Why Celebrities Like Justin Timberlake Can't Just Apologize in Private Anymore

Justin Timberlake made sure the whole world knew he was busy making it up to wife Jessica Biel after photos of him in a drunken state sparked embarrassing cheating speculation

By Natalie Finn Dec 05, 2019 10:14 PMTags

We're all in it together.

At least, that's what it feels like when Justin Timberlake takes the time to apologize to all of us.

Just when it finally feels as though we've relinquished our hold on our favorite stars, accepted the whole "let them live their lives" contract and our place as observers...they pull us back in with tacit confirmation that they owe us an explanation.

That may not have been exactly what Timberlake was going for when he publicly apologized to his family, particularly wife Jessica Biel, last night for the embarrassment caused by photos of him looking suspiciously close to his Palmer co-star Alisha Wainwright getting out the weekend before Thanksgiving.

But it's a reminder that many celebrities' pact with their fans includes a morality clause.

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Surely Timberlake had been busy trying to make it up to Biel for days, but on Wednesday we got the fuller scope of the shame he was feeling when he took to Instagram to put in writing that he drank too much that night and he wasn't proud of his behavior, but nothing untoward had happened between him and Wainwright. (Her rep has concurred, saying there was "no validity" to speculation that their interaction was anything other than innocent.)

Justin, it's OK, we forgive you. But that's just us. We can only do so much.

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Once upon a time, Hollywood types were expected to let the gossip swirl while they pressed on in public, even when the narratives got truly ridiculous.

And, decades later, famous people are still more or less expected to stoically ignore most of what's written about them. As Timberlake first noted in his statement, "I stay away from gossip as much as I can." (Really, people like him have no choice but to turn the other cheek, lest all their time and mental energy be spent beating back what the masses are saying or tweeting at any given time.)

But gossip ebbs and flows like the tide, and it's high tide for the Timberlake family now. So, J.T. ultimately decided that nothing less than a mea culpa in front of his 56.8 million Instagram followers would do.

"He hopes by addressing what happened and apologizing to her publicly that they can put this behind them and start to move on," a source explained the move to E! News. "Justin feels like the story isn't dying and hopes this will be the end of it. He always tries to keep his private life private, but he knows he made a big mistake in public and now has to own up to it." 

I don't know, would you feel better if your husband messed up in some fashion and, in addition to apologizing to you, also stood up at your next outing with all the other couples you hang with and apologized in front of them, too? Your closest friends already know the details, anyway, so may as...

No? You wouldn't like that?

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But when tens of millions of people have "liked" pictures of your kids, and stand in awe of your pistol squats and chatter for hours about what you wear to the Emmys, maybe you want all of them to know without a doubt that your husband is sorry for acting a damn fool.

But even if you don't, he's got the family's livelihood to think about, and at some point, the paying fans get sucked into the choices you make in your private life. 

Ever since Hugh Grant sat down on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in 1995 and publicly apologized for being caught with a prostitute—an affront to both girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley and the countless Americans who'd fallen for his bumbling British charm in Four Weddings and a Funeral—the public apology has become a more frequent occurrence (although rarely was it ever pulled off so deftly).


"To be honest with you, none of it has been the kind of press you really want," the actor said. "None of it is what you might call nice. Curiously, though, the suffering one goes through in these circumstances—you don't mind it too much. I almost feel as if I deserve a good whipping."

Whether anyone going through similar flagellation has ever agreed with that statement or not (just a few years later President Bill Clinton was apologizing to the whole country for his infidelity, and we know he didn't think he deserved it), the need to publicly acknowledge one's personal wrongdoing has endured.

Especially when you have no choice in the matter, whether you've been arrested, are about to be impeached or have just crashed your Escalade in the front yard.

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Tiger Woods' infidelity turned into no less than an international crisis for the sporting world—and soon reached into every crevice of pop culture—when the the curtain was pulled back on his double life in spectacular fashion in November 2009.

Unsurprisingly, following that caliber of image implosion, Woods sat down and apologized to everyone, ever, in February 2010 for cheating on his then-wife, Elin Nordegren.

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"Many of you in the room are my friends. Many of you in this room know me. Many of you have cheered for me, or worked with me, or supported me, and now, every one of you has good reason to be critical of me," Woods said, making a televised statement after going largely silent for two months.

"I want to say to each of you, simply, and directly, I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in."

That's a lot of people, most of whom probably tuned in out of general interest in the biggest—and, at the time, truly shocking—scandal of the day, but also many of whom really did feel as disappointed or downright betrayed as Woods acknowledged they might.

"I know I have severely disappointed all of you," the greatest gift to golf in a generation also said. "I have made you question who I am and how I have done the things I did. I am embarrassed that I have put you in this position. For all that I have done, I am so sorry. I have a lot to atone for."

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As for the state of his marriage to the mother of his two children, however, "these are issues between a husband and a wife," Woods said.

Nordegren filed for divorce that August.

Plenty of famous couples have survived a cheating scandal, but obviously their issues—shoved so unceremoniously out into the open—ran deeper than that. No matter what Woods told the world, it wasn't going to magically repair the damage he had done to his own marriage.

But for someone of Woods' stature, not only the sheer fame but also the level of admiration he had commanded for a decade, the public apology was nothing but necessary. Fans weren't just under an impression that they deserved better from this seeming role model they had emotionally invested in. They actually did.

And Woods knew it.

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The rational argument that an actor or singer or sports star has one job and fans can either buy in or not, but at the end of the day the star's life is his or her own and they don't owe a bunch of strangers anything, still holds some water.

But not a lot. No amount of fame ever merits disgraceful behavior on the fans' or media's part—threats, hate speech, invasions of privacy, trespassing, hacking, etc.—but if a celebrity makes it a point to seem accessible to their fans, then they best be prepared for the fans to treat them like someone they know. Or at least to judge them that way, whether that's logical or not.

And it's unfair to expect people to keep rooting for you based solely on the understanding that you're a human being who makes mistakes. You've got to get in there, show remorse, and say out loud (or in writing) that you screwed up. That's how private relationships work, and increasingly it's how public ones work too. 


That's just the way it is nowadays, made more so by social media multiplying and intensifying the connections forged between entertainers/athletes/influencers, etc. and their fan bases.

And since social media serves as a ready microphone whenever the mood strikes, fans now keep an eye on those Twitter and Instagram accounts for the inevitable breaking of the silence.

Sure enough, that's where Kevin Hart, facing an alleged extortion threat, went in 2017 to acknowledge he had made a "bad error in judgment" by ending up in a situation "where only bad things can happen and they did." The A-list actor and comedian knew darn well that, while making amends with pregnant wife Eniko Parrish at home was more important than anything, being a household name comes with an extra set of obligations.

In addition to a video acknowledging all of the above to his 82.1 million Instagram followers, he wrote, "Sending so many apologies to my wife & kids. I gotta do better and I will. I'm not perfect and have never claimed to be ...I love you all." 

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Hart told People a year later, "Our marriage has been put to the test. It's the most difficult test ever. And, you know, sometimes those tests come from stupidity. But it's how you handle it, and how you decide to move forward from it."

And that goes for everyone involved—and not actually involved.

Parrish gave birth to their second child together, and Hart's third, in November 2017 and their marriage remains intact. Moreover, box office prognosticators are predicting Jumanji: The Next Level could take in at least $60 million when it opens early overseas ahead of its Dec. 13 release in the U.S, and he's got a new six-part docu-special, poignantly (and funnily) called Don't F--k This Up, coming to Netflix Dec. 27.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Diamond Ball

Offset took his remorse public after he and Cardi B separated a year ago, posting video on Instagram on his own 27th birthday to admit to his wife and assorted 15 million followers, "I was partaking in activity that I shouldn't have been partaking in, and I apologize. You know what I'm saying? For breaking your heart, for breaking our promise, for breaking God's promise and being a selfish, messed up husband.

"I want to be able to spend the rest of my life with you," the Migos rapper continued. "I apologize. I am sorry for what I have done to you. I didn't f--k that girl, but I was entertaining her, you know what I'm saying? I apologize, and I love you, and I hope you forgive me. My birthday wish is just to have you back."

Some of that apology also ended up in his song "Don't Lose Me" that February as Offset's very public win-Cardi-back tour continued.


Mission accomplished, as Offset and Cardi B did gravitate back toward each other and they celebrated their first anniversary in September.

"You gotta go through steps and different things so that we can grow," Offset said on The Breakfast Club in February. "Not on the TV though, real behind the scenes, getting to know each other, getting to know who you're with and appreciate them all the way around. Because that one mistake made me appreciate her."

Of course all the real work is going to take place behind closed doors. Justin Timberlake's Instagram post wasn't the first, nor will it be the last, penance he pays in his household. But nowadays, a celebrity sometimes has to confirm to the world outside that the work is, indeed, taking place.

"He always tries to keep his private life private, but he knows he made a big mistake in public and now has to own up to it," our source said. "Nobody is going anywhere, but it's definitely had an effect on their marriage and her trust in him."

As Kevin Hart said, it's how you handle it in the moment and how you decide to move forward. The Instagram post is the easy part.