A jury in Chicago is deciding whether R&B singer R. Kelly is the man in a well-circulated videotape having sex with an underage girl.
But in the court of public opinion, where Kelly's fans have taken two of his albums to the top of the charts since he was first booked on child pornography charges six years ago, he might as well be not guilty.
It seems when it comes to celebrities — such as Kelly, directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, singers Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse, and actors Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. — audiences are willing to cast a blind eye on bad behavior and continue to buy their records and see their movies.
"Not only is there no such thing as bad publicity," said Andrew Wallenstein, a deputy editor at The Hollywood Reporter, "bad publicity is often the very best publicity."
In Kelly's case, his bad behavior may have even helped his record sales, Wallenstein said. Kelly has produced seven albums since June 5, 2002, when a grand jury in Cook County, Ill., indicted him on 21 counts of child pornography for allegedly videotaping himself having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Two of those albums, released in 2005 and 2007, went to No. 1, and in 2007, Kelly scored three Top 10 singles on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.
"Is it possible to be disgraced in a culture like this one?" wondered Mark Crispin Miller, who teaches in the Department of Media, Culture and Communications at New York University. "It's extremely hard. It's a culture of shamelessness. People are, therefore, not only absolved of wrongdoing that they've obviously committed but even rewarded for it. It takes a great deal to be regarded as beyond the pale."
Take, for instance, director Woody Allen, whose personal life became embroiled in scandal in 1992 when his longtime partner, actress Mia Farrow, discovered that he had taken pornographic pictures of their adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and was having an affair with the then-17-year-old. Shortly after Farrow and Allen separated, he openly continued his relationship with Previn, and the pair married in 1997 and adopted two daughters.
Not only did his films not suffer, Academy voters nominated him the year after the affair became public for best original screenplay for his film "Husbands and Wives," the last to star Farrow. Meanwhile, Allen hardly skipped a beat, writing and directing three films in a row from 1993 to 1995.
Why is it celebrities seem to get a free pass for behaving badly? Wallenstein blames the public's love affair with celebrities and fame.
"There is something odd about American culture and our preoccupation with [celebrities], which seems to know no bounds," he said. "This moral blind eye we've turned is a reflection of that lack of perspective. Culturally, we're at a time of such high volume of all sorts of entertainment that publicity is your best friend. Notoriety is sometimes the very best thing for ticket sales of all kinds."
No one knows that better than the people in reality television shows. Ever since Puck got expelled from the house on MTV's "The Real World," in 1994, misbehaving has grabbed headlines. "In reality TV shows, this is a goldmine — misbehavior, acting out — it's exactly what they look for," Miller said.
Wallenstein sees parallels between the worlds of reality TV and hip-hop. In hip-hop, there's even an expression for a person who has no dirt in his personal life: He's called a "studio gangsta."