When stars go cuckoo
What John Galliano’s fall tells us about the perils of relying on creative geniuses
ON FEBRUARY 24th John Galliano, Christian Dior’s star designer, launched an anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bar, Le Perle—or so it is alleged. Mr Galliano denies the offence and there are no independent witnesses. But a few days later a video surfaced of Mr Galliano engaged in similar behaviour. “I love Hitler,” he told an unidentified group. “Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be fucking gassed.” Christian Dior first suspended him and then, as outrage over the video grew, sacked him.
Mr Galliano shared the headlines with another exploding star, Charlie Sheen. While holidaying with a couple of girlfriends—one of whom is a professional porn star—Mr Sheen decided to tell a radio show what he thinks of his producer, Chuck Lorre: a “charlatan” and a “turd” (he denied any anti-Semitic intent in referring to Mr Lorre by the Hebrew version of his name, Chaim). CBS and Warner Brothers pulled the plug on Mr Sheen’s hit television comedy, “Two and a Half Men”, for which he was being paid a reported $1.2m an episode.
These two incidents have inevitably been compared to an even bigger explosion. For years Mel Gibson was one of the most feted stars in Hollywood—the sexiest man alive according to People magazine and the hottest celebrity in the world according to Forbes. But Hollywood’s love affair with Mr Gibson ended abruptly on the Pacific Coast Highway in 2006. Mr Gibson told a traffic cop that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” before asking “are you a Jew?” He also added a bit of sexism to his racism by calling a female police officer “sugar tits”.
Why do people who live such enviable lives—being paid millions to do what they love—act so outrageously? Drink and drugs clearly play an important part. The video of Mr Galliano’s rant suggests that he was sozzled. Mr Sheen has been in and out of rehab. Mr Gibson had an open bottle of tequila next to him on the seat of his car. Alexander McQueen, another British maverick who made it big in the Parisian fashion world before committing suicide, also had a long history of drink and drug problems. This is par for the course in the creative industries: the two best places for young people on the make in Hollywood to meet the players are bars and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
But celebrity can be an even more powerful drug than cocaine. It encourages people to push the limits: the more scandalous they are the more they attract the attention of the paparazzi. Mr Galliano produced ever more outrageous fashions as his fame grew. In 2000 he dressed his models like tramps—le look clochard—with newsprint dresses and dangling pots and pans. He probably counted the fact that protesters surrounded Dior’s offices as a publicity triumph. Celebrity also makes people think they are fireproof: their fans love them come what may. Mr Sheen seems to have revelled in his bad-boy image. But there is clearly a line that you cross at your peril: insulting your boss in Mr Sheen’s case or endorsing the Holocaust in Mr Galliano’s.
How should creative companies deal with stars’ bizarre behaviour? Sometimes the sins are so egregious that they have no choice but to drop them. Christian Dior is busy congratulating itself on taking a stand on Mr Galliano. But in fact it was a simple commercial decision. Mr Galliano is undoubtedly a talented designer who sprinkled Dior’s once dowdy fashion house with pixie-dust. But he was nevertheless a small part of the empire: Mr Galliano’s couture accounted for only 4% of Dior’s €21 billion ($29 billion) in sales in 2010. Mr Galliano also alienated some of Dior’s other big names: Natalie Portman, an Oscar-winning (and Jewish) actress who advertises a Dior perfume, made it clear that she would not be associated with Mr Galliano in any way.
But in most cases they are much more lenient. Creative industries are driven by their stars. They also feed on the buzz that bad behaviour generates. Warner and CBS forgave Mr Sheen a succession of misdemeanours—including assault on his third wife—because he was the star of one of its most successful shows: without him there would be no “Two and a Half Men”. Mr Sheen’s fatal error was to pit his brand against his producer’s: Mr Lorre is credited with almost single-handedly reviving the traditional “four-camera sitcom”—a comedy that is cheap to make (Mr Sheen’s enormous salary aside) and repeats well.
The growing risk of sticking with the talent
The business reason for sticking with “the talent” is that there is a long list of stars who have revived their careers after egregious gaffes. Eric Clapton survived a racist rant that he delivered in Birmingham in 1976. The Beatles suffered no long-term damage from John Lennon’s declaration that they were “bigger than Jesus”. Mr Gibson may be on the way back: a profile in the current Vanity Fair, “The Rude Warrior”, is full of affectionate quotes from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Jodie Foster. Mr Sheen is not going without a fight: he has been a permanent guest on the chat shows since his “meltdown” and has become one of the most popular new arrivals on Twitter. Who wants to ditch an asset like this?
But new technology may be changing this calculation, both by making it easier to catch stars who act like idiots and by making it harder for companies to rehabilitate them: Mr Galliano’s anti-Semitic rant will live for ever on YouTube.
Furthermore, great creative machines like Hollywood and the fashion industry have another reason to abandon assets who become liabilities: there is always more talent to replace them. The fashion industry is already debating whether Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy or Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, or Hedi Slimane, a former Dior man, would make the best successor to Mr Galliano. Mr Lorre no doubt can find other actors to speak his lines. Charles de Gaulle once said that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. The same can be said of the bars of Los Angeles and Paris.