June 13, 2008 — -- 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."
"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."