Celebrities behaving badly. Sports drama. Political scandals. Bad boy televangelists. The 1980s were a truly wild time. Here are shocking facts about the biggest 1980s scandals.
1980s Scandals Facts
1. The Controversial Cannibal Holocaust
The 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust created a wave of controversy due to its graphic content. Some even alleged that the movie was a quasi snuff film and claimed that the flick contained scenes of people being killed. While that wasn't true, the movie's overwhelming brutality led several countries to ban it. The film became particularly infamous for maiming real animal on screen.
2. From Hero to Zero
Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was riding high in the 1980s. He followed up his first place finish in the 100-meter dash at the 1987 World Championships with an Olympic Gold Medal in 1988. However, only a few days after winning the Gold, his doping test came back positive for steroids. Johnson lost his Olympic medal and world record. He later admitted to cheating during the 87 World Championships. He lost that medal too.
3. Televangelist Transgression
The world of 1980s scandals is full of televangelists and for their many transgressions. One of the most prominent? Jim Bakker who, along with his wife Tammy Faye, hosted the popular television show The PTL Club. Despite Bakker's proclamations of living a clean Christian life, it turned out that Bakker embezzled funds from his church’s fundraising efforts. Even worse, some of that money bought the silence of Jessica Hahn. The former church secretary alleged that Bakker drugged and assaulted her.
4. Outrage at the Cinema
Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ was a magnet for protests. The film sparked outrage from Christian groups and was banned in many countries. When it entered the home video market, Blockbuster Video refused to carry it. Most notably, a Paris movie theatre that screened the movie endured a bomb attack. The attack injured 13 people, with many of them suffering serious burns.
5. On Set Tragedy
The production of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie was marred by a brutal on-set accident. It led to the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors Myca Dinh Lee and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, who were later to be found hired illegally. After a mortar improperly detonated, a helicopter crashed and fell onto the three actors. The incident led to major safety reforms on film sets.
6. The Fall of the “Hit King”
Pete Rose is perhaps one of the greatest baseball players of all time. However, that reputation and legacy was forever tainted in 1989. It came out that Rose gambled on the outcome of games involving the Cincinnati Reds, who he played for and managed. As a result, Major League Baseball went to the extraordinary step of issuing Rose with a lifetime ban from the sport.
7. Televangelist Transgression Part II
Jimmy Swaggart and his ministry commanded large crowds all across the United States throughout the 1980s. However, his standing took a major hit, when news of his liaisons with a prostitute broke. After an infamous tearful apology, the Assemblies of God suspended Swaggart. He then started his own independent Pentecostal ministry. Controversy followed him into the 1990s, as in 1991 he was found in the company of a prostitute once again.
8. Riling Up the Religious Groups
The music video for Madonna’s 1989 hit single “Like a Prayer” courted a lot of controversy. It used religious imagery in a way that many Christian groups found blasphemous. Even the Pope got involved, encouraging a boycott of the pop star in Italy. Pepsi, who used the song in a major campaign, also received boycott threats. Eventually, Pepsi succumbed to the pressure and dropped the campaign altogether.
9. “Girl, You Know It’s NOT True”
The downfall of pop duo Milli Vanilli began at a MTV live performance in the summer of 1989. During the performance, the two were clearly lip-syncing. When the pre-recorded music began to skip, the duo simply ran off the stage. Later in 1989, Charles Shaw revealed that he was actually one of the singers behind the duo and that the members of Milli Vanilli were mere impostors. Soon after, the duo faced the music. They had to hand back their Grammy and were the subject of various lawsuits from former fans.
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10. Sex, Lowe, and Videotape
A member of the so-called Brat Pack, Rob Lowe was one of Hollywood’s next big stars. However, his appearance in two intimate tapes briefly derailed his career. One of these tapes was especially disconcerting. It recorded Lowe with a 16-year-old girl. Although Lowe rebounded with a series of prominent roles on television, the big time movie career never really materialized.
11. Marvin Gaye’s Sad Demise
One of the most shocking and tragic moments in 1980s pop culture was the murder of Marvin Gaye. Gaye's father Marvin Gay Sr. shot him after the two got into an altercation. Gaye’s final years were marked by cocaine addiction, which fuelled bouts of paranoia. Sadly, Gaye’s addiction issues actually led him to living with his parents.
12. The “Death Penalty”
It seems like NCAA football is never far from scandal. Perhaps one of the biggest scandals to rock the world of college gridiron in the 1980s occurred at Southern Methodist Unversity (SMU). An investigation revealed that SMU violated a whole slew of collegiate athletics regulations, including under-the-table payments to athletes who "chose" to attend the school. The NCAA handed the “death-penalty” to SMU, cancelling their 1987 and 1988 seasons and heavily limiting their recruitment powers. At the time of the suspension, SMU was considered one of the top football programs in the country. Since the death penalty, SMU has struggled to remain relevant and has had very few winning seasons since.
13. The End of the Reign
In 1983, Vanessa Williams made history by becoming the first African-American to be crowned as Miss America. However, the pageant organizers forced her to resign her title after Penthouse magazine planned to publish nude photos of Williams. Williams never consented to this, yet Penthouse published the pictures anyways. Williams recovered from the scandal and went on to have a music and acting career. Over three decades later, the Miss America organization finally apologized for how they treated Williams.
14. Inappropriate With a Capital I
In 1980, 14-year-old Brooke Shields appeared in the film The Blue Lagoon. The movie was about two teenage cousins shipwrecked on a remote tropical island who eventually develop a romantic relationship. Owing to Shields being underage, The Blue Lagoon courted a lot of controversy due to the film's amount of sexual content. Later, the studio confirmed that a body double filmed all of Shields' nude scenes.
15. Brooke Does it Again
Brooke Shields courted further controversy in 1980 due to her appearance in a series of highly provocative advertisements for Calvin Klein Jeans. The ads, which were shot by famed photographer Richard Avedon, were notable for Shields (again, she was only 14 at the time) uttering the cringeworthy line, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” That suggestive line led to CBS and ABC banning the ad.
16. Hit the Road Jack
Jack Nicholson is both a legendary actor and a legendary womanizer. The latter achievement finally caught up with him in the 1980s. In the midst of his longest and most high profile relationship with actress Anjelica Huston, Nicholson fathered two children with two different women—Winnie Holman and Rebecca Broussard. By 1990, Nicholson and Huston ended their 17-year relationship.
17. The Sad Saga of Todd Bridges
Todd Bridges was a successful child actor who appeared in the network sitcom Diff’rent Strokes alongside Gary Coleman. However, as Bridges grew older, his life and career took an unfortunate turn. Throughout his twenties, Bridges battled crack cocaine addiction. In 1989, he hit rock bottom when the authorities arrested him for allegedly shooting a dealer. He was charged with attempted murder, but later cleared when a witness provided an alibi for Bridges.
18. Bat-ty Behavior
Black Sabbath lead singer Ozzy Osbourne cemented his reputations as one the wildest and most outrageous rockers during a 1982 concert in Des Moines, Iowa. At one point in the concert, a fan threw a dead bat onto the stage and Osbourne proceeded to bite the head off of the animal. Immediately after the concert, Osbourne rushed to a local hospital to be treated for rabies. In response to the incident, the venue where the concert took place banned the use of animals during performances.
19. When Berry Becomes a Creep
Rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry made headlines for all the wrong reasons in 1987. The authorities arrested him for assaulting a woman in New York City. Then in 1989, Berry a Missouri restaurant that he owned sued him for installing cameras in the women’s washroom. Although he was not convicted, Beryy did settle a class-action lawsuit by paying former employees a total of $1.2 million.
20. Parkinson’s Transgressions
In 1983, British Member of Parliament Cecil Parkinson had to resign as the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Why? He had an affair with his secretary Sara Keays...and she was pregnant with their child. Sara gave birth to daughter Flora, who Parkinson never met. Parkinson eventually regained positions in Margaret Thatcher's administration. When Parkinson died in 2016, he left nothing in his will for Flora.
21. Affairs and Hypocrisy
Although not revealed until 2002, British politician Edwina Currie had an affair with John Major, who would later become the UK’s Prime Minister, throughout the 1980s. In hindsight, it made sense that Currie supported Cecil Parkinson throughout his affair with Sara Keays. In 1983, Currie said, “I feel very very sorry for Cecil and his family. Most of my thoughts on Sara Keays are unprintable. Perhaps the most polite thing to say is she's a right cow.”
22. The Disgrace of Gijon
At the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain, West Germany and Austria competed in one of the most embarrassing soccer matches in history. After West Germany took an early lead, both teams simply played out the clock, with very few actual attempts to score any goals. The reason behind the less than impressive play? With a 1-0 scoreline, both West Germany and Austria would move onto the next round of the tournament.
This meant that Algeria, who had earlier produced a shock victory over the West Germans, would be eliminated. Although Algeria filed an official protest, FIFA declared that no actual rules were broken. The match would be dubbed as the Disgrace of Gijon, after the Spanish city where it was held. To prevent future scenarios like this, it is now common practice for the final group games in major international tournaments to be played simultaneously.
23. The Hand of God
One of the basic rules of soccer is that, other than the goalkeeper, players can't touch the ball with their hands. And yet, this basic rule didn't seem to exist in the 1986 FIFA quarterfinal match between England and Argentina. Argentine player Diego Maradona leaped into the air and struck the ball with his hand into the back of England's net. Somehow, the referee allowed the goal, later dubbed the “Hand of God,” to stand to the anger of English players and fans.
Minutes later, Maradona scored a second goal and what is now considered “The Goal of the Century.” In a wondrous exhibition of skill and technique, he dribbled the ball for 60 yards through and past the English defenders. Then, as the grand finale, he struck the ball into the net. Argentina won the game and later, the World Cup.
24. Olympic Boycotts
Major boycotts marred the first two Summer Olympics of the 1980s. The United States and many of their allies boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In total, 66 countries boycotted the Games in Moscow. To retaliate, the Soviet Union and their allies boycotted the next Summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles.
25. Hello, Is It Me You’re Cheating On?
In 1986, popular recording artist Lionel Richie got caught having an affair with Diane Alexander. To make matters worse, the person who did the catching was Richie's then-wife Brenda Harvey. Harvey reportedly began assaulting Richie when she discovered the two outside Alexander’s Beverly Hills apartment. The couple would eventually divorce and Richie would later marry Alexander.
26. Live and Get High
Legendary rocker Paul McCartney created an international incident in 1980. As he attempted to clear customs at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, Japanese authorities discovered he had nearly half a pound of marijuana. A seven-year prison sentence loomed. However, McCartney got out after a nine-day stint in a detention center. McCartney didn’t seem to learn his lesson though. Four years later he and his wife Linda were arrested for possession while on vacation in Barbados. This time he got away by paying a small fine.
27. The Slow Response to the AIDS Crisis
One of the biggest news stories of the 1980s was the HIV and AIDS epidemic, and specifically, the government's failure to address the problem. US President Ronald Reagan prevented his surgeon general C. Everett Koop from addressing the crisis. Thanks to grassroots activist groups like ACT UP and pressure from Koop himself, Reagan finally committed funding to research and prevent the illness.
28. The Birth of the Parental Advisory Sticker
Before becoming the Second Lady of the United States, Tipper Gore was perhaps best known for her work with the Parents Music Resource Center. The group advocated for record labels to put Parental Advisory labels on albums to inform consumers about explicit lyrical content. Many musicians protested this cause as they considered it censorship. The group eventually won and the stickers became a ubiquitous sight on album covers. Looking back, the stickers probably made the albums even more desirable to curious young music fans.
29. Soda is Serious Business
In the 1980s, Coca-Cola saw sales dip, as they competed with Pepsi, diet pop, and non-cola drinks. In response, Coca-Cola launched a new formula called New Coke. Consumers did not like the new formula and neither did bottlers, who planned to sue the company. Coca-Cola soon re-launched their old formula as Coca-Cola Classic. The sales for Classic skyrocketed and effectively led Coke to once again outsell Pepsi. Many conspiracy theorists believe that the whole New Coke fiasco was deliberate. Apparently, Coca-Cola knew it would create demand for the original formula and cause sales to skyrocket.
30. Max Headroom Take Over Chicago Television
On November 22, 1987, an unidentified person wearing a Max Headroom mask hijacked the signals of two Chicago area broadcast networks. During these strange intrusions, the person wearing the Max Headroom mask rambled unintelligibly. At one point another unidentified individual used a flyswatter to spank "Max." To this day, the authorities have never caught the so-called hijackers.
31. Unearthing Corruption
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, FBI agents conducted a notorious sting operation. It caught over 30 government officials accepting bribes from a phony Arabian company in exchange for political favors. One US Senator, six US Congressmen, and members of the Philadelphia city council all went to jail. The sting known as ABSCAM became a major story and later inspired the 2013 film American Hustle.
32. A Controversial Plea
In 1987, televangelist Oral Roberts made an impassioned fundraising plea to his horde of followers. Roberts said that if his ministry did not raise $8 million, God would “call him home.” The plea was triggered as his large Christian medical center in Tulsa, Oklahoma was losing millions. The ploy seemingly worked as their ministry raised over $9 million.
What raised eyebrows, however, was Roberts’ lavish lifestyle. He had a penchant for wearing designer clothing and expensive jewelry. A board member from his ministry later resigned after he discovered that Roberts redirected the endowment money to purchase a home in Beverly Hills.
33. Taking the Bad Boy Persona Way Too Far
Many 1980s scandals seem relegated to the past, but this one involves a still-famous actor. Sean Penn made troubling news throughout the 1980s. Penn allegedly assaulted a film extra and a pair of photographers who tried to snap pictures of his then-fiancé Madonna. Penn served a month-long jail term for assaulting the extra and paid a fine for harming the photographers. Most troublingly, Madonna accused him of domestic violence in 1989. Madonna dropped the charges and retracted her claims in 2015.
34. When Soap Operas Become Real
Actress Brenda Dickson played Jill Foster Abbott on the popular soap opera The Young and the Restless. However, she was unceremoniously dumped from the show in 1987. Dickson alleges that this was an act of retribution from the show’s creator William J. Bell, after she ended their affair. She launched a $10 million lawsuit against Columbia Pictures and claimed that she was being blacklisted, preventing her from receiving future acting roles.
35. The Death of a Boxer
Following a gruelling 15-round bout with Ray Mancini in 1982, Korean boxer Kim Duk-koo collapsed and fell into a coma. He had suffered a subdural hematoma from a punch to the head and died four days later. As the fight was broadcast live on CBS, the tragedy received a great amount of attention. Kim’s death sparked a wave of reforms in the world of boxing. 15 round fights would no longer be sanctioned and boxers were subject to a series of rigorous pre-fight medical tests to screen out any preexisting conditions.
36. The Keating Five
The Keating Five refers to the five US Senators who improperly intervened on behalf of Charles J. Keating. Keating was the Chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which recently collapsed and was undergoing federal investigation. Investigators found that Keating made political donations to the five US Senators and they in turn are alleged to have handled the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association in favor of Keating.
The punishments handed out were rather minor, with only one senator receiving a formal reprimand. Two of the most notable senators of the five were former astronaut John Glenn and former POW John McCain. Instead of "improper intervention," investigators concluded that Glenn and McCain simply exercised poor judgment.
37. An Overnight Heist
In the early hours of March 29, 1984, a fleet of trucks moved the belongings of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis. The team owner Robert Irsay decided to move his team after he couldn't get Baltimore officials to build a new stadium. His relocation angered many of longtime Colts fans. Baltimore lacked an NFL franchise for more than a decade, before the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995 and became the Ravens.
38. A Dark Day in Sheffield
On April 15, 1989, an overcrowded holding pen at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England collapsed and led to 96 fans being crushed to death. The already awful tragedy worsened when sections of the media falsely blamed the victims, arguing that their hooliganism caused the collapse. An inquest found the local police to be at fault for letting the impacted section become overcrowded. After an initial inquest stated that the deaths were accidental, the victims' families protested. After the investigation reopened, the authorities placed the blame on negligent police and ambulance services.
39. Double Crossing the Champ
Wendi Richter was the World Wrestling Federation’s most famous female star in the 1980s. However, in 1985, her promoters double-crossed her. Richter went into her match on November 25, 1985 thinking she would beat her opponent, The Spider. During the the match, the referee, who was in on the plan, applied a very quick three count in favor of The Spider.
The WWF apparently orchestrated this plan in response to Richter refusing to sign a new contract. The blindsided Richter immediately left the arena in her wrestling gear and booked herself a flight out of New York. Twelve years later, the WWF would deploy a similar screwjob to their men’s Heavyweight Champion Bret Hart.
During the 1980 election, members of Ronald Reagan’s team reportedly stole important papers that President Jimmy Carter used to prepare for an upcoming debate. This allegation first surfaced in 1983 and sparked investigations by the FBI and Congress. Neither could verify exactly what how the classified documents ended up in the hands of Reagan’s campaign team. Either way, Reagan won the election, though most experts contend that the papers had no bearing on the result.
41. The Front-Runner
US Senator Gary Hart was the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination in 1988. However, in the spring of 1987, various media outlets reported Hart's extra-marital affair with a woman named Donna Rice. As the story broke, Hart’s poll numbers nosedived. He dropped out of the race and though he re-entered in late 1987, the writing was on the wall. Hart never recovered from the affair. Apart from two advisory positions, since the scandal Hart stepped away from politics and public life.
42. Iran-Contra Affair
No list of 1980s scandals would be complete with the Iran-Contra Affair. It rocked US politics towards the end of the 80s. Here’s a quick summary of the messy scandal. Following the overthrow of the Shah and the subsequent hostage crisis, the United States implemented an arms embargo against Iran and pressured other nations to do the same. Yet, in the early 1980s, US officials concocted a plan where the US would sell arms to Iran in exchange for releasing American hostages in Lebanon. Israel—an ally of the US and foe of Iran—would negotiate the deal.
A portion of the funds from the deal would then go to the Contras—the rebel group planning to overthrow the socialist government in Nicaragua. Heads up: Funding the rebel group violated US policy. Ensuing investigations claimed that President Reagan himself didn't know about the full plan, though a few officials got convicted, and after enough time passed, pardoned. Oliver North (the supposed mastermind) received limited immunity in exchanging for testifying before Congress. Although he was convicted for three felony charges, they were eventually dropped.