Sharon Osbourne has made a career out of cruelty – haven’t we all heard enough?

While there needs to be space for contrition in our reckoning against the worst of Noughties pop culture, the X Factor judge and Piers Morgan defender doesn’t appear to have learned anything, writes Adam White

Tuesday 16 March 2021 13:06 GMT
Nastiness deflected with a shrug and a giggle: Sharon Osbourne and Dannii Minogue in a 2007 episode of The X Factor
Nastiness deflected with a shrug and a giggle: Sharon Osbourne and Dannii Minogue in a 2007 episode of The X Factor (Ken McKay/Shutterstock)

Rebecca Loos, alleged David Beckham paramour, was competing on a doomed celebrity version of The X Factor, and Sharon Osbourne was on the warpath. “You, missy,” she pointed from the judge’s desk, “if you get through tonight, you should try doing tomorrow’s performance with your knickers on… You’ve got nice boobs though, you’ve got a very good boob job, I must say.” Loos shrunk into herself, fruitlessly reminding Osbourne that the show was a bit of fun for charity.

I was reminded of that 2006 run-in last week, when Osbourne defended Piers Morgan in his one-sided feud with Meghan Markle. After Morgan quit Good Morning Britain, having refused to apologise for saying he “didn’t believe” Markle’s experiences of suicidal idealisation, Osbourne decided to wade in on Twitter. “I am with you, I stand by you,” Osbourne tweeted to Morgan. “People forget that you’re paid for your opinion and that you’re just speaking your truth.” The Talk, her US chat show, has since been put on a brief hiatus pending an “internal review” into an on-air discussion about the tweet.

The foundation of Osbourne’s fame has been her perceived truth-telling. Humiliating Loos on live television was Osbourne merely “telling it like it is”, the popular narrative went. Just as it did two years earlier, when she tore into inaugural X Factor winner Steve Brookstein during that show’s live final. “He’s been over-confident from day one, he’s not what he seems, believe me,” she proclaimed. “He’s even fooled Simon [Cowell], he’s full of crap and an average singer… He’s a fake.”

For a good portion of the Noughties, Osbourne was British TV royalty – someone beyond reproach, and whose nastiest moments were deflected with a shrug and a nervous giggle. She was notorious for posting Tiffany boxes full of faeces to journalists she didn’t like. She said Susan Boyle looked like “a hairy arsehole”.

It would be insincere to suggest we didn’t get a perverse thrill from figures like Osbourne back then. Pop culture was mean, reality shows were vindictive, and a generation of children quoted The Weakest Link in the playground. Whether it was because we were indoctrinated by the sheer volume of nasty TV, or because the shows tapped into a primal pack mentality in all of us, we shrieked and gasped at the things she said, then went about our business. But her behaviour had real-world consequences.

Osbourne popularised an idea that being nice or pleasant meant being fake, and that to be honest meant sacrificing civility. It was one of the ideas that underpinned her feud with fellow X Factor judge Dannii Minogue. “Outwardly, Dannii seemed all ‘Ooh, I love kids and puppies’,” Osbourne wrote in her 2013 autobiography. “But in my opinion, she was dark, very dark.” On an episode of The Graham Norton Show in 2007, egged on by the host himself, Osbourne mocked Minogue’s appearance and stated that she was only a judge on the show because of her looks. When another guest asked what Minogue looked like, Osbourne bent over and pointed at her rear end.

Throughout 2021, archival footage from the 2000s has been picked over and condemned. We’ve been reminded of the toxic treatment of women such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan by interviewers and tabloids, and the ways reality television regularly turned vulnerable people into cannon fodder. In most cases, we need to allow room for contrition from those responsible for it back then – particularly when many of us were often complicit in it all, from the shows we watched to the magazines we bought.

But Osbourne hasn’t seemed to have learnt much at all over the course of her fame. Last week on The Talk, the US chat show that she’s co-hosted for a decade, she demanded Sheryl Underwood, her Black colleague, “educate” her about racism, and suggested that Underwood’s criticism of Piers Morgan translated to Underwood calling her a racist. In 2019, she boasted of sacking a personal assistant after he showed “absolutely no sense of humour” when he was told to run into a household fire to rescue her artwork. She also claimed she ripped an oxygen mask off his face to give to one of her pet dogs.

Osbourne has disguised casual bullying beneath a veneer of straight-talking for more than 20 years, propping up or initiating waves of hostile press against individuals she personally didn’t like. Some kind of soul-searching would be welcome; a bit of awareness of the role she, Simon Cowell and others of their ilk played in the nastiest moments of the past two decades. Or she could just send me excrement in the post. Maybe she’s beyond that now. Hopefully we all are.

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