From Celebrity to Felon to Celebrity

The MTV Video Music Awards are a celebration of talent and performance, the famous and -- as it turns out -- the infamous.

Twenty minutes into the awards show Thursday night there was a fake perp walk. Surrounded by a fake prison motif, wearing fake prison fatigues, hip hop star Lil Kim strutted out on stage. Her message to the fans was, "Wassup MTV? The girls is back!"

Lil Kim is indeed back from real prison, where she was serving real time. She was behind bars for 10 months for lying to a grand jury about a real shooting outside a nightclub.

Kim was defiant as she told audiences, "They tried to get me, but you know what they say, you can't keep a good bitch down."

The questionable word choice aside, Lil Kim may be onto something. When it comes to celebrities these days, it is hard to keep them down, no matter what they do.

What inspired MTV to put a convicted felon on stage?

Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management consultant who just wrote a novel about the redemption of out-of-control celebrities, said it has to do with how "spectacle driven" American culture has become.

Because of that, he said, MTV's decision to put a convicted felon on stage was eminently predictable.

"There is a desire to be a participant in something wicked-ass-cool, and it is really cool to be involved in the ostensible forgiveness of a celebrity," he said.

Dezenhall said he thinks there was no risk for MTV in putting Kim on stage, because while the "American Dream used to be about prosperity, now it is about notoriety."

Quick Forgiveness

It seems that Americans love their famous people, even when they screw up big time.

Hugh Grant had a dalliance with a prostitute, but people still flock to his movies. Kate Moss had a cocaine scandal, but she is still seen all over the fashion magazines. Russell Crowe threw a phone at a hotel worker, Sean Combs was arrested for weapons charges, but both are still huge stars.

Why are we so quick to forgive? Part of it may be the American love of the outlaw.

Dezenhall said it may be part of a kind of cultural role reversal. Nowadays, he said, being a gangster is an achievement, "whereas years ago, gangsters -- real gangsters -- wanted to be known as solid citizens."

But there also may be something deeper.

"You can forgive a person that you don't have a real relationship with and doesn't have to give anything back to you more readily than you can forgive somebody that you live with," Stanford University Forgiveness Project director Dr. Fred Luskin said.

Most of us have never actually met Kate Moss or had a run-in with Russell Crowe.

That's What I Call Entertainment

The public has, however, not always been nearly so forgiving of celebrities.

When Ingrid Bergman had an extra-marital affair in 1949 with director Roberto Rossellini, she was branded "Hollywood's apostle of degradation." She basically went into exile in Italy.

Clearly, people are not as prudish as they used to be. But with media so hungry for any whiff of scandal, audiences know more about what celebrities are doing -- and doing wrong -- than ever before.

There are some unforgivable sins, such as hurting children, and it isn't clear whether Mel Gibson will be able to recover from his drunken, anti-Semitic, episode.

But by and large, these are forgiving times for the famous. They can sin away.

"Probably on a purely moral level, we should be upset about the trend that is happening," Dexenhall said. "But the reality is that we are not upset, because the most important thing is not are we moral, but are we being entertained."

So next time that convicted felon takes the stage, think to yourself, "That's entertainment!"