Sorry, not sorry: Ellen DeGeneres and the art of the celebrity apology

As the talk show host kicks off the 18th season of her show with a mea culpa, Gemma White highlights the right and wrong ways to say sorry

FILE PHOTO: 77th Golden Globe Awards - Arrivals - Beverly Hills, California, U.S., January 5, 2020 - Ellen DeGeneres. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni//File Photo
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Before social media, before TMZ, before camera phones and the rise of the Internet, celebrities didn't have much to apologise for, as anything that went wrong in their lives was left to some fearsome publicist to deal with.

And the way the publicist dealt with it usually consisting of them saying: "If you want my client to do an interview with your publication or appear on your TV show ever again, you’ll conveniently forget they just ran over a puppy / stole charity funds from an orphanage / got in a fist fight at their child's tennis tournament."

And thus, the celebrity was eternally protected from the consequences of their own actions.

But the advent of social media has brought unprecedented levels of accountability into the fame game. It took just one tweet by US comedian Kevin T Porter back in March, which read: “Right now we all need a little kindness. You know, like Ellen DeGeneres always talks about! She’s also notoriously one of the meanest people alive. Respond to this with the most insane stories you’ve heard about Ellen being mean”, for the 62-year-old talk show host’s carefully cultivated everywoman persona and "be kind" motto to start collapsing.

It was a reckoning that spilled out of the studio and into her own home, when one former member of her domestic staff declared: “Ellen was the worst person that I’ve ever met in my life. She takes pleasure in firing people.”

‘Cold and distant’

Three producers, Ed Glavin, Kevin Leman and Jonathan Norman, were fired from The Ellen DeGeneres Show last month, following an internal investigation into allegations of misconduct (allegations that Leman and Norman deny, while Glavin has not publicly commented). And so DeGeneres kicked off her 18th season by addressing the allegations to her virtual audience.

“As you may have heard this summer there were allegations of a toxic work environment at our show and then there was an investigation,” she said. “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened, I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected.”

It's worth noting that DeGeneressays she "learned" of these things, implying she was unaware of the severity of the misconduct allegations against her producers. However, allegations against her, personally, had been trending since March, when Dutch beauty blogger, Nikkie de Jager, accused the host of being "cold and distant" when she appeared on her show, telling another interviewer: "It's nice that you say 'hi' before the show. She didn't."

I get impatient and I am working on all of that. I am a work in progress

DeGeneres acknowledged some of the criticisms that have been levelled against her in her opening monologue.

“There were also articles in the press and on social media that said that I am not who I appeared to be on TV because I became known at the ‘be kind’ lady,” said DeGeneres, addressing the myriad accusations, one of which was that she tried to get a waitress fired from an LA restaurant for having chipped nail polish.

“The truth is I am that person who you see on TV [but] I am also a lot of other things. Sometimes I get sad, I get mad, I get anxious, I get frustrated, I get impatient and I am working on all of that. I am a work in progress.”

The significance of the word ‘if’

“If I’ve ever let someone down, if I’ve ever hurt their feelings, I am so sorry for that,” DeGeneres added. Her use of "if" is interesting. The word has emerged as a key component in any celebrity public apology in which the famous person wishes to distance themselves from the consequences of their actions.

But "if" is not an admission of wrongdoing; rather, it is a subtle way of shifting focus onto the offended rather than the offender. Certainly, it's a far less concrete term than "when", which changes the whole tone of the apology. To wit: "When I've ever let someone down, when I've ever hurt their feelings, I am so sorry for that."

The use of "if" is also wishy-washy, suggesting that something might have happened … but then again, it might not have. And anyway, if you were offended, then maybe the problem lies with you? (Shrug emoji)

Madonna was another star who played the "if" card back in 2014 when she hashtagged a racial slur while referring to her son, Rocco.

"I am sorry if I offended anyone with my use of the [racial slur] on Instagram," the Vogue singer wrote. "I appreciate that it's a provocative word and I apologise if it gave people the wrong impression."

And in 2016, Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence upset Hawaii's indigenous people when she appeared on the UK's Graham Norton Show and revealed that sacred rocks on the island had been "good for butt itching!"

"I apologise if I offended anyone," the Hunger Games star said of the furore. Except there is no 'if'. She did offend people and they were very vocal about it.

The ‘please relate to me’ apology

Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon made a now-famous apology back in 2013, when her husband Jim Toth was arrested for driving under the influence, and the actress refused to do as the police officer asked and stay in the car during the arrest.

Do you know my name? You're about to find out who I am

"I clearly had one drink too many and I am deeply embarrassed about the things I said," she told US show, Good Morning America. "It was definitely a scary situation and I was frightened for my husband, but that is no excuse."

Ah, the I-was-just-defending-my-family apology. So relatable, right?

Except that you or I probably wouldn't bust out the words: "Do you know my name? You're about to find out who I am", as we're being hustled into a police car and read our rights.

But it's okay, she was simply "frightened for her husband". Her six-foot-one husband, who was quietly complying with the officer’s requests.

A right way to be wrong?

One celebrity who has managed to nail an actual apology is Justin Bieber. When a video surfaced on TMZ of the then 15-year-old star using a racial slur, the Baby singer didn't resort to ifs, but managed to make an apology that owned the mistake as his own.

"I'm very sorry. I take my friendships with people of all cultures very seriously and I apologise for offending or hurting anyone with my childish and inexcusable mistake. I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world and to not make that mistake again," he wrote. "I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say but telling the truth is always what's right."

And as you can see, he apologised for offending, not if he offended.

Is it too late now to say sorry? No, Justin, it certainly isn’t, and you killed it.

His fellow Justin, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was also forced to make a public apology last year when pictures emerged of him wearing blackface make-up for a school performance.

“I take responsibility for my decision to do that. I shouldn’t have done it. I should’ve known better,” he said.

Even the at-times prickly Christian Bale, whose 2009 rant against director of photography Shane Hurlbut on the set of Terminator Salvation went viral, didn't fall back on any ifs when he said of his diatribe: "I have no confusion whatsoever, I was out of order beyond belief. I acted like a punk. I make no excuses for it, it is inexcusable, and I hope that is absolutely clear."

However, if you are a modern celebrity unwilling to take full responsibility for your actions and you still insist on using the dismissive "if", always remember to follow up with some version of: 'Some of my best friends in the whole world are a member of [insert marginalised social group here]', for full A-list unaccountability.