Lea Michele: How the TV star went from America's sweetheart to social pariah after racism allegations emerged
Lea Michele became a household name thanks to her stint on 'Glee', but she was recently outed by her former colleagues who accused her of everything from micro-aggressions to alleged racism
Oftentimes in life, what you see is not always what you get, and this unvarnished truth has never been clearer than in the world of showbiz. But then again, isn’t that what showbiz is really about? Do we all really know everything there is to know about these stars we adore, whose pin-ups and cover shots have decorated our bedroom walls for decades? Just like most of us have regular jobs, they too are just well-trained professionals who portray a well-crafted persona for a living. There are always two sides to a coin, and fans and critics will inevitably have different perspectives about who their stars really are and what they represent. This brings us to the cancel culture of today's social media, and the rise and fall of Lea Michele, who celebrates her birthday on Saturday, August 29.
From the beginning, Michele had always been the perfect all-American sweetheart. Her parents epitomize the American middle class - her Italian-American mother Edith Thomasina was a nurse, while her Greek-American father, Mark David Sarfati, was a real estate agent who also ran a deli. Michele began her life in the Bronx of New York, before moving to suburban New Jersey. At a very young age itself, Michele was drawn towards the performing arts and was a part of several notable theater productions.
As a talented eight-year-old, she made her debut on Broadway and a few years later, she lent her voice to the animated film 'Buster & Chauncey's Silent Night'. Michele had a great run in the musical theater world, appearing in productions of 'Les Misérables', 'Ragtime', 'Fiddler on the Roof' and 'Spring Awakening', which made it clear that she was primed for bigger and better things. In 2009, Michele had her big TV break when she starred as Rachel Berry in the musical drama-comedy 'Glee' as its star singer and female lead.
'Glee' made Michele a household name in America. Millions watched the show, and in 2010, Time magazine named Michele in its list of 100 Most Influential People In the World. But it continued to get better - Michele was such a good singer and actress that she effortlessly popped into the Billboard charts, and got nominated for Grammy and Golden Globe awards. Her place in the hearts of the multitudes was sealed when the won two back-to-back People's Choice Awards as Favorite TV Comedy Actress in 2012 and 2013. If this was not enough to indicate the spell Michele had cast on her fans, her first book 'Brunette Ambition' released in 2014, and immediately became a bestseller. On the family front, Michele got engaged to businessman Zandy Reich in 2018, they were happily married at Napa Florida the following year.
Michele was literally at the pinnacle of her life as an All American sweetheart when it all threatened to fall apart. All it took was only one click too many, that first and final touch on a dizzying row of dominoes. In a well-intentioned manner, Michele had posted a tweet in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had erupted across the nation after the sad and brutal demise of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of the police. Like a thousand other celebrities on Twitter, Michele also lent her voice to the movement and expressed her outrage at this shocking incident. However, the spirit in which she made the statement was questioned, and it opened up a can of worms for the 'Glee' star.
A social media storm soon erupted after some accusatory posts were made by some of her former 'Glee' colleagues. African-American actors Samantha Marie Ware, Dabier Snell, Amber Riley and Alex Newell were among those who took umbrage with Michele's words. They called out Michele for being a hypocrite and explained how she had given them a hard time on the show, accusing her of unpleasant treatment that bordered on racism. Actors from both sides of the racial divide gave statements that questioned her integrity. Caucasian actresses such as Melissa Benoist and Heather Morris, who had spent considerable time with Michele on the sets of 'Glee', supported their African-American peers. Critical comments on Michele’s behavior also appeared from other quarters. Professionals such as Keith Powell seemed to echo the sentiment, as though the entertainment industry had known about her character flaws all along.
LMAO REMEMBER WHEN YOU MADE MY FIRST TELEVISON GIG A LIVING HELL?!?! CAUSE ILL NEVER FORGET. I BELIEVE YOU TOLD EVERYONE THAT IF TOU HAD THE OPPORTUNITY YOU WOULD “SHIT IN MY WIG!” AMONGST OTHER TRAUMATIC MICROAGRESSIONS THAT MADE ME QUESTION A CAREER IN HOLLYWOOD... https://t.co/RkcaMBmtDA— SAMEYA (@Sammie_Ware) June 2, 2020
Fans were quick to bring up Michele's late 'Glee' co-star, Naya Rivera. Rivera, who had drowned in an unfortunate accident at Lake Piru, had in her 2016 book 'Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes and Growing Up' written of the difficult time Michele had given her. Speculation and gossip swelled around how Michele had deactivated her Twitter account after Rivera’s disappearance. Social media lapped it all up and were thirsty for blood. Cancel culture was working in overdrive mode.
But accusations of "misconduct", being "unpleasant" or "rude" do not necessarily mean someone is racist. Actor Willam Belli had tweeted that he left the sets of 'Glee' because of the "subhuman" treatment he received in the hands of Michele. Belli was Caucasian, and others like him also spoke up, including some background actors on 'Glee'. Michele’s behavior has not been outrightly racist, nevertheless, it is quite inexcusable.
People might have implied that Michele is racist, but was she merely equally unpleasant to everyone, regardless of their ethnicity? The concept used to describe Michele's behavior is "racial micro-aggressions", which seems to kind of sit on the fence. So, the decision on whether Michele is racist or not is a rather difficult one to make, since we have to rely on other people's accounts of her unpleasant behavior. The dense bunching of 0’s and 1’s that constitute social media tends to inevitably polarise everything into binaries. This makes it rather difficult to reach judgments through considerate reasoning.
Nevertheless, it is clear to see that there have been many Twitter handles that have refused to call Michele a racist. Refusing to be drawn into the racial politics impinging on this case, they call her out in more precise psychological terms as being "self-centered" and "narcissistic", which while still bad, is nowhere next to "racist".
Can I just set a few things straight— Neaskye (@Neaskye1) June 8, 2020
1. Lea Michele is not racist
Fact to back it up: Many other cast members stated she was self centred and mean but NOT racist
2. A lot of people are making up stories about Lea and pretending they worked on set to cause drama.#JusticeforLea
Lea michele it's not racist or transphobic. Stop with this witch hunt.— Whisperer (@silvinaGa) June 8, 2020
Here we have some proof! And if you don't know who these people are...then you have no right to have an opinion, because clearly you prefer to attack before get a little of information. pic.twitter.com/75C6lQXhTN
James Earl worked with Lea Michele on both Glee and Scream Queens. Lea michele is not racist. pic.twitter.com/QIztKDif70— TheLovely_Lea (@thelovely_lea) August 12, 2020
Michele used Instagram to reply, explain and apologize for her immaturity but it seems as though her old co-stars from 'Glee' are in no mood to forgive and forget. Michele's apology has been ripped into, with some netizens even going to the extent of calling it "the worst apology ever". Whatever be the terms of this unfolding community theater play, one thing is for sure. The crowds have amassed, and to Michele, a song they have sung. Not a lullaby that you sing to children when you want them to sleep, but rather the bugler’s call to introspection. We hope that Michele has indeed heard the call, and as a new mother (her baby son was born on August 20), this is perhaps a new beginning after all, and a step in the right direction.