The new politics of be­ing a celebrity: The pub­lic does the vet­ting

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ELAHE IZADI

Don­ald Trump took the stage in New York in the early hours of Nov. 9 to thank Amer­ica for elect­ing him pres­i­dent. Mean­while, thou­sands of miles away in Cal­i­for­nia was Billy Bush, un­em­ployed.

In 2016, a celebrity lost his job af­ter par­tic­i­pat­ing in a more than decade-old crude con­ver­sa­tion, and an­other be­came the leader of the free world in spite of it.

It’s an odd dy­namic: a can­di­date elected while buck­ing po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and fac­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual con­tact as ac­tors and TV per­son­al­i­ties are fac­ing ca­reer ram­i­fi­ca­tions over ques­tions of past be­hav­ior.

The pub­lic is now vet­ting celebri­ties at star-mak­ing mo­ments in ways once re­served for peo­ple run­ning for of­fice. In re­cent years, they’ve dug up old tweets, re­vis­ited court

cases and law­suits, and un­cov­ered un­set­tling de­tails, prompt­ing de­bates about the ethics of sup­port­ing an en­ter­tainer’s work.

“It’s al­most like, ‘Wel­come to politics,’ ” said Rick Wil­son, a long­time GOP strate­gist be­hind some of the most in­fa­mous TV cam­paign ads. Past mis­deeds dam­ag­ing present ca­reers is “the kind of thing in po­lit­i­cal life that we ex­pected for years.”

In the world of en­ter­tain­ment, these con­tro­ver­sies can be as se­ri­ous as crim­i­nal rape charges or as ba­nal as dis­taste­ful jokes — and get ex­tra at­ten­tion amid in­creased con­ver­sa­tions about race, gen­der and sex­ual as­sault.

In Nate Parker’s case, his di­rec­to­rial de­but, “The Birth of a Na­tion” earned se­ri­ous Os­car buzz in early 2016 and a Sun­dance-record deal with Fox Search­light.

But as the PR cam­paign for the film mounted, the me­dia took a closer look at Parker’s 1999 rape case. Parker, then a col­lege stu­dent, was ac­quit­ted and has since main­tained the act was con­sen­sual. But the pub­lic scru­tiny in­creased when re­porters dis­cov­ered new de­tails, in­clud­ing his ac­cuser’s 2012 sui­cide.

Soon, many asked whether it was eth­i­cal to sup­port the movie. Ul­ti­mately, the film about Nat Turner’s slave re­bel­lion was a box-of­fice flop that net­ted zero Os­car nom­i­na­tions.

“It be­comes that ques­tion: Do you judge an artist’s work based on just their work, or other things?” said Dan Berger, pres­i­dent of the in­de­pen­dent film com­pany Os­cil­lo­scope. “There’s the work and there’s the per­son. From a busi­ness stand­point, both of those things mat­ter greatly.”

Os­cil­lo­scope, founded by the late Adam Yauch, a po­lit­i­cally vo­cal celebrity him­self, hasn’t worked with mas­sive stars on gi­ant projects, so it hasn’t had to face this dy­namic. But if it were to pour $25 mil­lion into a film, “for sure we’d be vet­ting this from a PR stand­point. All of that, it’s be­come a nec­es­sary thing,” Berger said.

Those who are “mak­ing and put­ting films out into the world are speak­ing to a more vo­cal and more ac­tive group of peo­ple” than in the past, he said.

The tools

The In­ter­net has made it eas­ier than ever to be­come a sleuth, and so­cial me­dia pro­vide a mega­phone for any­one to cre­ate a firestorm.

Al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault by Bill Cosby had been in the pub­lic sphere for years; but a video of a stand-up comic’s joke go­ing vi­ral in 2014 lighted the spark that even­tu­ally led to Cosby’s down­fall.

Twit­ter pro­vides a dig­i­tal record of past state­ments. In 2015, Com­edy Cen­tral an­nounced that Trevor Noah would take over “The Daily Show” — and less than 24 hours later, the South African co­me­dian came un­der fire for jokes he tweeted in 2009 about women and Jews.

He weath­ered that storm and, af­ter tak­ing over the show, he had his team mem­bers go over their own old so­cial me­dia post­ings for any­thing po­ten­tially of­fen­sive.

Last year, “Satur­day Night Live” hired Melissa Vil­laseñor, its first Latina cast mem­ber — a de­vel­op­ment soon over­shad­owed by the dis­cov­ery of old Twit­ter jokes about race. She promptly set her ac­count to pri­vate and purged her time­line.

“So­ci­ety, es­pe­cially the last few years, has begged for he­roes — and it rev­els in de­stroy­ing peo­ple,” said for­mer GOP rep­re­sen­ta­tive Trey Radel, who re­signed from Congress in 2014 af­ter plead­ing guilty to a co­caine drug charge. He has since started a me­dia firm of­fer­ing cri­sis man­age­ment ser­vices and writ­ten a book about how Wash­ing­ton func­tions.

“We build peo­ple up and we tear them down,” Radel added, cit­ing Ken Bone, the red sweater­wear­ing un­de­cided voter who be­came a meme be­fore the In­ter­net dug up his less-than-whole­some on­line com­ments.

“This is also one of the rea­sons why a lot of peo­ple are ap­pre­hen­sive to run” for of­fice, Radel added. “These days, you have kids to young adults grow­ing up, whose ev­ery mo­ment is caught in a still pic­ture or video.”

In the po­lit­i­cal world, this kind of vet­ting comes in the form of op­po­si­tion re­search. Mem­bers of Congress or well-funded can­di­dates hire op­po­si­tion re­searchers to look into not only an op­po­nent’s past state­ment and deeds, but some­times their own, Radel said. Some “would pay to oppo-re­search even peo­ple who sim­ply flirted with run­ning for the same of­fice,” he added. But the “rad­i­cal de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of in­for­ma­tion and re­search,” as Wil­son puts it, means you don’t have to be a skilled oppo-re­searcher to look for damn­ing ma­te­rial.

Parker’s case had long been on his Wikipedia page. Seven years ago, the en­ter­tain­ment press cov­ered sex­ual ha­rass­ment law­suits filed against Casey Af­fleck by two women in­volved in the pro­duc­tion of a 2010 project. Af­fleck de­nied the claims, which in­cluded al­le­ga­tions of lewd com­ments and “ag­gres­sive” be­hav­ior, and threat­ened to coun­ter­sue. The par­ties set­tled out of court.

But by 2016, Af­fleck’s “Manch­ester by the Sea” per­for­mance was get­ting Os­car buzz, prompt­ing a re­newed in­ter­est in the le­gal bat­tle. The Daily Beast pub­lished a lengthy nar­ra­tive of the al­le­ga­tions and dubbed them his “dark se­cret.” Some jour­nal­ists and oth­ers, such as ac­tress Con­stance Wu, ar­gued that Hol­ly­wood shouldn’t anoint him with an Academy Award.

It’s un­clear how Af­fleck’s ca­reer will be af­fected. He’s al­ready won a Golden Globe and is a fa­vorite to win the best ac­tor Os­car on Feb. 26. But the sto­ry­line won’t go away. On his “WTF pod­cast,” Marc Maron ac­knowl­edged con­tin­ued ques­tions “about why aren’t more out­lets ask­ing Casey about these ac­cu­sa­tions, par­tic­u­larly in the cur­rent cul­tural cli­mate.” But he said he didn’t ask Af­fleck about the case be­cause the terms of the set­tle­ment pre­vent the ac­tor from talk­ing about it.

‘Pioneer of celebrity scan­dal’

In some ways, this dy­namic is an am­pli­fied ver­sion of how celebri­ties have been vet­ted for decades. Mel Gibson spent 10 years iced out of the movie busi­ness af­ter his com­ments about Jews dur­ing a DUI ar­rest went pub­lic. The Academy faced crit­i­cism in 2003 for award­ing an Os­car to di­rec­tor Ro­man Polan­ski, who decades ear­lier pleaded guilty to un­law­ful sex with a 13-year-old girl and fled the coun­try shortly be­fore sen­tenc­ing.

Then there was Frank Si­na­tra, “the pioneer of celebrity scan­dal,” noted “Si­na­tra: The Chair­man” au­thor James Ka­plan. As “an old lefty” and un­abashed FDR Demo­crat, “he was the adored punch­ing bag of ev­ery con­ser­va­tive colum­nist in Amer­ica” who served as “the equiv­a­lent of the In­ter­net then.” Crit­ics boy­cotted his mu­sic and movies.

Si­na­tra did him­self no fa­vors by go­ing to Cuba, min­gling with mob­sters, hav­ing af­fairs and drunk­enly punch­ing peo­ple in pub­lic. His record la­bel dropped him in 1952, and he seemed headed for obliv­ion. But he ex­pe­ri­enced a come­back dur­ing the mid to late 1950s with a new record la­bel, new mu­sic and a best sup­port­ing ac­tor Os­car.

“He was pretty much bul­let­proof, no mat­ter what he did,” Ka­plan said. “He was pil­ing up so many gold records and sell­ing so many movie tick­ets.”

Ka­plan said of stars em­broiled in con­tro­versy to­day, “These guys are small pota­toes com­pared to what Si­na­tra was,” in terms of tal­ent and stature.

Si­na­tra es­caped ca­reer de­struc­tion in part be­cause ac­cepted cul­tural norms were dif­fer­ent, as ev­i­denced by old Rat Pack record­ings.

“There was less in­tense and less deep scru­tiny inside the lives of celebri­ties, and there was more tol­er­ance about what was re­garded then as naughty fun and as re­garded now as to­tally and com­pletely po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect,” Ka­plan said.

The po­lit­i­cal cli­mate

The vet­ting of off-cam­era words and deeds re­flects how much of pub­lic life has be­come politi­cized dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion sea­son and af­ter­math. Lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives have mounted boy­cotts over ce­real, cof­fee shops and clothing lines over the com­pa­nies’ per­ceived po­lit­i­cal align­ments. Per­form­ing at a pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tion, once viewed as a ba­nal honor, be­came a fraught gig in 2017.

“Peo­ple de­mand to know what side of the aisle their celebrity is on, and if you’re not on their side, peo­ple are go­ing to pick a fight,” Radel said.

The elec­tion also showed the di­vide over what’s con­sid­ered rep­re­hen­si­ble. Trump won de­spite say­ing things that your com­mon C-lis­ter can’t be­cause he didn’t need the sup­port of those most of­fended.

And while such lib­er­als are shut out of the White House, they still have power in Hol­ly­wood, where their so­cial mores around race, gen­der and sex­u­al­ity mat­ter.

“We can boy­cott a movie, but we can’t boy­cott the sec­re­tary of the in­te­rior,” Berger ob­served. “I don’t want to say we’re harder on an ac­tor who’s done some­thing hor­ri­ble than a politi­cian who is hor­ri­ble. We just can’t ex­press our­selves the same way, as im­me­di­ately.”

FROM TOP: “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah came un­der fire for jokes he tweeted in 2009. Casey Af­fleck, up for an Os­car on Feb. 26, has come un­der scru­tiny over past sex­ual ha­rass­ment law­suits. Nate Parker’s di­rec­to­rial de­but, “The Birth of a Na­tion,” drew new scru­tiny to a 1999 rape case in which he was ac­quit­ted.

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