“Oh!” Clarkson exclaimed, throwing her head back with laughter. “It says ‘Meryl & Kelly’!” She talked about how the pillow would go on her bed at home, and how much she loved Streep, until Seacrest moved the interview in a different direction.
“Listen, you’re holding that white rose,” Seacrest said, gesturing to the long-stemmed flower, a symbol to promote Time’s Up, the recently created initiative to fight sexual harassment in the workplace. “Tell me what it means to you.”
The abrupt segue from throw pillows to societal inequality represented the challenge of the red carpet during this unusual Hollywood award season. In 2018, the Golden Globes, the Grammys, the SAG Awards — and on Sunday night, the Academy Awards — are taking place just months after the sexual misconduct allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked a cultural reckoning surrounding harassment and abuse. The entertainment industry has been hit hard with an avalanche of disturbing stories about actors, directors, executives and more.
The red carpet is a live, somewhat chaotic experience that is also one of Hollywood’s most powerful promotional platforms. Hosts have had to walk a careful line, shifting from lighthearted banter to serious topics, particularly as stars wear visual reminders: those white roses at the Grammys, all black at the Golden Globes.
The complicated nature of the new red carpet surfaced again this week as Seacrest — one of E!’s highest-profile stars and co-host of Disney-ABC’s “Live! With Kelly and Ryan” — became part of the story. Variety published a detailed piece Monday about Seacrest’s former stylist, Suzie Hardy, who alleged that Seacrest sexually harassed and abused her after she started working for the “E! News” host in 2007. When she reported him to human resources in 2013, Hardy told Variety, she was let go.
Seacrest vehemently denied the allegations this fall when the complaint was first reported; E! launched an independent investigation and said in early February that the network “found insufficient evidence to substantiate allegations against Seacrest.” After Variety’s report with the specific accusations, E! called the stylist’s claims “completely baseless.” Seacrest released a statement in which he again strongly denied the accusations and said, in part, that Hardy “offered, on multiple occasions, to withdraw her claims if I paid her millions of dollars. I refused.” (Hardy has denied this claim.)
As of Wednesday, E! confirmed that Seacrest will still co-host the red carpet at the Oscars. One entertainment executive, who asked to remain anonymous because of the situation’s sensitivity, said he’s not surprised that Seacrest — a well-liked figure among showbiz types — plans to remain in the spotlight.
“I’m sure that certain talent will avoid him, but also, talent is going to talk to him,” the executive said. “Ryan has a long history in this town and people are very fond of him and have been talking to him for years. I think people want to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
In an interview several days before Variety’s story published, Jen Neal, executive producer of E! live events, said the network had been grappling with how to take into account the current atmosphere in Hollywood.
“This year is a different year — we wanted to be really cognizant of what’s happening. We’re aware the climate is shifting, and we had a lot of conversations around that,” she said. (Neal was unavailable for a follow-up interview after Variety’s story published.)
During the preparation, Neal said, producers discussed strategies to keep the mood celebratory and honor performances, while also giving stars time to discuss current issues. For example, at the Golden Globes, multiple actresses (Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, etc.) walked the carpet with activists. But if a performer would rather talk fashion or their latest project, they could do that, too.
“It varies based on each star; there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Neal said. “For the Golden Globes specifically, we used our platform to amplify the voices of women and men behind ‘Me Too’ and Time’s Up. . . . We wanted the actors to be able to share what’s important to them.”
Sometimes, those moments can veer into uncomfortable territory, such as the incident with Messing. (Neal echoed E!’s earlier statement that “there’s a lot of misinformation out there” in regards to Sadler.)
In other instances, performers have struggled to find the right words to fit the current moment. “Stranger Things” actor David Harbour’s interview with ABC’s Lara Spencer also got attention during the Globes red carpet, when she pointed to his Time’s Up pin and asked “Time’s up on . . .?” Harbour struggled to answer, and after several seconds of silence, Spencer offered, “Sexual harassment? Predators?” He eventually responded that time was up on “women not getting the respect they deserve in the workplace.”
For the most part, celebrities have been ready with answers, especially as publicists don’t have much of a chance to intevene during the chaotic red carpet scene. Keith Caulfield, who co-hosted Billboard’s Grammys pre-show that streamed live on Twitter, said it was occasionally challenging to decide in the moment how to approach interviews: Would it make sense to bring up a potentially uncomfortable topic with this particular individual? Would they give a thoughtful answer?
“Going into the show, the intention was to address serious issues when it seemed appropriate, and certainly if people were wearing white roses,” Caulfield said. “That’s an automatic invitation to ask about why they were wearing them that evening and what it meant for them to do so.”
Caulfield and his co-host, Desire Thompson, asked about roses during interviews with everyone from rapper Cardi B (“To me, it feels so crazy that now that it’s in Hollywood, it’s being talked about”) to the band Imagine Dragons (lead guitarist Wayne Sermon: “It’s a really basic and reasonable thing to ask that when a woman goes to work anywhere, that she feels safe and that she feel compensated for what she’s doing.”) So far, there’s no word on whether stars at the Oscars will be wearing many visual cues.
Some celebrities weren’t subtle about steering the conversation. Michelle Williams, a nominee for best actress in a drama for “All the Money in the World,” brought “Me Too” creator Tarana Burke with her to the Globes red carpet.
“I know that the message is the most important, but I do want to say congratulations to you for your work, as it is a night of celebration,” Seacrest later told Williams. “You always do such great work.”
“Thank you, I appreciate it,” said Williams, who dismissed the praise with a wave of her hand. “But really the most exciting thing is I thought I would have to raise my daughter to learn how to protect herself in a dangerous world. And I think because of the work that Tarana has done and the work that I’m learning how to do, we actually have the opportunity to hand our children a different world.”
But the anonymous Hollywood executive warns that at the Oscars, many attendees — particularly men — aren’t likely to share too much.
“Now every guy is just shutting up, even afraid to wear a Time’s Up pin, and afraid that someone will say, ‘How dare you wear this pin when you did this 28 years ago’ . . . They’re scared. There’s no playbook for this. Nothing like this has happened in recent history.”