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How celebrities work their way back into the spotlight after scandals


Will Smith's new movie "Emancipation" opened in select theaters this weekend. But perhaps the biggest news was that Smith made the media rounds. These were his first appearances after slapping comic Chris Rock at this year's Oscars. Here, Smith is speaking to a reporter at Fox 5 in Washington, D.C.


WILL SMITH: My deepest hope is that my actions don't penalize my team, that the power of the film would open people's hearts.

SUMMERS: Smith is the latest and perhaps most high-profile recent example of a celebrity trying to win back the public's support after a damaging scandal. Other stars seem to have been less successful. Here to talk about how modern celebrities work their way back from controversy is NPR TV critic and media analyst Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.


SUMMERS: So, Eric, Will Smith stayed out of the media for months after this year's Oscars. And now he's been out there promoting his new movie. So to start here, two questions. First, what is he trying to do here? And second, is it working?

DEGGANS: Will Smith is executing a pretty standard and frankly effective return to the public. You know, he'd been keeping out of media, but with "Emancipation's" release, he appeared for a high-profile interview in a friendly venue. He talked over the scandal last week with Daily Show host Trevor Noah, who admitted that he's Smith's friend. And then he hit the red carpet and a few other friendly media outlets. And he emphasized how he hopes that audiences disregard the scandal for the sake of his coworkers. And that's kind of a common strategy for big-name celebrities in trouble. You disappear for a while. You talk over the controversy with a friendly interviewer. And then you return to public events and kind of act as if the situation is mostly behind you.

SUMMERS: OK. So in recent years, we've seen a number of celebrities face public scandals which damaged their image. Some seem to have come back from those problems more quickly and completely than some others. Do you have a sense of why that is?

DEGGANS: Well, I think one important question is whether the celebrity is generally judged to be at fault. And have they sufficiently atoned? Now, think about Johnny Depp's civil domestic violence case, for instance. His trial revealed enough conflicting information in his fight with his ex-wife Amber Heard that fans could maybe feel comfortable taking his side. But I think the jury's still out on whether Hollywood will bankroll another big movie with him as the star. Now, I think it also matters whether or not there's a sense that the celebrity will get in trouble again in the same way. And if the celebrity can make the case that it was a one-time mistake like Smith is doing right now, I think that allows fans to be a little more forgiving.

SUMMERS: We've seen a number of celebrities lose their careers when they were facing allegations of harassment and abuse in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Has anyone created a pathway back to mainstream acceptance after scandals like this, which became national movements?

DEGGANS: I don't think we've seen anybody fully rebuild their career among those who are facing serious, substantial allegations of harassment and abuse in recent years. But comic Louis C.K. - he seems to be trying. I mean, in 2017, The New York Times reported on five women who accused him of sexual misconduct. He admitted it was true. And he saw his career mostly disappear. But now he's resumed stand-up comedy tours. He released a film. He won a Grammy Award this year for best comedy album. He seems to be doing these projects that speak directly to his fans. And so he's connecting with people who still like him, and they'll pay to access his work.

SUMMERS: All right. So getting back to Will Smith here, I have to ask, do you think the strategy is going to help him rescue his new film, "Emancipation?"

DEGGANS: I think that's going to be tough to judge. You know, Apple TV doesn't release much information on viewership. I've seen the film. It's a really well-made epic, but it depicts a lot of violence, torture and death during the Civil War. And some audience members might not want to see that. I do think that Smith has rescued his personal image somewhat, but he's going to need to avoid trouble in the future. And some former fans may never fully forgive him.

SUMMERS: That is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thank you.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.