- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

LOS ANGELES

It used to be that celebrities sought treatment for things they put into their mouths. Now it’s for things that come out of them.

Michael Richards, warmly regarded for his oddball Kramer character on “Seinfeld,” began psychiatric counseling to control his anger just days after unleashing a racist tirade against black patrons at a comedy club. More recently, “Grey’s Anatomy” star Isaiah Washington said he would seek help after receiving a torrent of negative publicity for using a slur against homosexuals.

“With the support of my family and friends, I have begun counseling,” Mr. Washington announced after admitting, then denying, then admitting once and for all that he had used the invective last fall when referring to fellow cast member T.R. Knight, who soon after declared he is homosexual.

And, of course, the celeb story of the summer was Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant after he was pulled over for drunken driving. As with Mr. Richards and Mr. Washington, he quickly announced he would seek help through rehab.

So, are celebrities truly seeking to change the way they think? Or are they just doing damage control? Probably some of both.

University of Southern California sociologist Julie Albright says “it’s a form of repentance” for celebrities to admit publicly to bad behavior and then get help so it doesn’t happen again.

However, her USC colleague Bill Boyarsky doesn’t think most celebrities are serious about changing their behavior. Certainly not those who issue a public mea culpa, then disappear for a few weeks to a vaguely defined, unsupervised counseling program.

“Of course” it’s all a front, says Mr. Boyarsky, an adjunct professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and a former Los Angeles Times city editor. Serious rehabilitation requires more than just saying a few public “I’m sorrys” and dropping out of public view for a week or two of counseling, he says.

Hollywood stars aren’t the only ones seeking help. Musicians, politicians, athletes and others in the public eye routinely head off to rehab shortly after some embarrassing incident comes to light.

Last week, popular San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said he was entering a program for alcohol abuse. The announcement came less than a week after Mr. Newsom admitted to an affair with his campaign manager’s wife.

Rehabilitation can take many forms.

Late last year, the Rev. Ted Haggard resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals after he was accused of sexual misconduct with a man. One of four ministers who oversaw three weeks of counseling for Mr. Haggard said the disgraced minister emerged convinced that he is “completely heterosexual,” the Denver Post reported last week.

Hard-partying actress Lindsay Lohan recently checked herself into a posh Hollywood treatment facility following a series of paparazzi run-ins and movie-set problems. When the Web site TMZ.com posted photos showing Miss Lohan going in and out of her Hollywood treatment facility, seemingly at will, some questioned her commitment.

Psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher of Colorado State University says it’s not necessarily fair to compare the rehabilitation of alcoholics and drug abusers with people like Mr. Richards who fall into what he calls the “angry, snarly, grouchy, pain-in-the-butt” category.

Mr. Richards, who is white, may have violated common decency when he unleashed his racist diatribe at black hecklers who told him he wasn’t funny, but he didn’t break any laws. As a result, Mr. Richards himself — not a judge — structured his rehab program.

Besides counseling, he appeared on the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s nationally syndicated radio program, “Keep Hope Alive,” as part of a series of apologies. He also offered to meet with the patrons he offended.

As to whether counseling truly can calm someone like him, Mr. Deffenbacher says anger management experts have obtained impressive short-term results with just a few outpatient visits.

“The bad news is, we are creatures of habit, and it’s really easy to slip back into old habits over time,” he says.

It was a return to bad habits, Mr. Gibson said, that brought about his famous rehab moment last summer. The actor-director had begun drinking again after years of sobriety, and he was three sheets to the wind when he was stopped on the Pacific Coast Highway. His response to the police included loudly blaming Jews for “all the wars in the world.”

Mr. Gibson quickly headed down what he called a “path for healing,” apologizing multiple times, announcing that he was getting help for his drinking problem and meeting with Jewish leaders to say he hadn’t really meant what he had said.

To publicist David Brokaw, it’s important that celebrities mean what they say when asking the public’s forgiveness, then prove it by not engaging in the same stupid behavior again.

Before taking on a troubled celebrity, Mr. Brokaw says, “the first thing that I’d want to know is that they really are interested in not just solving the PR problem, but taking ownership of the personal problem.”

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