It was 10 years ago that the host of a popular morning radio show told Amber Rose during an interview that, until recently, he thought she should be “seen and not heard.”
The context was a discussion of her love life, a topic she was not all that eager to explore. “At that time, I had only dated one person publicly. And I married the other person that I was with,” Ms. Rose recalled recently. “But I was in their ‘Hoe Hall of Fame.’”
The person she had dated publicly was Kanye West (they broke up after two years in 2010) and the person she had married was the rapper Wiz Khalifa (they finalized their divorce in 2016). When she made the comment about her romantic history, she didn’t mean to denigrate women who’ve had many partners — a stance that would be inconsistent with her work with the SlutWalk movement, as well as her many other public proclamations — but to highlight the ways in which, from her perspective, the perception of her has consistently been out of sync with reality.
In that same radio interview, the host made sexually suggestive comments to Ms. Rose even after she pointed out that she had been accosted by strangers following her breakup with Mr. West. On-air, she described what it felt like “to have people throw stuff at you in the street, like, ‘You cheated on Kanye, you’re a gold digger!’” The host went on to insinuate that he wanted to have sex with Ms. Rose.
At the time, Ms. Rose was well acquainted with the scrutiny of stardom. Nonetheless, she felt shocked by the treatment. “I remember feeling like I had to defend myself and who I dated, or who I didn’t date, or who I had sex with,” she said.
‘You’re not going to reduce me to someone’s girlfriend’
Since her rise to prominence, Ms. Rose has modeled; written a book; hosted a season of her own talk show on VH1; launched a successful account on OnlyFans, a subscription service that primarily features adult performers; and signed on to an OnlyFans rival, Playboy Centerfold. Most recently, she released a hip-hop single, “G.Y.H.O.,” produced by the veteran D.J. Mannie Fresh, in which she overtly pays homage to the hit “Get Your Roll On” while reclaiming some of the derogatory labels to which she has been subjected.
This year, as commentators have called out Mr. West’s public behavior toward Kim Kardashian following their divorce, Ms. Rose has reflected on the very different reaction she experienced when she split with Mr. West. She “took a lot of punches, figuratively,” she said, in terms of public perception. Mr. West, she recounted, had “bullied” her, including joking that he needed to “take 30 showers” after they dated. (A spokesperson for Mr. West declined to comment.)
She got the sense at the time that many people thought, “You didn’t deserve him, he’s much better than you” because of the contrast between his level of fame and hers.
Ms. Rose said she felt that people now were more aware of issues around toxicity and relationships — and more willing to look at someone’s public behavior and say, “Hey, what he’s doing isn’t right.” While she acknowledges that her initial fame came thanks to her high-profile relationships, she feels she has been scrutinized and caricatured ever since, as people fixated on her back story as a stripper and a video vixen.
In 2015, for example, GQ published a profile of her in conjunction with her book, “How to Be a Bad Bitch,” and the writer characterized her as an “infamous ex,” a “baby mama” and “the most famous girlfriend in rap history.” Ms. Rose expressed her outrage on social media, noting that she is “so much more” than the person they described. Asked about her reaction, she said defiantly, “You’re not going to reduce me to someone’s girlfriend.”
But she has long found herself cast in a particular role — the heavily sexualized girlfriend — in a kind of ongoing public pageant that’s played out primarily in the tabloid media and in online chatter. Continuing public interest in her has fueled her various career ventures but it’s also made it difficult for her to alter those perceptions.
Her experience in the public eye has led to her embracing feminism and sex-positivity activism. In 2015, she organized the Amber Rose SlutWalk in Los Angeles, a protest event that aims to raise awareness around gender inequality and which is set to resume in the near future after a four-year hiatus. The break, she explained, was a result of organizational and personnel issues (specifically, according to a since-deleted Instagram post, “toxic personality friends”) and, later, because of the pandemic.
The event exists as part of an informal SlutWalk movement of organized marches that started in Toronto in 2011, after a police officer suggested that women could protect themselves against assault if they avoided “dressing like sluts.”
Ms. Rose hopes people will take her public commitment to advocacy seriously, though she’s used to being underestimated. “I think when I go into interviews people have the notion that I may not be as smart as I am or I don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said.
But, she continued, “I always change their minds at the end.”
‘Like a moth to a flame’
Although she said she struggled with shyness when she first became famous, along with “a fear of being perceived,” Ms. Rose, by her account, grew up a confident, popular child in South Philadelphia. She described herself as proudly mixed race. (Her mother is a Black woman from Cape Verde; her father is Irish and Italian.)
In her youth, she was mainly cared for by her mother, Dorothy, while her father, Michael, was in the military. She described their financial situation as “very poor” and said the family went through some tough periods, including a stint of homelessness. Some of her best memories are of living in neighborhoods with noisy, exciting block parties, where her neighbors would fry up fish and people would D.J. and dance in the street.
“I was always the first one dancing. I was a little ham,” she said.
As a child, she felt she never truly belonged on the East Coast, and she would often tell her friends that she would be moving to Hollywood one day. By the time she was 18, she had moved instead to New York — specifically, the Bronx. She found work in strip clubs, such as Sue’s Rendezvous in Mount Vernon. She was discovered there by Margo Wainwright, a music-video commissioner who worked for the record label Def Jam.
“When I started to talk to her about what I did and what was possible, I felt like she was open to it,” Ms. Wainwright said in a recent interview. “Even though people try to go in there and sell them dreams all the time.” Ms. Wainwright offered to help jump-start Ms. Rose’s career as a “video vixen” — women hired to appear in hip-hop videos. “There’s more to it than just being a pretty face,” Ms. Wainwright said. She had scouted other women who had “crumbled” in front of the camera but “it was totally the opposite of that with Amber. She really took to it, like a moth to a flame.”
Ms. Rose’s now iconic look — chunky black sunglasses, hair cropped short and immaculately dyed blonde — opened up her much-longed-for pathway to Hollywood. A video director, smitten with her trademark buzz-cut, offered to fly her to L.A. She wound up performing as one of the “main girls” in a video for the Ludacris song “What Them Girls Like” in 2008.
After her appearance, Mr. West called and asked her to perform in his video “Robocop” (which was never released — though a small clip leaked to the internet in 2014). She started dating Mr. West, signed with Ford Models and her profile grew.
“My life was Amber Rose Levonchuck one day,” she said, “and then it was Amber Rose, that famous baldheaded model.”
‘I go to battle with people’
At Ms. Rose’s first SlutWalk in 2015, she was joined by a few hundred women for a march to Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. She invited performers and speakers, including one of the founders of the original SlutWalk in Toronto. Ms. Rose carried a sign that read “Strippers Have Feelings Too” and revealed in an emotional speech that playing a kissing game at a party at age 14 had led to an awful experience.
“I went to school the next day and I was extremely slutshamed by the entire school,” she said, adding, “I thought my life was over.”
The message at her events, Ms. Rose explained recently, is “Wear what you want, do what you want, have your own sexuality, whoever you want to date, whoever you want to love.”
Kaitlynn Mendes, a professor of sociology at Western University in Ontario and the author of the book “SlutWalk: Feminism, Activism and Media,” attended Ms. Rose’s third SlutWalk in 2017. “It was the most intersectional feminist event I’ve ever been to,” Ms. Mendes said. “It was also one of the most diverse feminist events that I’ve ever been to” — characteristics that she credited to the fact that the event was organized by a prominent woman of color and held in downtown Los Angeles.
Ms. Rose thinks her events were ahead of their time, setting the stage for larger cultural moments. “The #MeToo movement and all these other movements came out which were bigger than mine,” she said. “They had more of a voice; white Hollywood had their back. I was just the stripper from South Philly that had a SlutWalk.”
Even so, Ms. Rose’s events have generated intense coverage, celebrity endorsements and even a counterprotest from the far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Her participation has also been met with some skepticism by observers who fear the SlutWalk movement is being co-opted by celebrities for commercial gain.
Ms. Mendes, who met Ms. Rose briefly, is wary of the “corporatization” of her SlutWalk, which has historically relied on extensive sponsorship. But ultimately, she said, the events “do more good than harm,” thanks in large part to their prominence and inclusivity.
Ms. Rose said feminists have criticized her over the years, including questioning her feminist credentials. In response, she said, she can speak only to her own experiences.
“I go to battle with people,” she said. “I hate to see an injustice when it comes to women, or the L.G.B.T.Q. community or sexual assault or rape victims.”
While her trademark look has remained mostly the same, one element has changed: She has had the name and the nickname of her two children — Slash, 9, and Bash (Sebastian), 2 — tattooed on her forehead. Her children are her world, she said, and she is trying to keep them grounded despite the wealth that surrounds them. “When you grow up poor, you value money in a different way,” she said. She added, “Even through all the turmoil, I’ve never changed who I am.”
After our conversation, Ms. Rose headed off to an event for a friend, the rapper Tyga, and his new sneaker collaboration. She was driving a blue convertible Rolls-Royce with the top down. A TMZ tour bus pulled up alongside her car and the tour guide lobbed a few questions at her from inside the bus as passengers gawped and shouted her name. From the driver’s seat, Ms. Rose answered gamely until the bus pulled away.
She seemed to enjoy the moment. In a small way, she’d been both seen and heard.