“I am on a drug,” Charlie Sheen says. “It’s called Charlie Sheen.” Okey dokey. “It’s not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off, and your children will weep over your exploded body. Too much?” Um, yes. It is difficult to refrain from piling on to the Charlie Sheen nightmare, since this is clearly a sick man —mentally, physically, psychologically — who is losing his reality right before our very eyes. But it is his willingness to do so — to have an Elvis-style damn-the-torpedoes meltdown in the full view of cameras who are, y’know, recording this — that is the real miscalculation. Why doesn’t Charlie just disappear somewhere with his hookers and blow and go buck wild, instead of sitting down for TV interview after TV interview and insisting he’s just fine?
If there’s one piece of delusional behavior that celebrities have never been able to resist, it’s the misguided notion that, in the midst of a PR nightmare, they can “get in front of the story” by appearing on TV and showing themselves to actually be sane and normal and even a victim; that they can close their eyes and make it so with the power of their minds. It seldom works, of course (there’s Hugh Grant and… anybody else?). More often than not, it just makes for a trainwreck. We’ve compiled ten of the most unfortunate examples after the jump.
Tom Cruise (2005)
We start off with a double-header from Tom Cruise, who was, we must remember, still one of the biggest (if not the biggest) movie stars in the world in 2005, when he began the promotional work for his big summer movie: an updated retelling of War of the Worlds directed by Steven Spielberg. In April of that year, he had started dating Katie Holmes, 16 years his junior. Since both had big tentpole movies coming out that summer (she was co-starring in Batman Begins), some whispered that their relationship was a publicity stunt. Cruise had also been plagued for years by rumors that maybe he wasn’t even all that into the ladies (and had proven himself quite litigious to those who made those claims). So, when appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show that May 23, ostensibly to promote the movie, Cruise decided to take the opportunity to declare his love for his new best girl. It, um, didn’t go so well.
The following month, Cruise did another interview that proved equally damaging to his public image, which was already skidding out of control in the wake of the “jumping the couch” incident. Today host Matt Lauer asked Cruise about a recent controversy that had erupted when he publicly criticized Brooke Shields, who had appeared on Oprah to talk about her post-partum depression and use of Paxil to battle it. Cruise had long been a member of the Church of Scientology, which frowns upon psychiatry and the use of anti-depressants, but he’d never taken so public a stand for his church as he did in the interview, in which he got downright combative with Lauer. “Here’s the problem,” he smugly told the journalist, “You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.” Later: “Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt. You’re glib. You don’t even know what Ritalin is.” Cruise insisted that psychiatry merely “masks the problem” and that antidepressants would lead to “a brave new world.” As the conversation escalates, Cruise begins to appear less stable and more unhinged. That interview, along with the subsequent leak of an unintentionally hilarious internal Church of Scientology interview video, helped put Cruise’s bankability into a tailspin and prompt more serious looks at what exactly he believed in.
Britney Spears (2006)
Matt Lauer strikes again! Britney Spears, once the pop-singing temptress every girl wanted to be and every boy wanted to bone, had fallen very far by 2006, her public image in tatters after two marriages, countless unflattering paparazzi moments, and real questions about her parenting skills (remember those driving-with-the-baby-on-her-lap photos?). Clad in Daisy Dukes and chewing a wad of gum, Spears tries her best to appear breezy (“That’s America for you!”), stable (“makes you really strong”), and sympathetic (“I’ve definitely wept, with the world… how judgmental they are”), and of course she sheds some tears. But it’s all so contrived and forced, and considering what was ahead for Ms. Spears (put down the clippers, Britney!), it was maybe not her most honest moment.
Whitney Houston (2002)
Oh, Whitney. Once the golden-voiced good girl of pop music, Houston’s sterling reputation had been badly bruised by 2002; she had acquired a reputation for unreliability, showing up late (or not at all) for photo shoots, interviews, and public appearances. Performances were spotty, and her frighteningly thin appearance at the notorious Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special set off rumors of heavy drug use. Marijuana had been found in Houston and husband Bobby Brown’s bags in 2000, but the whispers had it that the pair was playing heavier than that. With a new studio album to promote (her first in four years), she decided to address the issue head-on in a TV interview with Diane Sawyer — using the inarguable logic that people as rich as her didn’t use crack, which is “cheap.” And with that, the “crack is whack” meme was born.
Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley (1995)
Along with Larry King, Diane Sawyer has long been the go-to for the softball celebrity interview, so it wasn’t a surprise when ABC announced that Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley were granting her their first TV interview. The marriage, which began in mid-1994 a mere 20 days after Presley’s divorce from her first husband was finalized, was rumored to be one of convenience; the joining of three music publishing dynasties (Elvis, Jackson, and the Beatles, whose songs Jackson owned) felt too much like a business deal, to say nothing of the continuing questions about Jackson’s sexual predilections. The duo did little to discourage the cynicism with their awkward kiss at the 1994 MTV Music Awards (“And just think, nobody thought this would last”) and semi-nude appearance together in Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” video. Sixty million viewers tuned in to the hour-long Prime Time Live interview, where they did their best to appear a normal couple (Presley all but drew a picture of the sex she assured Sawyer they were having), even while Jackson continued to defend his little-kid sleepovers: “It’s on a level of purity and love and just innocence, complete innocence. If you are talking about sex, then that’s a nut. It’s not me. Go to the guy down the street, cause it’s not Michael Jackson. It’s not what I’m interested in.” Responses to the interview varied from disbelief to downright hostility, and Jackson apparently learned nothing from the debacle…
Michael Jackson (2003)
Seven years later, Jackson gave British journalist Martin Bashir eight months of access to himself and his home, sitting for hours of interviews in which no topics were off the table. But his answers were still, well, somewhat unnerving. He denied having much of the plastic surgery that was clear to anyone with two working eyes and a copy of Off the Wall; he contradicted himself in his peculiar answers about the women who bore his children. And, again, there were the sleepovers: “Why should that be worrying, what’s the criminal — who’s Jack the Ripper in the room? There’s some guy trying to heal a healing child. I’m in a sleeping bag on the floor… I have slept in a bed with many children. I slept in a bed with all of them when Macaulay Culkin was little: Kieran Culkin would sleep on this side, Macaulay Culkin was on this side, his sisters in there… we all would just jam in the bed, you know. We would wake up like dawn and go in the hot air balloon, you know, we had the footage. I have all that footage.” All righty then. Fifteen million viewers watched Living With Michael Jackson when it aired in the UK on TV; its ABC airing garnered 38 million US viewers. Jackson, who felt betrayed by Bashir, released a “rebuttal” video, which aired on Fox, but the damage was done.
Paula Abdul (2007)
Doing a search on YouTube for “Paula Abdul drunk” can lead you down quite the rabbit hole. She spent a lot of time on television during the salad days of American Idol, and there are several moments when her behavior, posture, and speech patterns are a bit, shall we say, erratic. But the most compelling video evidence is this video, from 2007, of Abdul doing a promo interview for the show’s upcoming season. She slurs her speech, sways in her chair, and appears basically beamed in from another planet (here’s the unedited version — the quality is terrible, but you’ll get the picture). Her publicist insisted that Abdul was “exhausted” and blamed technical difficulties for the video’s odd, four-seconds-behind-reality feel, but her media appearances for the following day were cancelled due to a “sore throat.”
Michael Richards (2006)
Richards, who played Kramer on Seinfeld, might very well have faded off into obscurity, enjoying his residual millions, had he not come to the peculiar conclusion that it would be hiiiiilarious to get up on stage at the Laugh Factory one weekend in November 2006 and scream the word “nigger” a bunch of times. Trouble is, somebody had a camera phone, and the resulting video was quickly all over TV and the Internet — and with that, the Michael Richards apology tour began. Jerry Seinfeld had already booked a Letterman appearance shortly thereafter (the poor guy was just trying to sell some Seinfeld DVDs), so he arranged for an incredibly awkward satellite interview with Richards, who certainly seemed contrite, but didn’t do his public image any favors with his repeated references to the “Afro-Americans” in the audience. The whole thing is awkward as hell; the silence is thick, Richards stammers, the audience titters (Seinfeld, ever the schoolmarm, reprimands them), and you just want to crawl under a chair until it ends.
Celine Dion (2005)
On September 3, 2005, with television news dominated by coverage of Hurricane Katrina, songstress Celine Dion appeared on Larry King Live (via satellite from the dressing room of her Las Vegas show) to talk about the disaster. While her heart was certainly in the right place, and her $1 million donation to Red Cross was surely appreciated, the interview is a piece of work. “I can barely sing,” she says, her voice quavering. “But out of respect for the people that come, I am still singing.” What’s more, “I open [sic] the television, there’s people still there, waiting to be rescued, and for me it’s not acceptable… Oh, they’re stealing 20 pair of jeans or they’re stealing television sets. Who cares? They’re not going to go too far with it. Maybe those people are so poor, some of the people who do that they’re so poor they’ve never touched anything in their lives. Let them touch those things for once.” Frantically wiping her eyes, she implores people to “take a kayak!” (complete with pantomimed rowing). It’s not that it’s laughable that she cares — quite the opposite. What makes the interview such a mess is that she is goes so far over the top to show that she cares so very, very much.
Joaquin Phoenix (2009)
There’s not much that we can add to the whole sad story of Joaquin Phoenix’s “lost year” at this point. At the time, it seemed strange that Casey Affleck was filming his brother-in-law’s apparently drug-induced meltdown, which first captured public chatter after this ill-fated appearance on Letterman and culminated with the “documentary” I’m Still Here — released the following year to massive publicity but miniscule box office, even after Affleck finally admitted what everyone had known all along: that the film was a staged “mockumentary” hoax. What’s not clear is whether Letterman was in on the joke (he says he wasn’t, but staffers claim otherwise). If he was, it must be said: reviewing the clip knowing what we know now, Letterman’s a better actor than Phoenix could ever dream of being.
Mel Gibson (2010)
After Mel Gibson’s big public scandal over his sexism and anti-Semitism — no, the first one — he was understandably reluctant to get back in front of the cameras. His most recent films had been The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, directorial efforts in which he did not appear; his last starring role had been in Signs, clear back in 2002. His return to the screen came in Martin Campbell’s revenge thriller Edge of Darkness, which Warner Brothers released in the doldrums of January 2010. Gibson did the expected rounds of satellite TV interviews to promote the picture. But not all of them went so well. WGN entertainment reporter and critic Dean Richards broached the subject of “all that’s been in the news” about Gibson, who responded, “That’s almost four years ago, dude. I’ve moved on, I guess you haven’t.” (Never mind that Gibson was back in the news just a few months later for yet another racist flip-out.) And then at the end, when Gibson thinks the feed is over, he calls Richards an “asshole.” That Mel, all class.