After Sexual Assault Suits, Are Sean Combs’ Empire and Brand at Risk?

A few months ago, Sean Combs was doing a victory lap for his three-decade career as a producer, music executive and all-around hip-hop showman.

At the MTV Video Music Awards in September, he accepted the network’s global icon award and performed vintage hits like “I’ll Be Missing You.” That month, Combs — who has also been known throughout his career as Puff Daddy or Diddy — released his first solo studio album in 17 years, and a flurry of approving media coverage celebrated his signature achievement of helping to transform hip-hop into a major pop movement.

But in recent weeks Combs’ reputation has been damaged, prompted by three lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault. The first, filed by Casandra Ventura — the singer Cassie, who was once signed to his Bad Boy label and dated him for years — alleged rape, coerced sex with male prostitutes and years of violent physical abuse. Her 35-page complaint, filled with graphic details, drew headlines around the world.

The case was settled in just one day, with no admission of wrongdoing by Combs, who denied the allegations. But fallout still came, in public and in private. This week, Combs stepped down as chair of Revolt, his 10-year-old cable TV network and online outlet. Several brands and influencers associated with his commercial platforms have fled. And, in a blow to Combs’ larger ambitions in social justice, a New York charter school network he helped expand, and pledged $1 million to, said it was ending its partnership with him.

For mainstream audiences that know Combs primarily as the flashy, party-hopping impresario behind hip-hop and R&B legends like the Notorious B.I.G. and Mary J. Blige, the recent accusations may be surprising. But in music circles, the allegations recently lodged in suits against Combs and others in the industry are being viewed by some as a long-delayed reckoning for businesses that largely avoided the repercussions of the #MeToo movement, which shook Hollywood and beyond in the late 2010s.

Combs has long been trailed by allegations of violence, and he has been arrested three times on criminal charges. He was either acquitted or the charges were not pursued in those criminal cases, and the incidents did not affect his public standing very much. But the suit by Ventura, even after its settlement, and the two cases that followed, have seemed to put his legacy and brand at risk.

Dream Hampton, an activist and filmmaker whose television series “Surviving R. Kelly” has been credited as playing an important role in finally bringing Kelly to justice, said she had no doubt that a reckoning was coming for Combs. “Puff is done,” she said.

Combs, 54, founded Bad Boy in 1993, and has been called one of the key figures behind the commercialization of hip-hop, broadening the genre’s appeal and crafting a gilded public image for its stars. In the 2000s, the MTV series “Making the Band” also made him a favorite reality-TV character, with his salty slang turning up as streetwear slogans.

“He was the icon for hip-hop moving off the street, into the clubs and into bottle service,” said Dan Charnas, the author of “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.”

Combs has described his most recent reinvention as his “love era,” taking Love as his latest stage name and titling his recent LP “The Love Album: Off the Grid.” He has espoused a social justice-focused approach for his businesses, with Combs Global, his umbrella company, adopting a mission to “build iconic brands and empower diverse communities at the same time.” Lately he has given millions of dollars in donations to historically Black colleges and universities.

The wave of lawsuits against him now threatens that image. In the second case, Joi Dickerson-Neal accused Combs of drugging and raping her in 1991, and recording the incident on video; in her complaint, Dickerson-Neal said that the news of Ventura’s lawsuit had prompted her to file her own. In a third suit, Liza Gardner says that in 1990, Combs coerced her into sex and then, a couple of days later, choked her so hard she passed out. All three suits were filed as a deadline approached for the Adult Survivors Act, a New York law that allowed people who said they were sexually abused to file claims even after the statute of limitations had expired.

In a statement, Jonathan D. Davis, a lawyer for Combs, said: “The new claims against Mr. Combs for alleged misconduct from many years ago, which were filed at the last minute, are all denied and rejected by him. He views these lawsuits as a money grab. Because of Mr. Combs’ fame and success, he is an easy target for accusers who attempt to smear him. The New York Legislature surely did not intend or expect its laws to be misused. Mr. Combs trusts that the public will remain skeptical and not rush to accept the unsubstantiated allegations made against him.”

A representative of Combs declined to address more detailed questions about the impact of the recent lawsuits on Combs’ business and other pursuits or respond to questions about past accusations of violence by Combs. But the size of Combs Global, which includes his record label, Revolt, a bottled water brand and his Sean John clothing line, among other businesses, could insulate his brand from significant financial fallout.

As news of those suits ricocheted through social media, accusations from Combs’ past were resurfaced and dissected. In a 2004 interview, Kimora Lee Simmons, a model and TV personality, said that Combs had threatened her while she was pregnant. Gina Huynh, a onetime girlfriend, said on a 2019 podcast that Combs had dragged her by the hair, thrown a high-heel shoe at her and pressured her to get two abortions.

A manager for Huynh declined an interview on her behalf, saying it was a “very sensitive subject for her.” Simmons did not respond to requests for comment.

Some of the fallout unfolded quietly.

The day after Ventura’s lawsuit was filed, Camille Bell, a founder of Pound Cake, a rising cosmetics brand that was part of the recent launch of Empower Global — a Combs platform that markets products by Black entrepreneurs — sent an email to the company terminating her brand’s partnership with it.

“Given yesterday’s news regarding Mr. Combs,” she wrote in the email, “I need to distance myself not just for the brand but as a rape victim myself.” (The platform lists more than 160 other brands on its site.)

Before Ventura’s lawsuit, Combs remained the face of DeLeón Tequila on its website, despite his ongoing court battle with the brand’s parent company, Diageo. DeLeón’s website touted “the story,” “the bottle” and “the man” — near a photo of Combs. In the days after the lawsuit, the photo and the words “the man” were scrubbed from the site. A spokesperson for Diageo said its board of directors decided to remove Combs’ image in the days after Ventura filed suit.

Earlier this year, Combs sued Diageo — the spirits maker with whom he has earned major income by partnering to market alcohol brands — saying it was treating his company unequally to its white business partners. Diageo has denied any unequal treatment.

Fallout within his orbit came from Steve Perry, the founder of a charter school network called Capital Preparatory Schools. In 2016, Combs helped start a branch in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, where he was born. This week, Perry released a statement on the school’s website saying that ​​“following a comprehensive evaluation, a decision has been made to end the partnership between Capital Preparatory Schools and Sean Combs.”

But the statement was apparently removed within hours, and school officials did not respond to requests for explanation. The school and Combs’ companies have close ties. Perry is listed on Combs Global’s website as part of its “executive team,” and Tarik Brooks, Combs Global’s president, remains listed as a board member of the charter network.

Revolt, which has popular podcasts like “Drink Champs” and “Caresha Please,” also distanced itself from its founder this week, announcing that Combs was stepping down as chair, and that “this decision helps to ensure that Revolt remains steadfastly focused on our mission.”

Dawn Montgomery, a former podcaster on Revolt’s show “Monuments to Me,” a series celebrating Black womanhood, posted on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, that she would not be returning to the Revolt podcast, saying that as a survivor of sexual assault herself, she could not “be a part of a show that’s supposed to uplift Black women while Diddy leads the company.”

Revolt’s statement did little to change her mind. “There are people in leadership who have to report to him, who have to follow up with him,” she said in an interview.

The long-term impact of the suits, of course, remains to be seen. Since the heightened scrutiny brought by the #MeToo movement half a decade ago, some prominent men like Johnny Depp returned to performing after fighting accusations of sexual misconduct. Another music industry executive, Russell Simmons, continues to have many supporters despite having faced serious allegations of misconduct, which he denied. But Combs may not have the same level of goodwill, said Hampton, the filmmaker.

“Puff already had a pretty dark legacy,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.