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Chris Brown faces uphill battle to save career

With one disturbing news report, and an accompanying photo that underlined the pain, pop singers Chris Brown and Rihanna gained widespread attention for something other than their music. Brown was booked last month after an early morning altercation shortly after a pre-Grammy party that left Rihanna with bruises and a scratch on her face. Brown was later charged with felony assault, and is schedul
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

With one disturbing news report, and an accompanying photo that underlined the pain, pop singers Chris Brown and Rihanna gained widespread attention for something other than their music. Brown was booked last month after an early morning altercation shortly after a pre-Grammy party that left Rihanna with bruises and a scratch on her face. Brown was later charged with felony assault, and is scheduled to be arraigned on April 6.

Since then, the scrutiny and fallout have been considerable. Immediately, Brown and Rihanna canceled their scheduled performances at the Grammys, and Wrigley's dropped him as a pitchman. Rihanna has been criticized in many circles for going back with him, even though it is unclear if they are still a couple at the moment.

As is typical in such a case, there are personal and professional sides to the aftermath.

“It definitely raises awareness of the issue,” said Deborah Epstein, a professor of law at Georgetown University and director of the school’s Domestic Violence Clinic. “I’ve heard from several clients in the District of Columbia area that have said they decided to pursue a legal remedy in their cases after seeing what happened to Rihanna and saying, ‘If this could happen to her, I can come forward. I can talk about my own experience, and I have the strength to make it public in the way it needs to be.’”

Yet the celebrity stratosphere has its own unique conditions. All domestic violence is abhorrent, but the origins of it can differ from relationship to relationship. Add a celebrity factor to that equation and it becomes still even more distinct.

Also noteworthy in this case is that Brown is 19 and Rihanna is 21. The glare of the limelight can be especially harsh for younger performers, and it sometimes adds fuel to an already combustible situation.

“The younger the age at which the celebrity status occurs,” Berger explained, “the more out of touch with normal society a person is. These kinds of celebrities often exist in a bubble in which they may come to believe that they are not subject to the societal rules that apply to others.”

‘She went back to the lion's den’

Brown is already dealing with the legal side. But the career repercussions could be extensive. And Rihanna, although the victim of a battering, may suffer as well.

“Young people, because of their immaturity and lack of experience in the spotlight and early exposure to fame and fortune, may endure different effects than a more mature actor or actress or songwriter or singer,” Portnoy said. “This is more damaging in my opinion, because in the early stages of a career you are creating a brand. Early in the game they’re establishing what their values are, what they stand for, how they behave.

“As far as Chris Brown’s violent behavior, psychologists will tell you it’s not usually a one-off situation. Therefore it’s very difficult for men this young and this violent to convince the public it won’t happen again.”

Portnoy also said that Rihanna’s brand may be tarnished as well, because of her actions after the fact. “She went back to the lion’s den,” Portnoy said. “By going back to him, it definitely hurt her in my mind.

“Spending time with him, whether secretively or not, it’s going to be hard for her to convince the marketplace that she is really separate from him, that she understands what happened is damaging, and that will linger around her if she stays with him.”

Matt Delzell is a group account director for Dallas-based Davie Brown Talent, a marketing firm that, among other functions, matches celebrity endorsers with companies such as AT&T, Frito Lay and State Farm, among others. He has worked with Rihanna and feels that Brown has a chance to redeem himself.

“The American public in general is very forgiving,” he said. “Kobe Bryant, people tend to forget about that (referring to Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case in Colorado, which was settled). Success has a magical way of erasing people’s memories. Chris Brown and Rihanna are young and still very popular. They have a chance to put out a new album or single, something to erase memories.”

Then there is the down side. “Obviously, it’ll take them a little while to do that,” Delzell said. “Rihanna is a victim, but we’ve seen in the media she’s been negatively spoken about for not leaving Chris. People think that a woman who doesn’t leave in that situation is not a strong woman, not a Cover Girl endorser, not a strong independent person.

“It’ll take Chris longer to recover. He’s the one charged. They both will see a significant dropoff in brand-celebrity relationships until after a grace period and they come out and do something successful.”

Delzell said there likely will be skepticism by a media-savvy public that is hyper-sensitive to spin, and that any attempt at image repair will have to be built from an honest foundation.

“The key word in this is authenticity,” Delzell said. “It’s got to be authentic. For Chris to come out and do something against domestic violence, to go to counseling, partnering with somebody on the issue, if he does that, there has to be a lot of follow-through and it has to be authentic, or else the damage from it will hurt him more than it will help.”

Portnoy concurred. “Is it doable? In my opinion, he’d have to take time off as a performer and work with battered women for a year or two, to show a commitment,” he said.

“Typical rehab and community service most consumers will think is hogwash.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. He lives in Los Angeles.