Skip to content

The 7 Biggest Celebrity Scandals of the '80s

From Rob Lowe's sex tape to Madonna's "Like a Prayer" music video.

For pop culture-obsessives, looking back at the scandals of the past can be a particularly interesting way to see how times have changed—and how they haven't. While a celebrity being arrested is going to make for a juicy entertainment news headline in any decade, some events that were scandalous in the past wouldn't raise many eyebrows today. Just look at the '80s celebrity scandals below. While it's easy to imagine that an award-winning musical group being outed for not actually performing their own music would warrant a major discussion online now, it's harder to see an artist releasing a religious-themed music video making international news and getting an entire ad campaign canceled.

Keep reading for the star scandals that were big news in the '80s, whether or not they'd be even a blip today.

RELATED: 5 TV Episodes So Controversial They Sparked Protests.

Milli Vanilli's Downfall

Milli Vanilli in 1988
Bernd Muller/Redferns via Getty Images

In the late '80s, music duo Milli Vanilli fell from grace as quickly as they had risen to fame. Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus released their debut album, Girl You Know It's True, in early 1989 (it had previously been released as All or Nothing in Europe in late '88), and they went on to win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in February 1990. But, during that year, suspicion began to circulate about whether Morvan and Pilatus were actually singing their songs.

For instance, in July 1989, the recording that they were lip-syncing along to began to skip during a performance. "I knew right then and there, it was the beginning of the end for Milli Vanilli," Pilatus told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "When my voice got stuck in the computer, and it just kept repeating and repeating, I panicked. I didn't know what to do. I just ran off the stage."

But the group weren't just lip-syncing during performances—it wasn't even their own voices they were mouthing along to. The vocals on their album were recorded by several session singers.

Speaking to the LA Times, Pilatus blamed producer Frank Farian and said that the faces of Milli Vanilli wanted to record their own songs. "The last two years of our lives have been a total nightmare. We've had to lie to everybody. We are true singers but that maniac Frank Farian would never allow us to express ourselves," he said. Their Grammy was later revoked.

In 2023, a documentary about the scandal premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Vanessa Williams' Photo Scandal

Vanessa Williams after winning Miss America in 1983
Bettmann / Getty Images

In 1983, Vanessa Williams made history as the first Black winner of the Miss America pageant. But, 10 months into her reign, her honor was tainted when nude photos of her were published by Penthouse without her permission.

As reported by History, Williams took the photos prior to participating in the pageant and was told they would be shot in silhouette and that she wouldn't be identifiable. Once she became famous as Miss America, the photographer sold the photos to Penthouse. Williams was forced to resign as Miss America and the second-place winner, Suzette Charles, took her place for the final two months until a new Miss America was crowned.

As reported by The New York Times, when Williams returned to the pageant as a judge in 2015, she received an official apology from the Miss America organization. The singer and actor called the apology "so unexpected but so beautiful."

Madonna's "Like a Prayer" Video

Madonna has been stirring up controversy since she hit the music scene, and one of her earliest—and biggest—scandals came in 1989 with the release of the music video for "Like a Prayer." It was even condemned by the Vatican.

The "Like a Prayer" music videos features Madonna's character witnessing a woman be murdered by a group of white men, and then a Black man being wrongly arrested for the crime. The visuals include Madonna in a church and a lot of Catholic imagery, including stigmata and a statue of a Black saint that Madonna kisses after it comes to life. The pop star also dances in front of burning crosses.

As reported by Entertainment Tonight, the Vatican spoke out against the video and tried to stop Madonna's tour from coming to Italy. "I am aware that the Vatican and certain communities are accusing my show of being sinful and blasphemous, that they are trying to keep people from seeing it," the singer said at the time. "I think I'm offending certain groups, but I think that people who really understand what I'm doing aren't offended by it."

In addition to the backlash she received from the church, the video also impacted one of Madonna's endorsement deals. Pepsi paid $5 million for a campaign with her but pulled the ad after the "Like a Prayer" video came out, as reported by CNN.

Matthew Broderick's Car Accident

Jennifer Grey and Matthew Broderick in New York City in 1987
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In 1987, Matthew Broderick and Jennifer Grey were dating after starring together in 1986's Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Their relationship included a hugely traumatic event. The pair got into a car accident in Northern Ireland while Broderick, then 25, was driving and Grey, then 23, was in the passenger seat. Broderick drove into the wrong lane and hit another car head-on. The two passengers in the other car were a mother and daughter, who died immediately.

As reported by the New York Post, Broderick was in the hospital for four weeks with a concussion, collapsed lung, and fractured leg and ribs. Grey had minor injuries. At the time, he reportedly said, "I don't remember the day. I don't remember even getting up in the morning. I don't remember making my bed. What I first remember is waking up in the hospital, with a very strange feeling going on in my leg."

Broderick initially faced up to five years in prison on the charge of causing death by reckless driving, as reported by The New York Times. But he was convicted on a lesser charge of careless driving and sentenced to a $175 fine.

For more celebrity news delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Brooke Shields' Calvin Klein Ads

Calvin Klein and Brooke Shields at Studio 54 in 1981
Tom Gates/Getty Images

Brooke Shields' early career as a model and actor was marked by a few projects that wouldn't be acceptable today but were already controversial at the time. At age 11, she starred as a child sex worker in the movie Pretty Baby, and at 15, she posed for a suggestive Calvin Klein jeans ad.

The 1980 Calvin Klein ad received widespread attention and caused an uproar. Posing in the brand's jeans, the teenager delivers the risqué tagline, "You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." Around this time, Shields was asked inappropriate questions from older interviewers about the commercial and her personal life. The actor spoke out in 2021 about an interview with Barbara Walters, which she referred to as "practically criminal."

The same year, Shields addressed the denim campaign with Vogue and said she had no idea it was going to be so controversial. "I was away when they came out, and then I started hearing that the commercials were being banned," she said. "The paparazzi would scream at me and my mother, 'How could you!" It just struck me as so ridiculous." She added, "I didn't think it was about underwear or sexual in nature. I was naive."

RELATED: '80s Child Star Faced Fan Backlash After Groundbreaking Talk Show Appearance.

Rob Lowe's Sex Tape

Rob Lowe at the Starlight Foundation Benefit in 1988
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In the late '80s, Rob Lowe was a member of Hollywood's Brat Pack and had already starred in movies including The Outsides, St. Elmo's Fire, and About Last Night. But, in 1988, the heartthrob received a new sort of attention when a sex tape that he'd filmed with a 16-year-old girl and a 22-year-old woman when he was 24 was leaked. As reported by People, Lowe maintained that he did not know that one of the two young women he met in a nightclub was a teenager. He was not charged with a crime and settled a lawsuit with her family.

Lowe reflected on the incident in an interview with The Jess Cagle Show in 2019. "It's one of the reasons why I got sober," he said. "I woke up one day and I was like, 'What am I doing with my life?' I'm 29 years in and like people talk, but it's the best thing that ever happened to me. Honestly, I do because it got me sober, sober got me married. I've been married 29 years and I have two great sons. I don't think any of that happens without going through that scandal."

Todd Bridges' Attempted Murder Charge

Todd Bridges at Spar Change Project Rock N Bowl Tournament in 1988
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Todd Bridges is best known as older brother Willis Jackson on Diff'rent Strokes, which ran from 1978 to 1986. But, by the end of the '80s, the actor was making headlines for something else entirely.

In 1989, Bridges was accused of shooting a convicted drug dealer named Kenneth "Tex" Clay eight times. The then-25-year-old was acquitted during two trials. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Bridges was first acquitted on a charge of attempted murder with great bodily injury (Clay survived the shooting). In a second trial, he was found not guilty of the lesser charge assault by firearm. Bridges was represented by future O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who said that Bridges was addicted to cocaine and a victim of the drug epidemic, reported the LA Times.

Bridges, who was also dealing drugs, continued to use and deal following the trials. In his book Killing Willis (via Today), he wrote about being arrested in 1992 after a gun and speed were found in his car. He said he called Cochran from jail and was told, "This is the last time I'm going to help you with anything. If you don't straighten your life out, I'm done."

He continued, "Johnnie had always been there for me … He had represented me in my attempted-murder trial in '89. And when my own father didn't visit me, even once, while I was in jail for nine months leading up to that trial, Johnnie had been like a father to me. The thought of not having him there to help me anymore filled me with panic." Bridges stopped using drugs in 1993.

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
Filed Under