Biggest Celeb Scandals of 2020: From Ellen DeGeneres’ Unmasking to the Kardashians’ Pandemic Partying
From Ellen DeGeneres to Lea Michele, from Jake Paul to Gal Gadot and the “Imagine” video crew, here are the most bizarre ways celebs baffled us this year.
2020 has been the best of times for celebrities, and perhaps the worst of times for a number of their publicists. On one hand, our wealthiest stars certainly enjoy better quarantine habitats than the “little people.” On the other, the struggle to understand how dire the pandemic has been for many has also led some stars to expose just how out of touch they really are.
Before the pandemic sent millions across the world into quarantine, some of our juiciest celebrity scandals had already broken. Days into the new year, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry announced they were breaking from their royal duties. But things really got interesting as many of us began a long stay at home, bingeing shows like Love Is Blind and Tiger King and groaning over celebrity goodwill efforts like that cringe-inducing “Imagine” video. Here, for your perusal, are some of the highlights (and, more often, lowlights).
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry Said “God Save the Queen” and Bounced
Not even two weeks into 2020, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle kicked off the year in shocking celebrity news with a fittingly thunderous announcement: The couple would step back from their senior royal duties, in what’s since become known as “Megxit.” Those who’ve watched the couple’s long-simmering troubles with the royal establishment and British tabloid press knew something was coming, but even seasoned royal watchers were shocked by the suddenness of the move. As Tom Sykes and Tim Teeman noted earlier this year in The Daily Beast’s The Royalist, however, “Megxit” is a bit of a misnomer. Really, it was Prince Harry who drove the getaway car out of the duchy.
Harvey Weinstein Gets Convicted
This spring Weinstein was found guilty of two counts—first-degree criminal sexual act for assaulting former Project Runway staffer Miriam Haleyi and third-degree rape for assaulting Jessica Mann. He was sentenced to 23 years in March. Good riddance.
That ‘Imagine’ Video
It’s hard to name a recent celebrity PR miscalculation that’s been funnier to witness than the Gal Gadot-led “Imagine” video. When the compilation of celebrities singing the John Lennon-penned ditty first landed on a weary, freshly quarantined public in March, it did not generate the sense of “togetherness” that was so clearly its aim. But it did unite all of us little people in asking two questions: Can’t a bunch of wealthy celebrities use their vast resources to respond to a pandemic with something a little more substantive than… this? And also: Have they lost their minds?
‘Tiger King’ Got Everyone Asking Questions About Carole Baskin’s Husband
For better or for worse, Tiger King was one of 2020’s biggest hits. By far Netflix’s wildest true-crime series to date, the series came packed with players viewers evidently wanted to know more about. In fact, the interest was so great the show scrambled to create a reunion episode soon after the season’s debut.
Joe Exotic, the central “character” within the Tiger King universe, remains incarcerated for the attempted murder-for-hire of animal conservation advocate and Big Cat Rescue boss Carole Baskin—despite his pleas to Donald Trump for a pardon. As seen in the show, the “Tiger King,” whose real name is Joseph Maldonado Passage, became obsessed with Baskin, whom he frequently called “that bitch” as he threatened her life in videos. Maldonado Passage has faced some scrutiny since the doc’s release, but an outsized share of the memes surrounding the series have focused on Maldonado Passage’s insistence that Baskin murdered her husband, Don Lewis, who disappeared in 1997. (He claims she fed him to her tigers; she denies this is the case.) Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister has provided updates on the Lewis case since Tiger King debuted, and a dizzying number of spin-off projects are also underway. Like it or not, it appears this wild (and wildly exploitative) series and its central players are not going anywhere fast.
Ellen DeGeneres Is Not Very “Kind”
Between the toxic workplace allegations that have ravaged her daytime show since the summer and her recent COVID-19 diagnosis, this has not been an easy year for Ellen DeGeneres. One of the entertainment industry’s worst-kept secrets has long been that the beloved host, whose best known catchphrase is “Be kind to one another,” is not actually so nice. Starting in April, those rumors became more public as former Ellen staffers began speaking with Variety and BuzzFeed in explosive reports about the show’s allegedly toxic workplace culture.
Throughout the summer reports of the racism, fear, and intimidation staffers allegedly faced while working on the show continued, and the host herself was reportedly “crushed.” WarnerMedia launched an investigation, and eventually executive producers Ed Glavin, Kevin Leman, and co-executive producer Jonathan Norman were fired following allegations of sexual misconduct.
Celebrities rushed to defend DeGeneres after she apologized to her staff over the summer in a letter, and in September, as the show returned with new episodes, DeGeneres offered an awkward on-air apology to her fans as well. “Being known as the ‘be kind’ lady is a tricky position to be in,” she said. “So let me give you some advice out there if anybody’s thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with the ‘be kind’ lady. Don’t do it.” Her ratings tanked. Now, employees tell BuzzFeed that the show is losing advertisers and celebrity bookings in the wake of the scandal as well.
A ‘Bachelor’ Contestant Got Canceled Over a Racist Fish Campaign
Victoria Fuller, who competed for Peter Weber’s heart earlier this year on The Bachelor, learned a tough lesson this spring: As a model, it’s good to be careful about the slogans you allow yourself to be photographed wearing. For instance, “White Lives Matter” is probably not a good choice—even if it’s for a white Marlin fish conservation campaign.
Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith Have “Entanglements”
Another explosive scandal that boiled over this summer? Jada Pinkett Smith’s “entanglement” with August Alsina, which the singer revealed on a radio program in July before the Smiths addressed it on their Facebook Watch show, Red Table Talk. The two said they’d basically broken up around four years ago, and decided to seek happiness separately. At that point, Pinkett Smith said, her relationship with Alsina shifted. “I just wanted to feel good,” she said. “It had been so long since I felt good.”
2020 has evidently been a year of healing discussions for the Smith family. In the fall, Smith also sat down with his old co-star Janet Hubert, AKA the original Aunt Vivien from Fresh Prince, to work through their decades-long feud.
“You guys went so far. I lost so much. How do we heal that?” Hubert said during the special, which debuted in November on HBO Max. “I lost everything,” Hubert added later. “Reputation. Everything. And I understand you were able to move forward,” she said to Smith, “but you know those words, calling a Black woman difficult in Hollywood is the kiss of death. And it’s hard enough being a dark-skinned Black woman in this business.” Smith apologized. “You’re still my Aunt Viv,” he said, adding later in a confessional interview, “I can see where I made the set very difficult for Janet.”
Alison Roman Comes for Chrissy Teigen, Gets Smoked
All Alison Roman wanted to do was sell some fancy, vintage-inspired spoons. But then she decided to take digs at Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo for launching their own commercial products during an interview published in May—and that’s where the trouble began. Critics wondered why the former New York Times food columnist had chosen to target two Asian women as sell-outs while offering effusive praise for Gwyneth Paltrow, who has made a career of peddling luxury goods and snake oil. After a few flippant remarks on social media, Roman apologized for her comments during the interview. She has been on temporary leave from the Times since the incident in May, although Teigen called for her reinstatement, and the paper recently announced she would not be returning. Speaking with Page Six, a representative for the paper said, “Alison decided to move on from The Times and we’re very thankful for her work with us.”
Lea Michele Has Reportedly Been a Monster Since Age 12
Let us never forget that 2020 was the year we found out that Glee alum Lea Michele once (allegedly) threatened to shit in her co-star’s wig. In June, after the actress tweeted her support for Black Lives Matter, her former co-star Samantha Ware called her out for hypocrisy. (Her exact, incredible words: “I believe you told everyone that if you had the opportunity you would ‘shit in my wig!’”) That prompted a miniature reckoning online as others came forward to share their (alleged) Lea Michele horror stories.
Self-care coach Elizabeth Aldrich had nothing good to say about her experience with Michele on the set of the Broadway musical Ragtime in the late ’90s, where she served as the actress’s understudy. “She was absolutely awful to me and ensemble,” Aldrich wrote. “She demeaned the crew and threatened to have people fired if she was in anyway displeased. I used to cry every night from the mean and manipulative things she would do. She was 12. She was terrifying.”
Another performer added that Michele “was the meanest person I ever encountered on Broadway. And that includes Tony Randall and Roseanne [Barr] who I also worked with (both AWFUL people). She’s a cancer on humanity.” Yikes!
Jake Paul Was Accused of Looting a Mall During BLM Protest
Naturally, YouTuber and perennial twerp Jake Paul found multiple ways to make a nuisance of himself this year—from throwing COVID-19 parties to, yes, getting charged with criminal trespassing and unlawful assembly after allegedly being caught in the middle of looting during Black Lives Matter protests in Arizona’s Scottsdale Fashion Square mall. (Paul denied participating in looting and vandalism; the charges have been dismissed in light of a federal investigation.) Then again, as Paul himself put it during a recent, confrontational interview with The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern, “98 percent of news is fake, so how do we know what’s actually real, and what we’re actually supposed to do?”
Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute Got Booted from ‘Vanderpump Rules’
Another bombshell from June: Vanderpump Rules fired both Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute after Faith Stowers, the only Black series regular in Season 4, described an incident in which the two called the police on her for a crime she did not commit on Instagram. Schroeder, Doute, Max Boyens, and Brett Caprioni were all fired for past racist remarks this summer. Schroeder had apparently thought her public apology, issued just before her dismissal, would be enough to keep her on the show—and a source said after her ouster, she had “been sad and crying, and also angry.”
“She feels blindsided that she was fired and lost her podcast and sponsorships,” a source told Us Weekly. “…She was genuinely apologizing and felt bad about her actions, and feels like it backfired on her.”
Remember When a Bunch of Rich Fools Tried to Cancel “Cancel Culture?”
One of the most absurd social media kerfuffles of the year is one that will likely only be remembered by those among us who are the most incurably “online.” In July, controversial social media figures including J.K. Rowling, Bari Weiss, David Brooks, Jesse Singal, and Malcolm Gladwell published an inane letter aimed at canceling “cancel culture”—a plea disguised as a call for open debate that actually seemed more interested in arguing that these authors should be able to say whatever abhorrent things they want without any pushback.
Rowling, especially, has made harmful provocation her chief hobby in 2020, which she’s largely spent publishing ignorant tweets, transphobic screeds, and even a detective novel that managed to work in anti-trans dogwhistles. The Boy Who Lived and his fellow Gryffindors would certainly not approve. Daniel Radcliffe, in fact, stood up for trans people after Rowling’s unfortunate essay.
Justin Hartley Divorced Chrishell Stause... Via Text?!
Last November, Entertainment Tonight confirmed that This Is Us star Justin Hartley had filed for divorce from Selling Sunset star Chrishell Stause—but the real drama from the couple’s split didn’t start until this summer, when it became a viral plot point on Netflix’s Selling Sunset.
The over-the-top real estate show’s popularity started to pick up steam with its second season this May, as the bored, quarantined masses tuned in to watch immaculately groomed women give tours of lavish properties. In August, the show’s third season exploded thanks to one shocking (and highly publicized) storyline: Chrishell receiving a text from Hartley informing her that he’d just filed for divorce.
The former couple seems to disagree about how all of this actually went down—surprise, surprise—but countless relationship timelines and crying scenes later, it seems reasonable to say that Hartley and Stause have become one of the wildest relationship stories of 2020.
Lily James and Dominic West Seem to Have Smooched, but Everything’s Cool, I Guess?
It’s hard to know what to say about this one, because I’m still not entirely sure what happened. Here’s what we do know: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again actress Lily James and The Affair alum Dominic West were photographed getting cozy over lunch in Rome, and seemingly kissing—which is odd, considering that West is married to landscape designer Catherine FitzGerald. Even odder: West and FitzGerald soon met reporters and photographers on their lawn in London to pose for a series of awkward photos and share a handwritten statement: “Our marriage is strong and we’re very much still together. Thank you. Catherine and Dominic.” Now, West is set to play infamous royal cheater Prince Charles as The Crown comes to a close. As for whether all of this simply amounts to a bizarre piece of celebrity gossip or is, in fact, a genius and borderline terrifying viral marketing campaign, your guess is as good as mine.
Johnny Depp and Amber Heard Aired Out a Terrifying Load of Dirty Laundry
Johnny Depp and Amber Heard landed in London’s High Court in July for hearings in Depp’s libel case against The Sun publisher News Group Newspapers over a 2018 article that branded him a “wife beater”—and the allegations from both Depp’s attorneys and the newspaper’s defense, which cited previous testimony from Heard, were as wild as they were harrowing. The court heard arguments over who was responsible for severing Depp’s fingertip during one dispute, and both Heard and Depp claimed that the other had either urinated or defecated in various parts of their shared home. The defense noted Heard’s terrifying allegations about Depp’s alter-ego, whom she said he branded “the monster,” while Depp’s attorney tried to brand Heard a compulsive liar. Depp ultimately lost the case, and announced soon afterward that he’d been fired from the third entry in Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts franchise as a result—although, as it turns out, he will still collect his full salary.
Lori Loughlin Goes to Prison, and Olivia Jade Heads to the Red Table
In August, a judge ripped into Full House alum Lori Loughlin before sentencing her to two months behind bars for the role she played in the college admissions scandal, which found she and husband Mossimo Giannulli cheated their daughters’ way into the University of Southern California. (Giannulli got five months.) And earlier this month, one of those daughters—influencer Olivia Jade, who’s now infamous for videos in which she said she didn’t really feel like attending class at the school her parents cheated her into—took herself to the Red Table.
“There is no justifying or excusing what happened, because what happened is wrong, and I think every single person in my family can [say], ‘That was messed up; that was a big mistake,’” Olivia Jade told her hosts, the gracious Jada Pinkett Smith and Willow Smith, and Pinkett Smith’s understandably less charitable mother, Adrienne Banfield-Jones, AKA “Gammy.” “But I think what’s so important to me is to learn from the mistake—not to now be shamed and punished and never given a second chance. Because I’m 21; I feel like I deserve a second chance to redeem myself to show that I’ve grown.”
As Gammy countered, “There is so much violent dehumanization that the Black community has to go through on a daily basis… There is so much devastation, particularly this year, 2020, with the pandemic and everything being brought to the table, just how there’s so much… inequality and inequity that when you come to the table with something like this, it’s like, child, please. I’m exhausted… and I just don’t have the energy to put into the fact that you lost your endorsements or you’re not in school right now.”
Bella Thorne’s OnlyFans Fiasco
It took Bella Thorne less than 48 hours to unite a large contingent of sex workers against her when she joined OnlyFans back in August. When the former Disney star first joined OnlyFans, Vulture’s Madison Malone Kircher noted at the time, some of the predominantly adult site’s creators worried the recent influx of celebrities might gentrify the platform many sex workers rely on for income.
Then Thorne scammed her followers with the promise of a $200 nude photo that turned out to be a lingerie shot—after which OnlyFans changed its terms of service to limit the price a creator can charge per post. (The company claims it did not make the decision solely based on one user, but the sex workers whose income has been disrupted are not convinced or placated.) And in the final bizarre cherry on top, Thorne also claimed she had joined OnlyFans as research for a movie she’s working on with Florida Project director Sean Baker—who promptly and forcefully denied the claim on social media.
The Kardashian-Jenners Threw Some Ill-Advised Parties
Even a lethal pandemic is not enough to stop the Kardashian-Jenner social calendar—at least, it seems, until recently. First, Kim Kardashian West threw herself an island-bound 40th birthday bash with her surprisingly large “closest inner circle.” Then Kendall Jenner held a maskless Halloween party as daily COVID-19 infection rates continued to climb to new heights.
Naturally, Kris Jenner stepped in to advocate for her family’s COVID safety measures: “We live our lives trying to be just really good people,” she told Andy Cohen in a recent interview. “We’re dealing with lots of people that have different opinions, and all we can do is live our lives the best way we know how and be responsible and do the right thing, and we’re doing that exactly.” The family recently announced they’ve canceled their annual Christmas Eve bash for this year.
‘Love Is Blind’ Contestant Gave Her Dog Wine
And finally, a bonus entry: Remember that time the internet was furious at Love Is Blind villain Jessica Batten after she took a break from talking about the age difference between herself and her lovely beau, Mark, to let her adorable dog Payton slurp up some wine?
“I feel terrible about this because I know people were really concerned about her, and I love this dog more than anything in the entire world,” Batten swore to The Daily Beast in an interview at the time, as the wild dating show went viral. In retrospect, Batten said, of course she knew that giving her dog wine is “not a good move.”
“She’s not my drinking buddy,” she insisted. And let’s hope so—because after the year we’ve had, Payton’s liver would definitely not have been up to the task.