Why Do Stars Get Away With Behaving Badly?

"They're not really gangstas, but put on the pretense of being so, because that's part and parcel of being a hip-hop star," Wallenstein said. "We expect these people to have rap sheets."

The public also has become inured to the constant barrage of headlines proclaiming the latest misdeeds of not just celebrities, but politicians and athletes. "The sheer volume of these instances has rendered the public numb," Wallenstein said. "People say, 'Oh it goes with the territory.'"

The problem becomes that it takes more and more to shock a scandal-weary public. "Inevitably, over time, media fare must become more and more lurid because the stimuli of yesteryear just don't cut it anymore," Miller said. "It's not healthy. It's kind of a dissolute cultural moment."

If ever there were a bad-girl poster child for the Internet age, it would have to be Amy Winehouse, Wallenstein said. "We expect to see a video every week or two of her smoking crack," he said. "She's the celebrity bad girl for the 21st century."

After Winehouse won five Grammys, including for best new artist, there were some grumblings about whether it sent the wrong message to people battling drugs. But her nonstop tabloid exploits have not stopped offers from coming in. Just recently a Russian plutocrat booked her for $2 million to perform at his girlfriend's art gallery opening in Moscow.

It's hard to remember a time when the public did blink at such transgressions. In the late 1950s, when rock-n-roller Jerry Lee Lewis, then in his early 20s, married his 13-year-old cousin, he was dubbed a pervert, radio stations refused to play his records, bookings were cancelled and his career appeared finished.

The revolutionary '60s loosened moral standards, but even when stars such as Judy Garland fell to pieces, Miller said, it was covered up by the media. "Today, nothing is covered up," he said. "Weirdly enough, Britney Spears' and Lindsey Lohan's breakdowns haven't hurt their careers. Lohan's career now is as a troubled child. She should be in rehab."

Wallenstein believes the public has more sympathy for celebrities, such as Lohan, Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr., who are grappling with addiction. "Who out there hasn't dealt with the dangers of addiction. It's not about evil, it's about vulnerability. That particular kind of offense is not that offensive," he said.

In Downey's case, Wallenstein said the public has always rooted for the "likable and incredibly talented" actor. "He never really hurt anyone but himself," he said. "We wanted him to be back on his feet."

Similarly, the public appears to be rooting for Spears. "She's been redeemed," Wallenstein said. "She seems to be coming to the end of her bad behavior cycle. The tabloids are painting her in a positive light. She's poised to make a massive comeback if she can keep up her recovery."

So is there anything that's still taboo?

"Murder, that does represent the one last taboo," Wallenstein said. He points to O.J. Simpson as an example of a celebrity who is irredeemable.

"Would it shock me in time if that taboo fell? No," Wallenstein said. "But people will take a gut check when something really awful happens."

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