How do the mighty fall? With a heavy thud, as Chris Brown learned once news broke of an altercation involving him and his girlfriend Rihanna on Grammy Awards eve, one that sent her to the hospital with what was described as "horrific" bruises. Within hours, the 19-year-old pop star went from squeaky-clean teen idol to vilified abuser, leaving scores of artists and music business insiders perplexed. "People who know Chris and work with him day-to-day were shocked," says a label source. "Grammy day was brutal."
But bad could turn to worse just as swiftly for Brown. His overwhelmingly young audience (and Rihanna's massive fanbase) is starting to turn on him and a handful of radio stations have instituted bans on his music — each on its own has the makings of a surefire career killer. "I thought it was kind of weird to be playing the music of a man who was alleged to have beaten a woman," says DJ Java Joel of Cleveland's WAKS-FM, who was among the first to pull all of Brown's music from the station's playlist. "It felt like the right thing to do."
Of course, a domestic violence charge isn't all that rare in the entertainment business, and in that sense, Brown isn't in great company; Vanilla Ice, Scott Stapp and Dennis Rodman have all made headlines in the past couple years for physical altercations involving their girlfriends or wives. But that's not to say a scandal of this magnitude can't be overcome. R. Kelly's court battles involving an alleged tryst with a minor dragged on for years, yet he was still able to maintain decent album sales throughout. "We live in a society that likes to forgive people," says Howard Bragman, a longtime crisis expert and the author of Where's My Fifteen Minutes? "As long as there's a sufficient amount of contrition." Update: Brown issued his first statement since the incident, saying he is "sorry and saddened" on Sunday, February 15th.
Bragman should know: he represented Isaiah Washington, Naomi Campbell and Monica Lewinsky in the midst of their own personal crises, but even he acknowledges a battery charge "is big — it's below rape and murder and above sexual orientation slurs, but every crisis has its own DNA." Bragman also adds that the timing and circumstance only intensifies the scrutiny. "Because the police are involved, plus it's two superstars and it happened on the worst day possible in the worst city possible, it becomes huge. What Chris Brown needs to do is have some sort of cathartic moment — whether that be anger management counseling or some sort of rehab — and then a cathartic interview — that's your Oprah, Larry [King] or Diane [Sawyer] — but it has to be believable. He has to fess up and own it." Referencing a 2007 interview in which Brown claimed his stepfather used to hit his mother, Bragman adds, "The history of violence in his own family can be something that could be used on your side if you play it correctly. And his squeaky clean image is a good thing, because it means he's a good kid who made a mistake."
So far, the fallout has been limited to losing some radio airplay along with a Doublemint gum endorsement deal and a Body By Milk moustache campaign. Brown has also canceled an appearance at this weekend's NBA All-Star Game. On the legal end, after Brown was released on $50,000 bail the night of the Grammys, the Los Angeles DA did not press charges; should they build enough of a case to do so, Brown will be called to court on March 5th.
"Until it's actually proven, we're letting [listeners] vent and talk about it — but we're not going to pull his music," says Ms. Smiley, music director for WHTD-FM in Detroit. Offers Bragman: "Right now, this is a marathon, not a sprint. There are so many questions still to be answered. As much as people in Chris Brown's camp want to put this behind them, that's not something that will happen in days or weeks; it's more like months and years. Everybody needs to strap themselves in because it's going to be a long bumpy ride."
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• Chris Brown Says He Is "Sorry and Saddened" Over Rihanna Incident in First Statement
• Sources Open Up About Chris Brown and Rihanna's Rocky Relationship, Grammy Weekend
• Report: Rihanna Suffered "Horrific" Injuries
• Report: Rihanna Named As Victim in Chris Brown Battery Case