ENTERTAINMENT
06/23/2019 08:00 EDT

The Ever-Evolving Art Of The Celebrity Apology

It seems the rubric for whether apologies are in fact “good” or “bad” has very little to do these days with whether the star is even truly sorry.

Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty
Stars like Kevin Hart and Miley Cyrus have had to navigate a new world of public apologies. 

Miley Cyrus, amid the release of her latest album “She Is Coming,” decided to make amends earlier this month with the hip-hop community. She did so in a YouTube comment on a video titled ”Miley Cyrus Is My Problematic Fav...Sorry.” In the video, user As Told By Kenya said that despite being a talent, Cyrus had co-opted hip-hop music and culture during her highly successful “Bangerz” era, only to abandon that aesthetic and declare in a 2017 Billboard interview while promoting a new country-pop album that she can’t listen to hip-hop anymore.

“That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little,” Cyrus said. “It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.”

Cyrus, who has described her latest album as having psychedelic elements, pop elements and ― surprise ― ”more hip-hop-leaning records,” copped to the bullshit in her June 11 comment, in which she thanked As Told By Kenya for giving her the “opportunity to speak up.”

“Being silent is not like me at all,” Cyrus wrote in the YouTube apology. “I am aware of my platform and have always used it the best way I know how and to shine a light on injustice. I want to start with saying I am sorry. I own the fact that saying … ‘this pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little’ was insensitive as it is a privilege to have the ability to dip in and out of ‘the scene.’”

Cyrus went on to add that now, having been enlightened, she wanted to continue to learn and hopefully do better. “There are decades of inequality that I am aware of, but still have a lot to learn about,” she added.

Cyrus’ apology was already a huge improvement from her previous,since-deleted response to the Billboard interview backlash, where she simply insisted her words were taken out of context, that she loved all music and that she was only trying to say she was now gravitating to more “conscious” rap.

There have been so many celebrity apologies, for both big and small offenses, that in the same manner have burst into the zeitgeist and then quickly died like mayflies. Celebrities have publicly apologized for homophobic comments, for saying slavery “was a choice,” for illegally buying their kids’ way into Ivy League schools, for taking selfies in cemeteries, for using a racial slur, for plagiarizing, for licking doughnuts and criticizing America, for sexual harassment, for singing an unpopular rendition of the national anthem. Or they are Lena Dunham and have apologized over and over again, for everything.

There are good celebrity apologies and bad ones, but it seems the rubric for whether they are in fact “good” or “bad” has very little to do these days with whether the star is even truly sorry. Their actual contriteness is incidental. It’s more about how they apologize, whether they (and/or their team) know the right words to say and when to say them.

So what makes a good apology? And what are good apologies, especially when they come from highly powerful or highly visible people, for? The question seems to hover over the pop culture landscape where, more and more, celebrities are finding themselves in the position of contrition and having to navigate how to express that contrition in specific and even strategic ways.

Cyrus’ YouTube comment had all the markers of a good apology, according to the blog Sorry Watch, which chronicles and analyzes the art of apology and stipulates that a good apology must include the word “sorry,” name the offense, take responsibility, show you understand the impact, ensure it won’t recur and make amends. In her apology, Cyrus actually said she was sorry, not “I’m sorry if you feel I did something wrong.” She showed she understood the impact of her dismissal of hip-hop culture by acknowledging her own privilege and ability to dip in and out of the genre. She promised to do better. Cyrus may have signaled self-awareness with her new comments, but often there seems to be a conflation of self-awareness with meaningful change.

The apology, however genuine, was also perfectly timed: Just days prior, the singer berated a black female writer online in since-deleted tweets for what she perceived to be an unfavorable Highsnobiety review of her new album. While Cyrus took to Twitter to question the writer Sydney Gore’s taste in music, she deliberately failed to acknowledge Gore’s astute critique of her history of appropriation and discarding of black culture within the piece. It would be interesting to know why Cyrus was more willing to acknowledge this history after viewing the YouTube video as opposed to after reading Gore’s review.

After all, Cyrus was consistently called out throughout her “Bangerz” era of appropriating the style and music of black people, a move that reinvigorated her career and made her relevant again after a three-year lull in the industry. Throughout that era, Cyrus worked with hip-hop producers and rappers like Mike Will Made It, Juicy J and Three 6 Mafia. She twerked and rocked long acrylics, door-knocker earrings and faux locs. She never commented on or acknowledged the critiques. And then, when all was said and done, she pivoted comfortably over to country-pop with her album “Younger Now” with an ease that few black artists are afforded. Black artists like Beyoncé and Lil Nas X, for example, have experienced blowback for experimenting with country in the same way.

The celebrity apology has become its own currency, an integral part of the transaction between stars and the public in which stars often offer up a well-crafted “sorry” in order to keep the public happy and keep their careers intact. In recent years, celebs have used tactics like going on apology mini-tours, as Kevin Hart did after his sexist and homophobic tweets came to light earlier this year. He offered up an almost exasperated “I’m sorry” to the gay community via Twitter and Instagram, then made a much-criticized appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” where he presented his proximity to a white lesbian woman as an adequate apology to the black gay community.

Gone are the days of news conferences and press releases, and gone are the late night talk show appearances where stars cheekily banter about their controversies, as Hugh Grant did over 20 years ago after he was arrested for employing the services of prostitute Divine Brown.

Social media and “cancel culture” have made the celebrity apology a more rigorous, more immediate art form. There’s less downtime between an incident and the need to react, as everything, including the outrage, happens so quickly. In any case, a week and some days later, the news cycle always moves on.

Now, celebrities go straight to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the Notes app on their phones to craft heartfelt statements with carefully curated phrases like “teachable moment” and “I hope this starts a conversation” (a phrase tantamount to “you’re welcome”).

Marjorie Ingall, writer, apology expert and co-creator of the Sorry Watch blog, told HuffPost via email that often these social media apologies are “more knee-jerk than thoughtful, because the celebrity or their handlers see that they’re trending on social media and react without real forethought.”

To Ingall, something that often gets lost in the apology economy is the option, the ability to not say sorry if you aren’t sorry. “If you’re not sorry, don’t apologize,” Ingall explained.

“Because your insincerity and/or attempts at face-saving/damage control rather than penitence will come through,” Ingall said. “Note that Kamala Harris has not apologized for being an excessively zealous prosecutor.”

This idea of sincerity is a huge part of the art of the celebrity apology ― not really being sincere but seeming sincere. The thing about apologies in the cultural and internet space, especially celebrity apologies, is that good or bad, they’re made to be picked apart, dismantled, scrutinized and appraised. Celebrity apologies are largely performative in this sense. There is something, perhaps, cathartic about watching a famous person humble themselves to the masses, to perform the dance of accountability, even though they’re rarely actually held accountable.

There is, or at least there should be, a true distinction between an apology and damage control, a bid to make amends and a bid to quickly change the subject, but the lines are blurry. In Cyrus’ case, for instance, does it matter how strategically timed her apology was or does it matter more that she apologized in the first place?

There’s also the question of whether an apology really makes an impact on a person’s career, or on the “conversation” that is sparked by it. According to Ingall, the true impact depends both on a celebrity’s overall power in the culture and what it is they have to apologize for.

“Jane Fonda is still an object of fury to some boomers (how long ago the offense happened is a factor — we DO often have short memories in our increasingly fast-paced culture),” Ingall wrote. “But Mel Gibson’s horrible apology for racist and antisemitic statements and for accusations of domestic assault/abuse seem to have had little impact on his career. I haven’t done a study, but I suspect there is something gendered in whether careers rebound.”

Given the varying shades of impact that apologies have to a celebrity’s career over time, what does it mean when a celebrity refuses to apologize despite public outcry? If it’s true that insincere apologies breed scrutiny, why do we as a culture crave them anyway?

During the initial release of Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five miniseries, “When They See Us,” many people tweeted asking whether President Donald Trump had seen the series and whether it might prompt him to apologize for the full-page ads he took out in 1989 calling for executions of the accused teen boys, who were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated. Recently during a news conference Trump refused to apologize when a reporter asked him directly whether he had any remorse. “You have people on both sides of that,” he said.  

Trump’s refusal to apologize in the face of an almost-collective desire for him to apologize stands as a huge example of why we as a culture like, and even expect, public figures to prostrate themselves — especially when those offended are part of a marginalized group. The apology, if done well, is a moral gesture, an ethical marker. It can be cathartic. It can suggest that people do change, grow, evolve, adapt. It can signal that celebrities are actually human beings, not simply commodities (although this is obviously complicated by the fact that some apologies are designed to protect the brand, not the person).

Analyzing Felicity Huffman’s apology over the college admissions scandal in April, the blog Sorry Watch pointed out that a good apology “has the power to help people feel a bit better,” but only if they choose to.

“No one is obligated to accept any apology,” the blog states. “Apologies for wrongs are morally mandatory; forgiveness is not.”

Apologies, just like the acts that precipitate them, just like public outcry, are essentially ephemeral. But to say “sorry,” in both the public sphere and the private, is to say, “I see you. I understand.” And people love to feel seen, if only for a moment.