As explanations for celebrity hate-crime hoaxes go, this hypothesis from the Hollywood Reporter certainly qualifies as … one of them. Their reporting team reflects back on an odd comment made by Jussie Smollett last summer in a Billboard article on how aspiring artists could “maintain their mental health.” Smollett at the time advised artists to start “admitting things” in order to stay real, but couldn’t come up with much more:
I wish I had something really deep to say but I’m in my 30s and I’m trying my best to learn that I can’t bend anymore. I’m about to break. Also for me, it’s about finding the joy in what we do. I don’t believe in happiness because I feel like happiness is an emotion that can be taken away. Joy is something that lives deep inside of you. That’s why I find joy in my sadness, frustration, love, hate, excitement, whatever emotion I’m feeling at that moment — joy is always there.
THR now wonders whether that was a cry for help:
The story, on the Billboard website, appeared in the summer of 2018. It was meant to raise consciousness about a “ubiquitous” problem in the hip-hop community: a widespread lack of awareness about the importance of mental health. Six up-and-coming artists were invited to discuss how they took care of themselves. Among them was Jussie Smollett, who, in addition to his own fledgling solo musical career, played Jamal Lyon, a singer on the hit Fox series Empire. Smollett stressed the importance of honesty in his own internal struggles. “I admit that I’m jealous, I admit that I’m insecure and that I’m not good at certain things,” he said. Then, in a comment that didn’t get any attention at the time, Smollett suggested that these pressures might be catching up to him. “I’m in my 30s and I’m trying my best to learn that I can’t bend anymore,” he said. “I’m about to break.”
Six months later, he may have done just that.
On Jan. 19, the actor tweeted, “Depression is a real thing y’all.” Three days later, a threatening letter targeting Smollett arrived at the Empire production offices in Chicago. And a week after that, the actor told Chicago police that two masked assailants had attacked him in a wealthy Chicago neighborhood as he walked home from a Subway at 2 a.m. while he was on the phone with his music manager, Brandon Z. Moore. Because Smollett, who is black and openly gay, identified his attackers as white males who shouted “This is MAGA country” and claimed they hung a noose around his neck, his case was immediately held up as an example of the growing problem of hate crimes in the Trump era. In Hollywood, where the alleged attack played perfectly into the community’s worst fears about prejudice, support for Smollett was strident. Robin Roberts interviewed him sympathetically on Good Morning America. Ellen Page called out the Trump administration for the incident on Colbert.
We’ll get back to Page in a moment. First, THR finds a psychologist who “specializes in fame and celebrity” to explain how they become an addiction. “You are so afraid of becoming a has-been or yesterday’s news,” Donna Rockwell claims, “that you might do something desperate.”
Seriously? The addiction reference is arguable inasmuch as success is addictive in any context, but it doesn’t relieve one of all judgment or responsibility either, nor does it explain extreme behavior. That might explain a choice to do reality-TV shows or to take up political causes, but it hardly suffices in explaining away a hate-crime hoax. Plenty of people flirt with celebrity but fail to sustain their momentum, but fewer make a success of it at the level achieved by Jussie Smollett.
Somehow, I don’t think a public appeal for sympathy over a perceived threat to celebrity will mollify the anger over Smollett’s alleged hoax. Nor should it, although celebrities like Page who went all-in on Smollett’s story to attack their political bêtes noires are trying mightily to redirect it off of themselves. THR gave Page a platform today as well for her own effort:
The conversation around Jussie Smollett has led us all to examine hate violence and its implications and aftermath. I had no reason to doubt Jussie. My work on Gaycation — the docuseries I produced to chronicle LGBTQ+ stories from around the world — introduced me to many survivors of hate violence. I know how prevalent and pernicious it can be. If this situation was staged, it could make victims even more reluctant to report these crimes. Very real crimes.
While the media and public debate the case and await more information, we must not lose sight of the very real, endemic violence that LGBTQ+ people, people of color and other underrepresented communities face every day.
I ask you not to question our pain, not to draw into question our trauma, but to maintain, wholeheartedly, that hate violence exists. The merits of one case should not and cannot call that into question. The media coverage does not convey the reality and totality of the cruelty and danger we face. This is the story that must be told.
If they want that story told in a credible way, then perhaps people such as Page should refrain from blaming people for hate crimes that never took place, or for that matter doing the same with real attacks that have nothing to do with politicians. In her column, Page never even mentions Mike Pence, on whom she laid blame for the non-existent attack on Smollett in an appearance on CBS’ The Late Show. Shouldn’t Page have apologized for that claim?
Instead, Page says that the “conversation around Jussie Smollett” has led examination of hate violence and its aftermath. That sounds perilously close to the “fake but accurate” standard promulgated by Dan Rather in 2004 after the collapse of the 60 Minutes II report on George W. Bush and the Texas Air National Guard. It also sounds like a rationalization of Smollett’s hoax and almost an appreciation of it.
If Smollett wants to claim that the hoax was a result of being “broken” by his fame addiction, as THR suggests, he has to first admit to the hoax. So far, Smollett’s chosen to double down on it. He may learn the hard way a lesson given by Christopher Plummer in The Insider. Playing 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace, Plummer corrects Philip Baker Hall’s Don Hewitt over the lasting nature of fame after a different scandal at the news magazine show. “Fame has a fifteen minute half-life,” Plummer says. “Infamy lasts a little longer.”