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I’m sor-sorr-sorry! Celebs apologize in stages

A singer shakes up an awards show by boorishly dissing a young country star.  And then he begins to apologize. In the latest incarnation of high-profile mea culpas, it seems that a new style of apology has taken hold: the multi-stage, multi-news cycle apology.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A congressman flouts decorum and heckles a president in the House chamber. A tennis player profanely offers to shove a tennis ball down the throat of a line judge. A singer shakes up an awards show by boorishly dissing a young country star.

And then, in a public ritual we've come to expect as surely as the rising sun, they apologize.

Well, actually, they begin to apologize.

Because in the latest incarnation of high-profile mea culpas, it seems that a new style of apology has taken hold: the multi-stage, multi-news cycle apology. If at first you don't succeed, there's always time to try it again. And again.

Let's start with Serena Williams, the supremely talented tennis player who had a McEnroe-style meltdown when a U.S. Open line judge called a foot fault — unfairly, many say — at a crucial point in her semifinal match with Kim Clijsters.

At first, Williams showed little remorse for the profane outburst that cost her the match.

"I don't remember anymore," she said, when asked what she'd said. Asked if the linesperson deserved an apology, she asked: "Well, how many people yell at linespeople?"

A day later, there was more contrition: In a statement put out by a public relations firm, she acknowledged that "in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly."

But still, people noted, there was no actual apology. Still another day later, before her doubles final, it came. "I want to amend my press statement of yesterday," Williams wrote on her Web site, apologizing to the lines judge, to Clijsters and "to tennis fans everywhere for my inappropriate outburst ... I admit when I'm wrong."

A bit late, but sincereIt may have taken a while, but to psychologist Mitchell Abrams, Williams' apology was the most sincere of the three cases captivating the public the past week.

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"Sure, no doubt there's damage control involved here," said Abrams, who specializes in sports psychology and also oversees mental health in several prisons. "If I'm your agent, I'm saying, 'We need to release a statement.' But Serena was in mid-competition, and it's her intensity that makes her such a superb athlete. She did something wrong, she took it on the chin, and moved on."

It probably would have behooved Williams to apologize directly the first time, just as it would have behooved West to apologize to Taylor Swift in a more direct way, veteran public relations executive Ken Sunshine said. (For anyone who was vacationing on Neptune over the past week, West interrupted the 19-year-old Swift's acceptance speech at the VMAs to say that Beyonce should have won instead.)

"He probably should have called her immediately," said Sunshine, who has represented a long list of celebrities and politicians. "It's the first cardinal rule of PR crises: React quickly. Don't make it look like you're out trying to hire someone like me."

As it happened, West, whose boorish behavior earned him the rare distinction of being branded a "jackass" by President Barack Obama (off the record), first apologized on his blog, where he said "I'm soooo sorry to Taylor Swift and her fans and her mom," but added: "Beyonce's video was the best of this decade!!!"

Then came the premiere of "The Jay Leno Show," where West asked to sit down with Leno before singing, and took a very long pause when Leno asked what his mother, Donda, would have said. He called his action "rude, period."

And the next installment: a call to Swift after her appearance Tuesday on "The View."

Is the apology finally over? That's anyone's guess, but to at least one analyst, all the public mea culpas are excessive.

"He owes Swift and her family an apology — that's all," Todd Boyd, professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California, said. "Does he owe YOU an apology if you're watching him on TV? I don't think so."

To Boyd, celebrity public apologies — from Michael Richards (aka Kramer from "Seinfeld") to Mel Gibson to Isaiah Washington to Don Imus and many more — have become such a cliche, it's hard to tell if any of them are heartfelt.

"Even when someone is sincere, it often seems empty because we've seen so many of the same things previously," Boyd said.

Which leads to Sunshine's second cardinal rule: Don't overreact. Don't OVER-apologize. Don't make a transgression seem worse than it was, by apologizing again and again.

"The problem is the news cycle is now, like, 12 seconds long," Sunshine said. "You have so much instantaneous media, it's hard not to overreact, and you end up having 17 apologies on 12 TV shows."

That is not the problem of Rep. Joe Wilson, who has not been accused of over-apologizing for his now infamous cry of "You lie!" as the president was speaking on health care to a joint session of Congress — a setting infinitely more serious, obviously, than a tennis court or an awards show.

Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, called the White House the same night and apologized to Obama through his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. He also apologized in a written statement.

But he later qualified his apology, in the view of many, by saying that party leadership had asked him to apologize.

"That's like a parent saying, 'Tell your brother you're sorry,' and then you've apologized," said Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior."

Since then, Wilson has referred to his apology but declined to apologize again on the House floor, saying that the president has accepted his apology, and "the issue is over." The House voted largely along party lines to admonish Wilson, with Democrats insisting he take responsibility for his action, and Republicans calling the vote a political stunt.

So for Wilson, the multiphase apology has been one of scaling back the public remorse, or at least putting the brakes on it.

That may be something countless celebrities in recent years have wanted to do, rightly or wrongly — which may be another reason such apologies require many phases.

"A lot of people," Sunshine said, "just don't want to apologize. And they're not necessarily wrong. It depends on the circumstances."