Besides being entertaining in a trangressive sort of way, Amber Rose’s recent epic NSFW Twitter battle with Kanye West, of which many deemed her the victor, illustrated the fascinating evolution of her public persona.
For years, she was ridiculed in public and on rap records as little more than arm candy for hip-hop’s elite. After she gave birth to rapper Wiz Khalifa’s son in 2013, the social media diatribes directed at her reached a fever pitch, with numerous users denigrating her sexually explicit photo shoots as unbecoming of a mom.
It was around that time that Rose decided she’d had enough. She took up the mantle of the slut-shamed and, as she said in her recent column for TIME, stopped “caring what people think.” The 32-year-old, who says she’d been called a slut since she was a teenager, has routinely faced prejudice because she worked for nearly a decade as a stripper in Philadelphia to support her family before transitioning into modeling.
“People would actually say things like, ‘Who would ever love you? You were a stripper. Why are you in relationships?’ And I used to feel like I had to explain that maybe it was because I’m a good person,” she wrote in TIME. “But I realized that I can’t make everyone believe. And I can’t talk to everyone and tell them who I really am. They’re still going to have their own opinions. If you know me, you love me. If you don’t know me, you might love me, but you might not—and that’s cool. And you know what? Now I sleep like a baby at night.”
Rose’s newfound nonchalance has been coupled with a very public embrace of feminism. Last summer, she declared herself a “feminist monster” and routinely began deflating hateful commenters with braggadocio and even more brazen displays of partial nudity. She lampooned sexist double standards in a well-received Funny or Die video regarding the so-called “Walk of Shame”; she appeared at the August 2015 MTV Video Music Awards in a skintight bodysuit emblazoned with the insults that are frequently hurled at women like her; and she headlined a SlutWalk event in Los Angeles last October, where she gave an emotional speech about her own experiences with sexism.
“I decided to have this slut walk for women who have been through sh-t,” she said, wiping away tears. “And even though I’m out here crying, I want to be the strong person that you guys can look up to.”
Is Rose someone women can look up to? It depends on who you ask, of course. Her most recent dig at Kanye, who has been smearing her for years in interviews and songs, was criticized for trafficking in blatant homophobic undertones. Her ostensibly feminist new book, entitled “How to Be a Bad B*tch,” has been called out for actually giving women spectacularly bad advice. And there have been questions raised about the commercialization of the SlutWalk venture, as well as the value of celebrity-branded feminism.
Still, Feministing blogger Sesali B., who is a Rose fan, has conceded in the past that the social media star “hardly” embodies radical feminism, but still sees much to value in her outspokenness. ”Amber Rose has built a base that rejects slut shaming and other kinds of misogyny, neutralizing the impact of would-be insults like ‘you were a stripper.’ Calling someone who thinks ‘ho is life’ a ho means you’re playing checkers while they’re playing chess,” she told MSNBC on Friday.
And Rose has been earnest in her commitment to standing up for a woman’s right to wear and say whatever she wants. She has started her own nonprofit foundation to empower women, hosted a panel discussion on Larry King’s current program about sexual assault, and has spoken out in defense of several other women who have been body-shamed by the press or public.
Her squabbles with West, whom she dated for two years, used to be more one-sided, but her enhanced social media presence (3.4 million followers on Twitter, 9.4 million on Instagram) and legion of new female fans suggest she won’t be a perceived as a victim anymore.
For her part, Rose appears to be sanguine about past slights now. She describes her ability to brush off disrespect as an “amazing feeling” in TIME.
“Before you judge someone—especially another woman—put yourself in her shoes and also look at your past. That’s what a lot of women fail to do,” writes Rose. “They’re so quick to call another girl names, but it’s like: You know what? There may have been a time where you looked back and said, ‘I probably shouldn’t have done that.’ Does that make you a ho? No, it makes you a human.”