The ‘Empire’ actor claimed to be the victim of a heinous crime that played perfectly into Hollywood’s worst fears about hate in America. Did the pressures of childhood fame or a struggling music career play a role in causing him to concoct what police are now deeming an elaborate hoax?
The story, on the Billboard website, appeared in the summer of 2018. It was meant to raise consciousness about a “ubiquitous” problem in the hip-hop community: a widespread lack of awareness about the importance of mental health. Six up-and-coming artists were invited to discuss how they took care of themselves. Among them was Jussie Smollett, who, in addition to his own fledgling solo musical career, played Jamal Lyon, a singer on the hit Fox series Empire. Smollett stressed the importance of honesty in his own internal struggles. “I admit that I’m jealous, I admit that I’m insecure and that I’m not good at certain things,” he said. Then, in a comment that didn’t get any attention at the time, Smollett suggested that these pressures might be catching up to him. “I’m in my 30s and I’m trying my best to learn that I can’t bend anymore,” he said. “I’m about to break.”
Six months later, he may have done just that.
On Jan. 19, the actor tweeted, “Depression is a real thing y’all.” Three days later, a threatening letter targeting Smollett arrived at the Empire production offices in Chicago. And a week after that, the actor told Chicago police that two masked assailants had attacked him in a wealthy Chicago neighborhood as he walked home from a Subway at 2 a.m. while he was on the phone with his music manager, Brandon Z. Moore. Because Smollett, who is black and openly gay, identified his attackers as white males who shouted “This is MAGA country” and claimed they hung a noose around his neck, his case was immediately held up as an example of the growing problem of hate crimes in the Trump era. In Hollywood, where the alleged attack played perfectly into the community’s worst fears about prejudice, support for Smollett was strident. Robin Roberts interviewed him sympathetically on Good Morning America. Ellen Page called out the Trump administration for the incident on Colbert.
But as police began to investigate, Smollett’s story started to unravel. Two brothers, Abel and Ola Osundairo, whom police had initially brought in for questioning, claimed that Smollett paid them $3,500, via check, to stage the attack. Chicago law enforcement concluded that Smollett was the architect of a “publicity stunt” hoax, arrested him and charged him with felony disorderly conduct for filing a false police report, which carries a possible prison sentence. A grand jury was convened.
Hollywood was blindsided — the initial outpouring of support replaced with skepticism, confusion and anger by social media activists like Tyler Perry, Cardi B and Ava DuVernay. Perry, who said he spoke to Smollett after his release on $100,000 bail, weighed in on Instagram: “Everyone that I know who knows him says that he is not the kind of person who would make up such a horrible and awful thing. Yet the evidence seems to state otherwise. I’m lost for words.”
Heading into this year’s Oscar celebrations, Smollett was both the issue people were buzzing about and the one publicists most wanted their clients to avoid. The intense media scrutiny, ever-changing details, and political and racial implications of the case simply made it radioactive. At Alfre Woodard’s 10th annual Sistahs Soiree at the Beverly Wilshire on Feb. 20, questions about Smollett were said to be off-limits. Press wasn’t even allowed at Common’s fifth annual A Toast to the Arts pre-Oscar event in West Hollywood, despite its media friendliness in years past. And at the VH1 Trailblazer Honors, several personal publicists would grant access to stars only on the condition that no questions about Smollett be raised.
Still, for some, the urge to comment was too great for their reps to subdue. That included actress and activist Alyssa Milano, who presented an award to #MeToo founder Tarana Burke at the VH1 event. “My heart breaks even more if Smollett faked his own attack because of the intersectionality of who he is as a person,” she said, referring to the fact that as a black gay man, his story touches many marginalized groups. “All of those communities will be harmed,” she added. Debbie Allen, who directed Smollett in a 2015 episode of Empire, admitted at the Women’s Image Awards that she doesn’t know what to feel because she knows the actor personally. “I’m just disturbed that something has happened to him, that he would do this, if he has in fact done this,” she said. Over Oscar weekend, one Hollywood insider who has known Smollett and his family for decades told THR, “He’s a good guy, but he’s also an actor, and actors sometimes crave attention, and that comes out in weird ways.”
Fox, which had initially issued a strong statement of support, wrote him out of the season’s last two episodes of Empire. JaSheika James, a writer on the show, tweeted out her continued support for Smollett, and then quickly made her account private. After Smollett’s arrest, GMA‘s Roberts called the alleged hoax “a setback for race relations” and on Feb. 26 aired an interview with Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, during which he said there is still a substantial amount of unreleased evidence that “doesn’t support [Smollett’s] version” of events.
Smollett, meanwhile, maintains his innocence, directing all inquiries to a spokesperson at UTA, which is sticking by its client for now. (Manager Moore did not respond to THR‘s request for comment.)
Smollett still has vocal supporters in the industry, including Empire co-star Terrence Howard, who posted, “The Jussie I know could never even conceive of something so unconscious and ugly.”
To say that Smollett had been well liked on set and by network and studio executives does not do his previous reputation justice. Many of his colleagues, who would only speak on background, call him one of the most popular castmembers on the show. They cite his collaborative nature, warm demeanor and exceptional work ethic. One executive who spoke to THR seemed close to tears when wrestling with the possibility that Smollett faked the whole thing. “I’m trying to filter all this information through the experiences I’ve had with him,” says a high-ranking show source who worked closely with Smollett, “and it doesn’t connect.” While their reactions to the arrest vary, one theme does emerge: None of his co-workers saw this coming.
One question is whether the pressures and anxieties of modern fame played any role in Smollett’s seemingly inexplicable behavior. “One of the darkest corners of fame is that it becomes addictive,” says Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist who specializes in fame and celebrity, “and then you are so afraid of becoming a has-been or yesterday’s news that you might do something desperate.”
At the time of the alleged attack, Smollett’s career appeared to be thriving. A run on the award-winning Empire was expected to continue through a yet-to-be- announced sixth season, and his success on the show was likely to translate into future projects. His political activism on Twitter, where he had upward of 1.3 million followers, had cemented him as a voice of social justice. His reps at UTA and Management 360 — to say nothing of corporate executives potentially keen to partner with him on brand endorsement projects — would have been pleased with his high “Q” scores, a widely used metric in Hollywood to judge a public figure’s likability and awareness. Data shared with THR shows that Smollett was just as well regarded as Empire‘s two biggest stars, Howard and Taraji P. Henson, but the viewing public only had about half as much awareness of Smollett. Still, the trend was headed in the right direction. “Jussie was in a really good place,” says Henry Schafer, executive vp Q Scores.
Smollett came of age in Hollywood. He and his five siblings had been performing since childhood. Janet, their African-American mother, and her husband Joel, a Russian Jew who immigrated to America from Poland, met during civil rights protests in the Bay Area. They moved the family around the country to pursue modeling and acting opportunities for their kids. In 1992, at age nine, Smollett landed a role in Disney’s hockey comedy The Mighty Ducks. He filmed in Minneapolis and visited Prince’s nightclub, the first inklings of what stardom offered.
A bigger break came in 1994 when all six kids were cast as the Jericho siblings in On Our Own, an ABC sitcom that aired Friday nights at 8:30 p.m., right after Family Matters. Ralph Louis Harris, now a stand-up comic who starred on the show as the eldest brother, says Jussie Smollett was highly functioning and well adjusted, a “lover of the arts.” The Smolletts impressed him as ambitious but also down to earth. That year, when the cast appeared at Universal Studios, Jussie leapt up onstage. “Next thing I know Jussie is on stage and he’s singing,” Harris recalls. “I didn’t know he could sing, but he was doing it like he’d done it a million times. I was like, ‘Who are these kids?'”
Behind the scenes, the siblings shared a large common room where Janet, a loving disciplinarian who was eager to keep the family together whenever possible, supervised. A studio teacher taught them French. Janet and Joel tried to pass on their views on equality. “They were biracial and knew how the world saw them and all the stigmas, and they did a good job of getting the kids ready,” says Harris.
Lori Adams, an independent talent manager who once worked as a production assistant on On Our Own and was very close to the Smolletts, now finds herself unable to square the Jussie she knew with the alleged hoax. “These things don’t add up,” she says. “Right now it’s all speculation. I feel he’s been framed.”
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