Reflection and restraint are not the traits that have made NFL star Terrell Owens famous. Yet the outspoken Buffalo Bills wide receiver initially managed to check his temper with reporters after he failed to catch a single pass in a recent game.
But Owens couldn’t hold back once former NFL player and NBC analyst Rodney Harrison labeled him “a straight-up clown” on the air. He shot back that Harrison was “a loser & a cheater” for using human growth hormone when he played for the New England Patriots.
The outlet for his anger: Twitter, the new go-to site for celebrity feuds.
First embraced by entertainers as a promotional platform, Twitter has evolved into a forum for candid and surprisingly crass postings by actors, singers and athletes. The intimate, instant and unvarnished nature of the microblogging site, which allows users to post public messages of 140 characters or less, is serving as a fertile incubator for the unchecked emotions of stars.
And they’re increasingly using it to rant about each other. In the new and expanding twitterverse, where the rules of etiquette and exchange are still being written, celebrities are establishing a level of discourse that won’t soon be confused with the Sunday morning political talk shows.
“MEAN PEOPLE TAKE A . . . HIKE!!!” Kirstie Alley, one of the most prolific celebrity tweeters, wrote last month in a somewhat typical response to those who take issue with her opinions on everything from Scientology to drug use.
The last month has seen an explosion of celebrity Twitter fights: Demi Moore traded insults with blogger Perez Hilton, singer Chris Brown took a swipe at talk show host Wendy Williams, reality show star Spencer Pratt went after Ryan Seacrest. Kanye West was bombarded with angry postings from fellow entertainers such as Pink after he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards.
In rushing to rumble on Twitter (twitter.com), stars are bypassing publicists long entrusted with shaping their images and offering a peek at the unadulterated personalities behind their public facades. The blunt postings alarm public relations professionals, who have traditionally exerted stringent control over what clients dole out to their fans.
“Giving some celebrities Twitter is like giving a kid a loaded gun,” said Allan Mayer, head of the strategic communications division at the publicity firm 42West. “Twitter can be enormously valuable as a branding tool. But like everything else, it’s a double-edged sword, and if you have impulse control problems -- which strangely a lot of celebrities seem to have -- it can be very dangerous.”
Courtney Love got into hot water earlier this year after she tweeted nasty comments about a fashion designer who then sued her. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had to pay $25,000 to the NBA after he questioned a referee’s call on Twitter in March.
And last month, we were treated to an online squabble between an Emmy-nominated actress and a gleeful gossip blogger. After Hilton accused Moore of being a bad mother by letting her 15-year-old daughter dress in scanty outfits, the actress attacked him for posting photos of the underage girl. Hilton retorted that Moore was “delusional and slightly senile.”
Tellingly, celebrities who willingly engage in Twitter brawls clam up when their publicists get involved. Neither Moore nor Hilton responded to requests for comment. A representative for Alley said she was not available for comment.
Indeed, there’s a wide gulf between what entertainers say on Twitter and in their carefully modulated public statements. After Seacrest joked on his radio show about Tasering reality star Heidi Montag, Pratt, her husband, fired off a stream of furious tweets challenging Seacrest to a fight.
“Does that radio make you feel invincible because your not and I’m going to tear you apart!!!” he wrote.
He had less bravado in his statement to US Weekly on the matter. “It is irresponsible and offensive for someone with your platform to promote violence on this level,” Pratt said.
Stuart Fischoff, an expert in media psychology, noted that the nature of Twitter makes it feel deceptively private. While celebs are confronted by a bank of cameras and shouting reporters in other public forums, tweeting is a solitary activity.
“There’s a kind of faceless anonymity,” said Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. “And because it’s done in 140 characters, you lose sight of the fact that it’s accumulating, that it’s building up an image for the hundreds of thousands of fans who are watching you.”
Perhaps that’s why Brown thoughtlessly fired off a tweet last month joking that one of the male photographers who tried to snap his photo at a New York airport “looked like wendy williams or was it the other way around . . . . lol.” It was hardly a politic statement for the R&B; singer, who was sentenced in August to five years’ probation for assaulting fellow entertainer Rihanna.
Williams fired back on the air, saying: “At least if I was a man, then I would spend my time bullying other men, perhaps, and not other women.”
A spokeswoman for Brown said he had no comment. But the singer quickly deleted the offensive tweet and tried to make amends, writing: “OMGGGGGG!!!!!!! LOL MY TWITTERS MAKIN HEADLINE TV NEWS NOW. . . . LOL. . WENDY. I GOT NOTHIN BUT LOVE FOR U BOO. . JUST JOKES.”
In an interview, Williams said she was appalled by how many celebrities were sniping at each other on Twitter.
“If you really have something to say, be a man or woman and say it directly,” she said. “It’s really easy to be a cyberspace gangster. We’re building a generation of people who are bad communicators, who only know how to say it like they mean it when they’re hiding behind something.”
In fact, some entertainers are now getting nervous about the public nature of the forum. Last week, Miley Cyrus deleted her Twitter account after tangling with bloggers on it over coverage of her love life. Within hours, "#mileycomeback” was the leading topic on the site.
But for some celebrities, the unchecked nature of Twitter matches their outsized personas. Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco -- whose prolific tweeting appeared to prompt the NFL to ban players from posting on social media networks during games, as well as 90 minutes before and after -- frequently mixes it up with the public on his page. “Dude you suck, you look like Hannibal Lecter in your account picture,” he wrote in one typical missive to a critic.
Others show a side of themselves that the public may not know. On her Twitter feed, Alley relishes in bawdy jokes, lashes at figures such as Roman Polanski and snaps back at those who correct her frequent misspellings of such words as “pagan.” “PAGON PAGON PAGON. .OH WHO THE HELL CARES IF IT’S SPELLED WRONG?,” she tweeted.
Jeffrey Cole, who studies new media at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, noted that the explosion of combative posts marks a shift in how celebrities are using Twitter. Instead of simply posting mundane messages such as “In bed going to sleep” (a recent Paris Hilton tweet), many are now offering unprecedented access to their personal thoughts and petty grievances.
“To be in the middle of some of these celebrity feuds just takes celebrity presence in your life to a level that People magazine and ‘Entertainment Tonight’ could never have imagined,” said Cole, director of the school’s Center for the Digital Future.
“Twitter may have touched on something where you actually get to see a celebrity’s real personality.”