The story is still shocking to think about: On Feb. 8, just hours after they had been photographed staring dreamily at each other, Chris Brown and Rihanna got into a fight in a Lamborghini that left the pretty pop star bruised and bloodied. The next day the formerly squeaky clean R&B star surrendered to the Los Angeles police. According to a police affidavit, the argument was sparked by a text message Brown, now 20, received from a former flame; as tempers flared, he bit, choked and repeatedly punched Rihanna, now 21. In June he pleaded guilty to felony assault, and on Aug. 25, Brown was sentenced to five years probation, six months of community labor and a year of domestic violence classes. He was also ordered to not contact Rihanna for the next five years.
The singer vows he will remain silent about what happened in the car (“I owe it to Rihanna“). But in his first exclusive interview since the incident, Brown talks with PEOPLE’s Elizabeth Leonard about his shame, his continued love for Rihanna (who declined a request to respond to this interview) and how he told his mother, Joyce Hawkins—who says she was once a victim of domestic violence—of the assault.
How do you feel about your sentence?
The law is the law. I am relieved to put everything behind me.
What about having to stay away from Rihanna for five years?
That might have been a little harsh. She knows me, and I know her more than anybody. It’s hard.
Are you still in love with her?
I never fell out of love with her.
Describe your relationship prior to Feb. 8.
Very fun, energetic. We did almost everything together, whether it was going to the movies or me trying to teach her how to skateboard. We met when I was about 15. I had more of a connection with her than anybody in the industry.
The night of the incident you and Rihanna attended a pre-Grammy party. Were you getting along?
At the party, before the party, everything was great.
You left together, then fought in the car. What happened?
I don’t think it’s appropriate to speak on what happened that night.
So you’re not defensive at all?
There’s no need to make excuses.
What were your initial thoughts?
I was distraught. I told my mom what happened and broke down. I was disappointed in myself. I felt like I had let my mom down. I was sorry because of [her allegedly abusive second husband] when I was younger. [Brown’s ex-stepfather has denied the allegation.]
Have you ever been violent with girlfriends in the past?
Never. Ever. I saw what my mom went through so I was like, “I’m not going to be that person.”
You say you witnessed violence as a kid. Are you repeating that behavior?
No. I’m hopefully preventing the cycle by saying it’s not okay.
Do you have an understanding of your ex-stepfather’s alleged abuse?
Not at all. I feel like he enjoyed it.
Are you afraid you’ll get violent with a girlfriend again?
No. I’m going to counseling. I want to understand my feelings. I don’t think I’d get that mad again. [I’d] walk away. This has matured me.
Do you have an “anger problem”?
If I do, I will work with my counselor and hopefully channel my anger into something like dancing.
An alleged photo of bruised Rihanna was leaked online. How did you feel when you saw that?
Shocked. I didn’t know whether it was altered. I hadn’t seen any damage like that. It upset me a lot.
Did you apologize to Rihanna?
Yeah, ASAP. I also wrote a song for her called “Changed Man,” explaining how when we were apart it took a toll on me. At the end it’s saying I’m a changed man. I gave her that record right after the incident.
In the weeks after the fight, what were you most afraid of?
First, I wanted to make sure she was all right. Second was, “Okay, how do I get past this as far as my career?” And then, me looking out for her and being like, well, if [we stay together] then she’s going to lose her fans.
But in March you were seen together at Diddy‘s house in Miami Beach.
We still had that friendship connection. But [we said], “Okay, we gotta take things a little bit slow now, because now everybody’s in our life.”
I commend Oprah on being like, “This is a problem,” but it was a slap in my face. I did a lot of stuff for her, like going to Africa and performing for her school. She could have been more helpful, like, “Okay, I’m going to help both of these people out.”
How did it feel when Rihanna took you back after what happened?
It took a huge weight off my shoulders. It gave me a bigger level of respect and love for her. Although we had this terrible incident, we were able to overcome it together. Our relationship was something that we were working at and then poof, the court goes, “You can’t see her anymore.” I couldn’t say goodbye.
Will you be friends in the future?
Definitely. Hopefully we’ll look back and be like, “What was going on?”
Think about that night often?
I feel remorse every day. I’m very ashamed. But it doesn’t define me. I try to think about influencing people not to take the road I did.
Have you been depressed?
I could be a man and be like, “Oh I didn’t cry,” but everybody cries. I would be down and like, “Okay, why did this have to happen?” It takes a toll.
Still consider yourself a role model?
Musically, I can still inspire. But I have a bigger responsibility to show the world I can overcome this, be a better person, and that I’m worthy of being a role model. I’m going to earn that status back.
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