When dozens of actresses wore black at January’s Golden Globes to raise awareness about sexual assault, the red-carpet press floundered. On E!, babbling commentators recalled all the black dresses celebrities had worn to previous awards shows and Photoshopped random gowns, shaded black, onto actresses’ bodies. One anchor’s big contribution to the public discourse was remarking that the protest was “a big statement, but a positive one, don’t you think?”
This Sunday, the Academy Awards pre-show promises to be at least as awkward. Though there’s no major wardrobe coordination planned to acknowledge the Time’s Up initiative, the host of E!’s red-carpet broadcast, Ryan Seacrest, will be a walking reminder of the sexual abuse allegations that have shaken the industry since the fall.
Seacrest, who has been accused of several instances of sexual harassment and assault by a former stylist, tried to get out ahead of the allegations in November. Before the woman went public, Seacrest came forward in a statement to agree to cooperate with any investigation into her claims against him, which spanned from 2007 to 2013, and to deny what he called the “reckless allegations.” The woman, who later identified herself as Suzie Hardy, had asked E!, parent company NBCUniversal, and Seacrest in a letter to “come up with a plan to address the treatment of all women at the networks and to take responsibility for the wrongful treatment” of Hardy. If they didn’t, her lawyer wrote, they would pursue “more formal action.”
Variety laid out Hardy’s allegations in a gut-wrenching report on Monday. According to Hardy, a single mother who was excited to find the part-time job, Seacrest subjected her to unwanted sexual touching for years. She says he grabbed and cupped her vagina, hugged her while wearing only underwear, and once slapped her butt so hard it left a welt. She also describes an incident in a hotel room, where he allegedly pushed her onto a bed, got on top of her, and rubbed his erect penis on her until a colleague told him to stop. That colleague told Variety that he witnessed that incident in addition to multiple occasions wherein Seacrest pushed Hardy’s head into his crotch when she was tying his shoe. Other associates and former co-workers said they’d heard Hardy complain about Seacrest’s behavior at the time.
Hardy said her decision to go public with Variety was influenced in part by an essay Seacrest published in the Hollywood Reporter early last month, bluntly titled “What Happened After I Was Wrongly Accused of Harassment.” “I knew, regardless of the confidence I had that there was no merit to the allegations, my name would likely soon appear on the lists of those suspected of despicable words and deeds,” he wrote. “The pressures of our overflowing newsfeeds would insist on it.” Seacrest stated in the piece that a third-party investigation commissioned by NBCUniversal “found the claims to be unsubstantiated and that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on my part.” More precisely, according to an E! statement, the investigation found “insufficient evidence” to back Hardy’s claims. To Hardy, the difference matters. Seacrest’s lawyer has gone on to claim, without producing any evidence, that Hardy had threatened to make untrue accusations against Seacrest if he didn’t pay her $15 million, a claim that Hardy and her lawyer deny. Seacrest went on to claim, in another lengthy statement on Tuesday, that the investigation had “cleared” his name, that the Variety story was “salacious,” and that Variety “didn’t speak to me” or hear his side while reporting. Variety disputed Seacrest’s claims, saying they spent “one hour” on the phone with Seacrest’s lawyer and publicist before publishing and that Seacrest’s reps refused to make him available for interview.
Now, celebrities whose fame intersects with Seacrest’s are being forced to make yea-or-nay judgments on his character. His Live With Kelly and Ryan co-host Kelly Ripa gave him a slew of compliments on Thursday’s show that were, to any viewers who hadn’t followed the story, seemingly delivered apropos of nothing, calling him an “easy, professional, great person” and “a privilege to work with.” (Meanwhile, sources told Page Six that Ripa doesn’t necessarily love Seacrest and that she is “understandably livid because it could potentially fuck up her show.”) On Wednesday, Howard Stern asked Jennifer Lawrence if she’d give Seacrest an interview on the Oscars red carpet or boycott him altogether. Lawrence said she hadn’t heard about the allegations against Seacrest, but once she was brought up to speed, she said, “I can’t imagine him being sexual,” then deflected, saying that E! can be “mean about people’s bodies” and has a history of paying male hosts more than female ones.
“I think it is scary, you know,” Lawrence continued. “He has not been to trial for anything. I am not a judge. I am not a jury. … That is where this stuff gets tricky.”
On one hand, it’s fair to ask celebrities to withhold the benefits of their image from sexual abusers. On the other hand, as we’ve seen with R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein, this laudable impulse too often morphs into an excuse to demonize women for not immediately having the right response to terrible (or are they?!) men. People who have never spent 10 minutes thinking about Ryan Seacrest will now be asked to map and assess his character, with their reputations at stake. And Seacrest’s case is particularly complex: Usually, a celebrity can equivocate when there’s no incontrovertible evidence by recommending the public wait to pass judgment until an independent investigation has assessed the facts. But in this case there already was an investigation, and its credibility is disputed: NBCUniversal says the investigation was thorough and simply didn’t find sufficient evidence to condemn Seacrest, while Hardy is doubling down, going public, and saying that the investigation failed to interview multiple key witnesses (which E! denies). Viewers of the Academy Awards red carpet will be free to hold complex and conflicting interpretations of the case in their heads, while expecting every woman who ends up on the other side of Seacrest’s microphone to hand down a clear, definitive verdict.
For women faced with Seacrest on Sunday’s red carpet, there’s no right response. If they turn away and refuse to talk to him, and the allegations are somehow borne out to be false, they may be shunned as people who don’t play nice or believe in due process. If they give him a nice interview, the many people who find Hardy’s allegations credible and convincing may see them as traitors to the movement against sexual assault. Since actresses are already asking red-carpet press to talk to them about things other than fashion, they could use any time with Seacrest to speak about gender inequities and abuse in the industry instead of answering any of his questions. It was a bad move for E! to put an alleged sexual abuser in the middle of a public debate on the first Oscars red carpet since the advent of #MeToo. To make the best of a profoundly uncomfortable situation, savvy celebrities will likely talk to the microphone like the guy holding it isn’t even there.