The veteran reporter, who has broken multiple stories on Kelly’s alleged sexual crimes and misconduct — including revealing the existence of the videotape that purportedly shows Kelly having graphic sex with a 14-year-old girl — has been covering this beat for the past 19 years. He was forced to testify in the child-pornography trial that ensued — he pled the Fifth — he’s been called out by Kelly by name in the song “I Admit” and his autobiography, and when the singer’s alleged crimes seemed to have vanished from public awareness, DeRogatis is often involved in something that brings it all back.
Indeed, by 2013 Kelly had practically been rehabilitated: In the years following his 2001 arrests on two separate child-pornography charges (and subsequent acquittal), he’d collaborated with everyone from Jay-Z to Lady Gaga and Phoenix, he’d released hit albums and enjoyed sellout tours, and even was invited by Pitchfork, the bastion of indie righteousness, to perform at its festival. Yet a widely publicized DeRogatis interview in the Village Voice that year either revived people’s memories or informed them for the first time. Four years later, in the summer of 2017, he broke the story of the abusive “cults” in which Kelly is allegedly holding several women in at his residences.
And after the outrage that followed the harrowing Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” earlier this year had diminished — even in light of the multiple state charges of sexual assault and misconduct filed against him in February, with federal charges expected in the coming weeks — DeRogatis is publishing a book about the singer’s alleged crimes, their background and his involvement with them: “Soulless,” which comes out next week.
The book is not an easy read: It recounts, in excruciating detail, his alleged sexual misconduct toward multiple women, the alleged corruption involving Chicago police and city officials, and reports of the payoffs and favors that allegedly enabled Kelly to continue his behavior. It’s a near-definitive, if opinionated, account, and a must-read for anyone seeking answers to the many questions the situation provokes. Just yesterday, Kelly was hit with 11 more counts of sexual assault and abuse, with a federal indictment expected in the coming weeks.
Variety spoke with DeRogatis on Friday morning about all of the above and more (continues below).
Why do you think Kelly was hit with new charges yesterday? Is it part of a larger strategy?
The Federal authorities investigating the case told me that Illinois State Attorney Kim Foxx rushed her charges [in February] to grab a headline. That’s not to say the three accusers and the new videotape [in February’s case] aren’t solid evidence, but the Illinois case doesn’t come close to scratching the surface of nearly 30 years of crimes, as I describe in “Soulless”: Kelly has been preying on young women for three decades. But three days after “Surviving R. Kelly” completed its initial [airing, in January], Kim Foxx held a press conference and asked for witnesses to come forward, and the entirety of the case is based on people who responded to that.
The federal indictments are coming within the next month, and the I.R.S., the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security are looking at 30 year of alleged sex trafficking, tax evasion, obstruction of justice and transporting underaged girls across state lines for immoral purposes, to quote the Mann Act. And it may very well be that ultimately, just as Chicago never got Al Capone for murder, robbery, bootlegging, gambling or prostitution, R. Kelly comes down the same way Capone did – for tax evasion.
In the book, you make a lot of strong accusations against Chicago police and city officials, especially Judge Vincent Gaughan, who frequently favored the defense during the child-pornography trial. Is corruption the reason he’s been able to avoid prison?
I think it’s a very complicated tapestry that I did my best to lay out in the book. There’s the corruption that’s prevalent in Chicago; there’s the failure to view these women as “real victims” by some police — although not all of them, the special investigations [unit] pursued that case for two-and-half years, until the videotape [emerged]. There’s the complicity of the Baptist power structure, the Reverends James Meeks and Jesse Jackson steadfastly standing behind Kelly and urging the state’s attorney to drop the charges and not give him jail time. There’s the failure of the school system — he was preying on a kids at a Chicago public high school, Kenwood Academy. There’s the failure of some parents, to be sure. There’s the lust for celebrity, for this musical idol to make them a star. There’s the failure of journalism, aside from [my colleagues at] the Chicago Sun-Times, to shine the spotlight on this guy. And there’s the fact that so many young black girls are just disregarded by all of those [entities]. And Ed Genson, the lead of [Kelly’s] defense team, on his deathbed, dying of cacncer, gave an interview to the Sun-Times [in March] saying, “Yeah, I knew he was guilty as hell.” How are his granddaughters any different from [Kelly’s victims]? They’re not! Obviously, the biggest factor in this sad story is race.
So I don’t think it was any one thing. But to be certain, if R. Kelly’s moment of reckoning is coming, it is due to 19 years of incredibly brave women ripping out their souls and talking about their sexual assaults and being willing to be called liars, gold-diggers, publicity hounds, scheming prostitutes — the amount of social media hatred that is being thrown at the women who talked to me is just soul-killing.
What’s the total number of alleged victims you’ve spoken with?
I know the names of 48 women — not all of them have spoken on the record, and I’m certain there are many, many more.
Do you think any of them are lying, as Kelly and his attorneys claim?
No. I have never felt that any of the victims who told their stories to me are lying. I think there are things that they may have been reluctant or hesitant to speak about; I think motives can be complicated. Nothing is black and white, and this is a key element of rape culture: There is no such thing as a perfect victim. They accept money, they make bad decisions, their parents may push them to be close to the star, there are many different factors. But I had to write this book because the women have never stopped calling me, and I’m not going to not take those calls. And even with the spotlight on Kelly in a way that’s more intense than it’s been for 19 years, people still don’t realize the magnitude of 30 years of crimes.
Those 48 women can’t all be liars, and the commonalities of stories that I heard, from November of 2000 to last week — women who have never met each other, decades apart, telling me the same thing. This has happened in full view of the world — and the music industry that enabled him to sell 100 million records. He sang at the opening ceremony of the Olympics and the FIFA cup, he collaborated with Jay-Z and Lady Gaga, he appeared on “Jimmy Fallon” singing Christmas songs and got a bro hug — nobody wanted to know or cared. And on top of that, the videotape — 26 minutes and 39 seconds of the most horrifying crime I’ve ever had to witness — is dismissed as “the pee tape” — it’s the rape of a 14 year old! And yet the jury saw it and acquitted him.
Have you seen evidence of payoffs?
Not directly. I document many monetary settlements in exchange for nondisclosure agreements — the same tool Harvey Weinstein used — and those are, despite the legal language, payoffs, and they do not preclude criminal charges. I don’t have the power to subpoena — but the Feds do!
I interviewed Kelly’s ex-wife Drea, a current accuser, earlier this year and I was struck by something she said: She pointed the finger at his enablers, “It’s a team that’s helping facilitate and keep him sick and make more victims.” It almost sounds like she’s blaming mental illness and enablers as much as him.
As I write in the book, the thing I heard more than anything else wasn’t “I hate R. Kelly, I want to bring him down and send him to jail.” It was “the brother is sick, brother needs help, brother’s gotta stop.” So there is this sympathy — but I would not excuse him for the disease. In the book I report for the first time publicly — and Ed Genson confirmed it — for the entirely of the buildup for six years of going to trial, he was seeing the leading black psychiatrist in Chicago, getting therapy for his sexual addiction and compulsions, and was on testosterone-reducing drugs. They wanted to keep him behaving as he prepared to go to court. And as soon as he was acquitted, that ended — by his choice, and he started pursuing Jerhonda Johnson, who he met outside the courthouse! We can’t absolve him of this sickness. How many wake-up calls does a person deserve?
If we listen to the music, from [1992’s] “Honey Love” all the way up to [2017’s] “I Admit,” he’s consistently singing about this behavior and almost bragging about it. [Aaliyah’s Kelly-penned hit] “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number”? It’s never been a secret. I think he’s proud of it and I think he believes he’s untouchable — and that comes from dozens and dozens of interview with people who have been hurt by him.
When I started reporting the story that led to the “sex cult” story, I was exceedingly skeptical of the words “cult” and “brainwash,” but Drea Kelly’s mother was using the word “brainwash” in the mid-2000s; [alleged victim] Lizette Martinez was using in in the mid 1990s. And even when Joy Savage and Azrael Clary [Kelly’s current girlfriends and alleged “cult” victims, who were interviewed by Gaye King on CBS as Kelly stood within earshot earlier this year], Gayle King said it was as if they were being controlled.
Why do you think Kelly thought that interview was a good idea? Not only was he letting those women know he could hear every word they said, he threw a violent tantrum on national television.
I think he’s both incredibly shrewd and unbelievably stupid. He probably thinks he can control and spin the media, and that it was a brilliant performance — I’m certain he believes that, and I’m not gonna say he’s wrong. He just thinks nobody’s going to care — and what’s more troubling now is that nobody can say they didn’t know.
In the book, your perspective is obvious: You clearly believe the alleged victims and disbelieve R. Kelly. Do you think you’re changing anyone’s mind?
I don’t think I’m convincing any diehard Kelly supporters, but I don’t think that was the point. Long after anyone stops caring about R. Kelly, here is a story about Chicago and the way it works, about race and justice and sexual crimes and journalism and the system. So I think it’s about these bigger themes, and trying to lay out as clearly as possible how this happened in full view of the world for 30 years. Whether it’s Cook County Court or the music industry or journalism — all of it needs to be exposed.
What do you think will happen next?
I think people of good conscience want to be optimistic about the world in 2019, with MeToo and TimesUp — and yet we did not believe Christine Blasey Ford any more than we believed Anita Hill, and we have Brett Kavanaugh sitting on the Supreme Court because “his crimes weren’t crimes,” we have a president who bragged about grabbing women by the p—y, we have several Southern states and Ohio turning the clock back to a time before 1971. This chronic apathy, this ability to see and not see these crimes, is part of the culture.
But to answer your question, I think the federal indictments will come, and whatever happens to Kelly next —federal prison, state prison, or acquittal — I would hope he’s just not able to hurt more women.