reputation comeback photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/

reputation comeback photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/

Your reputation is all about where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and what others can expect from you. But if you’ve done something seriously wrong, it can be difficult to rebuild the trust that’s so essential to a strong reputation.

Though rebuilding a reputation after a major mistake can be difficult, so many people have done just that: celebrities, business leaders, and politicians alike. Everyone loves a good comeback story, and these are among the best. Read on to see how six high profile reputations ended up in serious trouble — and find out what they’ve done to put their reputations on the mend.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart is known as America’s homemaker, from her start as a caterer and cookbook writer to her current status as a multimedia lifestyle mogul. But for a brief period, Stewart was also known as a financial villain — and though her illegal stock trading case and conviction threatened to break her brand and reputation, she bounced back and became bigger than ever.

What Went Wrong: In late 2001, Stewart sold all of her shares of ImClone Systems after illegally receiving information that the stock was in trouble. After media scrutiny and a very public indictment and trial, Stewart stepped down as CEO and chairwoman of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

She was found guilty in March 2004 and was sentenced to a five month federal prison term with two years of supervised release, including five months of electronic monitoring. The federal prison stint threatened to undo Stewart’s carefully crafted image. Media speculated that her conviction and prison sentence would be the end of her empire.

How She Fixed It: Instead of shying away from her mistakes, Stewart owned them. Stewart’s lawyers identified issues that they say could have led to an acquittal, and was allowed to remain free pending appeal, but instead of riding out the legal system, she faced the music and started serving time early anyway. While in prison, Stewart reportedly became an informal liaison for her fellow inmates with administration, and earned the nickname “M. Diddy,” making the most of her time served.

But more than that, following her release, Stewart moved on and jumped right back into what made her a lifestyle icon in the first place. Stewart was not shy about her comeback attempt, and it paid off for her. She launched two TV shows, wrote a book, developed merchandise deals, and more. In 2011, Stewart rejoined the board of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

After admitting to her mistakes and serving her time, Stewart seemed to skip right past her felony charge to continue doing what she does best. In fact, Business Insider points out that as Stewart makes multi million dollar deals, very few stories make mention of the fact that she’s a convicted felon.

What We Can Learn: Prior to the stock trading scandal, Martha Stewart had a great reputation as a lifestyle guru. With an already well established reputation, her fans wanted to see her pull through, so it was no surprise when she did. That, paired with a very clearly hardworking comeback attempt made it possible for her to own her mistakes, do her time, and then move on.

Robert Downey, Jr.

Robert Downey, Jr. has had a career of ups and downs. In the 80’s, he had a spot on the Saturday Night Live Cast and then, an Academy Award nominated performance as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin. But he threw it all away with drugs and arrests, only to come back sober and better than ever to star in iconic roles including Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes.

What Went Wrong: Downey had serious problems with drugs from 1996 to 2001, with several arrests and stints in rehab. He was once so inebriated that he fell asleep in his neighbor’s bed. Downey went on probation and had a six month stint in L.A. county jail before finally ending up with a three year prison term. He was clearly unstable, and was fired from projects when he didn’t attend rehearsals — or when his arrests and drug problem made him a liability.

How He Fixed It: After his last arrest in April 2001, Downey realized he had to get his act together and entered a rehab program to get on track. He told Oprah, “I said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I can continue doing this.’ And I reached out for help, and I ran with it.”

After rehab, Downey was able to get new acting jobs — but on a short leash. Mel Gibson paid the insurance bond for Downey’s role in The Singing Detective, and Joel Silver withheld 40% of Downey’s salary until after production wrapped on Gothika to protect against potential substance abuse problems. He also met his wife Susan Levin, who he credits with turning his life around, on the set of Gothika.

With these successful contracts complete, Downey once again proved himself as reliable and found active work. In 2008, he really turned things around by appearing in blockbuster films Tropic Thunder and Iron Man — and his success has continued with reprisal roles as Iron Man and the title role of Sherlock Holmes.

What We Can Learn: During his drug addled years, Downey proved that he was a risk that simply wasn’t worth taking. But he made the smart move to get serious help and get sober — and then stayed that way. Though Downey spelled trouble in the past, his new track record shows that he’s clearly moved on from his old issues.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton was the 42nd President of the United States — but was impeached due to scandal. Now, Clinton is more popular than ever, and the hottest ticket in the Democratic party.

What Went Wrong: Clinton was plagued by a sex scandal and sexual harassment charge that led to impeachment and a Senate trial in 1998. Though he was eventually acquitted, he suffered lasting damage, and by 2001, was reported to be “scrambling” to repair his reputation.

How He Fixed It: In the years that have followed Clinton’s presidency and scandals, he’s made smart choices in his public perception. Clinton has taken on a number of issues that the public is concerned with, including HIV/AIDS initiatives, climate change partnerships, and global public health. He also partnered with fellow former President George H.W. Bush to form the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund and Bush-Clinton Tsunami Fund.

In addition to staying active in the public eye, Clinton has maintained a strong political presence. He’s spoken at every Democratic National Convention since 1980, and is second only to President Obama as the hottest Democratic speaking ticket.

What We Can Learn: Even Presidents make reputation damaging mistakes that have the potential to be a lifetime problem. But Clinton has bounced back and improved his reputation in the years following his political scandal, and now enjoys a 66% approval rating. Clinton made smart moves by not retreating after the scandal, and staying active to further develop his reputation. This is a good idea whether you’re a former President or not: it’s always smarter to continue developing a new, more positive future than to let your past be the only measure of your reputation.

Drew Barrymore

Drew Barrymore was once a troubled child star, dealing with drug abuse, a suicide attempt, and family drama early on in life. But after shedding her bad girl image, Barrymore moved on to become a respected adult in Hollywood, with movie star roles, director credits, and her own production company.

What Went Wrong: Barrymore struggled with substance abuse early in life, becoming an alcoholic at age 9, addicted to cocaine at 12, and a suicide attempt at 14. She spent time in rehab twice before turning 15, and then moved on to develop a bad girl image, flashing David Letterman for his birthday and posing nude for Playboy.

How She Fixed It: Barrymore started to set her comeback in motion at 15 when she went to court and argued for emancipation from her mother, who she said was a bad influence. But her comeback became strongest as she cleaned up and took on smart roles in the mid to late 90s and 2000s. Her roles in Boys on the Side and Scream gave her a more positive image, and her starring role in The Wedding Singer started her on a series of successful romantic comedies that shot her to A-list status.

What We Can Learn: Barrymore clearly made big mistakes in her younger years, but she didn’t let her past hold her back from the future she wanted. Though a reputation as a child drug addict and bad girl is tough to overcome, Barrymore did well by consistently delivering as a professional actress. She did such a great job that her past mistakes no longer mattered — something that anyone with youthful indiscretions can appreciate.

Paula Deen

Paula Deen had a successful career as a celebrity chef, with a show on the Food Network, cookbooks, products, and restaurants — until she admitted to using hateful racial slurs. But Deen hasn’t given up, keeping her social media following alive and even forming a new company called Paula Deen Ventures.

What Went Wrong: Deen was sued by a former manager at Deen’s Lady & Sons and Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House for sexual and racial harassment, and in a deposition for the case, Deen admitted to using the “n word” in the past. She lost her spot on the Food Network, her deal with Smithfield Foods, and paid food endorsements. Deen’s cookbook was even rejected by her publisher.

How She Fixed It: Deen is still working on her comeback, so we can’t quite say she’s fixed it yet. But after losing practically every partnership she had, Deen is on the right track to get her once great brand back. She finally acknowledged how offensive her remarks and justification were. And though she’s no longer welcome in many of her old haunts, Deen has found new ones.

Deen has maintained a strong social media following with fans that have supported her throughout the scandal. Her Facebook page continues to boast nearly 4.5 million fans, and her Twitter account has 1.2 million followers. Her team still actively engages with both networks. She also still publishes Paula Deen Magazine, which reportedly grew subscriptions by 40% last year.

But perhaps the biggest part of Deen’s comeback is a new company, Paula Deen Ventures. With this company, Deen has launched an online platform for her content, largely cooking and lifestyle videos. She made the decision, she says, because the fans that stuck by her in the wake of the scandal said they’d rather see digital content than a return to TV. Deen says she’s happy to have complete creative control and will also feature “Vintage Paula” on the site — all of Deen’s old Food Network shows.

What We Can Learn: Past mistakes, even decades old ones can come back to haunt you when you least expect them. And handling a sensitive situation poorly will only make it worse. But like Deen has done, taking time to realize what’s gone wrong and working to rebuild is a good strategy. But perhaps most importantly, Deen didn’t turn her back on the fans that stuck around. Instead, she listened to what they wanted and has done exactly what they told her they want to do. It still remains to be seen how well Deen’s comeback will play out, but it looks like she’s on the right track.

Mark Sanford

Like Clinton, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s reputation and career suffered due to an extramarital affair. Sanford was also impeached, but he came back to earn a congressional seat with a reputation on the mend.

What Went Wrong: In June 2009, Sanford disappeared for six days, when his phones were turned off and he did not respond to messages. A spokesman reported that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but after returning, Sanford revealed that he had actually been in Argentina visiting a mistress. After declining to resign, Sanford was impeached, though the charges were dropped, as he was term limited and ineligible for re-election. As a result of the scandal, his wife left him, and he paid the largest ethics fine in state history for using state resources for his personal travel.

How He Fixed It: After leaving office in 2011, Sanford stayed off the radar. But when he was ready to come back to run for a House seat, he was very open about the affair. He even made his affair the subject of his first TV ad. Sanford won 54% to 45%, and credits his success to his team of volunteers. But, experts say he still has a long way to go to rebuild his reputation.

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We’re still waiting for Rob Ford to make a triumphant return to politics.

Photo of Joseph Torrillo
About the Author

Born and proudly raised in Syracuse, NY, Joseph joined the team in 2008 as the Director of Reputation Management after earning his B.S. in Public Policy. He is now the Vice President of the department.

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