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Kanye West Used Porn, Bullying, ‘Mind Games’ to Control Staff

Kanye West Used Porn, Bullying, ‘Mind Games’ to Control Staff

A HUSH FELL OVER the factory sample room in Qinyuan, China, as Kanye West examined the prototypes of his latest Yeezy sneakers on display before him. Decision-makers from Adidas and members of his entourage waited intently for his feedback when, according to two people who attended the August 2017 meeting, West began to yell that the Yeezys were not yet up to his standards — then approached a senior female employee. The attendees say West looked down at his foot, stared up at the woman, and told her, “I want you to make me a shoe I can fuck.”

Adidas representatives — including a vice president involved in the apparel giant’s billion-dollar licensing partnership with West’s influential brand — did not confront West about his alleged remark, the two attendees claim. The woman took a leave of absence before moving to a job elsewhere at Adidas (in an email, she declined to comment and requested that her name be withheld from this article.) Former Yeezy and Adidas employees, however, point to the alleged incident as one of many experiences — over the course of a decade — in which, they say, West used intimidation tactics with the staff of his fashion empire that were provocative, frequently sexualized, and often directed toward women.

In the month since Adidas severed ties with West amid a hail of hate speech, more than two dozen former Yeezy and Adidas staffers have described to Rolling Stone an abusive office culturethat left many of them fearing for their livelihoods. Behind the scenes, thiscelebrity boss did more than testthe boundaries of professionalism: Former Yeezy and Adidas staffers and creative collaborators claim that he played pornography to Yeezy staff in meetings; discussed porn and showed an intimate photograph of Kim Kardashian in job interviews; and showed an explicit video and photos of Kardashian as well as his own sex tapes to Yeezy team members.

Now, a revelatory open letter by prominent former members of the Yeezy team insists that leaders from Adidas were aware of West’s “problematic behavior” but “turned their moral compass off,” raising questions about whether his corporate partner could have stepped in years ago.

“There was no accountability,” says a person at the Qinyuan meeting. “Difficult moments happened, with executives in the room — VP level or higher — and nothing would be done. You’d still show up to work the next day.”

OnTuesday night,severalformerhigh-ranking employees for Yeezy sent the scathing letter to the executive board members and newly installed CEO of Adidas, urging them to address “the toxic and chaotic environment that Kanye West created” and “a very sick pattern of predacious behavior toward women” who worked under West as part of the Yeezy-Adidas partnership. The letter, a copy of which was obtained exclusively by Rolling Stone, continues: “He has, in years past, exploded at women in the room with offensive remarks, and would resort to sexually disturbing references when providing design feedback. This type of response from a brand partner is one that Adidas employees should never be subjected to, nor should Adidas leadership ever tolerate.”

In response to multiple detailed lists of questions from Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for Adidas provided a brief statement saying, in part, that the company “will not discuss private conversations, details, or events that lead [sic] to our decision to terminate the Adidas Yeezy partnership and decline to comment on any related speculation.” West, who recently stopped working with his publicist and was dropped as a client by his high-profile attorneys, could not be reached for comment through direct messages or intermediaries. 

In public, West has referred to a “full-on pornography addiction” that “destroyed my family” and to sex as a design inspiration. Privately, multiple former Yeezy and Adidas staffers regret accepting what they agreed was an unwritten rule from Adidas management — “Kanye is just Kanye” — and underestimating what they once viewed as relatively harmless comments. But the writers of the letter — titled “The Truth About Yeezy: A Call to Action for Adidas Leadership” — accuse the company of lacking “responsibility, accountability, and protection that Adidas failed to provide their employees throughout what we experienced as years of verbal abuse, vulgar tirades, and bullying attacks.”

WEST TRANSPLANTED YEEZY from Nike to Adidas in late 2013. A few months later, he invited a rising creative, whom he’d only met once over the phone, to his Tulum, Mexico-inspired home in the Hollywood Hills. The creative was excited about a potential collaboration and recalls West, within minutes of stepping into the living room, beckoning them to check out his laptop.

Instead of anything resembling work, however, the collaborator claims West had hardcore pornography on the screen. “He showed me the video of Francesca Le, a buff porn star with a strap-on dildo fucking another girl in the ass,” the former collaborator tells Rolling Stone. “He’s like, ‘What do you think of it?’ Not laughing at all.”Two other creatives, including one associated with Yeezy’s early years, claim West had also shown them pornographic videos — including homemade sex tapes of West engaging in sexual activities with women.

The former collaborator who visited West’s home says they initially found the encounter amusing and recalls West appreciating their response that porn stars are entertainers, too. “At the time I found it odd but in line with his persona as an edgy artist,” the former collaborator says. “Now, seeing it within a larger pattern, I feel it was a tactic to break a person down and establish their unwavering allegiance to him, testing and destroying people’s boundaries.”

This October, amid a public meltdown and the denouement of his deal with Adidas, West released a 30-minute documentary on YouTube. It included a scene of him showing a pornographic videoto two Adidas executives on a phone, in front of two members of his inner circle. Moments later in the documentary, West alludes to having a history of antics like “playing the porn” and “screaming” as elements of his Adidas relationships: “We’ve done all this,” he says. Shervin Pishevar, a venture capitalist who worked with West, chimes in to tell the executives, “What you’re feeling right now is extreme discomfort, and that is exactly the point.” The open letter sent to the Adidas board, which aims to speak for a collective of employees “who may be fearful of speaking up,” claims that the scene “is by no means a new intimidation approach” and that “Kanye’s problematic behavior started within the first year of his partnership with the Adidas brand.”

Pete Fox, who served as the president of Yeezy in 2016, remembers West bonding one-on-one with the “misfits” and “art nerds” of Yeezy’s startup days, even amid the release of The Life of Pablo. “If he likes you and wants you on the team, he’s super-charming,” Fox explains, adding: “If he didn’t like you or if something happened, he’d fly off the handle and it’d be over.” Asked about the allegations that West showed porn to Yeezy staff, Fox tells Rolling Stone, “I never looked at porn with him or anything like that, but we would look at things together that maybe would be surprising to people.” He continues, “In high fashion, there’s a lot of sexy, controversial things that maybe they reference or look at, as opposed to a company like Adidas where you would never show any nudity in a mood board.”

Kanye West at the Vogue World event in New York, Sept. 12, 2022. Nina Westervelt/The New York Times/Redux

Fox was the only person who agreed to go on the record with his name for this article. Every other Yeezy and Adidas staffer and contractor — as well as the authors of the open letter — requested anonymity to speak candidly, citing Adidas company policy, possible legal action after signing non-disclosure agreements, and fear of public reprisal by West. None of the people interviewed for this article would say if they formally complained to Adidas management concerning West’s behavior. But a dozenformer Yeezy and Adidas staffers recalled an atmosphere in which West praised some employees while belittling staffers he’d publicly supported just weeks, if not moments, earlier — “playing mind games,” one former staffer called it. After one disagreement, for example, West made a young female designer of color sit on the floor for a meeting that lasted hours, according to a former staffer in the room. “You don’t deserve to sit at the table,” the staffer recalled West saying. 

“No wonder why he didn’t want senior business managers in the room,” the open letter alleges. “He wanted to continue to use his power to violate you in a quiet way and threaten your role and existence within the team.”

The letter goes further, alleging that a “disturbingly” sexualized atmosphere around women at Yeezy was indicative of a pattern in which West “bullies and intimidates to get what he wants”: “The most troubling behavior that should have been flagged by the executive team very early in the partnership is his manipulative and fear-based approach to leading the team, all while trying to assert dominance over Adidas employees in closed rooms.”

THE FIRST YEEZY COLLECTION launched in 2015 and included the debut of the Yeezy Boost 350 sneaker, a vision of knitwear and moon-ready footprints that became a global status symbol. Adidas expanded its deal with West in June 2016, empowering him to oversee an entire category of shoes, apparel, accessories, fragrances, and eventually even architecture. Executives from Adidas, which is based in Germany, spoke of him glowingly in public and encouraged Yeezy to staff up.

Inside Yeezy’s brutalist, 14,390-square-foot office in Calabasas, California, West gathered with the handpicked designers who worked for his West Brands and the product team commuting from Adidas U.S. headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Two of West’s confidantes recall thriving in a culture that felt like there was “no middle management” getting in the way of creatives, while threeformer senior employees say West shirked Portland’s operational support and oversight. “He wanted absolute control,” says Fox, the former Yeezy president who helped negotiate the contract extension. “Steve Jobs or Elon Musk … they were responsible to shareholders; Kanye 100 percent owns his brands — he can do whatever he wants, and we’re just there to serve at his pleasure.”

Shortly after accepting a top position with Yeezy, a former senior employee claims they were warned by two Adidas executives about West’s peculiarly passionate idiosyncrasies. The employee remembers one Adidas vice president saying, “Hey, just so you know, there’s gonna be this whole porn-reference thing,” and a second executive saying, “It’s gonna catch you off guard the first time. I think he does it to catch people off guard.” (The vice president did not respond to requests for comment. The second executive declined to comment.)

The senior employee says West did, indeed, catch Yeezy staff by surprise. “He would be in a meeting and he’d be talking to you, and he’d rattle off in his laptop” to play a porn video, the employee tells Rolling Stone. “And he’s like, ‘I know it’s uncomfortable, but I kind of need this in the background to keep me focused.’ And you’d be like, ‘Uhhhhh, oh-kay.’” The former senior employee claims to have seen West play porn videos in meetings at least five times.

One afternoon in early 2018, according to a high-ranking employee in the room, West sat at a bench in the back of the open Calabasas workspace he liked to call the White Box, for a job interview with a female candidate. The senior footwear designer was presenting a portfolio on her laptop across the table from West, recalls the employee, when West interrupted to give the designer similar advice to what the employee says West told the Yeezy staff on more than one occasion: “If you ever get stuck creatively, just watch porn for 10 minutes.”

The woman paused, recalls the high-ranking employee, attempting to continue with her presentation, only for West to continue: “If you’re gonna be part of Yeezy, we say crazy shit here. You gotta stick with it. We keep moving, and we keep creating.”

Throughout the job interview, the high-ranking employee claims West “was trying to vet [her] to see if she would call him out on it, or if she would be able to roll with it.” The employee remembers West continuing: “We create products of passion. I literally want to fuck my shoes. That’s how good they are.” 

The candidate, who did not get the job, told Rolling Stone she would neither confirm nor deny the high-ranking employee’s account. But the employee recalls West making similar statements to colleagues about a shoe into which West or a Yeezy consumer could ejaculate — “not a sex-toy sneaker but something that you were so into that you would wanna have an intimate relationship” — at least 10 separate times. “He’d be, like, ‘literally fuck.’ He would be very clear on what that meant.”

Word had spread around the Yeezy and Adidas offices that West allegedly made another similar comment to the senior female employee in China, in front of Adidas brass at a key design meeting, and five former staffers recalled no talk of an investigation or intervention from the company into that alleged incident. “The way it was handled so quietly, it was like something in the room had died, and nobody could talk about it,” one of the former staffers says of the female employee’s subsequent departure from Yeezy. “It was turning a blind eye.”

The open letter about West’s workplace history claims that leaders from Adidas “continued to tolerate his difficult behavior” as the years went on: “If there was any case to defend the executive team’s inadequate action, aside from being beholden to shareholders, it appeared as if they simply didn’t know what to do or say in those jarring moments, or how to handle Kanye without further triggering him, or act in a way that didn’t jeopardize their position or the partnership. So instead, the board members and the executive team turned their moral compass off by ignoring both Kanye’s inflammatory public behavior and the Yeezy team’s complaints regarding troubling partner dynamics.”

In the Adidas statement to Rolling Stone, the company spokesperson wrote: “Adidas does not tolerate hate speech and offensive behavior and therefore has terminated the adidas Yeezy partnership. We have been and continue to be actively engaged in conversations with our employees about the events that lead [sic] to our decision to end the partnership. They have our full support and as we’re working through the details of the termination, we have been clear that we want to keep our employees’ talent and skills within the organization.”

A former staffer says the woman in the Qinyuan meeting “sat through a lot of shit, and she left because of the shit — a hundred percent.” Still, the staffer recalls being shocked when, the year after the alleged China incident, they say colleagues walked out of a meeting with West and immediately recounted an “awkward and uncomfortable” moment: “He had pulled up MILF porn and was like, ‘See this feeling? This feeling that you get when you watch this? This is what I want people to feel when they put on our shoes.’ So it was like, ‘Oh, my God, is this really happening?’ He couldn’t use any other way to describe this except by pulling up porn?”

IN 2018, WEST TOOK A MEETING in Chicago with ayoung creative who considered it a job interview. The potential staffer described feeling on edge when, upon entering the room, he found West dancing around to his own music on full blast. The creative remembers West finally turning his attention to the interview — and nonchalantly pulling out his phone.

“My wife just sent me this,” West said, according to the creative. On West’s phone, the creative claims, was an intimate photo of Kardashian. “It was very revealing and personal,” the creative tells Rolling Stone. “I didn’t really react.” A source close to the creative recalls being told about the photo of Kardashian hours after the meeting. At least one other time in 2018, West showed an explicit video of Kardashian to members of the creative team at Yeezy, according to a person who says they saw the video. (A spokesperson for Kardashian did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Kanye West at the 2018 Pornhub Awards.Jennifer Swann for Rolling Stone

West did not show a Yeezy collection at New York Fashion Week that September. But he did travel to Las Vegas to work as creative director of the Pornhub Awards. For the occasion, he debuted new Yeezy apparel, designed a “bespoke erotica-inspired award statue,” and publicly debuted the song “I Love It.” A female staffer remembers West first playing the track for his Yeezy team at the office — with the chorus line “You’re such a fuckin’ ho, I love it” — and looking around for a reaction. “I grew up around this kind of music and this culture, and it’s not as shocking to me because of that,” the staffer says of West’s workplace provocations. “But I can see why and how some people were super-affected and super-uncomfortable. And he’s definitely said stuff to me, around me, in front of VPs, that was uncomfortable.”

According to two former senior employees, West barred some Adidas executives from meetings; in turn, the employees say, managers at Yeezy felt expected to share meticulous notes from their West interactions with Adidas management.One former member of the Yeezy team says they found the culture “was so cult-like working for him — that conversation sort of turned around into like, ‘Well, they’re still trying to control what we’re doing here.’” 

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In 2019, a former staffer tells Rolling Stone, the footwear design team had all but forgotten about one new model of Yeezys whenshe remembers being shown a text from West: “He said, ‘We really need this shoe to be done because all I think about is Kim’s ass and this shoe.’”

The alleged sexualized remark led to a prioritization of the product “from no work to the number-one most important model,” according to the staffer. (Two former senior employees, who were not on the design team at the time, recalled hearing about the alleged remark and a product’s priority shift.) “We ruffled a lot of feathers at Adidas to make and engineer it,” the staffer remembers, although she viewed West’s alleged directive with a silver lining of sorts. 

“This is gonna sound so bad, but my first thought wasn’t like, ‘Oh, that’s fucking weird,’ because we’re in it — we’re in this cult,” the staffer says. “Maybe this is me being a female in a men-dominated industry. If I’m comparing that text message to being in a room where he’s playing porn, I would much rather have the text message — you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, that’s flattering that he thinks of it this way.’ And that’s why, as an employee, you let all these things slide. Because you’re looking for his approval, and that’s why we would work so much. That’s why we would put up all this shit.” The staffer says she has tried cult deprogramming with her therapist since leaving Yeezy. The fast-tracked sneaker model never made it to market.

Multiple former Yeezy team members maintain that what they viewed as West’s domineering tactics did not appear to be gender-based. “But I know that a lot of women who were in that room felt intimidated and felt bullied,” says one former female employee. “It does feel reminiscent of an emotional abuser.”

A senior employee recalls sitting in a room with a female Adidas talent recruiter who was holding back tears; West was yelling so loudly on the other end of the line that the employee could hear him. The recruiter hung up, according to the senior employee, only for West to call back and yell at her again — apparently about the creatives West wanted by his side, not whomever Adidas was actually hiring. “She was basically moved out of the team” after complaining to her manager in human resources, the senior employee says. Two other former senior staffers described being told by Adidas leaders in Portland that a “soft landing” spot was available back at the mothership for colleagues who feared West. “The way that they protect them is they move them out of the team and push them out the back door,” says the senior employee who counseled the HR staffer. “Some people appreciate that, while some people think that it’s just a cop-out.” 

According to three former senior employees, some general managers at Yeezy had repeatedly made clear to staffers that if they felt uncomfortable in a room, “You do not have to stay.” Multiple staffers viewed the occasional interjection from both West Brands and Adidas corporate as lip service. “Imagine if Kanye’s talking and you get up and leave,” a former staffer says. “It’s not like he’s a professional — he would probably call you out right there.” 

One of the former senior employees says that some management figures “were absent when they should have been present” and that West’s provocative behavior “was allowed to fester” because Yeezy was on its way to generating an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion in annual revenue. But, the former senior employee adds, “there’s no playbook for this.’”

THEN, JUST LIKE THAT, it seemed as if West was ready to be saved from himself. In October 2019, West told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe that he’d been infatuated with porn since childhood: “Some people drown themselves in drugs, and I drown myself in my addiction — sex.” But he described himself in the Apple interview as “having to kick the habit, and it just presents itself in the open, like it’s OK. And I stand up and say, ‘You know, it’s not OK.’”

Gone, apparently, were the sex tapes and the “I fell in love with a porn star” flow; in came West’s invite-only Sunday Service choir and “I repent for everything Imma do again.” An organizational chart of Yeezy’s creative hierarchy reviewed by Rolling Stone, which a staffer said was provided by human resources, included a power ranking at the top: GOD KANYE ARTIST ARCHITECT DOERS. West would often show up at rehearsals for Sunday Service, according to a former choir member, and launch into rants on subjects including race, politics, and, occasionally, how he’d been “saved” from his apparent former love of porn. “It was something he said he overcame,” the choir member recalls.  

West convinced Adidas to transplant much of Yeezy’s Calabasas showroom to his 3,888-acre ranch in Cody, Wyoming, and asked an estimated 90 employees to commute from L.A. or Portland — or else uproot their lives to a new cauldron of music, fashion, and, this time, faith. By day, West could cruise the streets solo in his Ford Raptor truck without Adidas looking over his shoulder. At the ranch, according to five former employees, he made unrelenting demands, sometimes to unqualified talent. “He might ask a chef to make a song and an architect to be his personal assistant,” says one staffer in Cody. “He may ask a song producer to design a school, and the next day that becomes an orphanage, and the other days it becomes an airport.” But there were no curse words allowed by musicians visiting the ranch to record tracks on the album that would become Donda, and a former senior employee recalls West suggesting to people who said the phrase “Hell, yeah!” to repeat themselves with “Heaven, yeah!” 

At times in 2020, though,things got “really uncomfortable,” says a former staffer who worked for Yeezy in Cody. The staffer alleges that West would do things like scream, jump on a table, and throw books across a room. “I feared for my well-being,” the former staffer says. “Like, what if he throws something at you?” When asked about allegations that West had shown nude photos of Kardashian to members of the Yeezy team in the past, the former staffer tells Rolling Stone, “He’s not afraid to show explicit images or talk about situations that should be kept private.”

According to a staffer with knowledge of the situation, West frequently scolded one female employee in Cody about her appearance. “He’s just obsessed with power, and he has all the power and money to make somebody cut their hair, to make somebody lose their weight,” the staffer says. “To the same person, he can go say things like, ‘You fat slut,’ and then this person will still have to be forced to stay because that’s how they make money. They have a lease to pay.” (The woman declined to comment through an intermediary.)

“There’s many forms of abuse,” says the staffer, “and this is the kind of abuse that’s so many kinds of abuse combined into one.”

One former confidante who worked closely with West in Wyoming fondly recalled “his Jesus kick” and their time working on the Yeezy partnership. But after witnessing West’s behavior in 2022 from afar — the all-caps Instagram posts lambasting Kardashian, the documentary in which he showed porn to Adidas executives, the hate-filled, antisemitic interviews — the confidante says “Adidas enabled a lot of that kind of behavior.” As sales exploded from the sneakerhead crowd to the shopping mall, the confidante believes Adidas allowed for so much creative latitude that the corporate oversight devolved into a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“It was probably better that they didn’t know every single detail that was going on,” says the former confidante. “Some of these questionable things, but also just around the way that we worked and pushing boundaries.”

The letter sent to the board on Tuesday laments “Adidas leadership’s delayed action and sustained silence,” calling upon the company’s board to review contracts with the apparel giant’s A-list partners — “with steadfast rules for termination of a partnership when problematic behavior arises” — and to issue a public apology to the Yeezy team for what the letter refers to as “Kanye’s terrorizing behavior.”

“As much as we all would love to solely blame Kanye,” the letter states, “the undeniable truth is that the Adidas executive team and the board have been huge enablers.”

A few weeks before West’s career began to implode in earnest this October, he gathered the loyal misfits and art nerds who remained on Yeezy’s skeleton staff, according to one staffer, for an impromptu meeting at one of his temporary Los Angeles office spaces. The staffer remembers the Yeezy team standing in a circle to listen to West discuss his struggles — pornography included.

“The oversexualized behavior has been consistent since the beginning,” says a former senior employee. “I don’t know that it ever went away.”

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