The year in celebrity comebacks

From Kanye West to "Cougar Town," we salute the clever few who roared back from their troubled pasts

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 21, 2010 2:30PM (EST)

Kanye West, Courteney Cox and Eliot Spitzer
Kanye West, Courteney Cox and Eliot Spitzer

How's that hopey-changey thing working out for ya? Just great, actually. In a year when Mel Gibson raged, Lindsay Lohan went back to rehab and Glenn Beck still had a television show, it wasn't easy to believe that people could embrace progress, whether we were talking about the economy or the Denver Broncos. But in 2010, some people actually did. Once known for their flubs, their misdeeds and their general awfulness, a stalwart few picked themselves up and raised their formerly rock-bottom standards. The phrase that could be considered the year's motto -- "it gets better" -- is certainly embodied by our 10 Most Improved.

Michael Vick

No one will forget his gruesome role in the abuse and killing of canines while running a dogfighting ring on his property. He has failed drug tests and filed for Chapter 11. And when he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009 after serving 19 months in prison for felony charges, his return to football was greeted with angry protests from animal lovers. Michael Vick knows exactly what it feels like to be one of the most reviled men in America.

None of that was magically wiped away on Nov. 15. But in a historic game against the Redskins, Michael Vick threw an astonishing four touchdowns and rushed for two. He ended the game with 333 yards passing and 80 yards rushing. And he made the city of Philadelphia utterly jubilant. "I've had some great games in my day," an amazed Vick told USA Today, "but I don't think I've had one quite like this."

Vick has not just been kicking butt on the field, either. He's been working with the Humane Society to end dogfighting, speaking in schools around the country about animal cruelty and encouraging kids to pursue their dreams. Sure, it's good -- and public -- damage control. But the thing about paying debts to society is that eventually they're supposed to get paid. And Vick's rehabilitation efforts seem as genuine as they are tireless.

He's been dragged through a hell of his own making. He's lost everything. But the experiences that made Michael Vick so despised are exactly what make him such a determined player -- and a convincing role model -- now.


Maybe it was the whole booger incident that set this off. Or maybe it had something to do with the legendarily appalling quality of the cuisine. Whatever the motivation, Domino's looked America in the eye this year and, in a brutally frank video, shared the feedback from its own focus groups. "Worst pizza I've ever had." "Tastes like ketchup." "Totally devoid of flavor." Now that's a commercial! And then, Domino's owned its horribleness and admitted it had to "start over."

The company subsequently revamped its sauce, switched from mozzarella to a cheese blend, and seasoned up its notoriously cardboardesque crust. And some critics admitted it actually had improved.

Look. It's still Domino's. It's not a family from the old country and a brick oven. It's sauce and dough and a promise that you can get it in less time than it takes to watch "Two and a Half Men." But it sucks just a little bit less now -- and in a year when so many things got worse, that's accomplishment enough for us.

Ted Olson

It seems like just yesterday that Bush's former solicitor general was undermining Bill Clinton and destroying presidential elections. But this year, he showed the world another side.

The widower, who lost his wife on 9/11, became an unlikely champion for the building of the Park51 Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan (aka the "ground zero mosque"), saying, "We don't want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance against people of religious faith."

More stunningly, he emerged as one of the nation's most outspoken advocates for same-sex marriage. And in a searing, eminently rational appearance this summer on "Fox News Sunday," he knocked host Chris Wallace out of the Proposition 8 water, declaring, "Would you like your right to free speech, Fox's right to free press, put up to a vote? These are fundamental constitutional rights … It is extraordinarily damaging to our citizens, our family members, our brothers, our sisters, our co-workers and our neighbors when they are labeled second-class citizens. Why are we denying them the right to happiness we accord to all our citizens?" Ka-POW.

As he now fearlessly digs in for a fight in the California 9th District, one that will likely take him all the way to the Supreme Court, Olson has become not just a persuasive champion of equality, but living proof that compassionate conservatism is not an oxymoron.

Kanye West

His tweets run from self-aggrandizing to barely coherent. He replaced his teeth with diamonds (presumably not from the Sierra Leone). And his album cover featured a Kanye monster getting it on with an armless angel monster. But the world's most famous awards show interrupter was also easily one of the most consistently engaging artists of the year -- and the most self-actualized "douchebag" in entertainment.

After laying low for the first part of 2010, West emerged this summer with the bracing "Power," a song that felt like a shot of Four Loco at a Katy Perry cotton candy buffet. And as the MTV Video Music Awards approached and breaths were held that he'd flip out on Taylor Swift or someone else again, he instead posted a lengthy (albeit rambling) mea culpa, and then went on to debut the stunning, strange "Runaway." Surrounded by a phalanx of ballerinas, he admitted, "You been putting up with my shit just way too long" and raised a toast to the "scumbags."

He then did a stark, riveting performance of "Power" on "SNL" that blew America's collective mind. He directed a mind-boggling 35-minute opus video for "Runaway."

He finally released the dizzyingly brilliant album "My Dark Twisted Fantasy." He even got a former president to call his notorious post Katrina-remark that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" the lowest point of his time in office. In short, he dominated. He's still crazy, but he's still brilliant -- and he managed to avoid bum rushing any of America's sweethearts this year. Hey, anyone who can give George W. Bush his "all time low" has officially won back our hearts.

"Cougar Town"

A sitcom about a 40-ish woman prowling for younger men while wearing cute outfits and self-deprecating her "sagging" butt off? Hasn't "Sex and the City" done enough collateral damage for one lifetime?

When "Cougar Town" premiered in 2009, in the time slot following the infinitely amusing "Modern Family," the show promptly distinguished itself as the scariest non-vampire-related television series on the air. The premiere episode featured Courteney Cox flashing her neighbors, comparing herself to a farm animal, and having a humiliating oral sex encounter. It wasn't even good enough to qualify as terrible.

But then a funny thing happened: Funny things happened. The show, boosted by its adept cast, became less of a star vehicle about a pathetic single lady and gelled into a witty, boozy ensemble. Cox's womanizing neighbor Grayson (Josh Hopkins) evolved into a convincingly sweet romantic interest for her. Her flashy assistant Laurie (Busy Philipps), endearingly loserish ex Bobby (Brian Van Holt) and droll best friend Ellie (Christa Miller) all grew from stock one-liner dispensers to nuanced, reliable scene stealers, and the show moved out of its "tragic old bag" rut. So if you're still traumatized from those early episodes, do as they do in "Cougar Town" -- and slap out of it. The title is still horrible. But like divorced and hot-even-by-Hollywood-standard ladies, everybody deserves a second chance.

Perez Hilton

The bullies hall of fame is lined with notorious sand kickers. Nelson Muntz. Biff Tannen. Gordon Ramsay. But now, we no longer have Perez Hilton to push us around.

After a devastating slew of anti-gay attacks and suicides inspired an array of famous and ordinary YouTubers to take the stand that "It Gets Better," the self-made gossip maven formerly known as Mario Lavandeira posted his own message of inspiration and hope. And then the guy who gained fame drawing semen on celebrity faces decided to do something new to combat hate and harassment -- starting with the man in the mirror.

In an October message to his friends and fans, he admitted he wanted to "step up to the plate and be the change that I want to see." No more flippantly calling people whores. No more Miley upskirts. No more moral scolding.

He promised instead to still be "sassy" but to keep his snark in check. And since then, he's stayed mostly true to his word. He still can't resist posting pictures of someone who looks a lot like Ke$ha getting orally serviced or speculating on Nic Cage's apparent toupee, but he's also praising Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees and cooing over Christian Bale.

And while some cynics will note that a friendlier Perez is also an advertiser-friendlier Perez, he does seem to be genuinely trying. He may be far from perfect, but the old belligerent queen of mean is dead. Long live the new, improved and decidedly drool-free "Queen of All Media."

Eliot Spitzer

He hasn't had to run the state of New York for a while, but he isn't the hooker guy anymore, either. Two years after truly outdoing himself in the highly competitive field of "disgraced American politicians," Eliot Spitzer became something else. He became a complicated, damn near almost sympathetic human being.

In Alex Gibney's fascinating documentary on the forces that brought down a once untouchable governor, "Client 9," Spitzer emerged as both the victim of an elaborate, aggressive campaign by his political enemies and a man who keenly understands, "I brought myself down."

That mix of humility and hubris served him well when he moved to CNN to co-host a news show with conservative journalist Kathleen Parker. And in spite of rocky ratings and awful initial reviews, he's become the surprise breakout star. Several weeks after its October debut, the New York Times wrote, "There is no doubt that Mr. Spitzer dominates," and the Los Angeles Times enthused about "the irrepressible Spitzer, whose strengths as an interviewer and host have been underestimated by most critics."

Aside from fueling speculation that the show will soon be one co-host short, the critical response has been a bracing reminder that there's a reason the guy was gangbusters as a politician -- he's smart, lively and disarmingly charismatic. He will likely never again run for public office. But as a sharp, welcome addition to cable news, he gets our vote.

Diane Ravitch

She believed in the system. Until the system failed. That's when Diane Ravitch -- the Bush administration's former assistant secretary of education and the former advocate of No Child Left Behind -- did something radical. She changed her mind. Armed with a wealth of firsthand experience in the trenches, she became a fierce voice for our beleaguered public school system.

This year she released her blistering indictment of the culture of testing, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." And she has strenuously, tirelessly continued to explain how the deeply entrenched problems in public schools are not going to be fixed by artificially inflating test scores, a slash and burn, fire all the teachers strategy, or abandoning the public system in favor of those deep-pocketed charter schools.

And when that feel-good advertorial for charter schools, "Waiting for Superman," came out, she took filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, a private school alum and parent, to task for the "propagandist nature" of his documentary and use of "misleading" data.

She has asked, again and again, what happens when we turn over the education of our children to private business, and she has been one of the most eloquent voices in the discourse over Obama's horrifically misguided "Race to the Top." In short, the woman who helped create the culture of competition -- and assessing children, teachers and schools based on numbers on a sheet -- has done exactly what we wish for our kids: She's learned something. And she's trying to give all our children a fair shot at doing likewise.

Jonathan Franzen

Where have you been all this time, Jonathan Franzen? We missed you. But you were worth the wait. Nine years after the astonishing, almost overwhelming success of "The Corrections," Franzen roared back this year with another critically acclaimed doorstop of a novel. "Freedom" soon became the must-read book of the year not written by Stieg Larsson.

But while the quality of his writing remains impeccable, what's different this time around about Franzen is his willingness to embrace the trappings of his own awesomeness. The only human being in the history of civilization to express ambivalence about being selected for Oprah's bestseller-making book club finally gave her a thumbs up this year, as his novel became the first book club selection of her final television season. This is the literary equivalent of saying, OK, you wore me down; I will let you give me the Heisman trophy.

He's still in no danger of Kardashian-level overexposure. And he managed to deadpan that appearing on Oprah's show "was work," but "there were no disasters." But he made the cover of Time, spent 10 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and even had his trademark glasses ripped right off his face -- all while remaining effortlessly cool. He's always been brilliant. But now, he's a little more comfortable being brilliant. Welcome back.


Misogynist. Homophobe. Drug abuser. Genius.

With 10 Grammy nominations and the best-selling album of 2010, Marshall Mathers didn't just come back with "The Recovery," he proved that clean and sober does not mean safe and tired. 

First, his ferocious single "Not Afraid" became the most badass anthem to sobriety ever recorded, and then his dark, domestic violence duet with Rihanna, "Love the Way You Lie," made it clear that Slim Shady has a whole mess of hot buttons yet to push. And eight years after his electrifying debut in "8 Mile," he's set to star as a boxer in "Southpaw."

More than just racking up acclaim and hit songs this year, though, the biggest achievement for the guy who once rapped, "Do I hate fags? The answer is yes," is how much he's matured as an artist and a man. Speaking to the New York Times this summer he opined dryly, "I think if two people love each other, then what the hell? Everyone should have the chance to be equally miserable, if they want." And anyone who can combine the sentiment that "I'm too busy gazing at stars" with "Ain't no way I'ma let you stop me from causing mayhem" is a guy who has a very unique path to emotional growth. He's doing it Eminem style, full of cynicism and wit and provocation. Getting clean never sounded so intoxicating.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Best Of 2010 Celebrity Cougar Town Kanye West Perez Hilton