Kathy Griffin sparked bipartisan outrage last week after debuting a photo showing her holding a prop styled to look like the severed head of President Donald Trump. While the idea for the image was concocted in just minutes, the fallout may last months, or years.
In an emotional press conference held Friday, the comedian said she was “absolutely” afraid for her career after the stunt, for which she quickly apologized this week.
“I don’t think I’m going to have a career after this,” Griffin said.
Publicity experts contacted by HuffPost, some of whom asked to remain anonymous citing professional concerns, offered mixed opinions on whether the Trump photo is a career-ender for Griffin. She may be able to merely slip out of the spotlight for a while and return in six to eight months ― one suggested that Americans particularly enjoy that type of underdog narrative. But another stated outright that Griffin was finished.
“From a PR perspective, she did do the right thing, by apologizing ... but still that isn’t enough. Not even close,” celebrity publicist Jonathan Hay told HuffPost in an email.
“Kathy Griffin had made enough money where she can easily retire and fall out of the public eye. Out of sight, out of mind,” he said.
The photo seemed likely to test the limits of American audiences’ tolerance for freedom of expression, even after her initial apology. But then she gave a press conference, a 40-minute affair in which celebrity lawyer Lisa Bloom stood by the comedian as her fierce defender, which told a new story by painting Griffin as a victim of online bullying herself. While standing by her original apology, Griffin and her lawyer lay blame on Trump, arguing that he and his family had bullied her and contributed to a “mob mentality pile-on” that resulted in “specific,” “detailed” death threats.
None of the three experts we spoke with thought it went well.
To Hay, the Friday press conference was “flat-out gross.” Another publicist suggested that he would have certainly advised against it, given that Griffin’s initial video apology seemed sincere and the news cycle was already beginning to move on. He told HuffPost the press conference pulled Griffin back into headlines in a way that felt self-serving. Another thought it dragged on far too long.
Perhaps Griffin simply felt she had nothing to lose. By then, the comic had already lost out on nearly every gig she had lined up.
CNN dropped her from a decade-long gig co-hosting its New Year’s Eve coverage with Anderson Cooper. A toilet stool company called Squatty Potty also cut ties with her. The photo was denounced by public figures ranging from Melania Trump, who usually stays out of the fray, to Chelsea Clinton, and its quality of implied violence against a sitting U.S. president has prompted an investigation by the Secret Service. The last remaining venue she’d booked dropped her standup act late last week.
While Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) initially told CNN that he still planned to appear with Griffin during a promotional tour for his new book this summer, he quickly walked back his statement after hearing from his constituents.
Even if the public is eventually forgiving, Griffin may not be able to perform live for a year because venues typically book their acts months in advance.
Jim Carrey was one of few who came to her defense as a fellow comedian, saying it’s their job to “cross the line at all times.”
And cross lines they have. Recent years have seen controversy from Michael Richards, who went on a racist tirade in 2006, Tracy Morgan, who went on a homophobic rant in 2011, and Daniel Tosh, who joked about rape in 2012. Morgan and Tosh managed to recover, with the former releasing a Netflix special and the latter still hosting his Comedy Central series this year. Shock-jock Don Imus also managed to creep back onto radio waves after making sexist and racist comments about a college basketball team, although his show was initially canceled.
But the particular level of outrage affecting Griffin somewhat recalls another scandal involving Trump and a TV personality ― Billy Bush.
Last fall, leaked audio of Bush playfully conversing with Trump as the latter discussed grabbing women “by the pussy” on an “Access Hollywood” bus in 2005 made headlines. Bush also lost a major network job, like Griffin, when NBC fired him from the “Today” show. After releasing an apology, Bush was silent until last week, seven months after the tape surfaced, when he discussed how the fallout affected his family in interviews with The Hollywood Reporter and “Good Morning America” ― a show that does not air on his former network home.
Whereas Bush was never supposed to truly raise any eyebrows, that’s Griffin’s preferred brand of comedy. But weathering a controversy such of this will take time, with little guarantee on the outcome.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Al Franken was still planning to appear with Kathy Griffin on his book tour. He has disinvited her.