The Greatest Celebrity Comeback?



By Marc Alexander


Photo Courtesy of Jive Records

The New Year has always been a time when minds and mouths conspire to construct resolutions. Most are about losing weight or saving money or communicating more with your significant other. They usually last for a few weeks, a month, maybe for some rare individuals with real fortitude; but ultimately the same ones are repeated year after year to no avail.

But what if your New Year resolution was to re-invent yourself? What if your resolution was to reconstruct your once-immense career from the burnt ashes?  What if you needed to have the resolve to win back respectability from the public and your peers-many of who enjoyed watching you crash and burn in the first place? That kind of resolve and resiliency involves more than a half-hearted resolution given as an afterthought. Plenty have fallen, only to get up and fall again. Some have even fallen and gotten mostly back up – but usually never come close to the heights of fame and fortune they once possessed.

Successful celebrity comebacks from scandal are rare, but they do happen.  But who is the greatest celebrity comeback of all time?

Motown legend Marvin Gaye had a tremendous comeback in the early eighties after becoming disillusioned with the record business in the seventies.  He got lost in drugs, moved to Belgium and didn’t record for several years. He returned to the United States with a major hit single – “Sexual Healing” – and a smash album that followed.  Marvin Gaye was back and clearly on his way to regaining his top spot on the music charts before his comeback was tragically cut short by a hail of bullets from his own father’s gun.

Photo Courtesy of Jive Records

Son of Chicago, R. Kelly, who was a one-man hit factory for years before allegations of sex with underage girls scandalized his name.  Kelly survived the pedophilia charges after eight long years of legal wrangling and Dave Chapelle skits to once again believe he could fly. Though the R has had success, sadly he is still known as much for the scandal as for his music; and to this day, few can say his name without snickering.

Britney Spears was the hottest pop singer in the world at one time. But fate hit the dimmer switch on her star, and before we knew it she had shaved off her hair, had two babies, and traded her career to become the spokes model for celebrity bi-polarism. After her marriage to Kevin Federline ended, she lost custody of her children, and was committed to a medical ward on a 5150. With no hair, no kids, and worse, no control over her affairs, the road back to relevance looked longer than Route Sixty Six. But the pop princess was able to use social media, her loyal fan base, and good management to sell as many tickets and as much music as she ever did before.

But even Ms. Spears cannot compete with my selection for the G.O.A.T. celebrity comeback: Robert Downey Jr.

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Brother Downey, who’s been acting since he was five years old, has had virtually two careers. His 1987 turn as a rich kid crack head in the movie Less Than Zero has become nothing less than iconic. When Downey was nominated for an Oscar at the age of twenty-five for his portrayal of silent movie star Charlie Chaplin, he seemed to have the whole of Hollywood at his feet. But Downey’s performance in “Zero” as a crack addict turned out to be a case of art imitating life; and he was ultimately sentenced to a year in jail after he was found sleeping in a child’s bed and admitted to a judge that he had a monster drug addiction. In the years that followed, Downey was in and out of movie roles as much as he was in and out of drug rehab.  As opposed to Spears-whose singing acumen has always been in question-Downey has always had the thespian goods and delivered on celluloid. Fortunately, Downey’s immense and diverse abilities allowed for him to slowly rebuild his career – gradually reminding the public and, more importantly, the power players in Hollywood that he was an acting force.

In 2008, Downey catapulted from the “strong actor” category to “bona fide superstar” with the lead role in Marvel’s Iron Man, and an Oscar-nominated turn in Tropic Thunder as a White Man playing a Black man.  He put the exclamation point on his comeback when, in 2009, he was cast as “Sherlock Holmes” in Guy Ritchie’s re-imagining of the classic detective story.

From prison, rehab, and relapses to Academy Award nominations and starring in multi-billion-dollar movie franchises, Robert Downey, Jr is, hands down, the Greatest Celebrity Comeback of All Time.

Agree or disagree?  Go ahead, make an argument.  I dare you.


Marc Alexander is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer and purveyor of urban culture.

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