Celebrity Careers Nearly Destroyed By False Gossip

The following article contains references to sexual assault 

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes," the author Jonathan Swift once said. Ironically, this quote is frequently misattributed to Mark Twain. Such is the power of misinformation to spread like wildfire. In the age of realistic fake Twitter accounts and tea-spilling Reddit forums, the capacity for gossip to be disseminated at the click of a button is more pervasive than ever.

Accordingly, the public's appetite for celebrity gossip is showing no sign of slowing. Popular gossip sites such as Deuxmoi have led to an insatiable thirst for tea and insider deets. "The ridiculousness of Deuxmoi lives and breathes in the complete unverifiability of anything that is crowdsourced from the internet," the founder of Troixmoi, dubbed Deuxmoi's absurd little sister, told i-D. "It's all so anonymous that none of it could be true, or all of it could be true. That's the titillating part of the whole thing."

But gossip is all fun and games until it has real world ramifications. It's one thing to speculate about, say, spotting Prince Harry looking for a bargain in Walmart, but it's quite another to spread falsehoods about public figures. Accordingly, hearsay can have a devastating impact on a celeb's career, as people take tattle for truth. As we'll see here, big little lies don't save lives: let's take a look at celebrity careers nearly destroyed by false gossip.

Elton John sued The Sun for an inflammatory article

As a gay man in the 1980s, Elton John often found himself subjected to homophobic insinuations by the press. In the late '80s, British tabloid The Sun published an inflammatory article claiming that John was using the services of various young male sex workers and plying them with cocaine, per The Washington Post. The "source" was exposed as Stephen Hardy, a con artist who was paid $4,000 for his dubious story. When Hardy's assertions were revealed to be a hoax, the newspaper paid the "Rocket Man" singer over $1 million

Despite the fact that the story was entirely fabricated, it could have destroyed John's career. At the time, homophobia was rampant and The Sun contributed heavily to this; the newspaper published a number of anti-gay headlines in the '80s. Subsequently, the outlet's linking of John to supposedly sordid behavior was nothing short of a homophobic smear.

Writing for the Evening Standard, The Sun's then editor, Kelvin Mackenzie, later admitted that he didn't fact check any of the claims made against John, or investigate the sources. "The Sun was forced to pay out a record £1 million libel damages to Elton John for wholly untrue rent boy allegations," he wrote. "So much for checking a story. I never did it again. Basically my view was that if it sounded right it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in."

Lauryn Hill was 'hurt' that she had her words twisted

As a member of hip-hop band the Fugees and as a solo artist, Lauryn Hill is one of the most influential musicians of all time. But for years, she was dogged by rumors that she said something to the effect of, "I would rather die than have a white person buy one of my albums," during an MTV interview. The gossip first circulated in 1996, thanks to someone who called into "The Howard Stern Show," lambasting Hill for her supposedly anti-white rhetoric. Except, she said nothing of the sort. Rather, Hill's initial comments were a celebration of Black people enjoying her music, with no mention whatsoever of white people. "What I was saying was, I make my music for young Black youths because I'm a young Black youth myself," she explained to Stern.

The dissemination of the tattle was essentially a racist smear campaign against the immensely talented musician, who was understandably distressed by the fallacious claims. "That really, really hurt me a great deal," she told MTV (via The Daily Beast), "because I like to think my music is really universal ... He had a bunch of people believing something that they'd never seen or never heard themselves but just heard a rumor." 

Although the gossip has been debunked, it damaged Hill's reputation for a time. In recent years, however, she has had a career resurgence thanks to her soundtrack work on a number of acclaimed films, including "Queen and Slim."

Matthew Kelly lost his job over false allegations

British TV presenter Matthew Kelly rose to fame as the host of "Stars in Their Eyes," a karaoke competition in which contestants dressed up as their musical heroes and gave their best interpretations of signature songs. In 2003, Kelly was investigated by police over allegations of child sex abuse, per The Telegraph. During the investigation, he lost his job as "Stars in Their Eyes" host and was replaced by Davina McCall. However, he was soon cleared of all charges and reinstated as the show's presenter. "It was obvious that there was no truth in a single allegation that was made against me," he said at the time.

Despite there being no evidence against Kelly, tabloids ran with the story and began accusing him of all manner of sordid behavior. He was also mocked by comedian and TV host Frank Skinner, who accused him of looking like a pedophile; a visibly angry Kelly confronted Skinner on his eponymous show, failing to see the funny side of such gags. Subsequently, he lobbied parliament in an effort to protect the anonymity of the accused until they're charged with crimes.

Speaking to The Times, Kelly said he's still haunted by the claims. "When you're not afforded anonymity, it's just the most terrible thing," he said. "Terrible. And it was a terrible thing to do to my family." Though Kelly's career initially took a hit, he has since bounced back with numerous performances on the London stage and in TV dramas.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Keanu Reeves' pristine reputation almost took a hit

One of the most popular and unproblematic celebrities, Keanu Reeves is sort of like the internet's BFF, loved by all for his altruism, unassuming nature, and cohabitation with an age-appropriate woman. Accordingly, he is arguably the least likely celeb to incur accusations of assault. But that's exactly what happened to the star in the late 2000s, with the very serious allegations threatening to damage his pristine reputation.

In 2008, paparazzi photographer Alison Silva alleged that Reeves hit him with his car and seriously injured him. Subsequently, he sued the Hollywood actor. In court, Silva claimed that the injuries he sustained in the supposed attack left him unable to work. "What really happened, the car hit me, and I went backwards and tried to protect myself," Silva claimed, per Irish Examiner. He lamented that the elusive Reeves was making it impossible to snap a good photo of him, so he admitted to continually approaching the actor. However, Reeves maintained that he was attempting to drive away from the photographer, who was unrelenting in his pursuit of him, and politely asked him to move away from the vehicle.

After a year and a half of litigation, Reeves won the case after the photographer was exposed for lying. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the wrist injury that Silva supposedly suffered as a result of Reeves' alleged attack was revealed to have actually been caused by a childhood soccer injury. Moreover, he was shown exerting himself following the incident, despite his purported career-ending injury.

Richard Gere's fake gerbil debacle

For years, Richard Gere was plagued by an absurd rumor that he used a gerbil as a sex toy. The gossip began in the '90s after a tipster purported that they saw Gere being treated in hospital with an unidentified furry object in his anal cavity. There are claims that a disgruntled Sylvester Stallone may have started the rumor as a means of tarnishing Gere's career, though the "Rambo" star denies this. "To this day [he] seriously dislikes me," Stallone told AintItCoolNews (via New York Daily News). "He even thinks I'm the individual responsible for the gerbil rumor. Not true."

The story has been thoroughly debunked. A journalist for the National Enquirer, an outlet that isn't exactly known for its reputable reportage, admitted that the whole thing is "nothing more than an urban legend," per Mel Magazine. Despite this, the gossip has followed Gere around for decades. Addressing the rumor in an interview with Metro, the actor admitted that his faith in the press has all but been extinguished.

As the writer and LGBT activist Dan Savage argues in The Coast, the gossip was rooted in homophobia, since heterosexual people are rarely, if ever, asked if they put foreign objects (or animals) in their orifices, but the gerbil question has been imposed upon gay men ever since the rumor first started. "Being a gay man or Richard Gere in America means always having to reassure people that you don't have a gerbil in your a**," he declared.

Zero Mostel was blacklisted thanks to gossip

The Hollywood blacklist ruined the lives of countless actors, filmmakers, and writers in the 1940s and '50s. The witch hunt against left-wing individuals was precipitated by the "Red Scare," with Senator Joseph McCarthy vowing to rid Hollywood of communists. Accordingly, myriad high profile celebrities were forced to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and name names. One such victim of McCarthyism was the actor Zero Mostel, who had an illustrious Broadway career and appeared in numerous comedy films in the '40s and very early '50s.

Unfortunately, Mostel was accused of being a member of the Communist Party by screenwriter Martin Berkeley. In his 1955 testimony before the HUAC, Mostel insisted that Berkeley was mistaken. Though he was proudly left-wing, with his activism being central to Berkeley's false accusation, Mostel always adamantly denied that he was a member of the Communist Party, per "Encyclopedia of Jewish American Popular Culture." Unlike a number of his peers, he also refused to name names. Despite claims of his party membership being rooted in gossip and speculation alone, Mostel was blacklisted.

The actor's career was destroyed. But by the late '60s, a savior came in the form of venerated filmmaker Mel Brooks, who cast Mostel in the now iconic role of "Max Bialystock" in "The Producers." Now enjoying a comeback, Mostel shed light on the iniquities of McCarthyism by playing a fictionalized version of himself in the 1976 film "The Front," directed by fellow blacklistee Martin Ritt.

Chingy lost a record deal due to a lie

Chingy was a highly popular rapper in the 2000s, with his hit track "Right Thurr" becoming a roaring 2003 anthem. But Chingy's career was negatively impacted by false gossip. In 2010, transgender model Sidney Starr purported that she and the rapper were in a sexual relationship, claims that Chingy denied.

Two years later, Starr confessed that she'd made the whole story up. "I just want everyone to know the things I said about Chingy weren't true," Starr told WorldstarHiphop (via The St. Louis American). "I made a mistake. Being [transgender] is hard and I thought what I was doing gave me a little notoriety ... It was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life." She also apologized profusely to the rapper. The gossip resulted in Chingy losing a record deal, as he revealed to "VladTV." "It goes to show you that that person, who nobody knew, had that much power to come out and say one negative thing about me and a whole mass of people just instantly took to it," he said.

Though Starr shouldn't have lied, the damage to the rapper's career is reflective of the rampant transphobia of the era; Starr is, after all, not the first woman to have lied about having sex with a celebrity, but the fallout was unusually severe. Despite the brief negative press, Chingy has continuously made music over the past decade. In 2022, he released his track "Can't Blame Me," which, incidentally, addresses false gossip.

Tumblr gossip almost ruined Mitski's career

Mitski is a singer-songwriter who has received much acclaim for her unique brand of uplifting electropop. The sensitive chanteuse thus seems like an unlikely candidate as the ringleader of a child sex trafficking ring. But alas, some fake Tumblr gossip almost cost Mitski her livelihood.

In 2019, a Tumblr user accused Mitski of sexually abusing her from the age of 11, and claimed that she was running a sex trafficking ring with her family, per Daily Dot. In a since deleted Tumblr post (via Tone Deaf), Pitchfork journalist Peyton Thomas revealed that he received a tip-off from the accuser. However, he noted that the details of the allegations made little sense and subsequently doubted their veracity. "I have extensively fact-checked this person's claims ... It is now very clear to me that this story is a fabrication," he stated. On Twitter, fellow musician Greg Rutkin said the alleged assault was impossible, explaining that he was on tour with the songstress when it supposedly occurred and spent the entire night with her. In a since-deleted Twitter statement (via NME), Mitski adamantly denied the allegations; she suggested that her accuser was likely going through a mental health crisis and urged them to seek help.

Unsurprisingly, the story was revealed to be a hoax. Though things could have panned out very differently, Mitski's career has thankfully not been affected by the pernicious gossip: the musician collaborated with David Byrne on the soundtrack to the award-winning film "Everything Everywhere All at Once" in 2022.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Conor Oberst's accuser ended up coming clean

In a very rare case of a false sexual assault allegation, Conor Oberst, frontman of indie band Bright Eyes, was wrongly accused of rape. In 2013, a commenter on the site xoJane alleged that Oberst had raped her when she was 16 (the musician was reportedly in his 20s at the time). The comment spread like wildfire, with other users claiming that they also witnessed the indie star's shady behavior. Though false sexual assault allegations are extremely rare (with most rapes going unreported), Oberst's accuser did admit that she was lying.

The following year, the woman, revealed to be Joanie Faircloth, released a statement regarding the gossip she'd spread. "The statements I made and repeated online and elsewhere over the past six months accusing Conor Oberst of raping me are 100% false," she confessed, per Pitchfork. "I made up those lies about him to get attention while I was going through a difficult period in my life and trying to cope with my son's illness."

The hoax could very nearly have destroyed Oberst's career. Speaking with Vice in 2017, he emphasized that he did not want his experience to undermine those of the many women who have been sexually assaulted. "They say one in four women will experience some kind of sexual assault in their life ... So as painful and surreal and f***ed up as my situation was, I don't ever want to use this as an example to justify anything," he said.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).