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Lea Michele and the Question of Second Chances

Before she was canceled — however you choose to define that word — the actress Lea Michele had been more or less auditioning for a decade to star in “Funny Girl” on Broadway someday.

She broke out on her television series “Glee” by performing numbers like “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl,” which depicts the life of the early-20th-century comedian Fanny Brice and made an icon out of a young Barbra Streisand. But things got complicated: In 2020, Ms. Michele was accused of disparaging behavior on the set of “Glee.” So when the role went to Beanie Feldstein last year — the director thought Ms. Michele, who had just had a baby, wouldn’t be ready to return to work — the schadenfreude was swift. Ms. Michele’s name trended on Twitter as fans imagined her rage at being passed over.

The loathing of Ms. Michele was all a little breathless, I thought at the time. Which is why I was intrigued this summer when Broadway producers announced that she would replace Ms. Feldstein in “Funny Girl.” Not everyone was happy. Some theater wags didn’t see Ms. Michele as the real deal or the production as strong. But others raised a different point: Did she deserve a second chance?

Ms. Michele had been accused by Samantha Marie Ware, a Black actress who appeared on “Glee,” of “traumatic microaggressions” toward her during their time working together and of humiliating her in front of cast mates. (Ms. Ware declined my request to be interviewed.) Ms. Michele quickly apologized in a statement, before largely receding from view, but a deluge of criticism followed — including other former cast mates who called her “terrifying,” “unpleasant” and a “nightmare” to work with. When Ms. Michele’s comeback as the new star of “Funny Girl” was announced in July, one theater blogger wrote, “I feel as if I’m watching a Karen win a Nobel Peace Prize.”

Until very recently, America was a place where fresh starts were celebrated, championed, romanticized, rooted for (if sufficiently earned). The idea of second chances is a centerpiece of rehabilitation and renewal programs, with organizations named for it and even a month devoted to it by the White House. In restorative justice circles — in which those who committed an act of harm may sit down with their victim or a broader community to try to make amends — one of the core principles is that people are never the sum of their worst mistakes. Even, presumably, Ms. Michele, who starts performances in “Funny Girl” tonight.

And yet when it comes to the culture, where social media has become arbiter and it can feel as though everybody is apologizing all the time, we don’t have a very good way of talking about redemption or who should be afforded it.

What are we to make, for instance, of Johnny Depp, with his history of bad behavior, who is fresh off a defamation trial against his ex-wife (who accused him of abuse) but glided above the stage in a spacesuit at the MTV Video Music Awards last month and is set to direct his first movie in 25 years? Vivica A. Fox said recently that if anyone deserved a second chance, it is Will Smith, who issued a lengthy apology on YouTube this summer over his now infamous Oscars slap of the comedian Chris Rock. But does he?

We have seen second chance scripts play out in the business world, too. Audrey Gelman, the high-profile founder of the Wing, who resigned amid furor over her company’s treatment of Black and brown employees, has a new antique store that was recently profiled in Vanity Fair. Alexi McCammond, the almost-editor of Teen Vogue, who was ousted over racist and homophobic tweets she wrote as a teenager, resumed working at Axios. Adam Neumann, a co-founder of WeWork — which imploded spectacularly amid a botched public offering, tales of mismanagement and a gender discrimination complaint — is enjoying a $350 million do-over, even as many minority entrepreneurs barely get a start.

There are different circumstances and nuances in each of these comebacks — as well as the original faults — which can make them hard to talk about, at least in 280-character spurts. In Mr. Smith’s case, for instance, some believed the outrage over the slap underscored the unfair burden Black men face to be the best versions of themselves at all times. When the accusations against Ms. Michele emerged, I found myself wondering how much her gender played a role in the perception of her behavior; women, after all, are held to higher standards of warmth and integrity.

But we are also living in a peculiar time when we have competing cultural scripts. In one, we seem to have newfound empathy for people once vilified for their mistakes: Monica Lewinsky, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears — even the Menendez brothers, who’ve spent more than 25 years in prison for murdering their parents and who seem to have found a new cohort of defenders on TikTok. Cultural blind spots can be blind spots because we don’t know what they are at the time. Yet when it comes to mistakes made in the present, it’s as though there’s a collective empathy gap. We seem to lack the hindsight or grace or maybe simply the distance to be open to forgiveness or the idea that somebody could earn it or even to give the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe that has something to do with the general vibe of late, in which, as The Atlantic put it recently, “toxic” has become a buzzword and we seem to have granted ourselves permission to cut anyone who embodies anything of the sort right out of our lives — full stop — with no obligation to forgive. Or maybe it’s that, time and again, we have watched as our heroes and public figures squander away our grace. Indeed, we are living in an age of accountability, in which there are (rightly) calls for greater transparency and conversations about what’s right and wrong. But it is almost certainly easier to dismiss people as toxic or withhold empathy than to have to deal with the reality that many, many people make terrible, regrettable, sometimes near-unforgivable mistakes and we don’t have a clear ritual for reconciliation.

Robert J. Bies, a professor of management at Georgetown University who teaches a course called Heroes and Villains, has studied the phenomenon of celebrity second chances. He noted that, in the criminal justice world, for all its flaws and inequities, there is a process — or at least an effort at a methodology — when it comes to ex-offenders who want to re-enter society. Even with a celebrity like Martha Stewart, who served five months in federal prison for lying about a stock sale, there is a sense on the part of the public that she “did her time,” he told me.

But we don’t have an easy restoration script for those like Ms. Michele who may be accused of wretched conduct but who haven’t committed a crime and whose specific behavior falls somewhere on the spectrum between insensitive and abusive but is often simply deemed problematic, a word that is vague enough that neither the perpetrator nor the public is forced to grapple with what, exactly, happened and what sort of response it merits. Should these people go away? For how long? Is taking time to reflect enough, or should they have to do something more concrete, more coordinated, more public? What do they owe to those they’ve supposedly hurt? What, if anything, do they owe the public?

In a 2021 study about second chances, Dr. Bies and two co-authors looked at the cases of Ms. Michele and others to understand what a successful redemption process might look like for public figures. The researchers argued that effective second acts include three primary elements: remorse (which, Dr. Bies noted, should be genuine and include an apology), rehabilitation (whether the public figures are taking steps to better themselves or, in the parlance of the internet, do better) and restoration (the ability to integrate what they have learned into public life).

There is another element to that process, which is validation from the public. Is the public willing to accept that, as the researchers put it, “a new identity and new person has emerged” or that the offender has changed?

In Ms. Michele’s case, she has publicly expressed remorse. She lost a sponsorship deal and did what people tend to do in these situations: went away for a while. The public doesn’t know and perhaps won’t ever know what exactly she did in the form of rehabilitation or self-betterment or whether — and to what extent — she has spoken with her former colleagues. But she does appear to have acknowledged at least some shortcomings. As she recently told The Times, being a leader on set “means not only going and doing a good job when the camera’s rolling, but also when it’s not. And that wasn’t always the most important thing for me.”

So how much grace do we afford her?

I happen to believe that people should be able to make mistakes and learn from them, even when they should have known better. That it is possible to both hold people accountable and be open to the possibility of change. But they must also show that they have evolved. This can be hard: Dr. Bies said that what makes celebrity redemption arcs so unsatisfying is that we don’t have a window into how or whether people have atoned. Ms. Michele’s trajectory may come down to how others receive her — co-workers who share the stage with her and admirers who will choose to spend money or not to see her perform. In which case, maybe the question is not whether she deserves a second shot but what she does with it.

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