Fame On You

NEW YORK The amateur video shows a shirtless, intoxicated David Hasselhoff lying on the floor with a piece of hamburger hanging from his mouth. Off camera, his teenage daughter, Taylor, is telling papa Hoff he can’t have any (more) alcohol or he’ll be kicked off his TV show. He tries to respond coherently, but instead turns his back to the camera as we see the detritus of his not-so-happy meal.

The potentially damaging tape, which was leaked last spring, has received more than 1 million YouTube hits, and even made it to the TV entertainment news shows and their end-of-year recaps. The public’s desire to see the underbelly of Hasselhoff’s private life (although, given the way it looked in the video, perhaps not his actual belly) was equaled by its fascination with celebrity trips to jail, rehab and other assorted family dramas. In terms of celebrity meltdowns, the past 12 months have been a feast for the senses—like living in the wired equivalent of ancient Rome.

But this year, something different happened along with the tabloid frenzy. That is to say, something didn’t happen. No matter how shameful the incident—drugs, DUIs or even charges of sexual harassment, there were, for the most part, no repercussions. Americans, it seems, have become desensitized to scandal.

One month after the hamburger-dangling video first aired, the man famous for talking to a car won full physical custody of his kids in a divorce battle. And although America’s Got Talent, the reality show on which Hasselhoff is the “nice” judge, started up shortly after the video was leaked, his presence hardly hurt the program’s ratings.

Similarly, on the A-lister front, Alec Baldwin dodged a bullet. His abusive voicemail message to his 12-year-old daughter, in which he called her a “little pig” for not picking up the phone, was leaked to TMZ.com, also last spring. He offered to quit his starring role as morality-free GE boss Jack Donaghy on NBC’s hit show 30 Rock, but the network’s powers-that-be insisted he stay. Post-voicemail release, Baldwin was nominated for an Emmy for best actor (he didn’t win), and the show won best comedy series. Just last week he was nominated for a Golden Globe, after taking home that award last year.

Of course, some celebrities have always gotten away with murder (literally, in a couple of cases), but it was only in 2004 that the minor affair called Nipplegate—when Janet Jackson’s nipple was revealed during the Super Bowl halftime—seemed to bring her career to a crashing, if momentary, halt. Forced to withdraw from an ABC special in which she was slated to play Lena Horne, Jackson also saw sales of Damita Jo, the CD she released weeks after the fiasco, sell just under 1 million copies.

In a culture where everyone wants to be-and now has the outlets to be-famous, it makes sense that stars are getting away with bad behavior. The average 14-year-old carries a camera phone, and college kids get drunk and post sexually revealing photos of themselves on Facebook—for fun.

“All of this laundry-airing is definitely raising our shock and awe thresholds,” says Ann Mack, director of trend spotting at JWT. “And as an open-book, confessional society, we are more forgiving than we ever have been.”

It’s no surprise then, that this year’s list of misbehaving celebs with unscarred careers is a long one. Lindsay Lohan, Kiefer Sutherland and Kid Rock, for instance, were all given jail sentences, and still have active careers. And Isaiah Washington, who used a gay slur at the Emmys to explain how he had never used a gay slur, got booted off ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, then got picked up for a story arc in NBC’s Bionic Woman (after serving some time in “anger management” classes).