It's often been said that you're judged for the company you keep.
In the era of social media, perhaps it's more accurate to say you're judged for the company you appear to keep.
After the news broke about a class-action lawsuit against Peter Nygard, alleging that he sexually assaulted 10 women (several under the age of 18) at his island estate in the Bahamas, many people mentioned being "not surprised." The disgraced fashion mogul has, over the years, been accused of abusive labour practices and sexual harassment. His exploits at his predatory playboy palace have been well-documented.
Before this latest scandal, back when he and his Popeye biceps were, regrettably, the first things one saw when they arrived at Winnipeg's airport, Nygard, 78, was a local celebrity with a rags-to-riches story. As such, one doesn't have to look hard to find archival photos of him rubbing shoulders with the city’s business elite and some of the province’s most influential people, past and present — people who are now distancing themselves. A representative of one high-profile person proactively reached out to the Free Press, requesting we not print images of her with him.
I'm not fan of the celeb grip and grin. For a long time, a big part of my job was interviewing famous people and — spoiler alert —they are just regular people. But I have had my photo taken with two celebrities: Martin Sheen and George Takei.
I met Takei on assignment at WE Day in October 2017, which, you'll recall, is the exact month the #MeToo movement began and the Harvey Weinstein story broke. My interview with Takei was delightful, and I posted a photo to my personal Instagram. A few weeks later, Takei became one of many men accused of sexual misconduct. The accuser's story was weak and ever-changing, but still. I felt weird about the photo. I took it down.
Concern about the optics of a photo isn't new; it served as the foundation for the entire tabloid industry. But now that social media has made gossip columnists out of all of us, photos have taken on a new life. Enterprising people can construct an entire public shaming campaign based on an old photo that "resurfaces." There's a reason screenshots are often referred to as "receipts." After the Weinstein allegations surfaced, some people held up the photos of actresses, Weinstein's arm encircled around their waists, as proof of tacit support and a blind eye.
But what does a photo really say?
Photos can tell you who runs in the same circles, who attends the kinds of galas that end up on newspaper social pages. A photo with someone famous can imply fandom, friendship, or at least conviviality. That's why people take photos with famous or powerful people, isn't it? The hope that a bit of shine rubs off on them. Like an autograph, it's a momento that says little more than, "I met this person."
But photos with someone famous can also suggest approval or endorsement of that person and, by extension, their behaviour. And if you're photographed with a now-disgraced person, it can colour people's opinions of you. It can suggest guilt by association, or some kind of moral failure to be a "good judge of character." Or, worse, complicity. The allegations against Nygard are damning. Suddenly, a smiling photo looks like something more sinister.
Still, without facts and context, viewers are simply pole-vaulting to conclusions. After all, there are also lots of banal reasons people smile for a camera — decorum, mostly. Country star Tanya Tucker was photographed with Nygard on a red carpet. Does that make them BFFs? No more than I am BFFs with George Takei.
Nygard, for his part, appears to play fast and loose with the term "friends." If one were to believe the photo gallery titled "Peter Nygard and Friends" on his surprisingly primitive corporate website, he's "friends" with Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, Criss Angel, Serena Williams and Fabio.
However, one does have to wonder if the many prominent Manitobans who posed with Nygard over the years heard rumours about his alleged crimes. Maybe. Had the Hollywood elite who smiled alongside Weinstein heard whispers about his assaults and harassment of women? Most likely.
Does that make them guilty of anything? Pressure from society to pose with powerful men.
But just because someone once shook the hand of Nygard or had their photo taken with him doesn't mean they supported him then, and it doesn't mean they support him now. Nygard doesn't appear to have any friends, just people he surrounds himself with. He is, ultimately, a man on an island — and the tide is rolling in.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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