tour with her, they felt excluded at times,” claims Zambrano. “Lizzo used to have an all-Black management team. In the last two years, that changed. Now it’s white Europeans. The team was treating the Black dancers differently… and Lizzo was constantly talking about everyone else’s weight. The idea of weight and weight gain was brought up then explicitly.”
The dancers claim that Lizzo — who has emphasized body positivity throughout her career — allegedly brought up Davis’ weight gain on multiple occasions, both during the tour and at South by Southwest. According to the suit, in April Lizzo allegedly impressed upon Davis — who struggles with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder— that she needed to disclose her weight gain to the singer in order to allegedly keep her job. Once she did, according to Zambrano, Lizzo dismissively offered that Davis could take time off from rehearsals and attend therapy, even though the dancer wasn’t interested.
Lizzo touched on these claims in her denial Thursday as well. “There is nothing I take more seriously than the respect we deserve as women in the world,” she wrote. “I know what it feels like to be body shamed on a daily basis and would absolutely never criticize or terminate an employee because of their weight.”
During a tour stop in Amsterdam in February 2023, Davis and Rodriguez were allegedly invited for a night out with Lizzo to Bananenbar, a strip club in the Red Light District. The suit claims the group was pressured to take turns catching dildos launched from the performer’s private areas and eating bananas protruding from the same region. Davis was then allegedly peer-pressured into touching one of the nude performer’s breasts against her will. Lizzo allegedly began egging her on, riling the other co-workers to chant.
“I’m good,” David reiterated three times, the suit states, loud enough for everyone to hear. As the encouragement grew louder, Zombrano says his client became more uncomfortable and eventually gave in to stop the ridicule, as the group burst into laughter as she did it. It made her uncomfortable, the suit claims, but according to Zambrano, only a band member approached her to see if she was OK — Lizzo reportedly never checked in on Davis.
Later that evening, Lizzo allegedly badgered a security guard to get on the club’s stage “until he submitted to her demands,” per the suit. Once in the spotlight, it states, his pants were pulled down, exposing his bare backside. The suit alleges that Lizzo began yelling, “Take it off!” while a club performer hit him with whips.
“That’s why when Lizzo invited them to go on these outings, my clients felt like, ‘Oh my God, here’s our opportunity to show who we are outside of the context of dancing.’ And then it became something else,” Zombrano tells PEOPLE. “It’s one of those things where you don’t want to meet your heroes.”
The singer spoke to these accusation in her statement, writing, “I am not here to be looked at as a victim, but I also know that I am not the villain that people and the media have portrayed me to be these last few days. I am very open with my sexuality and expressing myself but I cannot accept or allow people to use that openness to make me out to be something I am not,” Lizzo said.
The suit also alleges that when the dancers banded together to request a retainer — when they weren’t making money on tour but couldn’t take other jobs — for their work, they were allegedly scolded by a person working for the management team for “unacceptable and disrespectful behavior” and that it was grounds for termination — which the suit alleges left the dancers to believe the comments were “charged with racial fat-phobic animus” because only the dance cast was comprised of “full-figured women of color,” who allege they were targeted.
“My clients are in their early-20s,” says Zombrano. “Their managers are their moms, and the moms are telling their agents to tell Lizzo that if they want to put a hold on the dancers, they need to pay them because they are losing out on other opportunities and it wasn’t fair.”
Additionally, during rehearsals dance captain Shirlene Quigley would allegedly preach to everyone in her surroundings about her beliefs regarding Christianity and sexuality. The suit alleges that she “often made comments deriding people who engaged in pre-marital sex, knowing that some of the members of the dance team did not share her views.” She also had “a party trick in which she would simulate oral sex on a banana in front of the rest of the dance cast. These instances were always unprompted and made the Plaintiffs uncomfortable,” the suit claims.
“My understanding is that Quigley didn’t reserve the religious talk just for the dancers. [It was] something she was open [about] during rehearsal and whatnot, which Lizzo was a part of,” says Zombrano. “But there are levels. There’s a difference between saying ‘I love Jesus Christ’ versus talking about it while also including how to masturbate. But behind closed doors, the dancers would talk about how they felt. I don’t know why Quigley couldn’t read the room. No one really enjoys talking about that stuff, but people are like that in life. The idea is that you don’t have people in leadership that are like that.”
At one point, the dancers were also asked to re-audition after being accused of drinking alcohol numerous times before performances and not “performing up to par,” the suit states. Zambrano claims that the constant religious rhetoric and discussion about alcohol allegedly stemmed from Quigley. “She is very open about her past addiction issues on the Internet,” says Zambrano. “And I think that’s why she has this religious flavor — let’s call it that — to her, because it’s helped her in her recovery and dealing with addiction.”
Davis, who was often worried about being fired, didn’t excuse herself to the restroom after almost 12 hours of rehearsal with no break, the suit claims, and ended up soiling herself. Despite the accident, the suit states that Davis was required to finish the rehearsal wearing sheer shorts with no undergarments. “Can you imagine?” asks Zambrano.
Although the young dancers once admired the talented artist, their lawyer claims Davis was the only one with initial trepidations working with Lizzo and her team on the reality show Watch Out for the Big Grrrls. “She didn’t like certain things that were being asked of her initially,” says Zambrano. “Being asked about her virginity … she didn’t want to be naked during a photoshoot, and she pushed back on it.”
Recently, others who have worked with Lizzo corroborated the plaintiffs’ claims. “I’m not a part of the lawsuit – but this was very much my experience in my time there. Big shoutout to the dancers who had the courage to bring this to light,” former dancer Courtney Hollinquest wrote on her Instagram story. Quinn Whitney Wilson, Lizzo’s former creative director also added on Instagram: “I haven’t been a part of that world for around three years, for a reason. And I grieve parts of my own experience.”
Moving forward, Zombrano hopes his three clients will get the chance to share their experiences in the LA Superior Court. “I don’t think they’re worried about getting work because of their emotional state,” Zambrano tells PEOPLE. “I just think they’re afraid of getting work because they pissed off Lizzo.”