18 Emmy, Oscar, and Other Award Show Scandals That Rocked the Industry
Awards shows, often aired live, have seen their fair share of scandals over the years—but as they say, the shows must go on.
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Award show scandals that made our jaws drop
Award shows such as the Academy Awards, Emmys, and Grammys are meant to celebrate and reward the best of the best movies, TV shows, music, and other popular entertainment. Seeing our favorite celebs and artists gathered at these star-studded shows is truly entertaining—but it doesn’t come without the occasional scandal (or two). From head-scratching name flubs to embarrassing winner mix-ups, these are some of the most memorable award show scandals that made people gasp and ask, “Did that really just happen?”
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The slap heard around the world at the 94th Academy Awards
We’re referring, of course, to the unmistakable “thwack” of Will Smith’s hand hitting Chris Rock’s face during the 2022 Oscars. The incident unfurled as stand-up comedian was Chris Rock was onstage to present the Best Documentary award. He was telling jokes and roasting fellow actors when he told a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head that struck a nerve.
“Jada, I love you,” joked Rock. “G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it,” Rock was likening the actress to G.I. Jane, a character with a shaved head played by Demi Moore in 1994.
Smith, the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, laughed at first, but Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes and clearly didn’t appreciate the joke. The actress has alopecia, a condition that causes intermittent hair loss. She has been public about her struggles and she shaves her head to try to come to terms with her condition.
Seeing his wife’s discomfort must have spurred Smith to act. Within a moment he walked up to Rock onstage and slapped the comedian across his face. In the confusion and shock, viewers wondered if the incident was scripted, until Smith returned to his table, where he yelled at Rock with a voice full of emotion, “Keep my wife’s name out your (expletive) mouth!” Twice.
Later in the show, Smith nabbed the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Richard Williams in King Richard. During a tearful acceptance speech, he apologized to the Academy and other nominees, but notably not Chris Rock.
Sofia Vergara’s pedestal gag at the 2014 Emmys
At the 2014 Emmys, many feminists, social media users, and critics alike slammed a sight gag featuring Sofia Vergara and the Television Academy chairman Bruce Rosenblum. The joke literally placed the super sexy Modern Family star on a slowly revolving pedestal. With her curves on full display, Rosenblum ended his boring speech about the state of TV with what seemed like a justification of the “sex sells” mentality. “What truly matters is that we never forget that our success is based on always giving the viewer something compelling to watch.” Vergara didn’t understand the backlash. She told Entertainment Weekly that she did not see the gag as demeaning. “It’s absolutely the opposite. It means that somebody can be hot and also funny and make fun of herself. Somebody started this who has no sense of humor.” Check out fun facts you might not know about the Emmy Awards.
The wrong Best Picture winner is named at the 89th Academy Awards
February 26, 2017 is an Oscar night that will live in infamy. Former Bonnie and Clyde costars Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were presenting the Best Picture category. Beatty looked confused as he pulled the winner’s name out of the red envelope and tossed it to Dunaway who called out La La Land. The team behind the musical rushed the stage and started gushing, giving thanks, and suggesting that more people vow to make “bold and diverse” work.
During the second and third speeches, men in headsets started gathering on stage and inspecting envelopes while the faces of the cast and crew started to change. Producer Justin Horowitz then announced that Moonlight had actually won and held up the correct card. Shock spread throughout the theater, Moonlight folks hesitantly walked up, host Jimmy Kimmel blamed Steve Harvey and suggested everyone get statues, and Beatty returned to the microphone to explain that he wasn’t “trying to be funny.” He had been given a duplicate envelope and card for the Best Actress In A Leading Role winner, which read “Emma Stone, La La Land“—Stone had received the award earlier in the night.
Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards
Kanye West is no stranger to controversy, but when he jumped on stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and stole the mic from then-19-year-old Taylor Swift’s hands just as she’d started her acceptance speech for Best Female Video, he took it to another level. Apparently, he thought his gal pal Beyoncé deserved the award for “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” more than the country-pop singer. “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’m a let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time,” he said before returning the mic.
He was booed and President Obama even labeled it a “jackass” move. As for Queen B, she invited Swift onstage with her as she accepted the Video Of The Year award later that night. The beef between West and Swift has played on for years as both artists made diss tracks, took to social media, apologized, gave and then retracted forgiveness, and so on.
Sean Spicer’s joke falls flat at the 2017 Emmy Awards
Host Stephen Colbert invited an unwelcome guest to spice up his opening monologue at the 2017 Emmy Awards. During a joke about making that year’s show the most-watched Emmy telecast ever, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer rolled in behind a replica of his infamous podium just as Melissa McCarthy, who was in the audience a few rows away, does when she portrayed him on Saturday Night Live. Spicer declared, “This is the largest audience to witness the Emmys, period. Both in person and around the world.” The joke referenced a lie Spicer was complicit in about attendance numbers at President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration in January of that year.
Hollywood and fans did not seem ready to laugh with “Spicey” and many like Kumail Nanjiani, James Corden, Kal Penn, and Seth Rogen tweeted their disgust that he was given even a moment to redeem himself or look sympathetic. Harry Potter’s Jason Isaacs posted a photo of the “poisonous purveyor of lies” at the bar at the Netflix party and posted that he has the “aura of a giant festering abscess.”
Eminem’s 2001 Grammy performance is protested
In 2001, the LGBT community was up in arms over the homophobic lyrics penned by Eminem for The Marshall Mathers LP. When he was announced as a performer at the 2001 Grammy Awards, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) protested the decision. In response to the backlash, the rapper was paired with the openly gay Elton John for a rendition of Eminem’s “Stan.” GLAAD picketed outside the arena, but the musicians hugged at the end. Eminem couldn’t let it be though—he flipped the bird at the audience.
John Travolta mispronounces Idina Menzel’s name at the 86th Academy Awards
John Travolta had one job to do at the 2014 Oscars: Introduce Frozen singer/actress Idina Menzel’s performance of what would become that evening’s Best Original Song winner. Instead, he bizarrely welcomed Adele Dazeem to the stage. Most assumed he was inebriated, while some feared he’d had a stroke. He blamed a frazzled entrance, an unexpected encounter with Goldie Hawn, and a change on the cue cards. Menzel let it go, but not before playfully returning the favor the following year by asking Glom Gazingo to join her on stage and jokingly adding, “It’s not like it’s going to follow me around for the rest of my life or anything.” This slip of the tongue made our list of the funniest Oscar moments.
Patrika Darbo’s 2018 Daytime Emmy is rescinded
There is strength in numbers when it comes to this scandal. Actress Patrika Darbo’s 2018 Daytime Emmy for the Amazon soap opera The Bay was rescinded after the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) found submission errors in her category—as well as a few other categories. First, the Days of Our Lives alum spoke out against the Academy and demanded an outside audit. Shortly after, the four daytime soaps on main networks—The Bold and the Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, General Hospital, and The Young and the Restless—banded behind her and sent a joint letter demanding changes in the voting and accounting processes and vowing not to participate in future competitions unless the issues get resolved.
Since this scandal, NATAS has released two Transparency Reports—one in 2019, and one just recently in March 2022. IndieWire reports that the goal of the Transparency Reports is to “provide context, insight, and visibility into submission, judging, and dispute adjudication and resolution processes for the Daytime, News & Documentary, and Sports Emmy Award competitions.”
Michael Moore is booed during his acceptance speech at the 75th Academy Awards
Wherever filmmaker Michael Moore goes, controversy usually follows. (Although in all fairness, he seems to like it that way.) In 2003, he took to the Oscars stage to accept the Best Documentary statue for his anti-gun film Bowling For Columbine and took the opportunity to get something else off his mind. “We live in fictitious times where we have fictitious election results, that elects a fictitious president,” he said of then-President George W. Bush. “We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.”
Surprisingly, Hollywood’s generally liberal elite booed and heckled the director. The abnormal reaction may have been a result of the general “rallying together against a common enemy” vibe, as it was not that long after the 9/11 attacks.
Steve Harvey names the wrong Miss Universe winner
As host of the 2015 Miss Universe pageant, Steve Harvey had the privilege of announcing that yet another Miss Colombia would be taking the title. Unfortunately for Ariadna Gutierrez, he was wrong. Harvey returned to the stage to correct his error and she had to dip down and let the last year’s winner take the crown off her head and transplant it to a stunned Miss Philippines, Pia Wurtzbach. Harvey told Jimmy Fallon that the “four minutes of hell” were the result of a lagging teleprompter and misunderstood instructions being whispered in his earpiece. “It was the most gut-wrenching walk I’ve ever had in my life,” Harvey said. “I was brought up to face whatever there is, so I went out and dealt with it.”
Frank Capra prematurely celebrates an Oscar win
Given how long ago this next flub happened, it’s probably safe to say most readers won’t remember this one. When Will Rogers announced who won Best Director at the 1934 Academy Awards, he vaguely blurted out, “Come up and get it, Frank.” Frank Capra, nominated for Lady For A Day made his way to the podium. Unfortunately for him, the award belonged to another Frank (Lloyd) who had directed Cavalcade. When Capra wrote about the mishap in his autobiography, he referred to himself as a “big stupido.”
Oscar trophies vanish before the 72nd Academy Awards
Weeks before the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony, 55 Oscar trophies were lifted from a loading dock in Los Angeles. A few days later as the company raced to manufacture replacements in time for movies’ biggest night, an unemployed junk scavenger named Willie Fulgear found 52 of them while rummaging through a dumpster behind a Koreatown Food 4 Less in Los Angeles. Fulgear was given a $50,000 reward and two tickets to the Oscars.
The thieves were caught, admitted to chickening out, and received light punishment. One Oscar turned up in 2003 during a Florida drug bust and two are still missing. Fun fact: The recovered awards were destroyed because they figured no star would want damaged goods and later admitted that batch was actually earmarked for the 2001 awards, as their policy was to make figurines a year in advance. See the other weirdest things people have tried to steal.
Dame Helen Mirren has some choice words during the 58th Emmy Awards
It was a case of censor-y overload. Dame Helen Mirren, who is known in the industry for her sassiness and potty mouth, was summoned to the stage at the 58th Emmy Awards to pick up the trophy for Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I, her career third Emmy. Apparently, playing staid British royals has not rubbed off on the actress. She ascended the steep stapes from the audience while balancing a shawl around her shoulders and when she got to the microphone, she laughed, “My great triumph is not falling a*s over t*t as I came up those stairs. If you saw the shoes I’ve got on, you’d understand.”
Whether it was because of her thick accent, her posh aura, or the assumption that a woman of her age would not dare swear on live TV, the censors failed to bleep the profanity and the actually hilarious and adorable moment was blasted out to homes across the United States.
Fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski wins Best Director
In 1978, acclaimed director Roman Polanski admitted he’d given a 13-year-old girl champagne and a Quaalude, pled guilty to the statutory rape, spent 42 days in jail, and then fled the country before sentencing because he feared the judge would toss out the lenient plea deal. Still a fugitive of the law in the United States, he has spent his days in France and other countries that agreed not to extradite him. None of that stopped the Academy from awarding him a Best Director Oscar in 2003 for his film, The Pianist. In fact, he even received a standing ovation despite not even being there to accept it.
People have argued about the controversial win for years. When the #MeToo movement really kicked into gear in 2017 and Harvey Weinstein had his Academy membership revoked after being accused of several accounts of sexual assault and harassment, the Polanski debate was reignited. In 2018, Polanski and Bill Cosby were also expelled from the Oscars organization.
Angelina Jolie plants a smooch on her brother
They say loose lips sink ships—and there have certainly been plenty of questionable kissing moments over the years, including Britney Spears and Madonna’s famous smooch at the 2003 VMAs and Nicole Kidman bussing her Big Little Lies husband Alexander Skarsgard after his win at the 2017 Emmys as her real-life husband, Keith Urban, looked on. But the kiss that made the most hairs bristle was the overly long one shared by Angelina Jolie and her date/brother James Haven on the Vanity Fair Oscar party red carpet in 2000 in their his-and-hers goth duds.
Making matters worse, her speech for winning Best Supporting Actor for Girl, Interrupted. “I’m in shock. And I’m just so in love with my brother right now,” she said a little too emphatically. “He just held me and said he loved me and I know he’s so happy for me.” They simply said people were turning it into something it wasn’t. Almost 14 years later, another explanation emerged when their mother’s best friend revealed they’d spent the hours before the show with their mother, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and received her first treatment that day.
Bret Michaels is injured during the 63rd Tony Awards
In 1991, during the height of Poison’s popularity thanks to “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Unskinny Bop” and amidst in-fighting, alcohol, and drug abuse, and sleazy on-the-road sexcapades, feuding lead singer Bret Michaels and guitarist C.C. Deville found their breaking point at the MTV VMAs. As the musicians walked off stage with Cindy Crawford and Eddie Van Halen, the bandmates broke out in a full-on fistfight and the rift led to Deville exiting the band.
Flash forward to 2009 and the Tony Awards where Michaels performed Poison’s hit “Nothin’ But a Good Time” with the cast of Broadway’s Rock of Ages, a play about the world of over-the-top ’80s hair metal. Unfortunately, at the end of song, Michaels was knocked to the ground by a descending piece of scenery. The Tonys crew said he missed his mark and host Neil Patrick Harris seconded that statement in an on-stage joke saying Michaels “gave headbanging a whole new meaning.” The singer, who fractured his nose and needed three stitches in his lip, clapped back saying that he was never given a mark to hit or told about the set piece. He was upset that the organizers blamed the accident on him and that they announced that he was fine before he saw a doctor. He went on to sue the show organizers and CBS over the incident.
OutKast’s wardrobe at the 46th Grammy Awards sparks backlash
Questionable clothes can be a recurring award show nightmare or a watercooler-worthy crowd-pleaser in the case of Lady Gaga’s raw meat dress or Bjork’s egg-laying swan costume. Andre 3000 of OutKast found himself in the former situation when the duo, who had just won Album Of The Year, closed the 2004 Grammy ceremony. They did “Hey Ya” with a Native American slant complete with a futuristic teepee, moccasins, and scantily clad dancers with feathers in their hair. Native Americans were outraged and CBS wound up apologizing on everyone’s behalf.
A rumor swirls about Marisa Tomei’s Oscar win
Long before the Moonlight–La La Land snafu, Marisa Tomei found herself at the center of an Oscar scandal, and its effects would be felt for years to follow, due mostly to the fact that it happened in 1993—long before the world had Snopes or social media for fact-checking.
Tomei was the underdog. She was a relative newbie at the time in the lighthearted sleeper hit My Cousin Vinny. She was pitted against four more experienced non-Americans with heavier roles. Against the odds, she persevered. But the day after the show, The Hollywood Reporter printed a blind item about rumors flying in Manhattan that she had not really won. They claimed that presenter Jack Palance was either too drunk or stoned to read the correct name, so he just repeated the last name on the teleprompter. The story was passed around and reprinted, and even though the Academy repeatedly confirmed there was no mistake, the doubt remained. Tomei is still asked about it and is still a punchline.
- CNN: “Will Smith hit Chris Rock on Oscars telecast”
- The Hollywood Reporter: “Emmys: Sofia Vergara Defends “Sexist” Spinning Segment”
- The Guardian: “La La Land mistakenly named best picture – video”
- ET: “Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian: The Complete Timeline of Their Feud”
- Esquire: “Sean Spicer’s Emmys Appearance Was Profoundly Unfunny”
- Vulture: “At Least Some of Hollywood Is Really Pissed About Sean Spicer’s Emmys Cameo”
- Deadline: “Daytime Emmys Revolt: All 4 Daytime Dramas Threaten To Boycott Awards Unless Major Changes Are Made”
- IndieWire: “Daytime Emmys and NATAS Show Transparency Is Key with Awards Bodies”
- The Verge: “The long history of Oscar speeches as political protest”
- Us Weekly: “Steve Harvey Explains His Infamous Miss Universe Mistake: ‘It Was Four Minutes of Pure Hell'”
- The Hollywood Reporter: “Oscars: 10 Epic Mistakes and Unplanned Moments Throughout the Years”
- The Hollywood Reporter: “The Truth Behind the Infamous 2000 Oscar Heist”
- Daily Mail: “Polanski’s surprise Oscar win”
- People: “Oscars Voting Group Kicks Out Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski for Sexual Abuse Convictions”
- E! News: “The Biggest Shockers in Oscars History”
- People: “Bret Michaels Injured at the Tony Awards”
- TV Guide: “Bret Michaels: Tony Organizers Didn’t Show Concern for Injury”
- Today: “Native Americans upset with OutKast”
- Black Bag: “Did Marisa Tomei Win Her Best Supporting Actress Oscar By Mistake?”