Many know her as the fiery one of Salt-N-Pepa so it was surprising when Sandy "Pepa" Denton revealed in her 2008 autobiography, "Let's Talk About Pep," that she was a domestic abuse survivor. Pepa, who was involved in a roller-coaster marriage with her then-rapper boyfriend-turned-husband, says she can relate to Rihanna's situation. ESSENCE.com had some Pep talk with the reality TV star and mother of two, who shares some firsthand advice with Rihanna and tells why the pop star deserves better.
ESSENCE.COM: As a domestic violence survivor who happens to be a celebrity, do you see any parallels between you and Rihanna's alleged assaults?
PEPA: My story, it's funny, because the things that happened to me largely stem from my past and being violated at an early age. When you don't deal with things in your childhood, it stays with you into adulthood. While I knew my mom and dad loved me, they never openly expressed or showed affection or talked about things, so I grew up learning in the streets, which led to my history of being assaulted by men. I understand why Rihanna's blaming herself now and feeling like she's not worthy, like she doesn't deserve better and she does. We all do.
ESSENCE.COM: Another debate in the blogosphere is she allegedly hit Chris Brown and he allegedly hit her back, but, judging by the photos that were released, it appears to be more than a single hit. During your relationship with Treach, did anyone ever suggest that you provoked it?
PEPA: I was with Treach for ten years and I never hit him, so when people would ask me, "What did you do?" it truly hurt me, because, if I sucked my teeth, I was beaten like a man, or if I responded to him in a way he didn't like—and we didn't even have to be arguing—I got beat, so I learned to shut up. And how repressive is that? I can't speak for fear that I might be punished? So people think that the physical is bad but add the emotional and mental on top of that. I was dragged around so much by my hair, which I wore in braids a lot at that time, that I have to wear wigs for the rest of my life because I have no hairline on the side or front. Again, I am just thankful to be alive.
ESSENCE.COM: When did you finally say enough is enough?
PEPA: As a victim, you begin making excuses and rationalizing your abuser's behavior, especially when they apologize and say they'll never do it again. You start thinking, Oh he had it rough and grew up in the streets; his mama didn't love him—anything to make it okay in your mind because you're broken at that point and feeling sorry for him. It's reverse psychology and then you start forgetting you got knocked on the floor. Then it becomes a pattern—him hitting you, and then showing you all this emotion. The last time he hit me I warned him that the next time he put his hands on me would be the last. I didn't care if it was one year from the last time he hit me or ten, I was going to be out and never coming back. I began to fear for my life, but I kept my promise to myself and left for good. I had to do it for me and my kids.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you think it's okay for a woman to strike a man?
PEPA: No, I don't condone women hitting men. Some women are quick to do that. However, a man can easily restrain a woman, because, at the end of the day, we can't beat you. Again, the photos of Rihanna—that was a beat down. That's why it hurts me so much because I know how that feels for a man to beat you down like that. My son is 18, and I don't even allow him to yell at his 10-year-old sister. I'm breaking the cycle with my kids. I just won't tolerate it after all I've been through.
ESSENCE.COM: If you could have a heart-to-heart with Rihanna, what is the one message you'd drive home?
PEPA: I'd tell Rihanna: at the end of the day, your life is on the line when you're dealing with abusive men, and your life is more important than any man. Don't rationalize or internalize abusive behavior because love doesn't hurt. You are an icon to so many young girls and your actions are telling them you don't love you enough. Take time out and love yourself and thank God that you survived it. I know people will say I have a lot of nerve advising her when I stayed with my ex-husband for ten years and suffered abuse, but that's exactly why I can talk to her. I thought I loved him, but I had to finally realize that wasn't ove. Thankfully, I lived to talk about it, but some women don't.
ESSENCE.COM: That's so true. On a lighter note, congrats on your new VH1 dating show! Does this mean you and Salt won't be reunited on the small screen?
PEPA: The purpose of me and Cheryl's reality show was to rekindle our friendship. The show did an amazing job of bringing us back together to confront our past and to begin communicating again. We're closer now because of the show. This dating show is different because my situation is, I have not been sexually active in four years. It's hard, though, because I really don't think, as human beings, that we're designed this way (laughs). I'm sure I can have a great time trying to find love without taking it all the way there.
To read more of Sandy "Pepa" Denton's life story, pick up her book, "Let's Talk About Pep."