The 1990s were a turbulent time. Massacres were carried out in the Balkans and Rwanda. School shootings and police brutality became headline news in an unprecedented way. Meanwhile, in the middle of all that, scandals were in abundant supply, shocking and enraging some people while simply amusing others. Many former scandals have since gone on to become standard jokes in comedy or parody, but it’s important to remember that in order for the joke to work, the scandals had to have first made a serious impact when they hit. Here are 42 facts about the most outrageous scandals of the 1990s.
43. The Bigger They Are…
By 1997, Tyson was in the middle of his comeback after being released from prison. On June 28, Tyson fought Evander Holyfield, their second bout. It would ultimately be the most infamous of Tyson’s fights. During the fight, Tyson bit Holyfield twice, tearing off a piece of his ear. Tyson was disqualified from the fight, a riot ensued, and years before the face tattoo, pop culture found a new joke to make about Tyson which didn’t focus on his speech impediment.
42. How Dare You!
Not many people might remember the name “Milli Vanilli,” but they won a Grammy in 1990 for Best New Artist. However, it was later revealed that the German R&B duo had lip synced on their album. As a result, their Grammy was stripped from them. The backlash was huge, but later cases where artists were caught lip-syncing were treated with much less rancor.
41. War? What is it Good For?
During his 1992 presidential campaign, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was accused of having dodged the draft during the Vietnam War. This was gleefully used by Clinton’s opponents as a mark against him until he was able to prove that he’d simply used his opposition to the war to be rejected for the draft. We’re sure that Clinton would go on to sorely miss for the days when the worst thing said about him was that he didn’t fight in Vietnam.
40. Ski Slope Fling
In the winter of 1990, Donald Trump, his then-wife Ivana, and their children went to Aspen, Colorado for a Christmas vacation, just two months after Ivana’s father had died. It’s alleged that this vacation is where Donald encountered Marla Maples and began an affair with her. The subsequent separation of Ivana and Donald, along with the more salacious details of their breakup, filled tabloid newspapers for nearly two weeks. During the divorce proceedings, Ivana accused Donald of sexual and physical assault. The final settlement contained a condition which forbade Ivana from discussing her marriage without Donald’s permission.
39. “I Did a Bad Thing. And There You Have It.”
The 1990s were great for British actor Hugh Grant’s career. Unfortunately, Grant was involved in a scandal when he was caught with a prostitute near Sunset Boulevard. After he was arrested, Grant was given a fine and “was ordered to complete an AIDS education program.”
38. Fire with Fire
In 1992, rapper Ice-T released the protest song “Cop Killer” through his heavy metal band Body Count. The song furiously criticizes police brutality, bringing up the Rodney King beating by LAPD officers. Ice-T had originally written the song in 1990, before the infamous King beating took place, but later amended the lyrics to modernize it.
37. It’s Just a Song… Isn’t It?
Even after the fury which was unleashed from the Rodney King beating and the subsequent riots when no police officers were found guilty of the beating, many of the public were horrified by a song which seemed to advocate killing police officers. Police organizations across the US organized a boycott of the song, while Vice President Al Gore’s wife, Tipper, publicly spoke out against Ice-T. Others defended Ice-T’s right to free speech, while Ice-T maintained that he was writing from a fictional first-person perspective. To that end, he famously declared “If you believe that I’m a cop-killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.”
36. Was it Method Acting?
In 1991, American movie star Julia Roberts was set to marry actor Kiefer Sutherland. However, just days before the wedding, Roberts canceled the plans and took a trip to Ireland with Jason Patric, her ex-partner. Sutherland eventually expressed his forgiveness of Roberts, even while Roberts starred in the rom-com Runaway Bride eight years later.
35. Awkward Arrest
By the end of the 1980s, Paul Reubens had established himself as the popular character Pee-Wee Herman in two television series and more than one film. However, this empire came crashing down when Reubens was arrested in a sting operation which targeted an adult movie theater. He was arrested for masturbating during a pornographic film, and this made the news worldwide, despite Reubens’ attempt to make a deal to hush it up.
34. Let’s Get Past This…
The arrest of Paul Reubens sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry and fans of his most popular character. Pee-wee’s Playhouse was taken out of syndication, Toys ‘R’ Us stopped selling Pee-wee merchandise, and Reubens was ordered to make two anti-drug PSAs. In the meantime, he spent the rest of the 1990s keeping a low profile, eventually winning acclaim for appearing in films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and shows like Murphy Brown.
33. Just One Spark…
Irish singer Sinead O’Connor was hardly one to avoid a controversy when she had an axe to grind, but things went too far for the public on October 3, 1992. Appearing on Saturday Night Live, O’Connor sang a cover of Bob Marley’s “War”, intending it to be a protest against the reports of child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church—keep in mind, this was ten years before the Boston Globe made it publicly known. In an act which shocked millions, O’Connor held up a picture of Pope John Paul II and tore it up, declaring “Fight the real enemy!” According to SNL producer Lorne Michaels, “the air went out of the studio.”
32. … And the World’s on Fire
The meaning behind Sinead O’Connor’s protest was completely lost in the uproar that followed, especially from the Catholic population. The following week on Saturday Night Live, actor Joe Pesci declared that he would have given O’Connor “such a smack” to great applause. Madonna harshly criticized her in the papers, though some accuse her of trying to draw attention back to herself, envious of O’Connor’s spotlight, and mocked her actions in her own next appearance on SNL. Meanwhile, two weeks after her appearance on SNL, O’Connor was scheduled to sing a song at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden. However, the audience reacted with such hostility towards her that she eschewed the plan, sang a piercing rendition of “War” as loud as she could over the booing, and left the stage in tears.
31. Just Try and Stop Me!
Even after the hatred and vilification she received, O’Connor refused to be held down from her cause of confronting the Catholic Church on suppressing reports of child molestation. In January 1995, O’Connor was invited last-minute onto the set of the television program After Dark during an episode where the guests were “a Dominican monk and a representative of the Catholic Church.” O’Connor appeared “10 minutes before closedown” to confront them on the Catholic Church’s policies and their silence on the subject of abuse.
30. On the Rebound
After her divorce, Princess Diana began a secret relationship with Pakistani-British heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. Despite allegedly describing Khan as “the love of her life,” Diana and Khan attempted to keep their relationship private, to the point where Diana would lie to the public and the press about her relationship. After two years, the relationship ended, but it’s unknown which of them instigated the end of the relationship. After a month, Diana began a relationship with Dodi Fayed, the heir to an Egyptian business magnate. Fayed and Diana would later die in the same infamous car crash in Paris.
29. How Dare She Oppose Horrific Violence!
Princess Diana garnered equal measures of praise and hostility when she launched a campaign against the production and use of landmines. She toured minefields, gave speeches on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, and pushed for a treaty to ban landmine use. While many nations agreed to the subsequent Ottawa Treaty, others refused to sign it, and people accused Diana of “meddling in politics.”
28. Burning Passion, This Ain’t
In 1994, a domestic dispute between football player Andre Rison and rapper/songwriter Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes led to a fire which destroyed their home. According to Lopes, she had set fire to Rison’s shoes in response to physical and emotional abuse from Rison. The scope of the ensuing blaze, she maintained, had been accidental. For her part in the fight, and causing the fire, Lopes was sentenced to five years’ probation and therapy.
27. No Joking Matter
Actor/comedian Eddie Murphy sparked a scandal when he was stopped by police with a transgender prostitute named Shalimar Seiuli in his car. Murphy, however, managed to avoid arrest or charges by maintaining that he’d simply given Seiuli a ride as a good deed.
26. Dude, this is Wrong…
Michael Kennedy, one of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s children, made headlines in 1997 when it was revealed that he was having an extramarital affair. What made it especially scandalizing was the fact that Kennedy was in his late 30s and the “woman” was the 17-year-old babysitter of his children. Allegedly, Kennedy had begun the affair when she was 14, which he denied, insisting that she’d been 16 when the affair began—16 was the legal age for sexual consent in Massachusetts. Kennedy and his wife separated during the scandal, and Kennedy would go on to die in a skiing accident that same year while visiting Aspen Mountain, Colorado.
25. Should Have Tried Beat-Boxing Instead
In 1990, Roseanne Barr was riding high on the success of her sitcom, Roseanne. However, the actress and comedian became the focus of heavy criticism when she sang the US national anthem before a baseball game being held at Jack Murphy Stadium. After singing off-key and imitating “the often-seen actions of players by spitting and grabbing her crotch as if adjusting a protective cup,” she drew scathing commentary from figures as high as President George H.W. Bush. For her part, she insisted that she’d merely tried to “bring humor to the song.”
24. The Right to Be Quoted
Washington DC mayor Marion Barry found himself in a very embarrassing situation in 1990 when he and his ex-girlfriend were arrested outside a hotel in Las Vegas for possession of cocaine. What helped push this scandal to a new height of hilarity was Barry’s furious declaration that “[Expletive] set me up!”
23. You Can’t Hold Me Back
Despite Marion Barry’s attempts to get out of his sticky situation, he was found guilty and spent six months in prison. Amazingly, Barry refused to let this scandal get in the way of his political career. In 1994, he ran for the position of mayor again. Much to the surprise of everyone at the time, he was victorious! Of course, this was hardly the only politician with a scandal during the 1990s (more on that later).
22. A Sign of Things to Come
Before celebrities like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, the celebrity sex tape which shocked the world was one featuring Canadian actress and model Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. The tape was stolen and came to light on the internet, among other places. The scandal and infamy of the sex tape led to copycats like the aforementioned Hilton and Kardashian tapes.
21. Caught with His Pants Down
It’s arguably one of the most infamous scandals in American history; in 1995, White House secretary Monica Lewinsky began a relationship with President Bill Clinton. Her friend, Linda Tripp, secretly recorded hours of phone conversations between the two of them. The recordings, along with other evidence, were later used to prove Clinton wrong when he famously denied any sexual relations with “Miss Lewinsky.”
20. Send Him Packing!
The scandal surrounding Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton threatened to have Clinton impeached. Clinton had been caught out in a lie about an extramarital affair, and his political opponents jumped to have him impeached on the charge of perjury and obstruction of justice. Ultimately, the impeachment process was stopped by the Senate, who found Clinton not guilty on both charges.
19. We Like Bill!
The big irony of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was that while Clinton had to battle impeachment processes, the general US public’s ratings of their president didn’t fall at all. In fact, Clinton enjoyed his highest approval ratings during the scandal! The logic was presumably that people refused to judge his presidency based on his personal failings, though the 1990s were a different time.
18. Crime and Punishment
At the height of his boxing career, Mike Tyson was arrested for raping Desiree Washington in 1991. Although he maintained his innocence, Tyson was convicted of rape in 1992. He was sentenced to six years in prison but was paroled after serving less than half that time.
17. Fatal Feud
The 1990s oversaw a number of violent and curse-laden rap feuds which came out inside and outside the recording studios of the US. The most famous one was between West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur and East Coast rapper Biggie Smalls. The feud ended in a shocking manner, even to the rap community. Shakur and Smalls were both killed by gun-toting assailants within a year of each other. Their deaths not only horrified American society, but forever reshaped the music scene.
16. How the Mighty Have Fallen
Before 1993, Michael Jackson was known as the King of Pop, having made some of the most popular songs of all time. That year, everything changed when he was first accused of child sexual abuse by dentist Evan Chandler in regard to his 13-year-old son, Jordan. The subsequent investigation stretched out into the following year, and eventually led to a settlement between Jackson and the Chandler family. It wasn’t the only time Jackson had to deal with such accusations, though.
15. Taboo Territory
In 1992, American filmmaker Woody Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow went down in flames when Farrow “discovered nude photos of her adopted daughter, 21-year-old Soon-Yi Previn, at Allen’s apartment.” As you can imagine, that kind of behavior can only lead to the worst kind of trouble between people.
14. Holy Matrimony?
In the subsequent storm of disputes and accusations which shocked those inside and outside the entertainment industry, Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn got married in 1997. The two of them remain married to this day.
13. She Did What?
On June 23, 1993, after years of alleged sexual abuse at the hands of her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, Lorena Bobbitt took a butcher’s knife and cut off her husband’s penis while he was asleep. She famously called 911 while driving away from her home, having thrown the severed penis into a field.
12. A Severed Relationship
The subsequent scandal surrounding the Bobbitts saw Lorena being arrested for her assault on John. Lorena pleaded guilty by reason of insanity, explaining that she had lived in fear of John until she finally snapped in an act of desperate self-defense. As for John, his penis was successfully reattached in surgery. He spent years struggling to pay his medical and legal bills, appearing in pornographic films. He was also convicted of battery against another woman in 1994 and sentenced to 15 years in jail.
11. Unhappy Marriage
A lot of people recently watched the weddings of the Royal Family’s Prince William and Prince Harry, just like how millions of people had watched their mother, Diana, marry Prince Charles in 1981. By 1993, however, rumors swirled that Prince Charles was secretly seeing Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he had wanted to marry before Diana, but had allegedly been prevented from doing so. Diana also suspected that Charles was having other affairs. Meanwhile, rumors also claimed that Diana was having affairs of her own, but those were unproven.
10. Say No More
On November 20, 1995, Princess Diana gave a controversial interview where she spoke frankly of her troubled marriage, her mental health struggles, and even questioned her husband’s suitability for kingship. Queen Elizabeth herself wrote to her son and daughter-in-law, recommending divorce proceedings. By July 1996, the royal couple agreed to the terms of the divorce. Aside from the monetary sums she received, Diana had to sign a confidentiality agreement, along with Charles, forbidding them from discussing the details of their marriage and divorce. Of course, that did little to prevent the gossip columnists of the day from going crazy.
9. A Cut-Throat Competition
On January 6, 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by Shane Stant, who had reportedly been hired to break Kerrigan’s right leg so that she wouldn’t be able to compete in the National Championships or the Lillehammer 1994 Olympics. It was revealed that Stant had been hired by the bodyguard and ex-husband of Tonya Harding, another figure skater who was hoping to win a medal for the US.
8. Banned for Life
It’s very debatable how much Tonya Harding knew about the conspiracy to lame Nancy Kerrigan, especially according to Harding herself. Either way, however, Harding eventually negotiated a plea bargain in the subsequent trial and investigation. Among the penalties of the plea agreement was that Harding was thrown out of the United States Figure Skating Association, forbidding her from skating professionally.
7. On the Run
In one of the most famous images in the history of 1990s news, O.J. Simpson fled authorities inside a white Ford Bronco, pursued by police cars and helicopters. This was after police had found the bloody bodies of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.
After Simpson did not turn himself into the police when he was supposed to, he gave a note to his friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian, who then read it to the media. The tone and content of the note led many to believe that Simpson had intended to commit suicide. In the note, Simpson urges people to remember him as “the real O.J. and not this lost person.” After it was read aloud, his mother Eunice collapsed.
5. The Trial of the Century
The subsequent murder trial was arguably the biggest scandal of the 1990s. People still remember where they were when the jury’s verdict was read out. It divided American society, as well as international spectators.
4. A Hero Ahead of Her Time
Even in 1991, after more than a decade of the emergence of AIDS, there was a huge, toxic stigma against those who contracted the virus. Several people tried to use their celebrity status to break that stigma and one of those people was Princess Diana. She shocked the world that year when she hugged an AIDS victim in Middlesex Hospital, shocking a society which considered it a rule to never touch anyone who was HIV-positive. While it was treated as a scandal by many, more people rightly see it as Diana doing all she could with her status as a beloved celebrity to help those suffering terribly from AIDS.
3. A Movie to Shock the World
In 1994, Oliver Stone released Natural Born Killers, the violent satire of ‘90s society and media. The film, with its shocking imagery and content, reflected Stone’s reaction to what he perceived to be a “national sickness” in how focused people were on such events like, well, the other events on this list. Of course, not even Stone could have imagined the response to his film. Even after cuts were made to avoid an NC-17 rating, the film was banned outright in Ireland, and release in the UK was delayed for almost a year.
2. Guns Don’t Kill People, Movies Do! Wait…
In March 1995, Benjamin James Darras and Sarah Edmondson went on a shooting spree in Tennessee, “killing a cotton-gin manager and paralyzing a convenience-store clerk.” Upon their arrest, it was revealed that they had watched Natural Born Killers under the influence of LSD before their rampage. Novelist John Grisham had been friends with the murdered cotton-gin manager and he took legal action against Oliver Stone and Warner Bros., holding them accountable for the death of his friend. Although this was eventually proven to not be the case in 2001—since the movie never urges its audience members to go kill people after the movie’s over—many have noted that the film led to several people copycatting the film—and therefore completely missing the point of the movie.
1. Murder, They Cried
On May 16, 1990, actor Marlon Brando’s son, Christian, shot and killed his half-sister’s boyfriend, Dag Drollet. The subsequent trial was complicated when Christian’s half-sister, Cheyenne, did not testify, which left the prosecution unable to prove that the murder was premeditated. For his part, Christian claimed that he was simply trying to frighten Drollet and claimed that there was a scuffle between them over the gun. In between Christian’s guilty plea to manslaughter, Cheyenne’s mental breakdown, and her subsequent suicide in 1995, the media had a field day publicizing what was going on.