On what would prove to be the most consequential night of her life, Kesha Sebert wandered alone through the upper floor of Paris Hilton’s Hollywood Hills mansion. The 18-year-old, who had recently arrived from Tennessee, was trying to sip a glass of Champagne and take in her luxe surroundings, but she felt increasingly ill.
Downstairs was the man who planned to make Sebert a pop star, Lukasz Gottwald, a budding music producer who had just signed her to a contract. Suddenly a commotion disrupted the party. His young protege had vomited in a closet and knocked over a tray of cocaine in a bathroom, she later testified.
“That was a party faux pas,” Sebert recalled. Gottwald remembered, “There was a bit of panic.”
The pair exited Hilton’s villa after midnight on Oct. 6, 2005, and stepped onto Kings Road, the lights of the Sunset Strip sparkling below them. Within minutes, they reached Sunset Boulevard, turned right and entered the Mondrian hotel in West Hollywood.
In the years that followed, both achieved their music industry dreams, she as the hard-partying Ke$ha, whose megahits — including “Tik Tok” and “Die Young” — drove millions of album sales and made her a global star. As Dr. Luke, he became the industry’s most sought-after producer, churning out 18 No. 1 tracks and working with Maroon 5, Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Jennifer Lopez, Doja Cat, Katy Perry, Becky G and Miley Cyrus.
But that night at the Mondrian loomed behind every concert she headlined and every No. 1 song he spun.
In 2014, long after both Sebert and Gottwald gained fame, she publicly accused him of having raped her in a 12th-floor room at the hotel. He denied it, and the ensuing scandal swallowed up their careers and reputations.
They spent nearly a decade fighting in court and in the press at a cost estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. Music’s biggest names, including Lady Gaga, Perry and Irving Azoff, were sucked into the conflict, asked to choose sides and in some cases, testify under oath.
In June, the legal battle that had raged so long and so acrimoniously settled with a relative whimper: No apologies, no compensation. The deal foreclosed a trial set for this summer and a public airing of the evidence.
But an examination of thousands of pages of case records, including witness interviews, text messages, expert reports, emails, contracts, therapists’ notes and song lyrics reveals a saga far more complicated than the he-said, she-said narrative that has prevailed in pop culture.
The records reviewed by The Times show how Sebert’s hazy memory of that night assumed different forms before becoming an explosive rape claim that rocked the entertainment world and led to the #FreeKesha movement, a precursor to #MeToo. That night was at times presented as a zany anecdote for journalists; lyrics in a lighthearted song; a niggling suspicion mulled over with a close friend; and a “back pocket” bargaining chip in business negotiations. It also served as leverage for her mother to further her own music career and for her lawyer to pursue a potential payday.
This is the story of Kesha, Dr. Luke and the night they couldn’t escape.
Gottwald was working as a guitarist in the “Saturday Night Live” band in 2005, but he wanted to be a record producer. A contact gave the then-31-year-old a CD with tracks from about 100 unsigned acts, he later told an industry conference.
He heard potential in two voices. The first was the daughter of Pentecostal pastors from Santa Barbara, Katheryn Hudson, now known as Katy Perry. The second was a high school senior from suburban Nashville, Sebert.
She had what he called “swagger” and was “just very forward and generally like aggressive, cocky, bratty.” On one demo, Gottwald recalled, she did “a white girl version of rapping. And I found it, you know, entertaining.”
He called the teenager at her mother’s home and invited both to New York.
Sebert’s mother, Pebe, was no stranger to the music industry. She had written a song in 1978, “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You,” that Dolly Parton took to the top of the country charts. That early success did not last. She fell into drugs, she later testified, eventually getting sober in 1988 when Kesha was a baby. She raised her daughter and two sons as a single mother, cleaning houses and waiting tables, but she never gave up on music.
When her daughter was about 13, she decided to table her own ambitions and focus on her child.
“It was for both of our careers,” she later testified. “Because we wrote together, and all of her best things were things that we’d written together.”
Though finances were tight, Pebe Sebert poured any money she could into developing her daughter as an artist, explaining later, “I felt that I was making very good business decisions to invest in someone who I believed in.”
She went with her daughter to meet Gottwald. He hadn’t signed a recording artist before, but over Korean food in Manhattan, he pitched them on his potential. He had worked with Swedish hitmaker Max Martin — one of the most successful pop producers of all time — on songs for “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson. One was the smash “Since U Been Gone.”
The contract that Gottwald offered Sebert would lock her into six albums with financial terms that she and her representatives would later characterize in court as highly favorable to him.
“I know this is a bad deal,” he said, according to the singer’s testimony. “After you’re successful, we’re going to renegotiate. All artists do it.”
Kesha Sebert’s lawyer and her mother warned against the deal, but she was 18 by then and overruled them.
“She thought it was her best shot,” her mother testified. “She figured she would renegotiate in the future if she became famous and if she didn’t, it wouldn’t matter.”
Nine days after Sebert signed her contract, she received a phone call from Gottwald. He was producing a song for Paris Hilton, who wanted to parlay her reality TV fame into a music career.
“He invited me to the studio and asked me if I would like to sing background vocals because she couldn’t sing for s—,” Sebert later testified.
“Excited,” Sebert joined them at a recording studio on Sunset, and added her voice to “Nothing in This World,” a poppy track with a chorus that began, “Nothing in this world can stop us tonight.”
The session wrapped by 10:46 p.m., according to the time stamp on a rough cut Gottwald emailed to the Swedish producer Martin. Sebert and Gottwald then headed to the Hollywood Boulevard nightclub Mood, where Hilton’s sister Nicky was celebrating her 22nd birthday. Questioned more than a decade later, some details of that night eluded them. Who invited Sebert — Paris, Nicky or someone else? Did they travel to the club together or separately? Had Sebert eaten lunch or dinner?
One thing she said remained clear was their dynamic: “He was taking me under his wing … like I was his guest.”
Though under 21, Sebert was admitted to the club and served Champagne. Gottwald had a glass or two, he said, and she remembered drinking two glasses and possibly a third.
Both recalled the alcohol affecting Sebert. Gottwald described her as “between being sober and drunk.” Sebert, who said she had never previously had Champagne, recalled feeling “a little woozy” and “nauseous.”
Paris Hilton announced she was hosting an after-party at her villa, and at this point, the accounts of Sebert and Gottwald diverge.
Sebert testified that she told Gottwald on the sidewalk outside the club, “I don’t feel great, and I feel a little drunk,” and he replied, “I have a sober pill.”
She swallowed it without a thought, she said. “In my mind, I thought that was a genius thing that rich people that were famous had concocted this thing called a sober pill,” she testified.
Gottwald denied offering her a “sober pill” when questioned under oath. He said it was a term he had never used or heard.
At Hilton’s opulent house, Sebert accepted another glass of Champagne and soon things became “fuzzy,” she said. “I was feeling very sick. And I recall looking for a restroom.”
She threw up in what she thought was a bathroom before realizing it was a closet. She stumbled into a bathroom where, she testified, a group hovered over a tray of cocaine. Most fled as she vomited in a toilet, but one man stayed.
“One of the last really vivid memories I have is him saying, ‘You should maybe do coke,’” she testified. Gesturing to answer the man, she said, she knocked over the tray of drugs.
Hilton’s assistant rushed downstairs to complain about the disruptive guest. “I looked around and the thought occurred to me that it could be Kesha,” Gottwald testified.
Sebert was ordered out of the party and he said he felt obligated to accompany her.
From that point on, Sebert said she had no clear memory.
Gottwald said they made their way on foot down Kings Road to the Sunset Strip. The Mondrian, where the producer was staying while in town from New York, was a six-minute walk from Hilton’s house.
“I don’t remember … who brought it up, but … it came that she could crash at my hotel, and she said that’s what she wanted to do,” he testified.
Gottwald said it was after 1 a.m. when they arrived in the suite, which was just one large room. Sebert got in the bed and he said he took the couch.
The next day, he headed to a meeting with his other musical prospect, Katy Perry. He said that as he departed, he called out to Sebert, who was still in bed, something along the lines of, “Hey, Kesha. I’m going to leave. You can chill out here. It’s all good.”
He did not recall her responding.
Kesha Sebert woke up naked in the bed at the Mondrian, she later testified. She had no idea where she was or how she had gotten there, and felt “like I was going to die.”
“My body was aching and I was vomiting up green stomach acid,” she remembered. “I crawled into the bathroom and just laid on the bathroom floor.”
At around 2 p.m., she called her mother in Tennessee, according to hotel billing records, and said she had blacked out while at a party with Gottwald and thought she needed to go to an emergency room. In a subsequent call, she said there was a change of plans: A friend was coming to pick her up from the hotel.
Pebe Sebert remembered her daughter saying she “felt weird down there,” and “I think we had sex.”
The friend who picked her up, Julianne Hall, said Sebert complained that her genitals “hurt” and said, “I maybe was f—.”
By the time both women gave these accounts, 12 years had passed and they could not recall Sebert’s exact words. Hall’s memory was particularly shaky. She said she “immediately” picked Sebert up from the Four Seasons Hotel, near Beverly Hills — not the Mondrian — and dropped her off at an apartment in Silver Lake that records later showed Sebert had not yet rented.
Rather than leaving with Hall shortly after waking up, Sebert remained in the room until late at night — about 10 hours, according to the billing records. There were phone calls past 1 a.m. along with a room service order and a charge for a pay-per-view movie. Gottwald testified that when he returned from the studio at about 2 a.m., she was gone.
Hall said that after they drove away from the hotel, the singer mentioned that Gottwald had given her a pill to prevent a hangover. She asked if Sebert wanted to go to the police, but the singer replied that she just wanted to eat and go to sleep, Hall testified.
For months after, Sebert “would call and say, ‘I still feel very strange. I think something happened. … I just can’t remember. … It’s fuzzy, but I remember Luke being there,’” Hall testified. “It was just her kind of trying to remember, trying to put pieces together.”
However comfortable she felt talking about it with her friend, she opted not to discuss it further with others.
“My daughter asked me not to mention this because she wanted to have a career,” Pebe Sebert testified. “So from the point she asked me that, I didn’t view going to the police as an option.”
Two days after the events at the Mondrian, Sebert spoke to a Nashville nurse practitioner who had been treating her by phone for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. She said she was “doing well. … Denies depression. No notable instability of mood. Sleeps well,” according to a medical chart.
Gottwald threw a party the next month at an L.A. home he and his then-girlfriend, Jill Latiano, had rented. Sebert attended with a man she was dating. Latiano, an actress and model, took pictures of Sebert and Gottwald together in the kitchen. Asked if the singer had acted uncomfortably around the producer, Latiano testified: “Not at all.”
She had heard from Gottwald how “Kesha got very drunk and threw up on Paris Hilton’s shoes in her closet,” she testified. Had her boyfriend told her how they spent the night in the same hotel room? she was asked. No, Latiano said.
Over lunch at the Chateau Marmont in late 2005, Kesha and Pebe Sebert were complaining about the state of her nascent career. About two months had passed since she had signed with Gottwald, and it had been a month and a half since the night at the Mondrian.
“Although Luke had promised her all kinds of things, none of those things had happened,” recalled their lunch companion, David Sonenberg, an industry veteran who had managed acts such as Meatloaf and the Black Eyed Peas.
Their last meeting with Gottwald had become rancorous when the Seberts rejected his advice to work with Britney Spears’ longtime manager.
“He also told Kesha that she wasn’t that pretty and she wasn’t that good and there were a thousand other girls that would be thankful to be signed to him,” Pebe Sebert testified. Gottwald denied making the comments.
At the Chateau meeting, the singer and her mother told Sonenberg they wanted out of the contract, according to his testimony. He listened sympathetically, but told them that there may not be a way out of the agreement. It had only recently been signed and both sides had had the benefit of legal counsel.
Pebe Sebert floated a potential workaround, according to Sonenberg’s testimony.
“Well, if he gave drugs to my daughter, if he had sex with my daughter when she was under age, wouldn’t that give rise to the ability to terminate the agreement?” he recalled her saying.
Pebe Sebert would later acknowledge in a deposition that the first time she used “rape” to characterize what had happened at the Mondrian was in conversation with Sonenberg about getting her daughter out of her contract.
By the close of the meal, Kesha Sebert had decided to hire Sonenberg as her manager, and he set about trying to nullify her contract with Gottwald.
The Seberts wanted the night at the Mondrian to be a negotiating point, Sonenberg testified. In February 2006, an attorney working for Sebert made six pages of handwritten notes on the arguments in her favor. Under the words “coke stuff,” the lawyer referred to the Mondrian without mentioning sex or an assault: “Party together, drinking; K feels sick; She says she doesn’t feel good so he gives her a pill to ‘feel better’: She then fades into blackout.”
Yet Sebert’s team initially opted not to raise the incident. Sonenberg later said he “wasn’t exactly sure what the truth was.” He tried to brush off Pebe Sebert by saying that they would keep the rape allegation in their “back pocket to use against Luke” down the line, she testified.
The Seberts eventually insisted Gottwald be confronted about it. Their lawyer agreed, but only did so elliptically.
In an email to Gottwald’s attorney, he warned that litigation between the two parties “would undoubtedly get into the specifics of the course of conduct and misconduct between … an experienced music industry veteran and an eighteen year old girl.”
The April 2006 message was apparently too vague for Gottwald. He later testified that he thought at the time that he was being accused of “inappropriate behavior, something about maybe drugs,” but not rape.
In any case, the strategy failed. Gottwald refused to negotiate a new deal. His career was taking off by then. He had produced No. 1 hits that included “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N Cold” for Katy Perry, “Circus” for Britney Spears and “Girlfriend” for Avril Lavigne.
Sebert, meanwhile, was living in a Silver Lake apartment and depending on her mother and waitressing gigs and other odd jobs for money. She performed rarely and in small venues, like a house party at Coachella.
Out at a bar in July 2008, 2½ years after walking away from the contract, she met a guitarist in the “SNL” band and asked him about Gottwald.
“She claims that you won’t sign off on some production deal or something,” the guitarist, Jared Scharff, emailed Gottwald the next day. “She also said u tried to roofie her, not sure what the f— she was talking about… 5 seconds after that she proceeded to do a body shot of tequila off my friend james body on the hood of her car, but, as a friend, I thought u might want to know she said that.”
Gottwald replied that it was “definitely 100% not true at all.”
Later that summer, Sebert decided to reconcile with Gottwald. Her attempt to get out of the contract had failed and no record company would sign her with that issue unresolved.
Before they restarted working together, Gottwald raised the “roofie” comment and told her, “You can’t ever say anything like this. … This is not true.”
He testified that Sebert denied it at first, but after he showed her Scharff’s email, she apologized.
Questioned about the apology years later, Sebert said: “At that point I felt like I had no other option.”
When they reunited, Gottwald was working on a song for Miami rapper Flo Rida.
“Right Round” was about oral sex, according to co-writer Bruno Mars. As Gottwald tinkered with the track, he came to believe that having the male rapper sing the lyrics “when you go down” over and over was “a little misogynistic” and might alienate radio’s mostly female audience, according to comments he made at a music conference.
So he tapped Sebert to perform the hook: “You spin my head right round, right round when you go down, down.”
The song went platinum, but even as people bopped along to Sebert’s voice on the radio, she wasn’t credited domestically and has said she didn’t receive any compensation.
Gottwald described it as “an opportunity” for Sebert. Others might have seen it as consistent with a tendency to place production above artists. In the age of Auto-Tune and other digital tools, what Gottwald did to tracks could be more consequential than the vocalists themselves.
“If you have eight takes of someone singing the chorus, you might take different words from any of those eight takes and you combine them,” Gottwald testified. “These days, I would say it’s always that way.”
Many artists thrived with this approach. But other performers came to loathe him, no matter the hits he delivered.
“I don’t like how he works,” testified Kelly Clarkson in 2017, explaining that her experience recording “Behind These Hazel Eyes” in 2004 was a turning point. “It was just very obvious that like he felt … I should just sing and not really have input.”
Stefani Germanotta, now known as Lady Gaga, visited Gottwald’s in-home recording studio as he was finishing up the Flo Rida song. As she walked down a hall in late 2008 or early 2009, Gaga glimpsed a young woman — “a girl,” she later said — through an open bedroom door.
“I just saw her in the back in her underwear on a bed,” she testified.
The woman was Sebert. She came into the studio a few minutes later as “Right Round” played, and told Gaga and others listening: “That’s me on that record.”
The scene struck a nerve with Gaga, who had been sexually assaulted by a producer earlier in her career. Years later, when Sebert publicly said she had been raped, Gaga would think back to that night.
“I made my view of [Gottwald] and his reputation when I saw her in that back room,” she testified in 2017.
Early one morning in 2009, Gottwald and Sebert were blocked from boarding a United Airlines flight from New York to Los Angeles.
Sober up first, a ticket agent told the clearly intoxicated pair, Gottwald recalled.
They had come to New York to meet with several labels interested in Sebert, eventually inking a deal with RCA, owned by Sony. On their last night, the singer, then about 21, and the producer, 35, celebrated by drinking until the wee hours of the morning.
Finally, after getting coffee, they were allowed on the plane, according to his testimony.
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Almost immediately they started kissing.
“I don’t remember who kissed who first, and it certainly wasn’t planned,” Gottwald testified. “It was short-lived and never happened again.”
On the flight afterward, Sebert vomited, according to testimony and court records.
Years later, when she publicly accused Gottwald of raping her, she contended that the drunken plane ride was another incident of sexual misconduct. In her account, they had gone to his apartment in New York before the airport and he had ordered her to snort an unknown substance, and once on the plane, kissed and groped her. Gottwald denied the accusations.
“Can we take a step back for a sec and look how far we have come together????”
It was June 4, 2010, and the song “Your Love Is My Drug” was racing up the charts, the third hit from Sebert’s debut album, “Animal.”
In an email, Gottwald, who had produced the album, congratulated Sebert and her mother, a co-writer on some tracks, adding, “I a[m] sooooooo proud and overjoyed with the growth of ALL of us!!!!! I LOVE you both very much!!!!!”
Pebe Sebert replied: “Thank you Luke . You have changed our lives forever. I love you !!”
It had been five years since the night at the Mondrian and two years since Sebert and Gottwald had started working together again. They had amended their contract in ways that benefited both and reduced the number of albums from six to five. After all the fits and starts, the recriminations and the reconciliation, their dreams had come true.
Sebert — with a dollar sign in the styling of her name, Ke$ha — was a bona fide music idol, a “21st century pop star,” as a Billboard cover story declared. Gottwald was increasingly regarded as a producing genius who, as NPR gushed, seemed to have been “handed a secret code by God that generates songs perfectly shaped to the inside of your head.”
“Tik Tok” rode the top of the pop charts for months, with Sebert’s idiosyncratic voice blaring from radios and nightclubs: “Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack / ‘Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back.”
Pebe Sebert and Gottwald had become closer during the production of “Animal.” Gottwald had hooked her up with a gig co-writing the Miley Cyrus song, “The Time of Our Lives.” Pebe Sebert wanted her youngest son to try acting, and the producer connected the family with Dan Schneider, the creator of “iCarly” and other Nickelodeon shows, according to court filings.
“You are part of our family, and I hope you know, as much as you have been there for Kesha and me, that we will always be there for you, as family, and friends, if you need anything,” Pebe Sebert wrote to Gottwald on his birthday in 2009.
When Gottwald’s partner gave birth to a daughter in 2011, Pebe Sebert told him he would “be a great dad,” adding, “You’ve been well trained by all your female artists for the ‘Teen Years’. It should be a walk in the park for you.”
In these years, the night of the Mondrian, previously regarded by the Seberts as a potential weapon to use against Gottwald, was recast as a tale of alcohol-soaked hijinks.
Sebert described the night at Hilton’s home as “fun” in a 2010 Billboard interview.
“I drank some Champagne, and then drank some whiskey, and then ate some sushi, and I was like, bad combo platter, threw open the door I thought was to the bathroom, turns out it was her closet,” according to a video recording of the interview.
She and her mother mined that night for the playful song “Paris Hilton’s Closet.”
“I threw up in Paris Hilton’s closet / I got drunk and totally lost it,” the song they co-wrote goes, continuing, “When I woke up the first thing that I thought of was: ‘Oh my Kesha, those hot Jimmy Choos.’”
Even under oath, she and her mother seemed to downplay the significance of that night. In 2011, they testified in a breach-of-contract lawsuit that Sonenberg, her former manager, had filed against Sebert and Gottwald.
The Seberts had shared with Sonenberg various accusations about Gottwald on the patio of the Chateau Marmont and in the months after, according to his testimony. But under penalty of perjury, they were circumspect and, at times, denied misconduct had occurred.
“Are you aware of whether [Gottwald] had had any kind of sexual relationship with your daughter prior to the time you met with [Sonenberg] at the Chateau Marmont?” a lawyer for Sonenberg asked Pebe Sebert.
“I don’t believe there was, no,” she answered.
“Did Dr. Luke ever give you a roofie?” the lawyer asked Kesha Sebert.
“No,” the singer replied.
“Did you ever tell your mother that you woke up in a hotel room in Gottwald’s bed and you don’t recall what happened that night?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. Pressed further, she testified, “Dr. Luke never made sexual advances at me.”
Some of the industry’s top producers and engineers were ready to record Sebert’s third album at Hollywood’s Record Plant studios in January 2012, but the main act was a no-show.
“It was embarrassing,” Gottwald recalled. “A lot of money was wasted, a lot of time.”
To the singer, now 24 and a proven success with a string of top-10 hits, what was embarrassing were the terms of her contract.
“I worked my butt off around the world, touring and promoting and everything,” she said. “I thought that the renegotiation was the next step.”
The making of the album “Warrior” could have been a moment for Gottwald and Sebert to savor. They were at the pinnacle of their careers. Everything he touched seemed to go platinum, and her rabid fan base was clamoring for her next record. But instead, they turned against each other.
Her lawyer claimed she had generated $50 million in billings for Sony and drew up an initial proposal demanding $5 million, more favorable royalty terms and “final say on all elements of at least six masters on each album.” The negotiations went nowhere.
“The Christina Aguileras and Alicia Keys’ of the world don’t even have 6 [tracks] on their own records,” Gottwald told her day-to-day manager Monica Cornia, according to an email she wrote to colleagues.
As he saw it, Sebert’s sales were tied directly to his talent.
“All the success [she had] was also songs that I wrote and songs I produced,” Gottwald testified. He said that Sony Music Chief Executive Doug Morris told him of renegotiating the contract: “I didn’t need to do it and he had never done it.”
After a couple of months, Sebert caved and agreed to record while negotiations continued.
Behind the scenes, one of music’s most formidable figures was watching.
The mogul Irving Azoff was an investor in Vector, the company that managed Sebert, and chairman of its parent company, LiveNation. He had long positioned himself as an advocate for artists and disliked Gottwald, who he wrote to Vector executives was “disgusting on the creative and art.” He discussed ways to punish the producer over the Sebert negotiations. One possibility he floated was retaliating against a boy band Gottwald hoped to put on the reality show “X Factor.”
“I will call [Simon] cowell and kill it,” he told Vector executives, according to emails filed in court. “Around every corner luke goes I will be waiting to slap him silly.”
When there was still no deal with Gottwald two months later, Azoff urged a Vector executive in a 2012 email: “Get me in the mix. I will ruin him.”
Sebert’s management team, however, was reluctant to escalate things before Gottwald finalized the album.
“There are huge hits on it,” Vector executive Ken Levitan explained to Azoff. “Let’s ruin him after he delivers.”
During a break in recording at Gottwald’s Malibu beach house one afternoon, Sebert overheard his assistant questioning the singer’s diet.
At the time, Sebert was 10 days into a juice fast and working out twice daily with a trainer, she testified, but the assistant saw her drinking an illicit Diet Coke and heard her wish aloud for some turkey. Though Sebert ate a cucumber instead, Gottwald and his assistant saw both the soda and the desire for turkey as indicative of a lack of discipline. He was unapologetic even when told Sebert was in tears.
“A[-]list songwriters and producers are reluctant to give kesha their songs because of her weight,” Gottwald wrote in an email to her manager. “Please keep her on her diet. No need to reply further. THANKS!”
From a young age, Sebert understood that women were judged by their weight. Her mother put a padlock on the refrigerator to prevent her own midnight bingeing, and by high school, Sebert was struggling with body image issues.
In L.A., the pressure to be skinny was on another level.
“He told me … that I needed to lose weight and he didn’t care how,” Sebert testified about her former manager, Sonenberg. “If it was bulimia, anorexia, cocaine, he didn’t care.”
Those close to Sebert responded by hiding unflattering paparazzi shots and gently encouraging her diet. After the Daily Mail called Sebert “fuller figured” in 2012, her team considered hanging up pictures of stick-thin models as motivation.
As their relationship soured, Gottwald became more direct. The recording industry was about image, and many insiders viewed the circumference of a female artist’s waist and the tone of their thighs as connected to the success of their songs. Sebert claimed Gottwald counted the number of coconut waters she drank, made her exercise when the rest of the crew was eating, and slapped a fork from her mouth as she ate an appetizer at a restaurant. He denied those allegations and testified that he never criticized her weight. But his attention to her appearance was clear, according to deposition testimony and emails filed in court.
Reviewing footage for a video for “Warrior’s” first single, “Die Young,” Gottwald groaned to the music video director, “She looks like a f— refrigerator,” according to the director’s testimony. Unbeknownst to Gottwald, Sebert was dating the director, who shared the comment with her mother, who in turn informed her daughter.
“I’d felt like she had the right to know what the man she was making millions of dollars for said about her behind her back,” Pebe Sebert recalled.
In therapy, Kesha Sebert linked Gottwald to her low self-esteem.
“Client stated producer said derogatory and insulting things about her body and described her as ‘huge,’” her therapist noted after a 2011 session.
The following year, the therapist wrote: “Producer is often critical of everything about client including her weight.”
Sebert eventually entered residential treatment for bulimia, but in the meantime, she refused to be alone with Gottwald, according to emails among her team.
“I’ve seen a good deal of s— in my life but nothing like this ever!!” her manager, Cornia, emailed a supervisor in 2012. “I feel bad that Kesha has had to deal with him for so long and has so far to go.”
One conflict related to “Crazy Kids,” a party anthem penned by the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am. Sebert wanted to replace certain lyrics, including the word “heffers,” a pejorative term for large women, according to an email Gottwald wrote to will.i.am.
“Luke said she had to sing it Will’s way, to at least try it,” Cornia recalled in an email. But Sebert refused, saying she was fearful that he would use that version in the end or even leak it publicly. Cornia told colleagues that Gottwald became angry and reminded her that “he controls what goes on her record.” Eventually, they came up with new lyrics, but their animosity remained.
“She beyond despises Luke,” an executive at her management company told Azoff.
Pebe Sebert was working her own angle on the recording of “Warrior.”
The singer’s mother, then 56, saw writing songs for the album as a way to bring in some money and keep her artistic ambitions alive.
Gottwald had connected her to songwriting opportunities earlier, but after things soured between him and her daughter, there appeared to be less of an appetite for her contributions.
“Her ideas were outdated and bizarre,” testified producer Allan “Kool Kojak” Grigg, who co-wrote songs on “Warrior” with Pebe Sebert. “She wants to write songs about aliens all the time, which is fine, but it’s not a very relatable or pop-oriented songwriting subject.”
It wasn’t just Gottwald and his producers who had lost patience.
“I remember Kesha at times being in the room saying, ‘Can we not have my mom here today,’” testified Clinton Gibbs, a recording engineer for Gottwald’s label.
Pebe Sebert would later say that she was in “the throes of alcoholism” at the time. After years of sobriety, she had started drinking, and it seemed to exacerbate a sense of victimhood. She felt she got little credit for creating “Kesha’s whole image thing, from the songs to the rap to the attitude,” as she wrote in a 2013 letter.
The relationship between mother and daughter had been fraught for years.
“When I first got to be successful, it was very hard on everyone,” Kesha Sebert testified. Her mother had pursued stardom for her, but once achieved: “We didn’t know what was the healthiest way to deal with it.”
Boundaries were a problem, Sebert said. Her mother came with her on tour and joined in the party atmosphere, even encouraging her daughter to chug whiskey to relieve her nerves at Lollapalooza. When the singer checked into a rehab center for bulimia in 2014, her mother followed her into the same facility 11 days later, saying she was seeking treatment for alcoholism.
Money was another sore point. After “TiK ToK” became a hit, mother and daughter squabbled over who deserved what. The singer exploded at her mother: “This is all my money. I earned it. I owe you nothing. … If you are broke, get a job at Costco,” according to Pebe Sebert’s testimony.
Writing a hit song could have eased Pebe Sebert’s financial situation, but during the recording of “Warrior,” Gottwald excluded her from the studio when they were working on singles, the songs that would be pushed out to radio stations and had the greatest chance of making money, according to her testimony.
On tracks she did help write, the songwriting credits were sometimes split not just with other writers but with producers who had worked on the track later. This practice infuriated Pebe Sebert, who had come up in the industry in a different era.
Months after “Warrior” wrapped, she became “OCD obsessed” with the issue and flooded her daughter and others with plaintive emails about Gottwald.
“I wouldn’t read them half the time because they would just be her ranting,” Kesha Sebert testified.
On Oct. 30, 2013, Pebe Sebert drunkenly tapped out a letter to Gottwald’s lawyer.
“I am done with you dishonest show business assholes,” she declared before issuing an ultimatum.
“Either … Luke releases Kesha from all legal contracts, and gives me back all my publishing, or we, Kesha and I. tell the truth,” she wrote.
The “truth,” as she outlined it in the email, was a version of the night at the Mondrian that Gottwald later testified he had never heard before: “Luke date raped Kesha when she was 18.”
She followed the claim with a series of questions, as one might when trying to jog someone’s memory: “Nicky Hilton’s birthday? Paris Hiltons house? Luke gave Kesha pills? She ended up naked in his hotel 2 days later, no longer a virgin?”
“Do we want all this to come out?”
What had been a blank space in her daughter’s memory was now an assertion of a crime, unequivocal and in writing.
Pebe Sebert concluded ominously: “If I wind up dead, TRUST ME, IT’S IN WRITING TO CALL YOU AND LUKE. Have a nice life.”
Those who read or heard about the rape claim initially seemed not to take it very seriously. No one went to the police. Gottwald said the allegations were false.
Inside Sony, he retained his star status. Michael Lynton, the chief executive of parent company Sony Corp. of America, even arranged in that period for his teenage daughter, a high school student, to intern at Gottwald’s label, according to internal Sony emails later stolen by hackers and posted online by WikiLeaks.
The girl “will be in great hands !!!,” the producer assured Lynton.
In a recent interview, Lynton said he had not been informed of the allegations at the time of his daughter’s internship.
Sebert’s management team was furious about Pebe Sebert’s email, which they viewed as a threat to delicate negotiations with Gottwald and Sony.
Within hours of her pressing send, Jack Rovner, the co-president of Vector Management, dressed down Pebe Sebert over email: “Please stop this. We have this under control…Kesha has the best attorneys dealing with this in a way that won’t interrupt her career any longer. That’s what we want! Not WWIII if we can avoid it!! Your daughter will get hurt the most if you don’t calm this down. Please!!!!!”
Within months, however, the singer’s advisors seemed to see the value in her mother’s approach.
On a summer day in 2014, one of the nation’s top entertainment attorneys walked into Sony Music’s New York headquarters holding a document with the potential to destroy Gottwald’s career.
Sebert no longer wanted to merely renegotiate her contract. She wanted out of the relationship with Gottwald entirely and to secure that, she hired attorney Kenny Meiselas, whose clients have included Whitney Houston, Sean Combs, Gaga, The Weeknd, Lizzo, Usher, Nas and Nicki Minaj.
After months of pressing Sebert’s case with Sony and Gottwald, Meiselas had nothing to show for it.
He recommended she add a pugnacious L.A. lawyer to the team.
Mark Geragos had a history of representing high-profile criminal defendants, including Scott Peterson, Chris Brown, Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder. A CNN legal pundit with his own podcast, Geragos knew how to turn a news cycle to his clients’ advantage.
He charged Sebert a modest $25,000 upfront, but their retainer agreement outlined another and potentially more lucrative path to compensation. If he could secure a monetary settlement from Sony or Gottwald apart from improvements to her music contract, the lawyer would keep a third of it.
A month and a half later, Geragos sent a 29-page draft lawsuit to Meiselas, who personally delivered it to the chief executive of Sony Music at the company’s Madison Avenue offices. Then-Chief Executive Morris directed Sony Music’s general counsel, Julie Swidler, to review it while Meiselas waited.
The draft lawsuit was incendiary. It accused Gottwald of sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment and other claims. Sony was named as a co-defendant.
“For the past ten (10) years, Dr. Luke has sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused Ms. Sebert to the point where Ms. Sebert nearly lost her life,” the draft read.
When it came to the Mondrian, the complaint acknowledged Sebert could not recall what happened, but also asserted: “Dr. Luke had given a Ms. Sebert the date rape drug, and had sexual intercourse with her while she was unconscious.”
Some of the shocking allegations had little or nothing to do with Sebert.
“When Dr. Luke’s wife became pregnant, he demanded that she get an abortion, and tried to blackmail her into an abortion by not speaking to her for six months,” read a sentence on the sixth page.
Testifying years later, Swidler said she remembered particularly the portion about Gottwald’s pregnant partner “because I met [Gottwald’s] daughter. I knew Luke, I saw him with his kids.”
When Swidler was done reading the suit, she looked at Meiselas a few feet away.
“I remember just taking a breath and trying not to be emotional about it and just saying to Kenny that I was concerned, particularly given the fact they were seeking to get out of the contract … that a settlement in my view would be impossible if this was the kind of allegations that were going to be brought,” she testified.
In the next few months, settlement proposals were circulated, but no deal materialized.
Geragos escalated. He hired the PR firm Sunshine Sachs in October 2014 at a cost of $15,000 per month. The firm’s crisis communications team summarized its marching orders in a memo titled “Client K — Proposed Press Plan.”
“Our goal is to help extricate CLIENT K from her current professional relationship with PERSON L by inciting a deluge of negative media attention and public pressure on the basis of the horrific personal abuses presented in the lawsuit,” according to the memo later submitted in court.
The lawsuit, filed Oct. 14, 2014, in L.A. County Superior Court, was nearly identical to the one shown to Swidler months earlier, though it did not name Sony as a co-defendant. Following the strategy laid out in the memo, an advance copy was provided to a TMZ reporter “in order to achieve the maximum level of negative publicity for PERSON L.”
The TMZ reporter quickly prepared a draft and sent a copy of the unpublished story to his contact at Sunshine Sachs. The reporter cautioned the PR executive that “H,” an apparent reference to the site’s editor, Harvey Levin, would likely “make changes, but at least we can get an idea of what you want or don’t want.”
After TMZ posted its story, Sunshine Sachs was inundated with press inquiries. They’d given TMZ a statement from Geragos saying Sebert had suffered “for ten years as a victim of mental manipulation, emotional abuse and an instance of sexual assault at the hands of Dr. Luke.”
But as the day went on, Sebert’s team adjusted the lawyer’s quote to remove the phrase “an instance of.” That second version was sent to Fox News, The Times, Rolling Stone and other news outlets, allowing the misimpression that Gottwald stood accused of sexually assaulting Sebert repeatedly over a decade.
For a few days, Ke$ha vs. Dr. Luke was the biggest entertainment story in the world. Most people came to learn of the dispute in this window, often with a framing that was damaging to Gottwald.
Geragos did a round of interviews on “Good Morning America,” “Nightline,” and “Access Hollywood,” where he stated: “[Gottwald] kind of fed her alcohol while she was underage, then led her to believe she was taking a quote-unquote ‘sober pill.’ Turned out to be GHB. She woke up the next day naked in his bed, sore and knew that he had raped her.”
His statement went beyond what Sebert had previously said. In other public comments, he called Gottwald “a predator” and compared him several times to comedian Bill Cosby. Sebert would later sign an affidavit saying she had not authorized Geragos to make all of the comments he made.
Gottwald fought back with a defamation suit against Sebert in New York and his own set of crisis PR advisors who pushed the narrative that the singer and her mother were using a rape claim to get out of her contract.
His team successfully petitioned for the release of the 2011 deposition in which Sebert had denied under oath sexual advances by Gottwald. Her representatives responded by saying that he had threatened to harm her career unless she lied in her testimony.
Her legal team remained confident. Geragos predicted to Meiselas and others in an email: “We are going to have other victims.”
But no one else came forward publicly. After two months, Geragos took matters into his own hands. The occasion was an appearance by Gaga on Howard Stern’s show. She recounted how she had been raped as a young artist by an older producer whom she did not name.
“Guess who the rapists was,” Geragos tweeted to his 48,000 followers. Someone responded “lukasz,” and the lawyer replied, “#bingo.” When TMZ’s Levin called about the tweet, Geragos told him, “I said it because it’s true.”
It was not.
Gaga’s attorney pointed out as much in a sternly worded email that instructed Geragos to “immediately issue a tweet saying she never accused [Gottwald], you were wrong, and apologize.”
Geragos did not apologize, even when sued by Gottwald a few days later for defamation. (That case was settled on confidential terms in 2022 after more than seven years of litigation.)
“I just want to let u know I had nothing to do with that and would never try to take advantage of your pain,” Sebert texted Gaga, adding that she had “just ripped [Geragos] a new a— about this,” according to copies of the text messages filed in court.
Sebert had a team of lawyers and publicists, but Lady Gaga ended up being her best advocate. Though Gaga had little contact with Sebert since their fleeting encounter in Gottwald’s studio years earlier, she fully embraced her claim of rape.
“There are people all over the world who love you @KeshaRose. And I can say truly I am in awe of your bravery,” she tweeted in February 2016. Gaga’s song “Til It Happens to You” — about sexual assault survivors — was nominated for an Academy Award that year, lending weight to the social media posts she wrote describing Sebert as a “phoenix” and urging Sony to “#FreeKesha.”
Other celebrities began rallying to Sebert’s side. Taylor Swift gave her $250,000 with a spokesperson saying it was “to help with any of her financial needs during this trying time,” and Adele, accepting a British Music Award, remarked, “I’d like to also take this moment to publicly support Kesha.”
Even Gavin Newsom, then lieutenant governor of California, jumped in, tweeting at Sebert: “What you are facing is unconscionable and unacceptable…” and tagging the note “#FreeKesha.”
Gaga and Sebert texted each other in that period. They discussed Gottwald, the trauma Gaga believed they shared and, late one night in February 2016, Katy Perry. No singer was more closely associated with the producer, but Perry had not joined celebrities in condemning him.
“I’m really upset with Katy perry,” Sebert texted Gaga, according to records of the exchange filed in court. “She could bring the whole thing to a head … but she won’t.”
Sebert then texted a stunning claim: “She was raped by the same man,” she wrote, referring to Gottwald. “It’s sick.”
“She is probably really afraid to lose everything,” Gaga replied. She continued: “U are really strong standing up to him, she’s not as strong as u yet.”
Sebert wrote, “I need to find sympathy and empathy for her. she’s so mean. it’s hard.”
“I know she’s mean,” Gaga wrote, adding later, “She probably hasn’t even accepted it yet.”
Perry would later state under oath repeatedly that Gottwald had never raped her. The genesis of the claim appears to have been a meeting earlier that year among Gaga, Sebert and John Janick, chief executive of Interscope Records.
Gaga wanted Interscope, her label, to consider signing Sebert to get her away from Gottwald. The three spoke at length, but would later disagree on what was said about Perry. Sebert claimed Janick stated as a fact “Dr. Luke raped Katy Perry.” Janick testified that he never said anything of the kind. Gaga said the executive presented it more as an unconfirmed rumor.
Neither Gaga nor Sebert made the claim publicly, but when Gaga was interviewed by TV host Carson Daly later that winter, she said of Gottwald: “What people should just know is that there is so much more than what meets the eye…”
Sebert’s team had feared the public would lose interest in her story, with a manager musing to colleagues in 2016: “What worries me is that [it] can quickly become yesterday’s news.”
#MeToo revived her relevance. After revelations about film producer Harvey Weinstein and other men, Sebert performed her song “Praying” at the 2018 Grammy Awards. Backed by a chorus that included Cyndi Lauper, Bebe Rexha and Camila Cabello, all dressed in white, Sebert belted out verses that seemed directed at Gottwald: “You put me through hell. I had to learn how to fight for myself.”
Close observers could see that the allegations against Gottwald departed from those against #MeToo poster boys Weinstein, talk show host Charlie Rose and CBS executive Les Moonves, all accused of harming numerous victims over a period of decades.
Developments in court, if not in the media, reflected the differences. In 2016, Sebert had voluntarily dismissed the ferociously-worded lawsuit Geragos had filed in L.A., saying she would pursue her claims in New York. An attempt to countersue Gottwald there in his defamation lawsuit for the alleged rape failed on statute of limitations and other grounds.
Sebert made one last run at disentangling herself from her contract with Gottwald, asking the judge in the New York case in February 2016 to effectively void the deal. Sony Music said it wasn’t necessary as she was being allowed to work with other producers. The judge upheld the contract, remarking in court: “You’re asking for the Court to decimate a contract which was heavily negotiated and signed by two parties in an industry where these kinds of contracts are typical.”
A photo of Sebert weeping in court next to her mother was shared widely. Legally, she had suffered a loss, but from a PR standpoint, things were still going well.
“The press coverage thus far has been hugely sympathetic to Kesha. #freekesha is the number one trending topic on twitter in the world,” Sunshine Sachs executive Dave Falkenstein wrote to Geragos and others after court. “Laymen are seeing this as victim vs predator and don’t understand the nuances of contract law.”
Of public support pouring in from Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea and other artists, Falkenstein added: “The fact that the underlying assault allegations have basically become written as fact is great for us.”
Top artists, including Perry and Maroon 5, stopped recording with Gottwald.
“They’re very unpleasant allegations, and I don’t know how they wouldn’t cause one to think about whether they’d work with somebody again,” Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine testified.
When Jennifer Lopez released a song Gottwald had produced, she was savaged online.
“Literally the business fell off a cliff,” his manager, Mark Beaven, testified.
Gottwald and the celebrity deejay Diplo had been launching an unscripted program called “Hitmaker,” but USA network refused to go forward with the producer attached, according to emails and testimony. A movie project with uber-producer Brian Grazer and a reality show called “Street Justice” also vanished, according to the accounts of his manager and agent. For a time, Gottwald produced songs under an alias.
An expert accountant hired by Gottwald estimated the financial damages to his career at more than $46 million.
There was also the cost of litigation. Both he and Sebert were pouring millions of dollars into lawyers, with the singer additionally helping to cover her mother’s legal bills, according to testimony. She replaced Geragos in 2016 with a team of attorneys from white-shoe law firm O’Melveny & Myers.
Dozens of people were questioned under oath, including Gaga, whose 2017 deposition took place in a law office in Philadelphia, where she was wrapping up the first leg of her “Joanne” tour.
Gaga acknowledged she knew little about the underlying rape claim, including the year it allegedly occurred, but said she was convinced it happened.
“You may believe, but you don’t know the facts of what happened,” Gottwald’s lawyer, Christine Lepera, suggested. The lawyer asked Gaga to imagine a false accusation of rape against her own father, but the singer shot back: “How would I know my father didn’t do it?”
For two hours, Gaga refused to cede any ground.
“Why on earth would this girl tell the entire world that this happened? Why on earth? Do you know what it’s like for survivors?” said Gaga, turning her ire against Gottwald’s lawyer: “Don’t you roll your eyes at me. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Katy Perry was less hostile, but clearly uncomfortable. She had known both Gottwald and Sebert since the days they were all chasing fame. Gottwald had produced three of her albums and Sebert had once been a friend.
“Do you believe that sexual assault or rape is consistent with Dr. Luke’s character,” asked Lepera in a July 2017 deposition in Century City.
“No,” Perry replied.
The lawyer continued: “Did you … feel any pressure to come out and publicly support Kesha?”
“I felt pressured, but I also knew both of them and a lot of people did not. So it was easy for them to be disattached and support an idea rather than an actual instance,” Perry said.
She said she was “annoyed” at both. Sebert had falsely asserted Perry was a victim of Gottwald, and he had used that private lie to advance his very public lawsuit. “He knows I’m a tiebreaker,” she explained. “Because when I say that I wasn’t raped, because I was not, that mean’s that someone’s lying.”
Both sides hired experts. Sebert retained Kathleen Brown, a sexual assault expert who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s nursing school, to review both parties’ testimony. She determined Sebert’s account was “consistent with a drug-facilitated sexual assault.”
Gottwald brought on Dr. Renee Binder, a UC San Francisco psychiatry professor specializing in sexual trauma, to review some of the evidence. She concluded that “the facts in this lawsuit are more consistent with a false allegation of rape” and pointed specifically to variations in Sebert’s account.
“These conflicting reports suggest that Ms. Sebert has changed her story and does not remember what, if anything, happened,” wrote Binder, who also founded the university’s rape treatment center.
Another Gottwald expert, UCSF pharmacy professor and toxicologist Thomas Kearney, cast doubt on the “sober pill,” explaining that GHB and Rohypnol, two common drugs used to incapacitate rape victims, usually came in liquid or powder form. GHB could be put into a capsule, he said, but the inch-long “horse pill” would be difficult to swallow.
Gottwald’s attorneys got a chance to question Sebert over two days in 2017. Asked about the night at the Mondrian, she mentioned “flashes” of traveling in a vehicle and of her top coming over her head — details not included in her lawsuit or sworn court declarations. She conceded she had no memory of being in the room with Gottwald or of any assault.
“I do not recall an actual penis being taken out by your client and inserted into my incoherent body. I don’t recall that,” she testified. With a note of defiance, she continued, “I remember waking up naked in your client’s room with my … vagina hurting and feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt, shame and being terrified.”
She stood by her characterization of Gottwald as a rapist, not just of her, but of Perry.
“Dr. Luke has raped me, it is consistent with his character and I have no reason not to believe it,” she said, referring to the allegation Perry had forcefully denied.
Near the end of the second day, Gottwald’s lawyer asked whether she hated the producer.
“I have felt hatred,” she said, but added, “I try to pray for him sometimes, because hatred makes you sick.”
In his turn in the witness chair, Gottwald was asked the objective of his defamation suit.
“You understand … that even if you win this lawsuit, that a court can’t issue a judgment against Kesha requiring her to retract her statements against you?” Sebert’s attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, asked.
“I understand that, but I also know that it may be the best that I can get,” he said.
This summer, 18 years after the Mondrian events, Gottwald’s defamation suit was finally set for trial.
As lawyers discussed jury selection, Sebert, 36, was doing publicity for her latest album, “Gag Order,” the final one for the deal she had tried so hard to get out of.
On one track, “Fine Line,” Sebert sang about “all the doctors and lawyers [who] cut the tongue out of my mouth,” ending with: “But, hey, look at all the money we made off me.”
The album spent two weeks on the Billboard 200, peaking at 168 — a flop.
By contrast, Gottwald, 49, seemed to be on an upswing. He was named pop songwriter of the year in May by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for hits he penned for Doja Cat, Nicki Minaj and Latto.
Then, on June 22, both sides announced the trial was off, and that they had reached a settlement. The terms did not obligate Sebert to pay Gottwald a dime, or abide by a nondisclosure agreement. She was required to release a joint statement with him. In it, they each expressed a desire to move on and wished the other well. They also revisited the Mondrian one last time.
“I am absolutely certain that nothing happened,” Gottwald wrote. “I never drugged or assaulted her and would never do that to anyone.”
Sebert, summing up an evening whose significance had been debated at that point for half her life, wrote: “Only God knows what happened that night.”