Can R. Kelly Fly Again Following Sex Scandal?

Music history has been unkind to musicians accused of sexual impropriety.

Musicians are often held to a different standard than the rest of us.

Despite his well-publicized years of hard-core drug use, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards is still a grizzled, beloved rock and roll figure. And say what you will about Ozzy Osbourne’s profanity-laced parenting skills, but the man is suddenly a family values icon.

When it comes to taboos, though, sexual peccadilloes have been the undoing of many a musician. From George Michael to Michael Jackson, Chuck Berry to Jerry Lee Lewis, history has had a dim view of musicians accused of sexual impropriety.

But according to a number of prominent media spin doctors, regardless of whether R. Kelly is ultimately cleared of allegations that he videotaped sex with a minor, it’s not a foregone conclusion that his once high-flying career has been grounded.

“I would say recently he’s doing the right things,” said Robert Cathey, VP of Ackerman PR in Knoxville, Tennessee. “He’s talking about it, which is the most important thing. When you keep your mouth shut you’re allowing other people to set the agenda.”

Though his company is generally hired by corporate clients working through product recalls and plant accidents that call their credibility into question, Cathey said Kelly’s situation is not much different. “When someone is buying an entertainment product, they are buying an affiliation, a connection with
the individual who produced it. When I’m in the car with friends and I pull out an R. Kelly CD, it says something about me. Because I have a connection with the brand, in this case an artist, I also have a connection with his or her public image.”

Tapes that allege to show Kelly having sex with an underage girl emerged three months ago and quickly became staples of sidewalk bootleg vendors in New York (see “Girl In Alleged R. Kelly Tape Said To Be 14-Year-Old Niece Of Singer Sparkle” ). Kelly has denied ever appearing in a videotape with an underage girl. He has not yet been questioned by police.

Cathey said Kelly’s demeanor during his recent MTV interview was as good as a PR company could hope for in the situation. “He’s sitting up straight. He’s not crossing his arms, and his body posture is very open. He appears earnest and honest, straightforward and clear,” Cathey said. “He’s not taking the bait when people try to get him to throw rocks at those who would
damage his reputation. He’s focusing on the customer and thanking them for their support. That’s powerful stuff.”

Setting the record straight is exactly what Kelly’s rep, Allan Mayer,
intended to do. “Given that the allegations against R. Kelly are false, our
‘strategy’ is simply to do what we can to get the facts out to people,” said
former Newsweek editor Mayer, who has done damage control for such high
profile clients as failed telecommunications giant Global Crossing, actress
Paula Poundstone and Oscar-winner Halle Berry, who faced a firestorm of bad
press in 2000 when she left the scene of a car accident.

Kelly broke his long silence in early April, when he went on a media blitz to deny the allegations. “People are trying to bring me down,” the singer said. “I’m no angel, but I’m no monster either.”

The allegations are not the first to tie Kelly to young women. Kelly married Aaliyah when she was 15 (despite denials of the marriage, a marriage certificate and proof of an annulment were eventually unearthed) and has settled two suits filed by women who accused the singer of having relations with them while they were underage.

In an earlier, pre-spin doctor rock and roll age, some musicians didn’t have the chance to take their case to the public like Kelly.

One of the biggest early casualties of sexual misconduct was rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis. His career was dealt a fatal blow in 1958 when it was revealed that he had married his 13-year-old second cousin, Myra Brown, while still married to his previous wife.

Fellow rock pioneer Chuck Berry fared worse in 1961 when he was convicted of transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines. Berry did a year and a half in jail for his offense and never again reached the same pinnacles of success.

Even superstardom is not always a shield. After his 1980s run as the biggest pop artist in the world, Michael Jackson has yet to recover from a sordid 1993 allegation that he sexually molested a 13-year-old boy.

Though Jackson settled a civil suit brought by the boy’s parents and continued to proclaim his innocence, each of the albums he released since the scandal broke sold fewer copies than the one prior to it, and his popularity in the United States has dwindled with each new story of his erratic behavior.

Similarly, Gary Glitter, the flamboyant British rocker behind the sporting event staple “Rock and Roll Part 2,” lost fans when he was convicted of possessing child pornography. The rocker served a four-month prison sentence in 1999.

One of the few women to be painted with the brush of sexual scandal is “Mexican Madonna” Gloria Trevi. The controversial singer has been in a Brazilian jail for nearly two years awaiting a ruling on an extradition request from Mexican police, who plan to charge her and manager Sergio Andrade with luring underage girls into sex and prostitution.

Singer George Michael has had a hard time getting his career back on track since being arrested for lewd conduct in 1998 for exposing himself to an undercover officer in a California park bathroom. While Michael defused the situation a bit by mocking the arrest in the video for his 1998 single “Outside,” his recording output since the arrest has been minimal.

Elvis Presley, however, began his dalliance with his future wife, Priscilla, when she was only 14. The two lived together at his Graceland mansion for five years before they were married, with the consent of Priscilla’s parents. And, with the help of Presley’s ultra-shrewd manager, Colonel Tom Parker, the relationship did not adversely affect Presley’s career.

One of the differences between Kelly and some of the other scandalized musicians is simply a matter of modern social mores, according to a prominent crisis manager. “Ten years ago, it was next to impossible for a musician to overcome serious allegations like that,” said Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, a specialty public relations firm that does crisis training, planning and consultation for mainly corporate clients.

“In the past several years, though, the public has become more accustomed to allegations of outrageous behavior, and there are many more distractions,” he said. “The behavior is not more acceptable, it’s just not as shocking.”

As examples, Smith cited convicted rapist boxer Mike Tyson (who will take part in the biggest boxing payday ever in June), prostitute-patronizing movie star Hugh Grant and once-disgraced lingerie-wearing TV sportscaster Marv Albert as examples of stars whose careers might once have been deep-sixed by their actions but who have survived their scandals.

Smith, too, said, assuming the allegations against Kelly are proven untrue, the musician has done the right thing. “The public is more intolerant of people who lie and stonewall than those who screw up and admit it and ask for forgiveness,” Smith said. “A lie offends the public far more than misdeeds.”

For a feature interview with R. Kelly, see “R. Kelly: In His Own Words.”

For complete coverage of the R. Kelly sex tape scandal, see The R. Kelly Reports.

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.