The 'Empire' actor claimed to be the victim of a heinous crime that played perfectly into Hollywood's worst fears about hate in America. Did the pressures of childhood fame or a struggling music career play a role in causing him to concoct what police are now deeming an elaborate hoax?
The story, on the Billboard website, appeared in the summer of 2018. It was meant to raise consciousness about a "ubiquitous" problem in the hip-hop community: a widespread lack of awareness about the importance of mental health. Six up-and-coming artists were invited to discuss how they took care of themselves. Among them was Jussie Smollett, who, in addition to his own fledgling solo musical career, played Jamal Lyon, a singer on the hit Fox series Empire. Smollett stressed the importance of honesty in his own internal struggles. "I admit that I'm jealous, I admit that I'm insecure and that I'm not good at certain things," he said. Then, in a comment that didn't get any attention at the time, Smollett suggested that these pressures might be catching up to him. "I'm in my 30s and I'm trying my best to learn that I can't bend anymore," he said. "I'm about to break."
Six months later, he may have done just that.
On Jan. 19, the actor tweeted, "Depression is a real thing y'all." Three days later, a threatening letter targeting Smollett arrived at the Empire production offices in Chicago. And a week after that, the actor told Chicago police that two masked assailants had attacked him in a wealthy Chicago neighborhood as he walked home from a Subway at 2 a.m. while he was on the phone with his music manager, Brandon Z. Moore. Because Smollett, who is black and openly gay, identified his attackers as white males who shouted "This is MAGA country" and claimed they hung a noose around his neck, his case was immediately held up as an example of the growing problem of hate crimes in the Trump era. In Hollywood, where the alleged attack played perfectly into the community's worst fears about prejudice, support for Smollett was strident. Robin Roberts interviewed him sympathetically on Good Morning America. Ellen Page called out the Trump administration for the incident on Colbert.
But as police began to investigate, Smollett's story started to unravel. Two brothers, Abel and Ola Osundairo, whom police had initially brought in for questioning, claimed that Smollett paid them $3,500, via check, to stage the attack. Chicago law enforcement concluded that Smollett was the architect of a "publicity stunt" hoax, arrested him and charged him with felony disorderly conduct for filing a false police report, which carries a possible prison sentence. A grand jury was convened.
Hollywood was blindsided — the initial outpouring of support replaced with skepticism, confusion and anger by social media activists like Tyler Perry, Cardi B and Ava DuVernay. Perry, who said he spoke to Smollett after his release on $100,000 bail, weighed in on Instagram: "Everyone that I know who knows him says that he is not the kind of person who would make up such a horrible and awful thing. Yet the evidence seems to state otherwise. I'm lost for words."
Heading into this year’s Oscar celebrations, Smollett was both the issue people were buzzing about and the one publicists most wanted their clients to avoid. The intense media scrutiny, ever-changing details, and political and racial implications of the case simply made it radioactive. At Alfre Woodard’s 10th annual Sistahs Soiree at the Beverly Wilshire on Feb. 20, questions about Smollett were said to be off-limits. Press wasn’t even allowed at Common’s fifth annual A Toast to the Arts pre-Oscar event in West Hollywood, despite its media friendliness in years past. And at the VH1 Trailblazer Honors, several personal publicists would grant access to stars only on the condition that no questions about Smollett be raised.
Still, for some, the urge to comment was too great for their reps to subdue. That included actress and activist Alyssa Milano, who presented an award to #MeToo founder Tarana Burke at the VH1 event. “My heart breaks even more if Smollett faked his own attack because of the intersectionality of who he is as a person,” she said, referring to the fact that as a black gay man, his story touches many marginalized groups. “All of those communities will be harmed,” she added. Debbie Allen, who directed Smollett in a 2015 episode of Empire, admitted at the Women’s Image Awards that she doesn’t know what to feel because she knows the actor personally. “I’m just disturbed that something has happened to him, that he would do this, if he has in fact done this,” she said. Over Oscar weekend, one Hollywood insider who has known Smollett and his family for decades told THR, “He’s a good guy, but he’s also an actor, and actors sometimes crave attention, and that comes out in weird ways.”
Fox, which had initially issued a strong statement of support, wrote him out of the season's last two episodes of Empire. JaSheika James, a writer on the show, tweeted out her continued support for Smollett, and then quickly made her account private. After Smollett's arrest, GMA's Roberts called the alleged hoax "a setback for race relations" and on Feb. 26 aired an interview with Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, during which he said there is still a substantial amount of unreleased evidence that "doesn't support [Smollett's] version" of events.
Smollett, meanwhile, maintains his innocence, directing all inquiries to a spokesperson at UTA, which is sticking by its client for now. (Manager Moore did not respond to THR's request for comment.)
Smollett still has vocal supporters in the industry, including Empire co-star Terrence Howard, who posted, "The Jussie I know could never even conceive of something so unconscious and ugly."
To say that Smollett had been well liked on set and by network and studio executives does not do his previous reputation justice. Many of his colleagues, who would only speak on background, call him one of the most popular castmembers on the show. They cite his collaborative nature, warm demeanor and exceptional work ethic. One executive who spoke to THR seemed close to tears when wrestling with the possibility that Smollett faked the whole thing. "I'm trying to filter all this information through the experiences I've had with him," says a high-ranking show source who worked closely with Smollett, "and it doesn't connect." While their reactions to the arrest vary, one theme does emerge: None of his co-workers saw this coming.
One question is whether the pressures and anxieties of modern fame played any role in Smollett's seemingly inexplicable behavior. "One of the darkest corners of fame is that it becomes addictive," says Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist who specializes in fame and celebrity, "and then you are so afraid of becoming a has-been or yesterday's news that you might do something desperate."
At the time of the alleged attack, Smollett's career appeared to be thriving. A run on the award-winning Empire was expected to continue through a yet-to-be- announced sixth season, and his success on the show was likely to translate into future projects. His political activism on Twitter, where he had upward of 1.3 million followers, had cemented him as a voice of social justice. His reps at UTA and Management 360 — to say nothing of corporate executives potentially keen to partner with him on brand endorsement projects — would have been pleased with his high "Q" scores, a widely used metric in Hollywood to judge a public figure's likability and awareness. Data shared with THR shows that Smollett was just as well regarded as Empire's two biggest stars, Howard and Taraji P. Henson, but the viewing public only had about half as much awareness of Smollett. Still, the trend was headed in the right direction. "Jussie was in a really good place," says Henry Schafer, executive vp Q Scores.
Smollett came of age in Hollywood. He and his five siblings had been performing since childhood. Janet, their African-American mother, and her husband Joel, a Russian Jew who immigrated to America from Poland, met during civil rights protests in the Bay Area. They moved the family around the country to pursue modeling and acting opportunities for their kids. In 1992, at age nine, Smollett landed a role in Disney's hockey comedy The Mighty Ducks. He filmed in Minneapolis and visited Prince's nightclub, the first inklings of what stardom offered.
A bigger break came in 1994 when all six kids were cast as the Jericho siblings in On Our Own, an ABC sitcom that aired Friday nights at 8:30 p.m., right after Family Matters. Ralph Louis Harris, now a stand-up comic who starred on the show as the eldest brother, says Jussie Smollett was highly functioning and well adjusted, a "lover of the arts." The Smolletts impressed him as ambitious but also down to earth. That year, when the cast appeared at Universal Studios, Jussie leapt up onstage. "Next thing I know Jussie is on stage and he's singing," Harris recalls. "I didn't know he could sing, but he was doing it like he'd done it a million times. I was like, 'Who are these kids?'"
Behind the scenes, the siblings shared a large common room where Janet, a loving disciplinarian who was eager to keep the family together whenever possible, supervised. A studio teacher taught them French. Janet and Joel tried to pass on their views on equality. "They were biracial and knew how the world saw them and all the stigmas, and they did a good job of getting the kids ready," says Harris.
Lori Adams, an independent talent manager who once worked as a production assistant on On Our Own and was very close to the Smolletts, now finds herself unable to square the Jussie she knew with the alleged hoax. "These things don't add up," she says. "Right now it's all speculation. I feel he's been framed."
ABC had high hopes for On Our Own. The show was partly the brainchild of Suzanne De Passe, a former president of Motown Productions who had been instrumental in the success of an earlier celebrity family, the Jackson 5. But after one season, On Our Own was canceled, a casualty of the waning influence of the TGIF (Thank Goodness It's Friday) programming block.
After On Our Own, Smollett struggled. His acting opportunities were diminished, limited to minor film roles and supporting TV work. To make ends meet, he took odd jobs. According to a 2018 interview with the AP, he was often flat broke and relied on $400 monthly residual checks from The Mighty Ducks. In 2007, he was stopped in Los Angeles for a DUI violation and lied to officers, telling them he was one of his brothers. He was later charged with false impersonation and given two years of probation.
It was around this time that Smollett tried, with limited success, to launch a music career. "My friends would call me and I'd be in the studio and I know they were thinking, 'Why are you still trying?'" he told the AP. "But you do what you love to do and you do it until your life ends." He became more involved in political activism, supporting Artists for a New South Africa, an aid group. Some of his siblings, meanwhile, found their own success. A younger sister, Jurnee, was a regular on Friday Night Lights and True Blood. A brother, Jake, would soon get his own show on the Food Network called Smollett Eats. (The siblings later put out a cookbook called The Family Table, with stories from their childhood.)
Then came Empire in 2015, the kind of white-hot success that Jussie had no doubt been imagining for himself since childhood. He was cast as Jamal, a sensitive R&B singer and black sheep of the show's dynastic musical family. Total audience numbers grew by 10 million viewers over the course of the first season to 23.1 million and a 9.3 in the 18-to-49 demo when the last episode aired, making it the highest-rated broadcast freshman season since Grey's Anatomy a full decade earlier. The first tie-in soundtrack sold 2 million equivalent units and debuted at No. 1 on Billboard. And with songs produced by hitmakers Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins, Smollett was easily the musical breakout of the cast. He got a deal with Columbia.
But with success came added expectations and pressure. His private life was no longer his own. Empire execs held meetings, sometimes without Smollett present, where his sexuality was discussed, according to media reports. The year Empire debuted, in 2015, Smollett went on Ellen. He deliberately avoided addressing his sexual orientation during the audience participation portion of the show, but afterward approached Ellen DeGeneres and the two spoke backstage. Smollett told DeGeneres that he had "never been in the closet" but also never proactively said he was gay. That second interview, which DeGeneres later integrated into her broadcast, was widely accepted as Smollett's coming-out moment. In 2017, several nude pictures, purportedly of Smollett, were passed around on the social media platform Tumblr.
The scrutiny began to affect his self-esteem. "I was kind of thrust out there," he later said. "Everybody had these expectations of what I should be, how I should be, who I should be seen with.… And I just wasn't used to that." As Empire grew into second, third and fourth seasons, Smollett's profile kept rising. With that came pressure that he would release music that stood apart from his character. While Columbia had signed Smollett after Empire launched, he didn't get along with its execs — "a room full of old straight white men," he told the AP. He got out of the deal, via Fox, before ever releasing a song. Record executives had allegedly told Smollett on several occasions that they would release some of his recorded material, but that didn't happen, either. Smollett began to worry that he was "looking like a dummy" to his fans. Last March, as Empire headed into its fifth season, Smollett self-released (and self-financed) Sum of My Music on his own independent label, Music of Sound. This time, Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins didn't participate. The album was a flop. A mere 2,000 copies were sold or downloaded and streaming was tepid.
“The album probably would have had a bigger footprint with a label,” says Billboard senior director of charts Keith Caulfield. “[He] would have had the muscle to promote the album, promote songs to radio, bankroll a video. All that costs money, and that’s how labels help.” Smollett footed the bills himself, playing little more than 20 shows to promote the album — the most recent, Feb. 2 at L.A.’s Troubadour, was the only one slated when the scandal hit.
By the time of his 2018 interview with Billboard, Smollett's views on happiness had changed, and not in a good way. "I don't believe in happiness," he said, bluntly, "because I feel like happiness is an emotion that can be taken away." Hollywood exerts strange and unrelenting pressures; once released within a person, they can be difficult to contain. In that same interview, Smollett spoke instead about trying to find solace in "joy," a deeper emotion, but in hindsight the comment comes off as unconvincing.
Harris, who says he considers Jussie "family," says Smollett will have a hard time recovering from the spectacle of the apparent hoax, regardless of the final outcome. "This is a big scar for a career and personal life, no matter how this comes out," he said. "I just want him to get help."
Smollett has remained silent since his Feb. 21 hearing. "There's an incredible amount of pressure on people to stay relevant, to stay white hot in celebrity," says psychologist Rockwell. "To just be a so-so actor isn't enough. With child actors, this is embedded in their psyche from an early age. It would be more frightening to a child star than someone who didn't start that young. They're always afraid that this could be the end." There's no doubt that Smollett is feeling the white-hot light of fame now. It just may not be the kind of light he had envisioned for himself.
Tara Bitran and Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.