The Smollett case became a quintessential 2019 story, serving as a proxy for arguments about politics, policing and celebrity privilege. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (D) drew a parallel Tuesday between Smollett and the college-admissions scandal involving wealthy parents accused of paying to get their children into universities. “You cannot have, because of a person’s position, one set of rules apply to them and another set of rules apply to everybody else.”
Meanwhile, Smollett portrayed himself as vindicated. “Now I’d like nothing more than to just get back to work and move on with my life,” the actor told reporters Tuesday. “But make no mistakes: I will always continue to fight for the justice, equality and betterment of marginalized people everywhere.”
But for the sake of his career, he may want to stick to entertaining for the foreseeable future.
“For the next six months, he should find a really well-designed cave and hide out, and be off the grid and out of the news, because memories fade and he can rebuild himself,” advised Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants. “I would not be front and center of the press, because you’re just going to create emotional reminders to those who feel that justice wasn’t served and for those who were skeptics.”
The ordeal has interrupted Smollett’s career as an actor and rising musician. Smollett, who started out as a child actor, found his breakout role in 2015 with Jamal Lyon, a gay R&B artist on Fox’s “Empire.” The show became a cultural phenomenon and was a platform Smollett used as a springboard for his LGBT activism. It also dovetailed nicely into music, his first passion, as he collaborated with pop stars such as Alicia Keys. In 2015, he signed with Columbia Records but has since left the label and in 2018 self-released his debut album, “Sum of My Music.”
Then came the assault claims, and a case played out in full view of the public in which details of the police investigation were leaked to the media. Investigators pivoted from considering Smollett as a hate-crime victim to naming him as the mastermind of a hoax to get attention and boost his salary on the Fox series.
Initially, Smollett received an outpouring of support from celebrities and advocacy groups, but that waned as skepticism mounted. Some of his “Empire” colleagues remained among his most steadfast supporters in the wake of his arrest, even as the actor was removed from two episodes that hadn’t been filmed yet “to avoid further disruption on set.”
“Jussie has been an important member of our EMPIRE family for the past five years and we care about him deeply,” the show’s executive producers said in a statement at the time.
The network also refrained from denouncing the actor, as Twentieth Century Fox noted Tuesday that “Smollett has always maintained his innocence and we are gratified that all charges against him have been dismissed.”
“Empire” co-star Taraji P. Henson told USA Today on Tuesday that she was “happy that the truth has finally been set free, because I knew it all along.”
For Smollett to have a promising career, it’s critical for him to keep his “Empire” role, and not just for the steady paycheck and prestige the job brings, said longtime Hollywood crisis manager Howard Bragman.
“If they kick him off the show, it sends a message” to other potential employers, said Bragman, who added he’s friendly with Smollett. “It’s also good he has another career in music. . . . Music tends to be a little more forgiving, less corporate, and that can work in your favor.”
Fox’s decision not to fire Smollett “also sends a message to other artists that have other challenges that, hey, we’re going to be by your side until there’s some kind of adjudication,” Schiffer said, adding that networks “have to be far more friendly to talent because that’s their asset.”
But Smollett’s future on “Empire” is still uncertain. While a Fox ratings boon early on, “Empire” has yet to be renewed for a sixth season (which is not unprecedented at this point in the calendar year). Variety reported that the show’s most recent episode — which reached just under 4 million viewers, according to Nielsen data — marked a series ratings low. The show still does well in the key 18-49 demographic, and that may be one reason Fox has withheld judgment on Smollett.
“At the end of the day, there are millions of people who tune in and enjoy the show and watching him play this character,” said Chris Lehane, co-author of “Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control.”
“Truth has become such a subjective issue these days,” Lehane continued. “The past playbook would be apologize, take full responsibility, move on. In the world where we live now, the news moves really fast and people choose sides. That playbook becomes a little more complicated.”
Lehane described a cycle for managing a celebrity crisis, in which a scandal naturally moves from the headline of a news story, to the first paragraph, to the next page and eventually gone altogether. A digital parallel today can be seen on a Wikipedia page, when a scandal migrates further and further down in a celebrity’s biography. “Each day that goes by without this being out there, the newsworthiness of it degrades,” Lehane said.
This particular scandal is so unlike any in recent memory that one crisis PR manager had to think back to the 1980s to think of a similar incident. And even then, the speed of the news cycle and the partisan atmosphere has shifted dramatically in the decades since.
“I don’t think there was a rule book for this one,” Bragman said.