Some Celebrities Learn After Being Called Out For Racism. Others Hire PR.

It all comes down to whether they're actually willing to take accountability.
Ryan Reynolds, Jessica Mulroney and Lainey Lui all had to face the public  for issues surrounding racism over the summer.
Ryan Reynolds, Jessica Mulroney and Lainey Lui all had to face the public for issues surrounding racism over the summer.

It’s true that Canadian celebrity is a very small world. But up until this spring, few people working in Canada had more clout or connections than Jessica Mulroney. As a stylist, she appeared to befriend many of the famous people she worked with, including Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, Mindy Kaling and — most notably — Meghan Markle. Toronto Life called her the Canadian Gwyneth Paltrow.

While there were whispers about her behaviour in certain Toronto social circles, according to Lainey Lui of Lainey Gossip, her position and connections — she’s the heiress to Brown’s Shoes and married to the son of a former prime minister — protected her from outright criticism.

That changed in June.

During the period of reckoning on racism and privilege that followed George Floyd’s death, influencer Sasha Exeter, who is Black, brought attention to the way Mulroney’s public persona didn’t line up with her private interactions. Exeter said Mulroney had used her power to threaten Exeter’s brand partnerships because she felt personally slighted by Exeter asking influencers to do more to stop racism. And after Mulroney publicly apologized “for any hurt I caused,” she sent Exeter a private message threatening to sue her for libel.

Mulroney quickly lost brand deals, one by one, and took a step back from public view. But, a few months later, she resurfaced. She’s now back on Instagram, although she’s made her account private. She’s mostly posting photos of her kids, wedding styling, and inspirational quotes. Other recent posts have hinted at a new project.

Mulroney is one of many celebrities who’s now attempting a comeback after their racist behaviour hurt their careers over the summer. Lea Michele, who lost sponsorship deals after her Black “Glee” co-star Samantha Ware accused her of racist harassment, is now getting headlines for posting baby videos. The mega-popular reality show “Vanderpump Rules” fired cast members Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute for calling the police on a Black castmate. (The incident happened in 2018 and had been discussed publicly, but the potential harm of the act didn’t seem to be fully understood until this year.) Schroeder, a friend of Mulroney’s, broke her silence with a video about her pregnancy, and hinted this week at a return to her podcast.

Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively came under fire for the fact that their 2012 wedding took place on a plantation. Food writer Alison Roman was placed on leave from her gig with The New York Times after criticizing Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo in a way many saw as racist. In May, Bryan Adams went on a bizarre rant about COVID-19, which he blamed on “wet markets” and “bat-eating” people, a myth rooted in crude stereotypes about Chinese people. And Lainey Lui, who wrote a detailed and insightful post for Lainey Gossip about how Mulroney uses her white privilege, had to answer for her own history of racist, homophobic blog posts.

Mulroney reportedly hired a crisis PR team, according to Vanity Fair. Schroeder, too, hired crisis manager Steve Honig after being dropped from her previous PR rep. Crisis management is the branch of PR used when a brand has a public challenge to its reputation — in other words, when someone has massively screwed up and needs help recovering from it. A PR professional will help someone come back from a bad situation by counselling them on what to say and how to behave.

So how can we, the public, tell the difference between a celebrity who’s hired experienced professionals to provide expensive spin, and a celebrity who’s genuinely sorry and is working to do better?

Kylie McMullan runs the Vancouver PR firm Finch Media, which offers crisis management along with more traditional public relations. She opened up to HuffPost Canada about what audiences should look at to gauge the sincerity of a celebrity who’s behaved in a racist way.

Was it a one-time mistake, or is it a long pattern?

After a celebrity has been exposed for bad behaviour — and particularly for using their white privilege to harm Black people or other people of colour — “what the public wants to see is people taking accountability,” McMullan told HuffPost Canada. “When someone is accused of racism, you want to make sure that you’re really putting in the time to understand what happened and how you can move forward.”

“It’s hard to show people if the actions were from a momentary lapse in judgment or blindspot in privilege, or if it says something deeper about the person’s character,” she explained. “To rebuild public trust, people need to be transparent about their personal growth and behaviour changes, and the actionable steps they are taking to listen and learn.”

Do they apologize clearly and without excuse?

The first step in image rehabilitation is an apology.

“When someone makes an apology, people are looking for timeliness and sincerity,” McMullan said. “They want to know that people are making the apology for the right reason, that they’re not just doing it because they’re being forced to.”

Alison Roman’s apology to Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo was thoughtful about the root of her unconscious biases, while still owning up to her mistakes.

“I asked myself a lot this weekend why I said what I said. Why couldn’t I express myself without tearing someone down?” she wrote. “Among the uncomfortable things I’ve begun processing is the knowledge that my comments were rooted in my own insecurity.”

But she added that “I’m not the victim here, and my insecurities don’t excuse this behaviour. I’m a white woman who has and will continue to benefit from white privilege and I recognize that makes what I said even more inexcusable and hurtful. The fact that it didn’t occur to me that I had singled out two Asian women is one hundred per cent a function of my privilege.”

Roman also told comedian and interviewer Ziwe Fumudoh that friends of hers who were women of colour helped her craft the apology, and that she thanked them by making donations to Asian-American organizations in their names.

Teigen accepted Roman’s apology, which sends a significant message to the public, McMullan said: “Clearly, Chrissy Teigen felt like her apology was authentic and sincere.”

There are other parts of Roman’s repertoire that might still need examining, like her insistence that her famous chickpea and coconut milk stew is “not a curry,” something some critics consider “ethnic erasure.” But this response was a thoughtful and a responsible one.

Adams, on the other hand, wrote a short apology “to any and all that took offence” without addressing what he actually did wrong. And even while apologizing, he managed to double down on his original stance.

“No excuse, I just wanted to have a rant about the horrible animal cruelty in these wet-markets being the possible source of the virus, and promote veganism,” he wrote.

Does the apology line up with their private behaviour?

That Mulroney threatened Exeter with a lawsuit after making her initial apology puts any subsequent ones under scrutiny, McMullan said.

“Consistency between private and public actions becomes really important,” she said. “You’ve already had a loss of trust with the initial incident, but then you have this second loss of trust, which makes it harder in the future for people to trust you.”

When it comes to racism in particular, “you need to be showing your sincerity by putting action to words, and also being consistent,” McMullan said. “If people see that you’re acting consistently in your private and public life, they’ll know that you’ve been sincere and genuine.”

A few weeks after Lainey Lui of Lainey Gossip wrote in depth about Mulroney’s apparent ability to wield her white privilege punitively, she had to apologize after her own racist and homophobic blog posts surfaced.

Lui apologized on “The Social,” a show she co-hosts.“Those posts were racist, they were misogynistic, they were homophobic, they were transphobic, they were ugly, they were shameful. I am so sorry,” Lui said about blog posts using anti-gay slurs and using derogatory language to refer to Janet Jackson’s breasts.

She had thought about deleting the posts, she said, but didn’t, “to show that I was growing and learning, and I wasn’t in any position to absolve myself ... self-absolution has no place in this conversation. It’s about accountability.”

She went on to talk about the progress she’s made understanding her own bias, including hiring more writers of colour and people from the LGBTQ+ community.

While it could be argued that talking about it on her own show might not lead to the toughest follow-up questions, she didn’t waver in taking responsibility for the harm she caused, and talked in detail about her commitment to do better.

Does the atonement continue after headlines fade?

Another celebrity apology that was backed up with action came from actors Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, in McMullan’s estimation. Over the summer, the couple apologized for the fact that their 2012 wedding was on a South Carolina plantation.

“It’s something we’ll always be deeply and unreservedly sorry for,” Reynolds told Fast Company. “A giant fucking mistake like that can either cause you to shut down, or it can reframe things and move you into action. It doesn’t mean you won’t fuck up again. But re-patterning and challenging lifelong social conditioning is a job that doesn’t end.”

In May, the couple donated $200,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“We’re ashamed that in the past we’ve allowed ourselves to be uninformed about how deeply rooted systemic racism is,” they both wrote in a post on Instagram.

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They added that they intend to do more, too: “We also pledge to stay educated and vote in every local election. We want to know the positions of school board nominees, sheriffs, mayors, councilpersons. We want to know their positions on justice. But mainly, we want to use our privilege and platform to be an ally.”

“There was concrete action behind their words,” McMullan said. “And I think they seemed very sincere, in wanting to grow from the experience and to be better people.”

The fact that their donations didn’t just start this spring, and didn’t stop as soon as their names were out of the news, is also telling. They’ve made a number of significant donations over the last year, including to the Ottawa Food Bank and to an Indigenous women’s leadership program at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

In cases where someone really is learning from their mistakes and is putting in the work to address their own biases and learn about their own racism, it’s likely that news will come out organically, rather than coming from the person themselves. And often it won’t come directly from the person themselves, McMullan said, but from a third party.

Are they sending a consistent message?

Starting during her self-imposed social media hiatus, Mulroney took to Twitter and Instagram several times to post messages she later deleted. She’s tweeted and subsequently deleted defensive responses to articles critiquing her behaviour.

Before her return to social media, she posted a tank top illustrated with Exeter’s portrait under the words “Black is beautiful,” but quickly deleted it.

She also deleted all of the supportive comments she had posted on her friend Stassi Schroeder’s Instagram account over the years, and a post of her own about Schroeder from last fall, after Schroeder was fired from “Vanderpump Rules.”

“It can take a decade to build a reputation and an hour to ruin one.”

- Kylie McMullan

In a since-deleted Instagram story, she wrote about why she deleted so many of her photos post-scandal, particularly the ones involving Meghan Markle. Her explanation cast her as a victim, set upon by taunting bullies.

“People often ask why I delete certain posts. The amount of bullying and hatred I’ve had to put up with for 3 years….I’m tired of looking at it,” she wrote. “Be kind. Be gracious. We are grown ups…stop acting like teenagers. Real women don’t put down other women.”

McMullan said inconsistent messaging of this kind will likely make people suspicious.

“Especially after a scandal, there’s going to be increased scrutiny,” she said. “Maybe in the past, you could post and then delete, and people might not really notice. But now, people are going to be watching. And that’s where I think consistency becomes really important.”

Are they relying on other celebrities to try to rehab their image?

Many celebrities facing scandals have other celebrities come to their defence. Lea Michele was defended by former “Glee” castmate Iqbal Theba. When the news came out that Ellen DeGeneres had allegedly contributed to a work culture former staffers called “toxic,” many celebrities publicly defended the talk show host, including Kevin Hart, Katy Perry, Diane Keaton, Ashton Kutcher, Jay Leno and many others, who said Ellen had only been kind to them. This was also something that happened quite a bit during the Me Too reckoning of 2017: Lindsay Lohan and Donna Karan both defended Harvey Weinstein, although Lohan later deleted her Instagram video and Karan apologized for her statements.

These arguments expect us to be surprised when a famous, powerful person isn’t cruel to another famous, powerful person — something that’s not, in fact, surprising at all. The interactions that are most telling are the ones a famous, powerful person has without someone without their wealth, status or connections — someone they feel comfortable treating badly without expecting repercussions.

The way Mulroney has repeatedly invoked her relationship to Meghan Markle since her scandal is different, though, because Markle has not commented on any of it.

Meghan Markle and Jessica Mulroney at an event in Toronto on May 31, 2016. 
Meghan Markle and Jessica Mulroney at an event in Toronto on May 31, 2016. 

Mulroney first referred to Markle in her initial apology to Exeter, as a protection against any accusations of racism. “I have lived a very public and personal experience with my closest friend where race was front and centre. It was very educational,” she wrote on Instagram. “I learned a lot from that.”

Since then, she’s posted and then deleted quite a few reminders of her relationship to the Duchess of Sussex. Not long after her return to Instagram, she posted a photo of her son at Meghan’s wedding with the caption, “When I feel dark and grey, I see this and it all goes away.” She amended the caption to “I see this and pure joy,” and then later deleted the photo.

In mid-September, she posted another Instagram story. “I’m going to tell this once and for all. Meghan and I are family,” she wrote, in a story that was later deleted. “She is the kindest friend and has checked up on me everyday. Tabloid culture is atrocious. It creates lies and hurtful storyline. Stop feeding into it. Done.”

Lui wrote that Mulroney’s “friendship with Meghan Markle has been a personal and professional asset to Jessica, and Jessica only.... which is why Jessica is so obsessively protective of their relationship, almost to the point of paranoia.”

Lea Michele, too, has mentioned her good friend Jonathan Groff beloved for his role as the king in “Hamilton,” in post-scandal Instagram stories. (Groff isn’t on social media, and hasn’t commented on the allegations about her.)

The idea that you can shift right back into the role of sought-after friend to someone who previously brought you good press is an unrealistic one, McMullan said. “It can take a decade to build a reputation and an hour to ruin one. You want to make sure that you’re really being patient and going through the process and the work that needs to be done to re-earn trust.”

Are they truly taking accountability?

Stassi Schroeder of “Vanderpump Rules” broke her silence with an interview on “The Tamron Hall Show” in mid-September. She told Hall that her behaviour was her own fault, and she wasn’t a victim of “cancel culture.”

But the interview wasn’t a softball one — Hall held her to account. After Schroeder said repeatedly that calling the police on an innocent Black woman and referring to an outfit as “Nazi chic” didn’t involve malice, just ignorance, for instance, Hall asked her how it was that an adult woman who had lived in big, diverse cities could be so clueless.

In the aftermath of the interview, Schroeder allegedly told people that she felt she was “ambushed.” Those reports got back to Hall, who responded by saying that she was more than fair in her questioning, and that Schroeder had been briefed on the fact they would be discussing the incident. Hall said she held back some tough questions due to the fact Schroeder is pregnant.

“Again, accountability is the most important thing,” McMullan said. “If this person [Schroeder] was my client, I would not put them in front of the media until they really had done the time and the work to understand what they did wrong, and how they were going to grow from it.”

As Madelyn Chung wrote for a Flare piece about Mulroney and cancel culture, it’s on fans to be “asking important questions, like what these ‘cancelled’ individuals are doing to right their wrongs, looking at their actions with a thoughtfully critical lens and challenging any actions or statements that come from a victim or bullying mindset.”

One significant step Mulroney, Schroder, or anyone else facing fallout from their racist behaviour should take is learning very specifically about the harm they caused.

“I’m not an expert on diversity, inclusion and equity. But I would definitely recommend to my clients that they pay for the labor of someone who is, and take that growth really seriously,” McMullan said.

“The public, they want to see that people have learned and grown. And if you can’t demonstrate that, it’s going to be hard to earn back people’s trust.”