In the advent of digital media largely supplanting print and traditional media in the sphere of public consumption, our definition of celebrity has become increasingly democratized; almost entirely divorced from talent or achievement and more directly correlated with the visibility and notoriety an individual is able to garner. In the mid 2000s, celebrity focused blogs like Perez Hilton, TMZ, and Just Jared became increasingly popular, offering minute to minute updates on the previously impenetrable personal lives of celebrities, effectively obliterating the distinction between public and private life for famous people. Websites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter offered the public unprecedented levels of access to celebrities, granting us a metric with which to gauge status and power while peddling the dubious notion anybody could become famous. The sheer mass of highly personal information the public was given access to created a multi million dollar cottage industry and new form of public entertainment; the celebrity scandal.
Phil Spector’s murder conviction
Spector, a massively influential record producer known for his work with artists like Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and The Beatles, was tried and subsequently convicted of the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2009. On February 3, 2003 Clarkson was found dead from a gunshot wound to the inside of her mouth at Spector’s Alhambra, California home where he was shortly thereafter arrested and charged with her murder. Spector’s trial began in March 2007 when he’d plead not guilty, attracting significant media attention stemming from Spector's notoriety and the salacious nature of the crime. In September 2007, after the jury failed to come to a unanimous decision, Spector was granted a mistrial and wouldn’t be retried for Clarkson’s murder until 2009. The retrial found the legendary record producer guilty of 2nd degree murder and subsequently sentenced him to 19 years to life in prison alongside ordering restitution payments to be made to Clarkson’s family. Spector died in prison on January 16, 2021 with his once prodigious musical legacy entirely decimated.
Martha Stewart’s prison sentence
In 2003, the American television personality and businesswoman was indicted on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and securities fraud due to her involvement in a December 2001 insider trading scheme surrounding the biopharmaceutical company ImClone Systems. After being tipped off by her broker, Stewart sold about 4,000 shares in the company just a day before the FDA announced an experimental antibody ImClone developed had failed to obtain approval. The wildly successful entrepreneur was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and of lying to investigators after her 2004 trial; resulting in a sentence of 5 months in prison, followed by 5 months of house arrest, and 2 years probation as well as a fine of $30,000. Stewart reported to a minimum security West Virginia prison in October 2004 and was, according to her, given the nickname “M. Diddy”.
Winona Ryder’s shoplifting arrest
Girl, Interrupted star Winona Ryder was arrested in December 2001 after being caught shoplifting more than $5,000 of designer clothes and accessories from a Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue. Despite the relatively banal nature of Ryder’s crimes, she was completely vilified in the press, effectively reducing the actress to a bad punchline for late night television hosts. Despite first being charged with 4 felonies including burglary and grand theft (carrying a potential 3 year prison sentence), Ryder was only convicted of grand theft and shoplifting and given a sentence of 480 hours of community service alongside a fine and restitution to be paid to the luxury department store. Ryder’s trial both by media and in the court of law serve as a microcosm of our culture at large in that Ryder was incessantly flogged by tabloids for a fairly innocuous crime, but still ultimately able to allude serious charges and penalties in large part due to her wealth and celebrity.
Michael Jackson holds his son over a hotel balcony
In November 2002, Jackson held his then 9 month-old son, Prince Michael II (then chiefly known by his nickname “Blanket”), over the ledge of his Berlin hotel room’s balcony as he greeted a mass of fans who’d congregated below. By the early 2000s, Jackson had already faced allegations of child molestation and began engaging in increasingly erratic behavior, essentially squandering the modicum of public goodwill he’d had remaining and inviting a deluge of scathing tabloid coverage. In a twist of mordant irony, Jackson was actually in Berlin to accept an award for his charity work benefitting children.
Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt’s divorce (the genesis of Brangelina)
Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s 2005 divorce marked not only the destruction of one of Hollywood's most beloved couples, but also the inception of one of its most notorious. When Pitt and Aniston announced their separation after 5 years of marriage, a flurry of rumors began swirling around the couple, predominantly focusing on Pitt’s alleged extramarital affair with his Mr. & Mrs. Smith costar Angelina Jolie. Jolie and Pitt began their public relationship shortly after Pitt announced his divorce from Aniston and were subsequently given the pithy couple’s portmanteau “Brangelina”, invoking the ascension of a new celebrity power couple for the public to aspire to and hyperfixate upon. The sudden dissolution of Aniston and Pitt’s marriage was reflective of the deterioration of the veneer of marital bliss that’d become inextricably tied to wealth, beauty, and celebrity.
Britney Spears shaves her head
Amidst an acrimonious child custody battle with ex-husband Kevin Federline, Spears entered a Tarzana, California hair salon in February 2007 requesting to have her head shaved. After the stylist initially refused Spears’ request, the singer grabbed a nearby electric razor and began shaving her head herself while a horde of paparazzi circled the salon like buzzards, snapping photos of the singer inside. Though Spears has yet to discuss the incident in great detail, media speculation for the star’s sudden decision ranged from evidence of a complete psychotic break, to an effort to avoid follicle drug testing and risk hurting her case for sole custody of her and Federline’s 2 children. The salon incident ignited further tabloid scrutiny to Spears’ private life and would later be weaponized by her father, Jamie Spears, to place her under a suffocating conservatorship the American singer would subsequently remain under until late 2021.
David Letterman’s sexual harassment imbroglio
Despite the legendary late night host already having a storied history of humiliating and demeaning women on his show (badgering Janet Jackson about her Superbowl fiasco, putting a strand of Jennifer Aniston’s hair in his mouth mid-interview despite her protestations, performing a bit speculating the first words of Monica Lewinsky’s forthcoming biography with 10 unimaginative, stomach turning one-liners), it wasn’t until 2009 Letterman was made to publicly apologize for some of his behavior. Letterman expressed regret for engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships with female staff members after a CBS News producer, Robert Halderman, attempted to extort the late night host with information about his extramarital affairs. Notably, Letterman apologized for the compromising positions he’d put women on his staff in and then directly to his wife, Regina Lasko, a former production manager on his show.
Brittany Murphy’s shocking death
Then just 32 years old, Murphy was discovered unresponsive by her mother in the bathroom of her Los Angeles home on December 20, 2009 and would be pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles shortly thereafter. Toxicology reports listed Murphy’s official cause of death as pneumonia and anemia with prescription drug intoxication listed as a contributing factor (though all the drugs found in Murphy’s system were prescribed and not present in high enough levels to be the sole cause of her death). Tragically, Murphy’s husband, Simon Monjack, passed away under similar circumstances just 5 months later with his official cause of death also being pneumonia and acute anemia.
Mel Gibson’s DUI arrest and antisemitic tirade
Gibson was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in the early hours of July 28, 2006 after being spotted driving erratically on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California. During the arrest, Gibson made a slew of vitriolic, antisemitic comments to the arresting officer including “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”. The audio recording of the arrest was subsequently leaked to the press, leading to widespread criticism and condemnation of the Braveheart director. Gibson later pleaded no contest to the DUI charge and was sentenced to 3 years of probation, mandated participation in an alcohol education program, and ordered to pay fines and restitution for his offense. The actor-director later apologized for his behavior, sought treatment for alcoholism, and met with leaders of the Jewish community in an attempt to make amends for his actions.
Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring
Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick was indicted in 2007 on charges relating to an illegal dog fighting ring dubbed “Bad Newz Kennels” he was funding and operating on his rural Virginia property from 2001-2007. Vick’s involvement in the ring was uncovered during a drug investigation targeting Vick’s cousin, Davon Boddie, revealing gruesome abuse, torture, and execution of dogs on Vick’s property. In August 2007, Vick pleaded guilty to charges of dog fighting and conspiracy and was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison. Despite the egregious nature of Vick’s crimes, he was reinstated by the NFL following his release from prison, signing a $100 million 6-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011.
Jon and Kate Gosselin’s divorce
Stars of the TLC reality television show Jon & Kate Plus 8, Jon and Kate Gosselin, announced their separation and eventual divorce in 2009 amid accusations of both parties engaging in infidelity throughout their marriage. The dissolution of the couple’s relationship led to a highly contentious custody battle for their children (a set of twins and sextuplets) with each party demanding primary custody. The Gosselin’s divorce was finalized in December 2009 with Kate being awarded full legal custody and each party granted shared physical custody of their 8 children. The couple’s court battles dragged on for years, only coming to an end following their sextuplents turning 18 in 2022 and no longer being bound to a court ordered custody agreement.
Tom Cruise’s Scientology propaganda video
In 2008, the now-defunct Gawker blog posted a leaked video Cruise had recorded in 2004 for the Church of Scientology as a part of their recruitment (i.e. indoctrination) efforts. The 9 and a half minute video shows Cruise openly espousing Scientology’s controversial dogma with a deeply unsettling zeal despite Scientology’s extensive history of coercion, abuse, and exploitation of its members. Since joining Scientology in the 1980s, Cruise has become Scientology’s most prolific member, coming to serve as the Church’s defacto public face and straw man, subsequently garnering Scientology an inordinate amount of legitimacy and credence in the public consciousness despite its exhaustive, widely available record of reprehensible behavior.
Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction
During the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, surprise performer Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Jackson’s costume during a performance of “Rock Your Body”, revealing Jackson’s bare breast covered by a nipple shield for less than a second, thereafter coining the term “wardrobe malfunction” in the public lexicon. Despite their equal participation in the debacle, Timberlake emerged from the scandal widely unscathed while Jackson’s career suffered immensely, leading to her music becoming subject to innumerable blacklists as well as her disinvitation from that year’s Grammy Awards. Jackson’s media vilification later opened public dialogue surrounding arbitrary media censorship, brazen gender inequality, and the inherent sexualization of female bodies.
Madonna kisses Britney and Christina at the 2003 VMAs
During a performance at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, Madonna joined Aguilera and Spears onstage for a medley performance of her biggest hits, ending the performance by locking lips with both Britney and Christina in the night’s most talked about moment. The trio rehearsed the performance extensively and reportedly added the kiss at the last minute at Madonna’s suggestion. The performance remains one of the most memorable VMAs moments in history and has been parodied, referenced, and replicated innumerable times in the years since.
Alec Baldwin’s leaked voicemail calling his 11 year-old daughter a “thoughtless little pig”.
Amid a quarrelsome custody battle with ex-wife Kim Basinger in 2007, Baldwin left his daughter Ireland, then just 11 years old, a truly vile voicemail referring to her as a “thoughtless little pig” after she’d missed a scheduled phone call with him. Ireland, now 27, has seemingly forgiven her father, even making light of the voicemail during her father’s Comedy Central Roast in 2019. Basinger’s team was later accused of leaking the voicemail to the press, an assertion they’d vehemently deny.
Russell Crowe’s assault charge
The Australian actor was arrested at New York City’s Mercer Hotel after he’d thrown a phone at a hotel employee when he’d become frustrated by a malfunctioning line. The phone struck the employee in the face resulting in a laceration they'd sought treatment for at a nearby hospital following the altercation. Crowe later pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and issued a public apology expressing regret for the incident.
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