Rehab, Racy Photos, Sex Tapes — What Is Appropriate For An Idol?

Antonella Barba's instant celebrity shows how rapidly pop landscape has changed.

Not that long ago, dancing in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform was naughty. Tabloid gold was a picture of a pop star smoking a cigarette. And the cardinal rule for a young celebrity was to never, ever admit to having lost your virginity.

Not that long ago a topless picture got you booted from "American Idol."

"Oh, how times have changed" is usually said of generational gaps, but it suddenly applies to a span of five years or less. Now going panty-less is barely naughty (and not that unusual). Pop stars boast in interviews about smoking marijuana. And forget about virginity in a world where a sex tape can launch a career.

And on "American Idol," well, pictures that show you holding your bare breasts — or your friends' breasts — or even sitting on the toilet will not only not get you booted, but will build you an instant fanbase.

Comparing Antonella Barba's situation to Frenchie Davis' is not entirely fair — Davis was paid by an adult Web site for her pictures, Barba was not — but it's certainly interesting to contrast the context in both cases (see "Frenchie Davis Wonders Why 'Idol' Gave Her The Boot, Spared Antonella Barba" and "Antonella Barba: 'I Want To Be Known For Singing, Not In Any Other Way' ").

"Frenchie's situation happened in 2003, Antonella is happening in 2007, and the landscape is different," said Michael Slezak, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly. "Different rules do somewhat apply. I think the MySpace phenomenon, the access to digital cameras, the fact that a photo isn't just a photo anymore, it can be all over the Internet in 30 seconds, it all makes a difference."

As does the behavior of our current idols, when they are the standard to which our homemade "Idol"s are compared.

"To some degree, the threshold of what shocks the American public has been lowered a little bit. Paris Hilton had a sex tape before she had a record deal. We've now seen parts of Britney Spears that we wouldn't have expected to see," Slezak said (see "Britney Speaks: 'Thank God For Victoria's Secret's New Underwear!' "). "So the fact that those things have happened have made us less shocked about Antonella in a bikini bottom and a wet T-shirt, even if it is in front of one of the WWII memorials."

And with reality-TV stars capturing so much attention with their scandals — Barba's name was more searched on the Web last week than Britney Spears' (see "The Antonella Barba Black Market: T-Shirts, CDs ... Poop Art?") — celebrities have to do that much more to make headlines.

"I think reality TV changed everything," said Evanescence singer Amy Lee, who recently defended Spears' bad behavior. "And the Internet is changing a lot of things. I miss seeing people really working."

As the president of Mantra Films, the company behind "Girls Gone Wild," Scott Barbour is somewhat of an expert on racy behavior. And Antonella Barba's pictures, at least the ones that are definitely her (see " 'Idol' Hopeful Antonella Barba's Pal Says X-Rated Pics Are Fake"), are hardly shocking in his book.

"If you really are going to hold youth to those kinds of standards, every other girl who has a page on MySpace would be disqualified from everything," Barbour said. "There's probably an awful lot of girls at home who look at her and say, 'That's not so bad.' It's hypocritical for people to pretend that girls and guys don't go on spring break and have fun. That's part of society right now."

Maybe so, but shouldn't celebrities, knowing their every move is being followed by incessant bloggers and paparazzi, be more careful than a 19-year-old sorority girl in Cancun?

"Act with respect," advised Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine, whose personal life provided tabloid fodder in recent years. "Be a lady or a gentleman. Whether you are on camera or not, don't be stupid."

Nick Lachey, also no stranger to tabloids, sees the other side. "I don't think you can look at it in terms of musicians and singers and performers being role models and held accountable for those things," he said. "There's always been an element of certain risqué behavior when you talk about the entertainment business. The old adage 'No publicity is bad publicity' is true in a lot or respects. It gets your name out there. I myself have tried not to go that route, but you see it time and time again. It's unfair to create expectations of what you expect from performers. You have to appreciate their craft, what they do for a living, but to look too much into their personal lives and put too much stock into that is a bit unfair."

Debra Whiting Alexander, author of "Loving Your Teenage Daugher (Whether She Likes It or Not)," believes "what is expected and accepted from idols in our culture has changed" in recent years, and she's worried about the impact it could have.

"A wide range of unhealthy, dangerous choices are promoted in the media, and when a young girl's idol lowers the bar for standards, she's more likely to feel OK about lowering hers too," Alexander said. "I think most teenage girls strive to emulate the culture that surrounds them. The actions of celebrities simply reflect the culture they live in too."

As Lachey noted, celebrity bad behavior is nothing new, dating back to the parental outrage at Elvis Presley shaking his hips on TV. But Alexander believes this is different.

"The shock factor in behaviors we see all over the Internet are not unlike other generations' rites of passage with one important distinction," she explained. "Today we seem to be a culture addicted to sensationalism. Because we have grown desensitized to so much already, behaviors keep pushing new limits to gain the attention and publicity intended. It takes more to shock us, so like any addict, we crave behaviors that keep growing more extreme.

"In the '60s we heard, 'If it feels good, do it,' " she continued. "Today the message might be 'Anything goes.' And I think many parents are now realizing how far 'Anything goes' has actually gone."

So where does that go from here?

"What kind of revelation will it take for someone to gasp or clutch their pearls, it's really hard to say," Slezak said. "You never know if the next generation will be reactionary to that and say, 'We wanna take the line back a hair,' or if it will just keep moving in the other direction."

"I see great hope for this generation," Alexander said. "I know they are smarter than the way culture currently portrays them. I'm waiting for the uprising."