For the star-watching class, the celebrity pregnancy photo reveal is a storied art form. We all know the highlights: Demi Moore’s 1991 nude Vanity Fair cover—still the most famous photo ever taken of Scout Willis—or the fateful 2017 florals-festooned Instagram post wherein Beyoncé shared that her family had been “blessed two times over.”
Smart money, then, would have bet that the singer and fashion mogul Rihanna, if and when the time came, might introduce her pregnancy to the world with a similar flair. The time did come, on Monday: People and other outlets reported that Rihanna is expecting her first child with her boyfriend, rapper ASAP Rocky, and photos emerged of her showing off her baby bump in New York.
“I’ve been waiting literally seven years to see how she will perform this moment of her life, which is a weird thing to say about a person,” Renée Ann Cramer told me upon hearing the news. As a professor at Drake University and the author of a book called Pregnant With the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump, Cramer is a professional celebrity baby bump watcher, and she was excited about how Rihanna in particular would confront this life stage: “She has an incredible platform upon which she could really change the way, especially that women of color in their celebrity pregnancies have been covered.”
“Plus, she’s just a fabulous public figure to watch,” Cramer said. “She’s never not interesting. So I’m sure that what she’s going to do in terms of being pregnant in public will be interesting.”
The news of the pregnancy, and the photos of the bump, were instantly as unavoidable as “Umbrella” circa 2008. But as celebrity gossip éminence grise LaineyGossip was quick to note, there was something unexpected about the mode of reveal: Rather than a lavish magazine shoot or a post hosted on her own social media, Rihanna had arranged for paparazzi photos. The photos were stylish and memorable—Rihanna and ASAP Rocky strolled through Harlem, she wearing a long, bright-pink puffer jacket with only one button fastened and a string of jewels hanging over her protruding belly, in possible reference to the cover of a classic Madonna album. But for a certified fashion plate like Rihanna, the photos weren’t screaming Met Ball or Vogue or memes; they were almost subdued. Subdued for Rihanna, anyway.
These weren’t paparazzi photos in the sense you might be thinking: As LaineyGossip wrote, “It’s not like the pap just showed up in Harlem and stumbled upon RiRi wither hair and makeup done, strolling around in that outfit.” What’s more likely is that someone in Rihanna’s camp called up the photographer credited with the images, Miles Diggs—whom Vogue has called “fashion’s favorite paparazzi”—and told him where to find the pair.
“Plandid” photos might seem a surprising choice, but they’re also a canny one: “It’s being in control of the release and of the image, but it’s also an illusion of not controlling, an illusion of being caught,” Cramer said, “so that the person like my little sister in South Dakota would not understand that these are shots that have been arranged. And I think that’s a really interesting move on her part because it’s playing both. It’s saying, I will control the way these images are made, but I won’t be overt in my control over it.”
Still, it was slightly odd to read outlets like the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal describe what intentionally seems like a low-key photo shoot as an example of Rihanna “reinventing the genre” in a way only Rihanna could. It seems fair to say that five years after the announcement of Beyoncé’s twins, that style of elaborate announcement might be played out. If Rihanna wanted this to be a Met Ball–level iconic fashion moment, she would have made it one. But Rihanna’s public persona is that sometimes she just doesn’t care what people want from her. Her fandom has clamored for a new album for years; she seems content to sell makeup and lingerie and hang out on yachts. It seems to me that the most Rihanna way to announce a pregnancy would have been with something big or with nothing at all. It’s the medium-sized-ness of this announcement that makes it so unexpected.
Rihanna’s decision not to sell her photos or to make a big deal of them on social media “could be read as a refusal to make commercial or commodify the pregnancy, the relationship, the bump,” Cramer said. “A lot of the stars who have released them on their own have gotten critique for making it part of their product line. This seems to be Rihanna saying, ‘This isn’t part of my product line. This is my family.’ ” Cramer pointed out that “the fact that they were done in Harlem, where ASAP Rocky grew up, is really a nod to family and to tradition.”
There’s something traditional about the mode of distribution too. By going to a paparazzo, Rihanna’s team knew that the photos would end up in old-school venues like People magazine first. “This is really throwback,” Cramer said. “I can imagine ASAP Rocky’s mom reading People magazine. Or going to the dentist and there it is. This is a family venue.”
People, as fuddy-duddy as it may seem to Rihanna’s legion of younger fans, still wields sizable influence. The People imprimatur can render almost anything, even a larger-than-life celebrity like Rihanna, as family-friendly. “There’s been some good social science work on how People’s stories and covers about unwed celebrity moms have done tremendous cultural work,” Cramer said, guessing that stories about same-sex couples have similarly changed public perception. “People is this really traditional-feeling publication that has a very expansive view of what family is. So I think People is absolutely the right spot for this, but in a really strange way. It’s really mainstreaming Rihanna and ASAP Rocky, and showing them to be this kind of solid family couple out for a walk in Harlem.”
Whatever the real mechanics at play, Rihanna didn’t reinvent the baby bump reveal genre, but only because she didn’t want to. Nor did she need to: Clearly, she’s got everybody’s attention anyway.