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How Rihanna Upended Oprah’s Standard Redemption Narrative

Oprah’s interview with Rihanna last night was, as always, a feat of emotional mirroring. “What happens when you see him? Does your heart do that WOOSH thing?” Oprah asked after Rihanna confessed that she and ex Chris Brown, who was arrested in 2009 for assaulting her, are still close friends. “My stomach drops,” Rihanna said quietly. 

This is Oprah’s rare and creepy skill: preempting a guest’s emotional response by enacting it even before they do. It helps that her own celebrity looms so large that her interview subjects seem to want to please her by saying the right thing. But for all Piers Morgan’s disarming bluntness, Larry King’s bland encouragement, and even Charlie Rose’s intelligent engagement, Oprah radiates such perfect understanding that she manages to guide her guests blindly into confrontation with their feelings. “You made peace with your father [for mistreating your mother] and then you were able to make peace with Chris—because you realized the connection between what your father had done and what Chris had done,” Oprah said, as Rihanna nodded gratefully.

Rihanna has given exclusives before, notably a 2009 appearance on Good Morning America in which she said described the Chris Brown incident as “a big wakeup call.” But this interview was different. “I’m so mad she makes me cry! I’m not a crier, man, what is this? I’m gonna look so soft,” Rihanna exclaimed at one point. “No you’re not, no you’re not,” Oprah cooed. “You’re gonna look so real.”

She was right. Rihanna did look “so real,” cruising down the streets of Barbados in a breezy sundress with her long hair loose. She seemed frank and vulnerable and imperfect. She spoke openly about the knot of emotions that overtook her in the wake of the incident, and about the fact that she still loves Brown and thinks she always will. “That’s not something you can shut off if you’ve ever been in love,” she said. It felt like the truest portrait of domestic abuse that has emerged in the media since Brown’s arrest, far more convincing than any rah-rah kick-him-to-the-curb act.

The dramatic arc of an Oprah interview always seems deftly engineered: exposition, difficult reckoning, redemption. Sarah Ferguson—caught selling press access to her ex-husband for several hundred-thousand dollars in 2010—cries her way to self-discovery. Evangelical leader Ted Haggard, post gay sex scandal, confronts why he felt the need to hide that “dark area” of his life. Oprah’s brand is so committed to redemption that even domestic abuse could easily end up as a kind of fairy tale.

But this time, at least, it didn’t. There were still plenty of artificial human-interest prods (the angle about Rihanna’s rekindled relationship with her father, for one), but overall this interview felt genuine and sad. “He made that mistake because he needed help,” Rihanna said when asked about her initial reaction to Brown’s arrest. “And who’s gonna help him. Nobody’s gonna say he needs help. Everybody’s gonna say he’s a monster without looking at the source. I was more concerned about him.” It was grotesque and strange to hear, but it also usefully complicated our understanding of the mindset of an abused woman. Oprah, needless to say, was maternal and supportive. “You just shocked me,” she said gently, which may be as close as Oprah ever gets to pushing back.