Do Standing Ovations and Rave Reviews Signal Forgiveness for the Former “Glee” Star?
9/9/22 – – On Tuesday evening, Lea Michele, who came to fame playing the talented perfectionist Rachel Berry in the TV series “Glee,” made her much-anticipated debut in the Broadway musical “Funny Girl.” Her performance was a life-changing triumph for the 36-year-old actress; an important milestone along her journey from “cancelled” pariah to rehabilitated super star.
Crisis counselors can learn a lot from case histories, like Michele’s, of successful reputational redemption. How do shamed individuals and companies recover from their mistakes? What actions are required to earn forgiveness and win back public approval?
On June 3, 2020, this headline appeared on the front page of Variety: “Lea Michele Controversy: ‘Glee’ Actors and Other Co-Stars Speak Out.” A tweet by one of her fellow “Glee” cast members, Samantha Ware, accusing Michele of making her life a “living hell” on the hit program’s set, unleashed a chorus of like-kind criticism from other actors who had worked with Michele on “Glee,” as well as on ABC’s “The Mayor,” Fox’s “Scream Queens” and “Spring Awakening” on Broadway. Ware, who is Black, suggested that one explanation for Michele’s unpleasantness was racism.
Michele issued a public apology, explaining that, “I have never judged others by their background or color of their skin . . . What matters is that I clearly acted in ways which hurt other people.” That wasn’t nearly enough to counter the relentless bad press establishing a pattern of “terrifying,” “hateful” and “nightmarish” behavior. Less than 48-hours after the Variety article ran, the meal-kit company HelloFresh terminated her spokesperson contract, stating:
HelloFresh does not condone racism nor discrimination of any kind. We are disheartened and disappointed to learn of the recent claims concerning Lea Michele. We take this very seriously, and have ended our partnership with Lea Michele, effective immediately.
Michele dropped out of public view. She and her husband, businessman Zandy Reich, welcomed their first child, a son, just two months after the 2020 Variety article. And we didn’t hear much about Michele — until this headline appeared in Wednesday’s Variety:
Six Standing Ovations Later, Lea Michele Triumphantly Returns to Broadway in ‘Funny Girl’
Michele had successfully reached the fourth milestone in what I describe in Chapter 21 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient as the proven path to recovery from a reputational storm.
Defined as, “voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong,” meaningful penance is required as the first step toward forgiveness. While Michele’s apology was not all that convincing, she did pause her career, stepping away from show business, which had been at the center of her life since childhood.
Whenever a crisis involves shame — and today, racism is perceived as the most shameful accusation that can be made against a person or organization — the element of time becomes an important issue. Before the public can forgive an individual or company, suffering for some period of time is expected. That’s human nature. But, how long does the sinner have to suffer public humiliation in the stocks?
The duration of exile depends on the specifics of the crisis: the nature of the offense, the pre-crisis reputation of the offender, and the adequacy of the offender’s response. Michele remained in purgatory for two years. Judging from the audience reaction at Tuesday’s debut and the media coverage of Michele’s return, she was gone long enough.
One of the toughest challenges for an individual trying to recover from disgrace or failure is regaining a platform on which to stage a comeback. If you’re a fallen TV news personality like Matt Lauer or Bill O’Reilly, you need someone to put you back on the air. Cancelled politicians like Anthony Weiner or Al Franken need to get back in office. Will Smith, after an adequate time in purgatory, will need to secure another major role in a motion picture before his return from shame can progress. A CEO fired by her or his board needs another job to resuscitate a damaged career.
Lea Michele’s casting as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” — a role she had longed to play, well-suited for her voice and personality — was the perfect platform for her reemergence. She was given an opportunity on Broadway, the world’s biggest stage, to perform.
And that’s our final milestone: performance. Recovering from crisis, you never fully regain your acceptance and standing until you’ve proven you can still perform; at least as well as you did before the storm.
We never really welcomed Tiger Woods back into public life until he miraculously, a decade after his marriage and career fell apart around Thanksgiving 2008, won the PGA Tour Championship in September 2018 and the Masters title at Augusta National Golf Club in April 2019 — two very big stages. And the world forgave swimmer Michael Phelps for repeated drunk driving incidents when he won gold medals and set world records at multiple Olympic games. For a swimmer, you can’t get any bigger stage than that.
Tickets for “Funny Girl” are nearly impossible to get — the show had been struggling — and the response to Lea Michele’s performance has been, well, gleeful. The Wrap put it this way:
All in all, eager Twitter users and members of the press in attendance seem to agree: Michele’s performance in ‘Funny Girl,’ no matter how scrutinized in the lead-up for reasons both good and bad, is worth the price of admission.
My favorite tweet by a lucky member of the audience:
Holy s_ _t yes she’s that good.
Having reached the milestones of penance, purgatory, platform and performance, will Michele be able to sustain her recovered adulation? Has she truly changed? Has being a mother adjusted her priorities? Her past critics may never be convinced. But, in a recent article in The New York Times, Michele insisted that she has learned that being a leader “means not only going and doing a good job when the camera’s rolling, but also when it’s not. And that wasn’t always the most important thing for me.”
I wouldn’t bet against her. Perseverance could be a fifth milestone, and like so many super-talented, imperfect people in all walks of life who have fallen, suffered, reformed and recovered, Michele is not lacking in self-confidence and resolve. In the words of Fanny Brice:
Get ready for me, love
‘Cause I’m a comer,
I simply gotta march
My heart’s a drummer
Nobody, no, nobody
Is gonna rain on my parade!
UPDATE: 9/11/22 – – Lea Michele has tested positive for COVID and will not be performing for 10 days. Comebacks are difficult. Sustaining them is even tougher.