Based on the headlines, you might think Selma Blair was apologizing for having plowed a monster truck through a convent on Easter Sunday.
What We Can All Learn From Selma Blair’s Apology (TIME)
Why Selma Blair’s Apology Is Almost Perfect (USA Today)
If Only More Stars Apologized Like Selma Blair (New York Magazine)
In reality, the Cruel Intentions actress who recently played Kris Jenner on FX’s The People vs. OJ Simpson, made the mistake of mixing medication with alcohol on a flight from Cancun to Los Angeles, resulting in an embarrassing blackout that got her removed from the plane on a gurney.
Not her finest moment, certainly, but—excepting Blair herself—a victimless crime.
But the celebrity apology, sincere or hollow, is both an art form and requisite ritual.
Stars have apologized for infidelities; bigoted rants; drunken outbursts; perceived slights against other celebrities; real beefs with other celebrities; generally socially unacceptable behavior; or, in Ariana Grande’s case, licking donuts and making anti-American remarks.
The public expects celebrities to seek forgiveness and provide explanations for even the most minor infractions. Watching the famous and powerful grovel is a satisfying American pastime, one that briefly convinces observers of celebrity culture that stars really are Just Like Us!
In a statement published exclusively on VanityFair.com, Blair said she was “filled with shame” over the “big mistake” she made. She issued a mea culpa, particularly to her fellow passengers and the flight crew, and thanked those who had supported her in the immediate aftermath. “I am a flawed human being who makes mistakes,” she said. “I am truly very sorry.”
In 2014, when the actor Shia LaBeouf appeared to be a pathological plagiarist in the throes of a mental breakdown, he orchestrated a bizarre performance art piece titled #IAMSORRY, which saw him sit silently with a brown paper bag over his head as people sat across from him, one by one, in a small Los Angeles gallery.
In 2009, Kanye West went on a brief apology tour after rushing the stage at the VMAs as Taylor Swift was accepting her award for Best Video of the Year (West told the audience that Beyoncé was the real winner).
In an interview with Jay Leno, West admitted his actions were “rude” and offered that perhaps he should “take some time off and analyze how I’m going to improve.”
Appearing on Ellen, he vowed he would never “sit in the audience of another award show again,” prompting host Ellen DeGeneres to offer him redemption: “Don’t say that…We want to see you out there!” (Needless to say, West has been to plenty of awards shows in the last seven years—and stopped short of storming the stage when Beck won during last year’s VMAs.)
By 2015, it was Swift who was saying sorry—to Nicki Minaj for misinterpreting the hip hop artist’s tweet about systemic racism in the music industry. Swift, a pop princess who fancies herself a feminist, thought Minaj was taking a swipe at her personally. “I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke,” Swift said. “I’m sorry, Nicki.”
Interestingly, the tone of the celebrity apology hardly changes when the offense is more shocking.
When former Seinfeld star Michael Richards went on the David Letterman Show in 2006 to apologize for his racist tirade in a comedy club, even his apology was perceived by many as offensive.
Richards admitted he, “said something pretty nasty things to some Afro Americans…You know, I’m really busted up over this and I’m very, very sorry.”
Also in 2006, evidently a banner year for celebrity racism, actor Mel Gibson lashed out at “the Jews” who he claimed were “responsible for all the wars in this world” when he was arrested for drunk driving. The next day, Gibson apologized for his “vitriolic and harmful words.” Ten years later, the actor still hasn’t recovered from his fall from grace.
After he was arrested in 2009 for beating then-girlfriend Rihanna, Chris Brown issued a public apology in a two-minute video. “I thought it was time that you heard directly from me that I’m sorry,” he said.
He referred to the assault as “the incident” and acknowledged his behavior was “inexcusable.” Brown said he wanted to live his life in such a way that he was “truly worth the term ‘role model.’”
The more that celebrities have become oversharers—with their own social media accounts that document the mundanity of their daily, human lives—the more we expect them to meet our high expectations for their personal behavior, to exist in a way that merits our adulation.
Meanwhile, the cliché of building our idols up solely so we can tear them down is a cliché for a reason. We can’t help ourselves from moral grandstanding, and often take perverse pleasure in the drama of watching people prostrate themselves for the mob.
Our standards for apologies from public servants are even higher, and our satisfaction from their failures even greater.
We’re used to the image of the politician, his wife standing dutifully beside him, expressing regret for extramarital dalliances and apologizing to the American people as a whole.
Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, James McGreevey, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer, to name a few, have all sought public forgiveness for cheating on their spouses and, in Clinton’s case, lying to the country on public broadcast.
In 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy asked for guidance and prayers—in addition to mercy—from his Massachusetts constituents after fleeing the scene when his car overturned in a body of water in Chappaquiddick, leaving his young female passenger dead.
British journalist David Frost managed to extract a half-apology from Richard Nixon over the Watergate coverup (Elton John was right: ‘Sorry’ does seems to be the hardest word) during a famous set of interviews in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned from the White House.
There are, of course, the apology refuseniks: late-era Kanye West, for instance, or Donald Trump, who famously told an audience of devout Christians that he’d never even asked God for forgiveness.
Refusing to admit wrongdoing further elevates cultural and political leaders like West and Trump as American heroes in some people’s eyes. But to the rest of us, they come across as emotionally illiterate and obtuse.
That most celebrity apologies are insincere, carefully crafted by PR team to protect the star’s “brand," makes the ostensibly heartfelt ones all the more humanizing—and, when done right, more likely to be forgiven, if not forgotten entirely.