Rihanna isn't the first celebrity to turn down the job of poster child for perfection, but she's received more attention than many for refusing it.
The infinite antics of Ri-Ri are instantly perusable on Instagram, Twitter and celebrity gossip websites. Here she is smoking a J or doing shots, there she is baring her butt over thigh-high couture boots and getting spanked in the video for "S&M" and snuggling in bed with the man who severely beat her four years ago.
For that, she's received some high-profile scolding, even from people close to her own age such as Lena Dunham, of HBO's "Girls," for not being a good role model.
Rihanna has no interest in assuming the mantle of shining public example, no matter who tries to tie one to her shoulders. Last year, she told Vogue that the role-model expectation "became more of my job than I wanted it to be. ... I just want to make music. That's it."
So far, that attitude hasn't hurt her prospects. At the tender age of 24, she's listed by Forbes as the fourth most powerful celebrity after Jennifer Lopez, Oprah and Justin Bieber, with a net worth of $53 million and a "social rank" of No. 2 (based on social-media activity), behind only Lady Gaga.
Top women pop stars from Madonna to Nicki Minaj and Gaga have made careers out of pushing boundaries, knowing they will both face more censure and gain more notoriety than their male counterparts might. The difference with Rihanna is that she went a taboo too far -- getting back together with singer Chris Brown, whose vicious assault following an argument sent her to a hospital. A leaked photo of her battered face let the whole world know there was no doubt about it.
In early February, after Rihanna went to Brown's court hearing to support him, prominent editor Tina Brown tweeted that she was "a big fat zero of a role model for girls."
Rihanna then told Rolling Stone magazine, "I decided it was more important for me to be happy. I wasn't going to let anybody's opinion get in the way of it. Even if it's a mistake, it's my mistake."
Rihanna's lyrics often tweak her public image and those who purport to shape it. Her most recent album, "Unapologetic," features a duet with Brown called "Nobody's Business." No nuance there. But she can also be ambiguous, as in her post-beating 2010 hit with Eminem, "Love the Way You Lie. " It was touted as an awareness vehicle for domestic violence, but squirm-inducing lyrics like "I like the way it hurts" make it unclear whether she's denouncing the violence, implying complicity, or pointing out that an abusive relationship can be psychologically complicated.
Another factor fomenting public judgment was that the scandal was probably the first of its kind to be so brutally played out by young impulsives on social media. They posted such horrifying lines as "He could beat me any time" and tweet-blaming Rihanna with the classic abuser's defense "you made him do it."
That sort of ugly talk has become an unfortunate addendum to many tragedies, most recently the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial that wrapped last week. After two teenage boys were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl, a flurry of blame-the-victim tweets prompted the Ohio attorney general to charge two teenage girls with threatening the victim.
Actress and prominent Hollywood mom Jada Pinkett Smith addressed all the public shaming, coming to the defense of Rihanna as well as Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber in a Facebook post titled "Are we bullying our young artists?"
"It is as if we have forgotten what it means to be young or even how to behave like good ol' grown folk," she wrote. "What about being a young woman in her early 20s, exploring the intricacies of love and power on the world stage? Are these young people not allowed to be young, make mistakes, grow, and eventually transform a million times before our eyes?"
Rihanna has tweeted that Brown "doesn't have the luxury of (messing) up again."
"Unfortunately, I think it will probably happen again," said the Domestic Abuse Project's Arthur. "If I were her friend, I would sure be talking to her. I hope she has a support system regardless of the choices she makes."
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