After the proliferation of sex tapes, nasty divorces/break ups, and drug habits, you might think there was nothing left to make any celebrity worry about damaging the popularity that keeps his or her career going. Since the public has been saturated with so many details of the private lives of famous people, it takes a lot more to shock us than it did years ago.
Paris Hilton has made a career from her sextape scandal. Charlie Sheen’s exploits with prostitutes only ellicit a few jokes here and there. Courtney Love’s drug habit hasn’t seemed to damage her career any; at least, she hasn’t lost many fans because of her drug problems.
The only thing left to strike fear and denial in most celebrities is the gay rumor. PopMatters and the New York Times both discuss this phenomenon, noting how even though the idea of homosexuality has become more accepted in society, it seems that acceptance is conditional upon who the person is.
Why so many rumors? It’s only natural to want those we admire to be like us, and it is fairly easy to figure out if a celebrity has the same political leanings, moral code, or even fashion sense that we do, but sexuality…that’s another matter. Plenty are the celebs who have worn the mantle of heterosexuality in public while carrying on same-sex relationships in private, which has led the curious public to question the legitimacy of many declarations of “straightness”. And the louder and harder someone proclaims his or her “straightness”, the more we tend to question the honesty of such proclamations. A good case in point would be Kevin Spacey, who has done everything but take out ads proclaiming his heterosexuality, to no avail. The rumors just keep flying.
While some celebrities choose to just ignore the rumors, others take drastic steps in their attempts at “damage control”. Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King’s press junket denial of their alleged “lesbian” relationship is a good example of this.
To issue “the denial” in 2006, do the following:
Step 1: State emphatically what it is you are not.
Step 2: Scoff at the rumor with good humor.
Step 3: Note, for the record, your true feelings about the rumor: not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Or, skip steps 1 through 3 and opt for evasion with the nondenial denial: “I don’t want to talk about my private life.”
Oddly enough, the more emphatic the denial, the more the public tends to believe the rumor. Star Jones and Al Reynolds are reportedly considering suing some publication because of the persistent rumors of Al’s homosexuality.
PopMatters surmises that the power that the rumor may have over a particular celebrity is directly related to the type of work that they do. For example, a professional athlete who is suspected of being gay would have a more negative reaction from the public than a character actor.
It’s understandable how this fear of rejection, whether from colleagues or the general public, would lead a gay celebrity to stay in the closet, or a straight celeb to be steadfast in their denial of rumors, no matter how many rumors may be floating around. Still, the nature of what a celebrity does plays a big role in how accepting fans will be. The more a sport crosses traditional gender lines, the more willing we are to accept homosexuals in that sport (consider male figure skaters and female basketball players). Likewise, certain genres of music seem more accepting than others; pop, folk, and even heavy metal seem more willing to accept gay musicians (for instance, Melissa Etheridge, Rufus Wainwright, and Rob Halford of Judas Priest) than hip-hop and country (k. d. lang only felt comfortable about coming out after country fans abandoned her for being a vegetarian, and Kayne West has openly criticized the rampant homophobia in hip-hop).
The same consideration also applies to actors. Those who play primarily testosterone driven roles, such as Vin Diesel and Viggo Mortenson, could see their fan base shrink by allowing such rumors to persist, as their fans tend to be straight males who like to think their actions heroes are going home to screw some random babe after a day on the set. A fan may have no problems with gay people in general, but still may not want to think that the macho savior of the world fits into, you know, that category.
By contrast, some actors can be out and proud or nonchalant about the persistence of gay rumors because the roles they play don’t define their public persona. Gay actors Alan Cummings and B. D. Wong have played both gay and straight characters convincingly; however, neither is the type who would be considered for straight romantic leads or action-hero parts. Likewise, Portia de Rossi’s relationship with Ellen DeGeneres had no impact on her performance on Arrested Development. Straight actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who has also played gay and straight, says that he is flattered by rumors that he is bisexual; since Gyllenhaal’s more macho roles, such as in Jarhead, are in films aimed at more artistic and open-minded audiences than Van Diesel’s “shoot-first-ask-questions-never” films, he need not worry about alienating fans to the same degree as Diesel.
All of this goes to show how much public persona actually does mean to a celebrity’s career and success. It also shows that attitudes toward homosexuality have not changed as much as we might think. If a gay rumor still has the power to kill a career, then we have not really progressed as much as surface appearances may suggest.
“If You Must Know, I’m Straight” [NYT]
“Queer, Isn’t It?: Out Business/Our Business” [PopMatters]