2006 has been the year of dumb celebrities. From French soccer supremo Zinedine Zidane’s much discussed and lampooned head butt of Italian player Marco Materazzi in the final of the World Cup; to Tom Cruise’s laughable couch jumping episode on the Oprah Winfrey show; to Mel Gibson’s pitiful outburst during a drink-driving incident in Los Angeles; to racist slurs uttered by the comedian Michael Richards — there has been no shortage of celebrities making asses of themselves. The toll for these celebrities has been enormous. For Zidane, probably the greatest soccer player since Pele, the headbutting incident will never be forgotten. Since then Zidane has tried to explain and has expressed regret — without apologising — because of his position as a role model to children. None of this has made a difference.
Tom Cruise has been slipping into the mire for some time. There were rumours that he was spending much of his time on the set of the movie War of the Worlds proselytising for Scientology, much to the annoyance of the film’s director Steven Spielberg and other crew members. Cruise then lashed out on the NBC’s "Today" show at psychiatry and the use of drugs to treat various psychological conditions (Scientology opposes both), taking a swipe in the process at actress Brooke Shields who was taking medication for post-natal depression. He was soon dismissed from his US$10 million per picture deal with Paramount Studios.
Cruise’s wacky behaviour didn’t leave him the most untouchable actor in Hollywood. That distinction in 2006 has gone to Mel Gibson for his anti-Semitic remarks. This wasn’t helped by the fact that his father’s anti-Semitic views have been public knowledge for years. Worse, Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ had been criticised by many in Tinsel Town for allegedly anti-Semitic overtones. His public mea culpa and decision to enter treatment for alcoholism have not helped revive his position as one of Hollywood’s big drawcards.
Another Hollywood storm was created by Michael Richards, an actor in the long-running sitcom Seinfeld. He has been pilloried for anti-black comments during a live comedy routine. Richards’ abuse of disruptive members of the audience was one thing, but his resort to racist comments, including the "n" word astonished even his friends.
How can these errant celebrities mend their tarnished reputations?
Richards’ offence is possibly the easiest to address. He is not known as a racist and his comments could have been taken out of context. Richards has apparently apologised privately to the heckler and recently joined the Reverend Jessie Jackson on his nationally syndicated radio show to apologise publicly. It was sincere and hopefully the incident will be forgotten.
Gibson might need to do a bit more. At least his sin was committed under the influence of alcohol, which mitigates the offence. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle asked whether the drunken man and the sober man are indeed the same person. Despite some noisy criticism, The Passion of the Christ is not anti-Semitic and he cannot be held responsible for the eccentric views of his father. He should be given the benefit of the doubt. But beyond apologising and going into rehab, what else can Gibson do? How about donating money to a Jewish charity or making a movie about the life of Moshe Dayan or Golda Meir or Anne Frank? Whatever happens, it is probably going to cost Gibson money.
Tom Cruise is still young enough to change public perceptions, but he’s going to have to do more than make a few more good movies. Letting Vanity Fair take photos of his family at play is not enough. People see that for what it is — propaganda and PR-spin. Cruise needs to relate more to his public. He should stop his erratic behaviour and stop slamming individuals for taking medication prescribed by their doctors.
Unhappily, there’s not much poor Zidane can do. His moment of shame came at the summit of a brilliant career, just as he was about to exit the public stage. Last impressions are lasting impressions and after months of refusing to apologise, it is probably too late. His only hope of redemption is a complete backflip. But is he man enough for that?
What all celebrities can do is be more responsible for their words and actions. Today every mobile phone is a camera and everyone with access to the internet is a potential reporter. Every mistake will be reported on and commented on by journalists and bloggers. The most effective defence shield for them is simply a good character. Public moments of folly seldom happen to men and women whose private moments are virtuous.
At the risk of doing myself out of a job, my feeling is that public relations cannot mend all wounds. At the end of the day spin is just spin. Ultimately, what the public respects in celebrities is integrity.
Stars must accept that they live under a microscope and that they are, like it or not, role models for us and our children. Brad Pitt, now the father of three children, got it right recently. He told reporters at the Toronto Film Festival, that he will not allow his children to watch some of the films of his youth. "Oh my God, what did I do? What are they gonna see?" he said. "It definitely colours what I’ll approach in the future. I’ll try to be a little bit more mature about my decisions." It looks like Brad has finally grown up.
So, celebrities take note: if you wouldn’t behave badly in front of your own children, don’t behave badly in front of everyone else’s children. There could even be an unintended pay-off — maybe the paparazzi will be less inclined to stalk you if you don’t provide so many trashy headlines.
Alistair J. Nicholas is the Managing Director of China-based consultancy AC Capital Strategic Public Relations, which advises foreign companies on corporate reputation management in China. This article is based on a post in the company’s blog, Off The Record.