How Do You Know When Your Reputation Rebuilding Efforts Have Succeeded?

It depends on the person and the issues they've faced.

Brutal and humiliating, the Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber that aired last week was an effort by the pop star to get some good publicity after a long stretch in which he put out no music but stayed in the headlines because he behaved like a twit. I didn’t watch it, but here’s how The Atlantic breaks it down:

At the end of the night, having largely shrugged off flimsy insults for two hours, Bieber took to the podium and delivered a stilted, scripted apology for his misdeeds, walking off stage to a standing ovation. The entire event felt like a show trial, but one where the suspect was guaranteed to be acquitted. 

Roasts have become a way, according to The Atlantic, for people who have somehow gotten on the wrong side of celebrity to make amends. Let a bunch of people punk you in public, admit that you’re a douche who’s doing your best to reform and rebuild a broken reputation from there.

Many people have been roasted; many people will be. The question is when do you know that your reputation has been rebuilt? When have you reached your goal?

The answer to that question is different for everyone. For the Biebs, it might simply mean putting on some clothes and making a new album. Even then, the tour that follows would have to be free of hijinks, or it’ll just be ol’ Bieber Biebering it up like a privileged child.

Having been roasted for nearly two decades, Monica Lewinsky started to emerge from hiding in October with a cover story in Vanity Fair and made her biggest steps into the spotlight more recently when she gave a TED Talk about online harassment.

For her, reputation repair has been more difficult. Her downfall involved sex (always a tricky topic when women are the ones in the spotlight for doing it) and the presidency. This wasn’t misdemeanor stuff, but the stuff of your favorite episodes of Scandal.

But the first thing Lewinsky did right was to disappear for a long time. And when she came back, she did so slowly and purposefully, tackling a topic that is relevant both to her and to the public at large. (The New York Times lists the names of people, from actress Ashley Judd to reporter Lindy West, who have also recently addressed the issue.) With many years of reflection, we also see how placing the harsh heat of the spotlight and a good deal of the blame on a young intern was wrong-headed.

By facing her public humiliation, Lewinsky is now being seen as courageous, her voice a meaningful one. We’ll always think of her in terms of her Clinton-era affair, but she’s working hard to not be defined by it. And the work is paying off.

Finally we have Paula Deen coming back to TV. Paula freaking Deen. In this case, you have to wonder if her reputation will ever be repaired. While she cried a river of crocodile tears when the public was calling for her head after admitting to frequent use of the N-word, you always got the feeling that she wasn’t sad because the whole thing was ugly and hurtful, but because she was watching her empire implode.

And it appears her comeback is really just that, a rebuilding of her business rather than a rebuilding of her reputation. Perhaps that’s the best she can hope for. After all, she can’t unsay what she’s said. Maybe the best she can do is to regain a reputation for putting out quality goods and recipes that people like. As for her personal reputation, she probably has to let that go, for at least a while longer.

The one thing all of these embattled famous people have to do to reach reputation rebuilding success is stick with it. This isn’t a process that will happen overnight. Bieber will still be the butt of jokes. Monica will still have to contend with her past. And Paula Deen hasn’t demonstrated that she’s walked away from her debacle a changed woman. (Or at least, she’s not getting the media attention at this point to prove it.)

Your reputation has to be built on something intrinsic that you live and breathe if it’s going to last the length of time it will take to make it back into the public’s good graces. So far, Monica Lewinsky seems the most sincere.