For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding this year’s conflicted Oscars, the one image from it I haven’t been able to shake is Ryan Seacrest’s frozen smile on the red carpet.
To be fair, “frozen smile” is kind of the go-to facial expression for a red-carpet host, even one who’s covered those kinds of events for more than a decade like Seacrest has. But this time, Seacrest’s camera-ready smile was rooted in barely restrained panic, because this time Seacrest was on the red carpet studiously avoiding the sexual misconduct allegations against him.
The week before the Oscars, Seacrest’s former E! stylist Suzie Hardy went public with her allegations, saying he had subjected her to years of “unwanted sexual aggression” ranging from making suggestive comments to grabbing her vagina. Hardy told Variety that she withstood the abuse because the job was an unusually steady one that helped support her daughter and that her time at E! ended once she reported the behavior to the HR department in 2013.
Seacrest understands the entertainment industry. When he got a letter from Hardy’s lawyer last November, he knew this allegation would come to light as Hollywood began to peel back the curtain on its many abuses of power. So a month before the Oscars, he tried to preempt the backlash by coming forward himself, in a piece for the Hollywood Reporter called “What Happened After I Was Wrongly Accused of Harassment.”
Seacrest categorically denied the accusations — though he did not get specific about what they were or who was accusing him — while affirming his support for the #MeToo movement in general. “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.” He also said that Hardy had asked for $15 million, a claim she denies and that Seacrest’s team has not supported with evidence.
According to Hardy, Seacrest’s careful denial was her main motivation for speaking out with her name attached. It also made the allegation harder to ignore — and forced Seacrest and his employers to reckon with it a week before the biggest red-carpet event of the year.
E! stuck by Seacrest, saying it had investigated the claims and found “insufficient evidence” to pull him from his duties. But Seacrest’s presence on the red carpet still promised to be distracting at best, hypocritical at worst. What would happen if no one stopped to talk to Seacrest? What would happen if someone called him out, to his face, on live TV?
As the E! coverage kicked off — a full three hours before the ceremony — it seemed like Seacrest was hurting for interview subjects. But as more stars trickled onto the carpet, more stopped by Seacrest’s station, no one mentioned the allegations, and his frozen smile began to thaw. By the time Taraji P. Henson told him that “the universe has a way of taking care of good people” — a moment widely misconstrued as her insulting him — he was back in business.
Now, two weeks after the Oscars, Seacrest is still one of the busiest people in Hollywood. He’s still producing and still has two regular hosting gigs in Live With Kelly and Ryan — with his co-star Kelly Ripa being one of his most vocal and fervent supporters — and ABC’s American Idol reboot, which premiered March 11. Since that awkward first couple of hours on the Oscars red carpet, he hasn’t so much as missed a beat.
At this point, Hardy’s allegations have barely made a dent on the slick veneer of Seacrest’s public image. And while not everyone accused of sexual harassment and abuse since the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke has faced tangible consequences — remember, not even Weinstein has been formally charged with any crimes yet — there has undeniably been more willingness to cut ties with men who might have abused their power.
So in an age when everyone in Hollywood and beyond is grappling with the ramifications of coming forward about sexual violence and what to do with those accused, it’s worth taking a step back to understand why Seacrest managed to sidestep his own controversy.
Here are the four biggest, most revealing factors that have kept the allegations from making an impact.
1) There was an investigation that found “insufficient evidence” to support the accuser’s claims
The first reason is the most compelling, and the one that both Seacrest and his supporters have returned to again and again: An outside investigation looked into the accusations and concluded that there was “insufficient evidence to substantiate allegations against Seacrest.” In a statement, E! continued to defend the process:
Over the course of a two month process, our outside counsel interviewed more than two dozen people regarding the allegations, including multiple separate meetings with the claimant and all firsthand witnesses that she provided. The investigator is an attorney with nearly 20 years experience and is highly regarded professionally. Any claims that question the legitimacy of this investigation are completely baseless.
In the lead-up to American Idol’s premiere, ABC president Channing Dungey confirmed that the network was satisfied by “the results of the investigation” and would stand by Seacrest. “Obviously it’s unfortunate,” she said. “I’m not privy to the details. He seems to be very robust in his defense. We’ll see where it all goes.”
While Seacrest and his employing networks were satisfied by the investigation’s findings, however, Hardy was not. “I felt like by the third interview, it was obvious the investigator was whitewashing it for Seacrest’s side,” she told Variety, also saying the investigation didn’t contact a number of alleged witnesses she had referred. Variety also took pains to point out that “insufficient evidence” is not, in fact, the same thing as finding the allegations to be untrue.
Something else to bear in mind is that while E! may not have carried out the investigation, it did hire the counsel. And as a network that has both invested in and benefited from its relationship with Seacrest, E! would have a whole lot to lose if he went down, which leads us to…
2) E! relies on Seacrest to deliver some of its biggest #content
As Seacrest’s Oscars red carpet slowly started to pick up steam, he made a point of introducing his initial interviews as conversations with people he’s known for a long time. It’s likely that Seacrest justified keeping his prime red-carpet spot — while co-host Giuliana Rancic held court at a hotel across the street — thanks to a few interviews he knew he could land due to his longstanding professional connections.
But right before the red carpet was underway, Seacrest got a show of support from E!’s Queen Mother herself:
Oscar Sunday wouldn’t be the same without you @ryanseacrest @giulianarancic!! Can’t WAIT to watch you on the Red Carpet tonight!! I look forward to this night every year! I’m so proud of you!! #BFF #beautifulheart #E! #TheOscars #Oscars2018 #AcademyAwards #AcademyAwards2018 pic.twitter.com/3NCN7PPwWM— Kris Jenner (@KrisJenner) March 4, 2018
Despite Kris Jenner’s #BFF hashtags, this post wasn’t just a random celebration of friendship. It was a pointed, timely reminder that Seacrest co-created and has produced Keeping Up With the Kardashians for more than a decade — and, by the transitive property of equality, produced E!’s most successful programming to date.
Without the Kardashians juggernaut, E! would have nowhere near the clout it does today. There’s a reason the network has renewed the show for 14 seasons and counting, why it continues to greenlight spinoffs with varying combinations of Kardashian siblings, and why it gave Caitlyn Jenner her own docuseries in which to rehab her image. Whatever you think of them, every member of the Kardashian/Jenner family knows how to sell themselves, and their partnership with E! is one of the network’s biggest assets.
By reminding the world that she supports Seacrest, Jenner — the alleged mastermind behind Keeping Up With the Kardashians and its enduring appeal — was also reminding everyone how important he is to her, and you can bet that E! got the message loud and clear.
3) The allegations run counter to Seacrest’s carefully crafted persona of blank professionalism
Seacrest has always taken pride in his “hardest-working man in Hollywood” label. When GQ asked him in 2015 how many jobs he was working at the time — which was before Live With Kelly and Ryan and the American Idol revival — Seacrest replied that he honestly didn’t know. “I’ve got three radio shows, American Idol, red carpets for E!, the production company, hosting New Year’s Eve, the clothing line, the Ryan Seacrest Foundation,” he listed, before concluding that his regular gigs had to number “close to ten.”
To balance what has become a mini empire, Seacrest has always taken care to emphasize his consummate professionalism — and so do his supporters. Ripa’s vehement defense of her co-host didn’t mention the actual allegations but did underline Seacrest’s dedication to his jobs. “I know what an easy, professional, great person you are,” she said to Seacrest on Live With Ryan and Kelly, “and I feel very, very lucky to work with you each and every day.”
As Bobby Finger pointed out at Jezebel, this language was reflected in tabloids as anonymous sources came to Seacrest’s defense. “He is the hardest working guy I know,” an anonymous colleague told People. “I think he’s so professional ... I’ve never seen him raise his voice — sure, people get upset about certain things, but he’s always professional. I personally would never for 15 years work for someone that this person is alleging would do the things she’s saying. It’s just not something I can fathom.”
That disconnect between Seacrest’s persona and Hardy’s explicit allegations is exactly what has made these allegations particularly hard for some to swallow. Ever since his first moments on American Idol in 2002, Seacrest has always projected a sort of Ken-doll placidity, a persona that aims to be unobtrusive as possible without fading into the background.
Throughout all his hosting gigs — from Idol to taking over Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve to Live With Ryan and Kelly — Seacrest has perfected the art of being a ringmaster who can rise above the circus with a twinkling, sexless wink. Even when he publicly dates women, speculation about his sexuality is never far behind, undermining the suggestion of a personal life that could include sexually preying on women. When Howard Stern asked Jennifer Lawrence about the allegations ahead of the Oscars, for example, she articulated this dynamic about as bluntly as possible: “I can’t imagine him being sexual.”
So now, as a woman tells the world that Seacrest sexually harassed her for years, it’s just not something many people can fathom — and therein lies another huge reason these allegations didn’t stick.
4) As far as the court of public opinion is concerned, one woman alleging abuse just isn’t enough
The main reason the Weinstein allegations became as big and enduring a story as they did is that they concerned dozens of women, many of them very famous. Every time the story started to fade, another actress or five would come forward, making it impossible to ignore — and, more importantly, impossible to dismiss.
And if you look back at the many, many sexual harassment and abuses cases that have come to light since that first Weinstein story broke, the ones that have made the biggest impacts on the accused’s lives have been the ones with too many accusers to ignore. Even if they started with a single accuser — like Anthony Rapp first coming forward about Kevin Spacey — they amassed more and similar stories to back up the initial accounts.
And if you look back at sexual harassment stories that broke even before the Weinstein bombshell — yes, there were such things — the same pattern holds. Many took the accusations against Roger Ailes more seriously once more than a dozen women accused him; Bill Cosby became toxic once his accusers numbered near 60. (The biggest exception to this rule is Donald Trump, whose many accusers have yet to impact his presidency — which he won even after they came forward and the world heard him bragging about committing sexual assault.)
As my colleague Anna North wrote shortly after the Weinstein allegations broke, many people coming together to reveal a powerful man’s alleged crimes makes him facing actual consequences more likely:
... a pattern common in cases of alleged sexual assault or harassment by powerful men: Once enough women have spoken publicly, they set off a domino effect, in which many more women feel safe enough to come forward. Unfortunately, this often happens years or even decades after the first alleged incidents took place. The stories now pouring out about Weinstein, then, raise some questions: Why do dozens of people have to accuse a powerful man before he faces consequences? And why don’t we treat the first accuser with the same respect as the 20th?
Multiple accusers relaying abusive patterns becomes a show of strength, a protective measure, and a way to convince skeptics that alleged incidents are part of a larger pattern of behavior. If a person is truly abusive, the reasoning goes, they wouldn’t just go after one person. There would be a pattern, a road map of violence leading to a more convincing conclusion.
Suzie Hardy is one woman without any name recognition alleging that one of Hollywood’s most well-connected men abused her for years. Even with Variety reporting her story in more depth, and Hollywood being more on guard about sexual misconduct stories than ever since the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke in October, she was always fighting an uphill battle — one, it seems, she never had a chance of winning.
Corrected to reflect that Seacrest and Ripa’s show is Live with Kelly and Ryan, not Live with Ryan and Kelly.