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Will Janet Jackson’s career forever be defined by a momentary “wardrobe malfunction?”
To a large degree, the answer will be found in the consumer response to Jackson’s new Virgin album, “Damita Jo,” which arrives domestically March 30 and internationally March 29.
It has been nearly two months since Jackson’s infamous boob-tube stunt with Justin Timberlake during the CBS telecast of the Super Bowl.
Jackson has kept a low profile since the incident. Other than an interview in Ebony, her only public response to date has been a taped apology sent to TV news outlets.
Some observers say that’s the right approach.
“You make your first statement and move forward with nothing more to say,” contends entertainment attorney Orin Snyder, a partner with Los Angeles-based Manatt, Phelps and Phillips.
“Scandal in pop is not new, and this album is extremely strong,” BET senior VP of music programming Stephen Hill adds. “Jerry Lee Lewis and others have proved that if the music is strong, people will buy.”
Too slow?But not everyone agrees that Jackson has handled the situation correctly.
Image specialist Ann Stephenson says the incident is not a “career buster” for Jackson but contends that “there has been way too slow an uptake by her handlers.”
“They don’t seem to be doing anything proactive and are still answering the same questions and trying to explain the incident,” adds Stephenson, CEO of New Jersey-based communications and image consulting firm the Stephenson Group. “Janet has to take control and manage her image.”
Jackson declined to comment for this story. Her manager, Lindsay Scott of L.A.-based Lindsay Scott Management, referred calls to Jackson’s PR representative, Stephen Huvane. The L.A.-based Huvane says his client “always keeps a low profile.”
“Personally, she’s not comfortable with being Janet in public,” he says. “When she’s performing, that’s a different thing. We always planned that when the album came out, we would do the proper promotion.”
With the album’s release fast approaching, Jackson is re-emerging. She will be honored March 20 for lifetime achievement at the 18th annual Soul Train Music Awards in Los Angeles.
That appearance will be followed March 29 by a guest turn on “Late Show With David Letterman,” a March 31 interview and live performance -- with a five-second delay -- on “Good Morning America” and an April 10 stint as host/performer on “Saturday Night Live.”
Huvane says Jackson and her team have been in talks with these TV shows for months. “It’s all part of the promotion strategy,” he says.
He adds that Jackson has not imposed any restrictions on “SNL” in terms of addressing the Super Bowl debacle during her show. “That hasn’t been discussed,” Huvane says.
One mistake allowedMedia and PR professionals concur that a celebrity is generally allowed one error of judgment along the lines of Jackson’s nationally televised breast baring.
That’s especially true if the star’s career has been scandal-free.
“Jackson embodies grace, style and integrity,” publicist Marvet Britto says. “She has never been known as a bad person.” Britto, head of New York-based Britto Agency, represents Seal, actress Kim Cattrall and basketball player Latrell Sprewell, among others.
Britto describes Jackson’s videotaped apology as “impersonal.” “She has never been an impersonal artist, so it made it seem like she was guilty of something, and she wasn’t. I would have had her and Timberlake apologizing side by side right from the beginning, since they performed side by side. Otherwise, it made the whole apology seem calculated and contrived.”
In a cover story for the April issue of Ebony, Jackson says of the apology, “I probably should have done it live. But there was so much going on at the time that I needed to just get it done. It is what it is. And it will pass, and I’m fine with it.”
That interview precedes forthcoming appearances on the covers of Upscale and Essence magazines.
Visibility an issueBritto believes Jackson should be even more visible.
“There has been no setup for this album,” she says. “If the label is capitalizing on the incident’s momentum and the increased attention Jackson is getting, that’s smart. But setting up a record the right way is smarter. She should be on the cover of all major music magazines right now.”
Jackson is amply displayed on the cover of “Damita Jo.” She is bare from the waist up, with her arms strategically covering her chest.
The cover photo already has drawn substantial media attention, although it is no more provocative than her image on previous albums “All for You” and “Janet.”
Beyond all the criticism, the incident has cost Jackson the starring role in ABC’s Lena Horne biopic.
“I thought the Super Bowl talk would die down by the time the album’s release date came,” says an R&B music buyer at a major retail chain. “But you have the Federal Communications Commission, Clear Channel, Howard Stern -- all going back to that incident. And some people may feel the cover is rubbing people’s faces in it.”
Huvane points out, however, that the shoot for the album cover was done before the controversy erupted.
Jackson can bank on receiving widespread coverage through her upcoming TV appearances.
“Going on ’Saturday Night Live,’ Leno or Letterman is very smart,” attorney Snyder says. “It helps defuse the situation and put it into context against the more important things that are happening in the world. The press wants to make this incident into something, but the fans don’t care.”