All hail Rihanna for turning a Super Bowl performance into the greatest pregnancy reveal yet | Morwenna Ferrier

Rihanna’s Super Bowl set lasted just shy of 13 minutes. But the image of the pregnant pop star, cradling her belly in a red silk Loewe catsuit as she descended from the heavens on a Perspex box, is surely up there with the greatest pregnancy reveals of the Instagram age.

Even before she had switched into a puffer coat with built-in gloves by Alaia, it had become more than a half-time performance. Here was a woman, returning to work for the first time since having a baby, somehow converting this moment into a tightly controlled but highly visible moment, while putting paid to the difficult second pregnancy reveal. In forcing her audience to confront her physical reality, Rihanna went past making a fashion statement. She took ownership of her body, and she did it in real time.

Screen grabbed image taken from the Instagram feed of Beyonce who has revealed she is pregnant with twins, 2 February 2017.
‘Awol Erizku’s Botticelli-like portrait of Beyoncé pregnant with twins became the most liked photograph on Instagram in 2017.’ Photograph: Beyonce/Instagram/PA

It’s alien to us in the UK, but the Super Bowl is as much a lucrative billboard for brands as it is a sporting event. One fast-fashion brand paid $14m dollars for two adverts to be aired during the event. Rihanna knows this too. Halfway through her performance, she knowingly blotted her nose with Invisimatte Instant Setting & Blotting Powder by her beauty brand, Fenty. The Daily Mail called her “shameless”. Everyone else called her a pregnant businesswoman.

When I was pregnant in 2019, I did not look like Rihanna. Our timeline tracks quite nicely – Rihanna looks set to give birth in early summer, like I did, so is dealing with the difficult coat-over-bump phase. This is, however, where our similarity ends. During my pregnancy, I wore clothes that rearranged themselves around my changing shape: jeans with elasticated waistbands from Topshop, a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress given to me by a colleague and various billowing dresses in plissé fabrics from Asos, which I gave to a charity shop as soon as I was able to walk again. In terms of the reveal, I simply posted a headless mirror shot on Instagram in which I gently lifted my tracksuit to show a tiny bump. Save the DVF dress, I hated everything I wore.

The moment I posted my picture, I set my account to private. The celebrity pregnancy reveal is, of course, more public – and it has a short, but storied tradition. Many remember the watershed moment in 1991, when a heavily pregnant Demi Moore was photographed naked, and in profile, on the cover of Vanity Fair by Annie Leibovitz. In 2017, Leibovitz rehashed the concept with Serena Williams, an image that feels all the more powerful now, because Williams almost died after an emergency C-section from that pregnancy.

Outside the glossy magazines, it was the “bump watch” era that dominated the 1990s and 2000s gossip rags, taking away the agency of celebrities to announce their pregnancy on their own terms. In 1988, while eight months’ pregnant, Neneh Cherry became the first artist to perform with child on Top of the Pops. Ten years later, All Saints’ Melanie Blatt performed on stage while five months’ gone. Other women in the limelight tend to hide what’s happening. Nicole Appleton, also of All Saints, was criticised for keeping hers a secret, while Victoria Beckham kept all but one under wraps.

No wonder celebrities now tend to want to control exactly how their pregnancy is parsed. Who could forget photographer Awol Erizku’s Botticelli-like portrait of Beyoncé pregnant with twins, draped in a veil in front of a floral arch? It became the most liked photograph on Instagram in 2017, with more than 10m likes (she revealed her first pregnancy on stage in 2011 at the MTV Video Music Awards, but no one really remembers that).

Rihanna knows how to use clothing as a way to remind us who has control over her body. We learned that from how she “announced” her first pregnancy, stood on a snow-flecked street wearing a vintage Chanel puffer coat, jewelled belly chain and an entirely exposed bump.

Cardi B and her husband Offset onstage at the BET Awards 2021 in Los Angeles.
Cardi B and her husband, Offset, onstage at the BET Awards 2021 in Los Angeles. Photograph: Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for BET

From Cardi B in a Dolce & Gabbana sheer bodysuit two years ago to Jessie J in a red cut-out bodysuit at the Brits this weekend, bare bumps have since become the red-carpet standard for pregnant women. But Rihanna also knows how to shift expectations of how women should behave in the public eye, pregnant or not. Moore’s 1991 Vanity Fair cover arrived at newsagents wrapped in plastic, with a piece of white paper covering her from the neck down. The image became a blueprint for magazines, sending an empowering message in an era otherwise ridden with repressed corporeal ideals, but that didn’t stop some shops from banning it at the time.

Instagram has been the medium of choice for celebrities hoping to announce their news in a choreographed yet controlled way to their fans over the past decade. Doing it on a public stage, as Rihanna did, was not only bold. It will probably be remembered for far longer.

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