Celebs Who Destroyed Their Careers On Live TV

Success is a fickle thing that can disappear in a matter of minutes. These performers and professionals were really going places before one spare comment, brash action, or untimely revelation stopped their careers in their tracks. Some of these missteps, on their own, wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but add live TV to the mix, and you've got a recipe for disaster. 

When it comes to live shows, there have been numerous mistakes and missteps caught on camera as they're happening. Who can forget "La La Land" mistakenly being announced as the Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards when "Moonlight" was actually the winner? Or how about Mariah Carey's disastrous performance on "New Year's Rockin' Eve" in 2016? And Will Smith will surely never be able to live down the moment that he slapped Chris Rock across the face on stage at the 2022 Oscar ceremony. 

Luckily, not every career is torpedoed by such unplanned moments of chagrin. An investigation was launched into the 2017 Oscar mix-up and the world moved on fairly quickly from the bewildering blunder. Carey made her return to "New York's Rockin' Eve" a year later to prove that she absolutely wouldn't be defined by one bad performance sullied by technical difficulties. And Will Smith? Well, as of this writing, he's seemingly being given the opportunity to work past it.

Unfortunately, all the people on this list weren't quite so lucky. With just one live show encounter, every one of these performers and professionals destroyed their careers on live TV.

An X Factor judge went too far

Being a judge on a live reality show is an oddly delicate performance involving entertaining viewers while evaluating contestants. Audiences love a good tongue-lashing from an angry judge, especially after a particularly painful performance, but somewhere in that strange equation is a line that judges shouldn't cross.

On New Zealand's version of "The X Factor," one singer-turned-judge definitely missed the mark. British singer Natalia Kills lit into contestant Joe Irvine in 2015, by accusing him of being a cheap imitation of her husband, Willy Moon, who was also sitting on the panel as a judge. Although Moon was rocking a rather nondescript, common look — a side-swept haircut with a black suit — Kills was apoplectic about the contestant's audacity in dressing similarly. "Do you not have any value or respect for originality?" she sniped. "You're a laughing stock! It's cheesy, it's disgusting." Inexplicably, her husband also weighed in by comparing Irvine to Norman Bates from "Psycho" and accused him of wanting to go on a killing spree.

The intensity of the couple's critique turned off viewers in droves, and Kills and Moon were fired from the judging panel. For his troubles, Irvine reportedly received a box of cupcakes from fellow singer Lorde and told the New Zealand Herald in 2016 that he's still traumatized. Two years later, Kills told Paper that her appearance prompted an onslaught of death threats against her and her family. "If I were someone else watching me, I'd think I were Satan, too," she relented. 

Ashlee Simpson's lip sync snafu

Ashlee Simpson, the punk rock little sister of singer Jessica Simpson, was on her way up when she booked a spot on "Saturday Night Live" in October 2004. Her first album, "Autobiography," had recently debuted to commercial success, with significant radio play for her singles "Shadow" and "Pieces of Me." But when the "SNL" performance experienced a technical hiccup, it exposed a fatal flaw in Ashlee's act — she wasn't actually singing live. When the vocal track being pumped into the studio was for an altogether different song than what her band had started playing, she danced an awkward jig before leaving the rest of her band stranded on stage. She later blamed the rest of her team for the snafu. 

Eventually, she took responsibility for the lip-syncing debacle. However, she blamed her decision against singing live on a variety of health issues ranging from severe acid reflux to exhaustion, depending on the interview. On her website, she wrote (via UPI), "I think it was silly of me to do [the performance and] silly of me to blame the band."

Regardless, the backlash hit hard. During her performance at the 2005 Orange Bowl, her live vocals were drowned out by a thunderous roar of boos. Her follow-up album, "I Am Me," sold roughly a third of the copies in the United States that her debut did. Immediately after the lip-sync incident, which garnered national news coverage, the spell of her success was broken. Her fans turned on her, and her music career never recovered.

Milli Vanilli's skipping record

German R&B and dance-pop duo Milli Vanilli rose to prominence at the end of the eighties with crossover hits such as "Girl You Know It's True" and "Blame it on the Rain." Those singles dominated the airwaves and sold millions of records, earning the duo of Robert Pilatus and Fab Morvan the trophy for best new artist at the 1990 Grammy Awards.

But under scrutiny, the group's musical prowess didn't hold up. First, the guys' voices didn't quite sound like their recordings, prompting questions from the press. Then came the moment that destroyed their careers, and it happened during a live-to-tape segment with MTV. The duo was performing "Girl You Know It's True" when the track began to skip, revealing Milli Vanilli wasn't singing at all. Journalists and former fans descended on the group, labeling the guys as frauds and demanding refunds for albums. During the ensuing fallout, lawsuits were filed and their Grammy was even revoked. 

After a hiatus, the pair later planned to release a comeback album, "Back and In Attack," with their own vocals in 1998 — but tragically Pilatus was found dead from an accidental overdose before it was ever released.

Jenny Slate dropped a bomb on her SNL career

As far as "Saturday Night Live" screw-ups go, it's hard to mess up more than Jenny Slate. She's a successful actor and comedian now, but in 2009 she was still an up-and-comer — one who managed to land a coveted role as a writer-performer on "SNL." In her very first appearance as a cast member on the show, performing in a sketch she wrote called "Biker Chick Chat," Slate flubbed her line fantastically, mistakenly subbing the word "friggin'" for its grown-up version. The live audience laughed awkwardly, unsure if the cursing was a part of the joke, while castmate Kristen Wiig soldiered on.

What's most hilarious, and cringe-inducing, is how Slate reacts to her misread, puffing out her cheeks as though trying to catch the word but missing. The star wasn't immediately let go but departed at the end of her first season. In a feature she wrote for Glamour titled "How to Survive a Screwup at Work," Slate revealed that the experience was hard on her.  "It took me a few years to get back to myself," she wrote. "I developed stage fright." Slate added that she's never watched a clip of the incident, and frankly, we don't blame her.

Her time at "SNL" may have ended in flames, but the actor certainly bounced back. Slate has since appeared in scene-stealing roles in "Parks and Recreation," "Everything Everywhere All At Once," and "Marcel The Shell With Shoes On."

A news anchor killed his career in just two words

The first day on a new job without training wheels is always stressful, especially if the job subjects you to the scrutiny of everyone who might be tuned into the Bismarck local news. This aspiring young broadcaster handled his first-day anxiety in the most disastrous way imaginable, letting some foul words fly into a hot mic seconds after the show went live. 

His introduction to the world? A sharp exhale of breath and a succinct "f***ing s***." The look on his co-anchor's face is priceless as she realizes in an instant the proverbial cuss-storm that's just gone down to her immediate left. The offending anchor, AJ Clemente, nervously shouldered on, hoping that maybe, just maybe, he'd gotten away with it. Unfortunately for his career, he did not. Clemente was promptly fired from the station and supposedly hasn't helmed a broadcast since. Instead, he's tended bar and taught broadcasting courses, where we have to imagine lesson no. 1 is something in the spirit of "Watch your mouth while the mic is live". 

Speaking to "Today" shortly after the live slip-up, he revealed that the broadcast had gone live 30 seconds earlier than expected and that he wasn't even aware that he'd said the offending language on-air. Still, he maintained a positive attitude, even in the face of unemployment and a blighted career, stating, "You got to have a tough skin in this business, and it's good to laugh at yourself."

Doug Williams failed to roast, got roasted

In the format of a comedy roast, a gaggle of comedians takes turns on the microphone cracking jokes about a central honoree — but comics don't typically expect their time on the mic to be turned against them. Such was the case when Doug Williams suddenly found himself in the hot seat at Shaq's All-Star Comedy Roast of football player Emmitt Smith. 

Following an introduction by host Jamie Foxx, Williams' set starts slowly, but about three jokes in, Foxx begins sniping at the comic. Taking on the persona of the comedian's "conscience," he mocks Williams' punchlines and all but tells him to get off of the stage. It's bizarre, hilarious, and apparently, completely unscripted. It also completely derailed the comic's career. 

In a 2020 interview with Vlad TV, Williams alleged that the way he had been humiliated on stage was planned — and that he remembered Foxx explicitly requesting that his microphone not be turned off. "I think it was a professional hit job," he said. "I really do feel like I was set up." Meanwhile, Foxx remained proud of the moment, telling Uproxx in 2014, "I was very dark liquor-induced. It was a 'yak' [Cognac] moment like you wouldn't believe!"

While the production wasn't broadcast live, there were no second takes for Williams. His bomb of a set lives forever online, and his chance to prove himself among his peers was essentially sabotaged. And the worst part: it was all rather funny — to everybody but Williams.

Howard Dean couldn't contain his excitement

During the 2004 presidential election, Democratic contenders lined up for the chance to contest Republican incumbent George W. Bush for the White House. Vermont governor Howard Dean had an impressive lead over opponents Dennis Kucinich and John Kerry in early polls. but as the race went on and Kerry closed the gap, the margin for error got smaller and smaller. It all fell apart for Dean with one excited outburst, a political shot-in-the-foot that has, over time, come to appear almost quaint. 

Chastened by a rough showing at the Iowa caucuses, Dean addressed a crowd of supporters with a rousing speech. Like a football coach motivating a losing team, he gained momentum and volume, snarling into the mic with a hoarse voice brimming with resolve. It all ended in a dramatic crescendo as Dean made a promise to his supporters, yelling, "We're going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House!" Then he, um, screamed ... really loudly. And the media destroyed him for it. Any chances his campaign had of coming back were terminally derailed. 

Reflecting on the viral moment with Esquire in 2016, Dean and his team suggested that the rally had been as loud as a rock concert. As such, his voice and his energy felt reasonable at the actual event but came off as shrill and deranged on television. But as he told the outlet, that's just politics. "Was it an injustice? Sure it was an injustice," he told the outlet. "So what?"

Paula Deen couldn't take the heat

Like a dollop of creamy tarragon butter sauce seeping into every blackened crevice of a New York strip steak, Paula Deen melted her career down when news broke of a lawsuit accusing her of cultivating a bigoted environment within her restaurants. The lawsuit, filed by a former employee, accused Deen not only of tolerating racism at the restaurants she owned but of exhibiting racist behaviors herself, having allegedly expressed a desire to hold a "Southern plantation-style wedding" with an exclusively black waitstaff, per a deposition reported by The Daily Beast. During the 2013 lawsuit, the Southern-fried chef had also admitted to having used racial slurs for Black people during her lifetime, per CNN.

Instead of using the experience to apologize and grow, Deen leaned into the skid, going on the defensive by playing the victim card in a highly-panned interview on the "Today" show. While speaking with NBC's Matt Lauer, Deen deflected criticism, seemingly expressing shock that people were offended by what she'd said. Lauer raised the notion that perhaps she was only doing the interview in an attempt to curtail her deepening financial complications following the controversy. 

Deen never quite fully recovered from the hit to her reputation. Regardless, having revamped her YouTube channel, focused on healthier recipes, and experimented with new business opportunities — did anyone expect the "Paula Deen Recipe Quest" mobile game? — there's a chance she's slowly started to ease her way back into public favor, as of this writing. 

Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction'

2004 was a year of absolute madness for America. The war in Iraq was surging forward. Martha Stewart went to prison. Oh, and the United States came together to absolutely crucify Janet Jackson for exposing her nipple to the nation in a fraction of a second during her Super Bowl halftime show performance with Justin Timberlake.

The "wardrobe malfunction" and its ensuing fracas, immortalized in a characteristically classy fashion by the media as "Nipplegate," sent Jackson's career into a nosedive. She was disinvited from the Grammy Awards, her songs were effectively blacklisted from radio play, and the rollouts for her next two albums were negatively affected by the hostile publicity.

Looking back, it's an episode colored by absurdity and hypocrisy, considering that multiple people were involved in the exposure. After all, her choreographer had teased that the performance would be "shocking" to MTV, and it was Timberlake who actually did the exposing by peeling away a portion of her top. However, while Jackson was essentially exiled and demonized, his career never missed a beat. Not only did Timberlake attend the Grammys that year without protest, he even performed at the awards show.

It's a slice of media madness that spawned academic articles analyzing the country's outsized reaction to the incident and the public's laser-focus on Jackson. It's also a shame — most people on this list ended their careers with self-inflicted wounds. But in this case, Jackson was just the unlucky entertainer who fell on the sword.

Fergie's memorable national anthem

Not all publicity is good publicity, as Fergie discovered when her rendition of the national anthem quickly went viral for all the wrong reasons in 2018. She had been invited to perform at the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles' Staples Center and decided to sing a slowed-down version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" with seemingly improvised riffs and rhythms, before ending by exclaiming, "Let's play some basketball!" 

Footage of the controversial vocal performance quickly went viral, showing basketball players and audience members trying not to laugh. "Everyone was just trying to figure out what was going on," an observer who had been at the game told People. "Like, was she about to break out into a different song? Then she started doing all those ranges and it just went downhill." As Deadline noted, Shaquille O'Neal defended her performance during the game's halftime report, praising the singer for taking a different approach, while Charles Barkley quipped that he wanted a cigarette afterward.

The backlash was so severe that the former Black Eyed Peas singer had to issue a formal apology so that nobody thought she had deliberately committed an act of treason. "I've always been honored and proud to perform the national anthem and last night I wanted to try something special for the NBA," she explained in a statement published by People. "I'm a risk taker artistically, but clearly this rendition didn't strike the intended tone. I love this country and honestly tried my best."

Karmin drew ire on SNL

As electric as the "Saturday Night Live" stage can be in the hands of a seasoned performer, Studio 8H has proven to be a brutal testing ground for new artists. For proof, look no further than the one-two punch of Lana Del Rey and Karmin performing on the show in 2012. At the time of their respective "SNL" performances, both artists were up-and-comers, with Del Rey in the process of launching her first major album, and Karmin (comprised of vocalist Amy Heidemann and multi-instrumentalist Nick Noonan) coming off of a successful string of viral song covers on YouTube. After their performances, both were throttled in the media for bombing as musical guests, but their careers proceeded in very different ways. Del Rey honed her persona and stage presence and found continued success, while Karmin soldiered on down a road to nowhere.

What was the difference? While Del Rey was knocked for looking lost on stage, the duo of Karmin faced criticism for their entire act. While The AV Club described their performance as unpleasant, Uproxx simply sniped, "Awful ... Every time the singer rapped, a little part of me died." Ultimately, the band's mushy conglomeration of pop tropes failed to connect with audiences, despite a musical theater level of enthusiasm. Today, the Karmin project is apparently dead, since they rebranded in 2017 to form an R&B hip-hop project called Qveen Herby. Under this new persona, Heidemann released a debut album in 2021 and is still putting out EPs.

Sinead O'Connor went for the Pope

Here's another "Saturday Night Live" performance that went horribly awry, but there were no accidental technical difficulties on this one. Irish singer Sinead O'Connor used her time as the musical guest on a 1992 episode to make a political statement — and a rather provocative one at that.

Concluding an acapella performance of "War," O'Connor sang her last lines while reaching for a photograph of Pope John Paul II. Holding it square in camera view, she tore it to pieces before saying, with no small amount of conviction, "Fight the real enemy." The moment was so shocking that "SNL" cut to a commercial as the audience sat quiet and stunned. The move torpedoed the singer's burgeoning career in the United States, turning many people off her music and branding her as a high-risk, controversial act. 

In her 2021 autobiography, "Rememberings," she defended her decision to call attention to acts of child abuse within the Catholic church. "Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer," she wrote. "I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame."

Jamie Kennedy rang in the end of his career

There should be no reason to remember the New Year's Eve broadcast that aired on Los Angeles-based KDOC-TV during the final moments of 2012. As a local station's live show, its mission was to idle on the airwaves while most people are out partying. It should have come and gone with barely any notice, and yet people have kept coming back to this broadcast over the years to relive the memories from that night. This New Year's show was so awful, poorly done, and off-the-rails that it went viral and made history.

It's hard to describe the migraine headache that is "First Night 2013." Many scenes find the host, Jamie Kennedy, looking lost on stage, not knowing when the show is live or when the camera is on him. On the technical side, the show was full of dead air, with the control room training cameras on people who aren't ready and switching away from people who are trying to mug for the screen, sometimes in a hard cut to commercial. Whoever was in charge of bleeping profanity missed their marks consistently, and the show concluded by messing up the countdown clock, officially ringing in the New Year later than everyone else.

Speaking to The New York Times afterward, Kennedy proclaimed that the special was intentionally messy and that he was proud of its chaos. "I'm like the Kardashian of comedy," he boasted. "People seem to hate me but they can't stop watching."

Charles Rocket almost destroyed Saturday Night Live

With an untested cast under the guidance of new producer Jean Doumanian, the 1980 to 1981 season of "Saturday Night Live" started badly and got worse. The show dragged on throughout the winter as a national joke — its own sketches displayed a sharp awareness of its declining quality. A historic low was reached in the 11th episode of the season, when cast member Charles Rocket, for whatever reason, decided in the closing moments of the program to let the F-bomb fly. 

"It's the first time I've been shot in my life," he says, referencing a sketch in which his character caught a bullet. "I'd like to know who the f*** did it." Watching the video, it's clear this is no flub. It was a brazen, seemingly intentional provocation on the part of the performer, and it was the last straw for the studio, which began cleaning house promptly after the episode aired. 

You can draw a straight line from Rocket's cocky cussword to his exit, but the really impressive thing is how close he came to sinking the entire show. NBC also fired Doumanian, and "SNL" went off the air for a month. By the time it returned, the show had replaced most of its writing staff and was in the process of purging every single one of its cast members, except Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy — the sole survivors of a disastrous era.

Jackie Mason flips the bird, loses job

"The Ed Sullivan Show" was one of the most popular of its era, running on CBS weekly for a legendary stretch of more than 22 years. Jackie Mason, a comedian, had scored a cushy gig for himself on the program in 1964, with six contracted appearances set to earn him a $45,000 payday —adjusted for inflation that's over $432,000 today. But the opportunity was yanked out from under his feet after he got a little bit loose with his hand gestures on live TV. 

Riffing on the host holding up his fingers from off-stage to indicate his time, Mason allegedly flipped America the bird while making a bit out of pointing around the room and saying, "Here's a finger for you and a finger for you and a finger for you," per The New York Times. 

Even today, it's hard to imagine a guest on a general-audience late-night show not getting in trouble for extending a rigid-digit salute toward the audience. But the story of Mason's firing endures as a good example of why not many people have tried since '64. Sullivan was reportedly incensed by the incident and allegedly threatened Mason, saying "I will destroy you in show business," a disputed quotation that nonetheless proved true. While he remained financially successful as an entertainer, Mason's showbiz career was never the same. 

Steven Seagal flopped on SNL

It might be hard to remember a time when Steven Seagal was an exciting up-and-coming action star, since the last few years have seen him mostly make headlines for sexual assault allegations and receiving awards from Vladimir Putin. But in the late '80s, his acting career had taken off with box office hits like "Above the Law" and "Marked for Death." The first hint that Seagal might not be a great guy behind the scenes came in 1991 when he hosted "Saturday Night Live." And his humorless reputation led to his career's decline later in the '90s as he started releasing straight-to-video films.

The action star's appearance has been called one of the worst in the show's history. Reflecting on how Seagal refused to play along with a sketch where he lost a fight to characters Hans and Franz, former "SNL" writer Bob Odenkirk told "The Howard Stern Show" in 2022, "[It's] one of the most famous, nightmare, can't re-show that show ever." 

The show's staff reportedly had to rewrite everything to assuage his ego and added a ridiculously long scene of him beating up stuntmen dressed as businessmen. "He kept saying, 'I've never seen your show. I don't know what you do here,'" Odenkirk recalled. "'Really? You've never seen Saturday Night Live?'" In the book "Live From New York," Tim Meadows also reflected on Seagal's rudeness, writing, "He didn't realize you can't tell somebody they're stupid on Wednesday and expect them to continue writing for you on Saturday."

John Travolta's infamous Oscar slip-up

In 2014, John Travolta became the subject of mockery thanks to his mispronunciation of Idina Menzel's name at the Academy Awards. While introducing the singer, who was performing "Let It Go" from "Frozen," Travolta stumbled over the phonetic spelling on the teleprompter and mistakenly called her "Adele Dazeem." As the performer later told Today, while she was annoyed at the time, she later came to realize that it was great publicity. The singer added that Travolta had been very apologetic and sent her flowers, as well as releasing a lighthearted public statement a few days later. "I've been beating myself up all day. Then I thought ... what would Idina Menzel say? She'd say, 'Let it go, let it go!'" he joked to CNN, while congratulating "Frozen" on its Oscar success. 

Although Travolta appeared in films after the incident, the only ones that gained any publicity were notorious Razzie-winning flops like "Gotti" and "The Fanatic."  Tragically, the actor has another reason for his career slowing down. He has also attributed his lack of work in recent years to his wife Kelly Preston's death, which happened in July 2020. "I will be taking some time to be there for my children who have lost their mother, so forgive me in advance if you don't hear from us for a while," he wrote on Instagram, confirming the sad news. "But please know that I will feel your outpouring of love in the weeks and months ahead as we heal."

Robin Thicke was criticized for being crude

In 2013, Robin Thicke might have taken over the charts with his breakout hit "Blurred Lines," but he quickly faced backlash over the song's creepy lyrics. Following the singer's infamous VMAs performance with Miley Cyrus, Thicke's name became more associated with controversy than his music career. While the 20-year-old former Disney star was accused of cultural appropriation and of being a bad role model, the man who had been grinding on her was labeled a chauvinist.

Thicke's downfall as a singer was pretty swift. The UK's End Violence Against Women Coalition labeled him their Sexist of the Year for 2013, the sales for his follow-up album "Paula" — an attempt to win back his recently estranged wife, Paula Patton — were so abysmal that it quickly dropped off the radar. Additionally, he also lost a lawsuit over whether "Blurred Lines" had ripped off an old Marvin Gaye song, costing him and his co-writer Pharrell Williams millions.

In a 2021 Apple Music interview with Zane Lowe, Thicke insisted that the public love for the controversial song still outweighed the criticism. "You just kind of take it with a grain of salt," he commented, claiming that "Blurred Lines" still got audiences up on their feet and dancing — his only true intention with the track. Although his time as a chart-topping artist may have come to an end, Thicke is still a familiar face thanks to his role as a judge on the show "The Masked Singer."

Brian Williams was caught in a lie

Despite all his years as the anchor of NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams was suspended and demoted after military veterans spotted holes in a story he told about his time reporting in Iraq. During a 2015 broadcast, he claimed, "The helicopter we were travelling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG. Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded, and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry." However, members of the 159th Aviation Regiment who had been present in 2003 wrote to the newspaper Star and Stripes (via Reuters), contending that a different helicopter had been hit by enemy fire. They claimed that Williams had actually been traveling in one of the helicopters that had arrived later, and which were unharmed.

During the ensuing backlash, the NBC anchor was accused of lying and stealing glory from the soldiers who had really been in the helicopter that got hit. "I would not have chosen to make this mistake," Williams told Stars and Stripes, insisting that he had genuinely misremembered the event due to his fear in the moment. "I don't know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another." NBC decided to hand their news anchor a suspension of six months after his public apology failed to quell the outrage and later reassigned him to MSNBC. He eventually retired from the news channel in December 2021.

Belle Gibson was exposed as a fraud

If you haven't heard the name Belle Gibson, it's likely for the best. The disgraced health blogger made a name for herself in the world of wellness with a clean-eating app and subsequent cookbook called "The Whole Pantry." However, she was stopped in her tracks during her media ascendancy after being caught in a massive, immoral lie. After basing her entire career on the premise that she was managing her brain cancer and a myriad of other maladies through nutrition, it was revealed that Gibson had deceived the world about her illness — she was never sick at all.

The accusations against Gibson came to a head during an interview on the Australian version of "60 Minutes" during which Gibson was called to task for her many alleged manipulations. These included befriending a family with a young boy suffering from cancer in order to gain first-hand information about what the disease entailed, taking money meant for charitable purposes and keeping it, and even misrepresenting her age.

The interview was not broadcast live, but there are no second takes when you're in the hot seat of a news program under studio lights. Gibson's real-time reactions and deflections were fascinating to behold — she seemingly just couldn't stop lying — and her interviewer, Tara Brown, let her off the hook for nothing.