The art of the public apology: 19 takes on 'I'm sorry'

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Image Credit: Getty Images; Lori Moffett/Getty Images; ABC

People aren’t perfect—and famous people are no exception. Every now and again, an actress will utter an insulting slur. An actor will get caught in a sex scandal. A politician won’t be able to keep it in his pants. Things happen. And yet, as Gary Oldman discovered this week, being in the spotlight means having to ‘fess up about your lesser moments in the court of public opinion. The public mea culpa has become a form of performance art (and not just because Shia LaBeouf once tried to turn it into actual performance art).

What’s the best public penance for an affair? As any fan of Scandal well knows, there’s more than one way to get things handled. But is it better to wait out an accusation or admit your crime up front? How much can you control the spin? We ran the numbers on 19 of the most memorable public apologies of the last 20 years, so that in case you too ever finding yourself facing a microphone at a public press conference with no Olivia Pope in sight, here’s what to do: own up quickly in person, accept all the blame, and don’t drag it out.

Sex Scandals

Surely the most salacious segment of celebrity gossip, sex scandals often remain under wraps until years after they’ve originally taken place (see Schwarzenegger). But our data shows that sometime’s it’s better to bear the scarlet letter than your indiscretions secret. Hugh Grant and Kristen Stewart, especially, prove the value of standing in front of your passions and offering an earnest and clear account of your failings. Waiting, as Tiger Woods knows, and denying, as Anthony Weiner might admit, just adds fuel to the flames.

Hugh Grant

The act: The then up-and-coming British film star was arrested for lewd conduct with a Hollywood prostitute. He had a girlfriend at the time.
When it happened: Grant was arrested on June 27, 1995
When he apologized: July 10, 1995
How he apologized: On The Tonight Show, Grant took full responsibility and told host Jay Leno an apology in even, honest tones that’s become the gold standard for celebrity mea culpas.
The soundbite: “In the end you have to come clean and say ‘I did something dishonorable, shabby, and goatish.'”
How it went: Grant’s apology was almost immediately recognized as sincere, and the scandal did little to hurt his professional prospects. Since the scandal, Grant has starred in commercial successes Notting Hill (1999), About a Boy (2002), and Love Actually (2003).

Bill Clinton

The act: having a sexual liason with White House intern Monica Lewinsky
When it happened: The affair began in 1995, but news of it reached the press in January 1998 when Clinton faced a grand jury deposition.
When he apologized: August 17, 1998
How he apologized: In a nationally televised address to the nation from the White House.
The soundbite: “I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”
How it went: Clinton’s apology didn’t stop swelling interest in the affair over the following months, leading to the second ever impeachment of a sitting president, but his contrition served him well in the long term. Today, his political capital is nearly as strong as ever, and his apology has become the inspiration for presidential dramas from The West Wing to Scandal.

David Letterman

The act: The late-night television host was revealed to have had affairs with several female members of his staff.
When it happened: Letterman revealed the scandal himself on October 1, 2009, when he explained an apparent extortion attempt against him for this sexual history.
When he apologized: October 5, 2009.
How he apologized: Letterman directly addressed his wife Regina Lasko.
The soundbite: “I got into my car this morning, and even the navigation lady wasn’t speaking to me.”
How it went: Letterman’s ability to own up to his history on two separate occasions scored him big points for honesty. And his self-depricating humor won him big points with his fans.

Tiger Woods

The act: Woods was found to have cheated on his wife with several different women.
When it happened: The National Enquirer first leaked a story about Woods’s affairs on November 25, 2009. Two days later, Woods crashed his car into a fire hydrant outside his home, leading to rumors of a fight between him and his wife Elin Nordegren.Other women began to step forward shortly afterward.
When he apologized: February 19, 2010
How he apologized: In a speech on CNN, Woods gave a tearful apology, while defending his wife.
The soundbite: “Elin and I have started the process of discussing the damage caused by my behavior. As she pointed out to me, my real apology to her will not come in the form of words. It will come from my behavior over time.”
How it went: Woods actions led him to drop out of several golfing tournaments, and the loss of key sponsors such as Gatorade. Woods has returned to golf since then, but has yet to receive nearly as much attention for his success. He and his wife finalized their divorce in August, 2010.

Kristen Stewart
The act: Stewart was caught cheating on her boyfriend of three years with her married Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders.
When it happened: Us Weekly published photos of Stewart and Sanders late on July 24, 2012.
When she apologized: by midday July 25, 2012.
How she apologized: In a public statement.
The soundbite: “This momentary indiscretion has jeopardized the most important thing in my life, the person I love and respect the most, Rob. I love him, I love him, I’m so sorry.”
How it went: Pattinson and Stewart broke up following the scandal, but the event itself did little to affect Stewart’s public image long-term. In fact, her quick response was widely seen as the best possible damage control. The final Twilight film broke records when it premiered later that year, and Stewart has continued to have success landing roles (and even a Snow White sequel).

Arnold Schwarzenegger
The act: The former governor of California and movie star revealed that he had fathered a child with one of the female members of his staff.
When it happened: The Los Angeles Times first reported the story on May 17, 2011.
When he apologized: Schwarzenegger’s public apology came package with the L.A. Times story.
How he apologized: In a public statement, in which he also addressed the details of his divorce from wife Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger asked for privacy.
The soundbite: “While I deserve your attention and criticism, my family does not. “
How it went: No matter how on top of it he was, Schwarzenegger’s scandal quickly captured the attention of the press. And while Schwarzenegger’s refusal to put a face on the issue and appear in public protected his family, it only allowed for more speculation. Still, the former actor and politician could afford to disappear from the limelight for the years after the scandal, something a young actor or politician still trying to make a career couldn’t afford to do.

Anthony Weiner

The act: The then-U.S. Representative accidentally sent a lewd tweet to followers that revealed both his underpants and the fact that he was pursuing extramarital affairs.
When it happened: On May 27,  2011, a lewd photo was posted on Weiner’s account.
When he apologized: On June 7, 2011, Weiner made a tearful public confession at a press conference.
How he apologized: In a press conference, Weiner owned up to posting the tweet, which he initially blamed on a staff member.
The soundbite: “I should not have done this, and I should not have done this particularly when I was married.”
How it went: Many saw Weiner’s confession as the product of calculation, and the scandal sent him into hiding. He decided to seek treatment “to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person” and asked for a “short leave of absence” from Congress. Weiner reemerged in 2013 as a candidate for Mayor of New York. But Weiner couldn’t control his impulses then either, and a second scandal (and second apology) sent him packing from politics.


Slurs

There’s nothing more damning than foul language, it seems, in the court of public opinion. Slurs often indicate that the person using them is both unable to control their emotions and, possibly more dangerous, out of touch with the people they’re supposed to appeal to. Paula Deen, for instance, could only rely on the defense that she was of another era, a time when racist comments weren’t met with as much scrutiny. But the best strategies (see Jonah Hill) for apologizing for slurs don’t depend on appealing to exceptions (I’m too old for this, I can’t control myself, etc.), but on engaging yourself in the conversation (I want to better control myself, I want to understand how I could be so hurtful).

Mel Gibson

The act: Arrested for drunk driving, the actor lashed out with anti-Semitic comments.
When it happened: On July 28, 2006.
When he apologized: After several unconvincing written statements, Gibson appeared on Good Morning America for a two-part interview with Diane Sawyer on October 12 and 13.
How he apologized: In his interview, Gibson apologized for all his remarks, but his brusque manner took many by surprise, especially when he pressured Sawyer to ask him about something else.
The soundbite: “I’m kind of a work in progress right now.”
How it went: Gibson’s tirade marked a new low point for the actor’s career, one from which he has yet to fully recover. Years later, the actor’s infamous comments remain the source of many jokes in Hollywood, and those who defend them (like Gary Oldman), suffer the consequences of being associated with Gibson.

John Mayer

The act: The musician used the n-word in an extensive interview with Playboy. He also implied that his penis was some kind of white supremacist.
When it happened: The interview was published on February 10, 2010.
When he apologized: Mayer quickly took to Twitter, but followed his online apologies up with a speech mid-concert later that night.
How he apologized: Mayer confessed to playing up his persona, and amid tears, asked for forgiveness for allowing himself to get carried away.
The soundbite: “In the quest to be clever, I completely forgot about the people I love and the people that love me.”
How it went: Mayer scored big for the directness of his remarks, though his interview goes down in history as one of the weirdest ever.

Alec Baldwin
The act: 
The 30 Rock star has made several high-profile apologies over the past years (enough for him to bid adieu to public life in a New York magazine piece), but the the most recent has been his use of a homophobic slur against a paparazzi.
When it happened: 
On November 14, 2013.
When he apologized: 
On November 15, 2013.
How he apologized: 
In a statement on MSNBC’s website.
The soundbite: 
“What I said and did this week, as I was trying to protect my family, was offensive and unacceptable.”
How it went: 
Baldwin’s verbal assault came amid revelations that the actor was being stalked by a young actress. Still, Baldwin’s string of altercations with paparazzi arguably lowered his standing in the eyes of the public.

Paula Deen

The act: The celebrity chef was revealed to have made racist remarks (including using the n-word) several times over the course of her career.
When it happened: Deen’s action’s first came to light when she gave a deposition on May 17, 2013 in a lawsuit filed against her and her husband. The full transcript of the deposition was released by the National Enquirer on June 19.
When she apologized: On June 21, Deen cancelled a scheduled appearance on the Today show to discuss her remarks. Instead, she released her own video (and then put up an edited version).
How she apologized: Deen’s own videos came off as awkward and controlled, but her later interview on the Today show was worse.
The soundbite: “I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I beg you, my children, my team, my fans, my partners. I beg for your forgiveness.”
How it went: Deen’s attempts to control her story backfired; she quickly lost her job at the Food network as well as most of her sponsorships and public goodwill.

Jonah Hill

The act: The 22 Jump Street  star lashed out at a paparazzi, calling him a f—–.
When it happened: Hill was caught in a video posted by TMZ on June 3, 2014.
When he apologized: Later that day, Hill appeared on The Tonight Show and brought up the slur himself.
How he apologized: Hill spoke candidly about his failings in using the gay slur.
The soundbite: “How you mean things doesn’t matter. Words have weight and meaning, and the word I chose was grotesque.”
How it went: Hill’s apology was widely seen as a successful and honest act of contrition (though some disagree). Still, the incident did little to dent the success of 22 Jump Street itself.

Gary Oldman

The act: Oldman opened up about his support of Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin and his disdain for sticklers for political correctness, throwing in some anti-Semitic comments along the way.
When it happened: In an interview with Playboy released online on June 24, 2014.
When he apologized:
The next day, Oldman released a statement, and then appeared on Jimmy Kimmel to apologize later that night.
How he apologized: Oldman moved quickly, but his statement only addressed a portion of the offensive remarks the actor made. His public apology covered more bases.
The soundbite: “I’m 56 and I should know better.”
How it went: It remains to be seen, but our best guess is that the fact that so many of Oldman’s remarks exist on written record means that they will be harder to live down.


Lies, Insults, and Injuries

Our catch-all category for sins both large and small, the apologies in “Lies, Insults, and Injuries” all involve celebs trying to make up for some action in which they betrayed the public’s perception of them. In the case of LaBeouf, it’s simple, legal plagiarism. For West, Witherspoon, and Bale, self-induced character assassination, being impolite in the extreme. For Brown, brutal physical violence that violates the standards you would expect from anyone. The effectiveness of these apologies tend to relate inversely to the intensity of the actions that lead to them, but there’s still room for some wiggle room. Here, more then ever, the key lies in not appearing to try control the story. Taped apologies come off especially poorly (see Chris Brown) and repeated attempts to apologize become successively seem only less sincere (especially if you start taking them back, see Kanye West).

Christian Bale

The act: A profanity-strewn tape of Bale raging against a the director of photography on Terminator: Salvation leaked online.
When it happened:
 The tape leaked February 2, 2009.
When he apologized: February 6, 2009.
How he apologized: Bale decided to drop in on the Kevin and Bean Show on KROQ, a Los Angeles radio station. Owning up to his anger, Bale admitted that he chose the venue because Kevin and Bean’s actions made him laugh.
The soundbite: “I took it way too far.”
How it went:
 Bale’s wry sense of humor served him well. And while Christian Bale parodies still litter the internet, the actor has managed to get away from the experience unscathed.

Chris Brown

The act: Domestic violence against girlfriend Rihanna.
When it happened: several reports surfaced at different times, but Brown was charged with assault on February 8, 2009, and the altercation took place the night of the Grammy Awards.
When he apologized: On July 20, 2009.
How he apologized: In a pre-taped video, Brown expressed that he hoped to offer up his side of the story earlier, but that he was advised not to by legal counsel.
The soundbite: “I’ve told Rihanna countless times and I’m telling you today, I’m truly, truly sorry that I wasn’t able to handle the situation both differently and better.”
How it went: Perhaps because of the brutal nature of Brown’s actions, the video didn’t go over well (and it didn’t help that Brown released the video himself). In fact, four years later, Brown found himself still apologizing.

Kanye West

The act: The musician infamously bumrushed the stage following Taylor Swift’s win at the VMA’s to inform everyone that “I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish … but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. Of all time!”
When it happened:
 September 13, 2009.
When he apologized: Always prolific, Ye apologized many, many times, but his most memorable was in an interview with Jay Leno on September 14, 2009.
How he apologized: Prodded by Leno, West was almost moved to tears by the thought of his mother, who died due to complications following plastic surgery, judging his actions from afar.
The soundbite: “It was just very rude, period. I’d like to apologize to her in person.”
How it went:
 West’s relationship with Swift has been rocky ever since, but perhaps that’s to be expected from a man who later pretty much absolved himself of any wrongdoing in an interview with The New York Times. “It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times,” West said of the incident. “It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.”

Lance Armstrong

The act: The world-famous cyclist found himself facing the music on Oprah after the revelation that he had doped for most of his competitive years.
When it happened: Like many bikers, Armstrong faced doping allegations all his career, but the one that took him down came from the USADA on June 13, 2012.
When he apologized: Armstrong didn’t own up to these charges until August 23, 2012. He was stripped of his Tour de France titles the following day, but waited until January 14, 2013 to appear on Oprah for part one of a formal “no holds barred” apology and interview.
How he apologized: Armstrong’s interview barely featured a grimaced apology, and he came out all the worse for admitting to how much he encouraged others to participate in the doping culture.
The soundbite: “I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture.”
How it went: 
Not great. Armstrong hasn’t had much of a career since the interview, and now he’s facing a pretty large lawsuit.

Reese Witherspoon

The act: The actress was picked up for disorderly conduct, while her husband was charged with a DUI.
When it happened:
 April 19, 2013.
When she apologized: Witherspoon cancelled her talk show appearances following the incident, but finally appeared on Good Morning America on May 2.
How she apologized: Contrite and introspective, Witherspoon addressed how easily alcohol can get a handle on you, and how it’s hard to forget that just because you play a lawyer doesn’t mean you know as much as one.
The soundbite: “When a police officer tells you to stay in the car, you stay in the car!”
How it went:
 Witherspoon won some points for her candor and sincerity, but lost some for delaying her response. Still, while the actress may have lost her squeaky-clean appearance, but she’s maintained a sense of good grace.

Shia LaBeouf
The act: LaBeouf was accused of plagiarizing author Daniel Clowes’ work in creating his short film HowardCantour.com. Then he started plagiarizing his apologies from other people’s apologies (and even Yahoo answers).
When it happened: December 16, 2013.
When he apologized: LaBeouf attempted many apologies, but his final bow, so to speak, came with his #IAMSORRY art installation in Los Angeles, which opened on February 11, 2014.
How he In the installation, participants faced LaBeouf and were given the choice between several implements, including Clowes’ book and a collection of tweets.
The soundbite: “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE,” from LaBeouf’s twitter account, multiple times.
How it went: Weirdly. LaBeouf managed to deflect attention away from his original error, but it’s hard to say exactly where it went.

 


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