What's a Scandal-Ridden Celeb to Do? Go to Church

Are starlets' public displays of faith for real, or merely photo ops?

BySheila Marikar

Jan. 4, 2008 — -- Forget Le Deux, Bungalow 8 and Pure.

The hottest place for starlets to go after a scandal isn't at all exclusive, has satellite locations all over the country, and is most bumping on Sunday mornings — church.

Mischa Barton is the latest young star to pay a visit to God's house following public fallout from bad publicity. One week after she was busted for DUI and drug possession (two days after Christmas, no less) the former "O.C." actress was snapped walking down the steps of Beverly Hills' Good Shepherd Catholic Church, head bowed, virginal white dress flowing, church brochure in hand.

Paris Hilton toted the Bible around after her stint in jail on DUI charges. "High School Musical" star Vanessa Hudgens went to church after nude photographs of her stormed the Internet.

Looking at these scandal-ridden stars trying to make good in the eyes of God and the public, you'd think Mary Magdalene could've remade herself into the Virgin Mary if only she'd had the right publicist. Things haven't changed much since the olden days: Latching onto religion is one of the most effective ways for celebrities to show the world they're cleaning up their act.

"The surest, safest way to try to get out of a scandal is to pull out a Bible and invoke the name of God," said Michael Musto, gossip columnist for the Village Voice. "In the world of celebrity spin control, this is supposed to instantly confer sanctity and good intentions on you while dissolving all past heathenism.

"Surely there are some serious worshipers in La La Land, but in the case of Paris, her devoutness came under question on Larry King's show when she couldn't name a single passage she liked. Not even 'the part with the snake and the apple.'" he added, referring to Hilton's post-prison interview in which she pledged she had found a purpose in life beyond partying.

If paparazzi photos are to be believed, Barton, like Hilton, is more likely to frequent a strip of sand or a red carpet premiere than a house of faith. The angelic picture of her descending from the church may have been more contrived than candid.

"Anyone who's ever met [Mischa] or watched her knows that she has not been spending the preponderance of the last two years in Bible study class," said celebrity publicist Michael Levine. "The timing does seem suspect and convenient. It seems a little over the top."

But stars may not need to prove their faith is real to reap the benefits of a photo op with God.

"The question remains: Is it real or is it staged? That level of ambiguity actually adds to the interest. It leaves the story open, and we can continue to speculate on that very question," said Lance Strate, chairman of Fordham University's communication and media studies department.

If there's one thing America's celebrity-obsessed culture loves more than a scandal it's a comeback, or at least an attempt at one, and religion is a fast way to lift a career out of the ashes.

It's not just starlets. In 2007, Don Imus met with the Rev. Al Sharpton after his racist and sexist on-air tirade. Eight months later, Imus got his radio show back. So Mischa, don't fret. Put on your Sunday best and wait for the casting agents to come calling.

"We're very used to the story where someone encounters a problem, gains redemption, admits their sins and asks for forgiveness. That plays very well," Strate said. "And it sends that kind of message to the industry, reassuring them that this person is still a business commodity. It humanizes the celebrity. It turns them into a kind of moral lesson."

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