Why Is ‘StartUp’ Promoting American Apparel’s Disgraced Former CEO?

By Erin MacLeod

For the latest season of its flagship business podcast, “StartUp,” Gimlet Media advertised a character-driven portrait of an intrepid entrepreneur trying to restart a failed business. “Buckle up,” the company tweeted.

Tuning in on November 4, listeners learned that this feel-good narrative would star Dov Charney, former CEO of American Apparel, and his business reboot. Charney founded and oversaw the rise of the once nearly-billion-dollar business, but was eventually kicked out by his own board. He’s now back on the scene, hoping to launch yet another clothing business, and “StartUp” is charting his second coming.

Never mind that the disgraced executive has been accused of sexual harassment, abuse, and racism.

In the premier episode, host Lisa Chow suggested that listeners might know American Apparel, but not its former CEO, the 1970s-style plastic-framed-spectacled Charney. A range of voices described him as “a jedi,” just “in his world,” “unfiltered,” a “good man,” “misunderstood,” and a “womanizer” who doesn’t hide it — he just “loves women.”

Sure, there have been three sexual harassment suits brought against Charney — but don’t worry, because according to the podcast, Charney has denied the allegations and nothing has been proven in court. What’s important is that Chow was “intrigued” by Charney, regardless of, as the podcast put it, “weird stuff reported” about him.

But here’s the thing: It’s not just “weird stuff.” And there is documentation. A quick Google finds that in 2005, Charney, while defending himself against sexual harrasment lawsuits, also defended his penchant for calling women “sluts.” When asked, “What would you say to people who find your ads offensive to women?” he responded with “Fuck ’em. I would say, ‘Fuck off.’”

In 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that American Apparel had “discriminated against women by subjecting them to sexual harassment.” Another lawsuit alleging sexual assault had settled out of court in 2011 because, of course, American Apparel reportedly demanded that employees sign contracts that require confidential settlements. There are also details of sexts to employees, revenge porn, and additional allegations of sexual harassment.

And it’s not just sexism that Charney embraces; there have also been reported incidents of racism. In the podcast itself, Charney speaks, as he long has, of “manifest destiny,”a term stemming from the colonial idea that America had a God-given right to take over any lands that has landed Gap in hot water as well.

In the face of all of all this repulsive behavior, Gimlet Media and “StartUp” have essentially shrugged and said, “Yeah, but he’s so interesting.” Indeed, in an article for Huffington Post, one of the producers at Gimlet is quoted as saying:

“We sort of feel at Gimlet in general, and at ‘StartUp,’ that there are sides to every story and multiple facets and lots of nuance that can’t be told sometimes in quick news hits . . . So really going in-depth on a multi-part series like this is really going to give us a real chance to tell the overall story. Obviously, he’s a fascinating character.”

Meanwhile, shocked listeners who took to twitter to question “StartUp”’s judgement were asked to wait: “We hear you,” they tweeted. Gimlet insists that they are “going to get to ALL the issues in coming eps,” a point reiterated by Chow in the podcast.

But two episodes into an eight-episode series, the show has ignored his behavior while essentially providing free advertising for his new company — while not only treating Charney as a legitimate business person, but actively celebrating him.

The first episode focused on the quality of Charney’s product, his search for labels, his buddy-buddy behavior with business associates, and his observational skills. In the second episode, we are treated to a series of positive snippets — Dov pays people well, Dov supports college education, Dov makes clothes in America, Dov gets cheers when he walks through the factory. “Dov’s different when you meet him,” you hear. He’s committed and treats his staff and workers “like family.”

The positivity would be near-tiresome no matter who was being profiled; that it’s being applied to an alleged abuser is disheartening, to say the least.

“If you Google Dov Charney, you will find a lot of negative stories,” one employee says, “allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Allegations that Dov has denied.” Another voice indicates issues, but she is “not at liberty” to talk about anything.

The kid-gloves treatment of a man with such a troubling history is made all the more infuriating by the fact that, a few weeks ago, Gimlet Media announced that it had cut ties with Starlee Kine. Kine is of the most remarkable podcast talents out there, whose “Mystery Show” podcast received instantaneous international acclaim. Her sensitive and rich discussions of lost belt buckles and questionable celebrity height measurements were charming and moving. To think that Gimlet let go of Kine and is now enthusiastic about profiling a man with a significant amount more than a business to rehabilitate is more than upsetting.

mystery-show
A fan homage to ‘Mystery Show,’ the beloved podcast that Gimlet Media has axed. (Credit: flickr/Topher McCulloch)

Did Gimlet really think this wouldn’t be a problem?

“Seeing Dov work,” exclaims Chow, “it’s exciting. Like hanging out with a celebrity.” And that’s the key to a much bigger problem this season of “StartUp” taps into. As Hua Hsu wrote in the New Yorker three days after Donald Trump’s triumph, “It’s one of the lessons of the Trump campaign that culture is unstable and uncontainable, and that you simply never know whether something released into the world — a song, a meme, a fake headline — will take on a life of its own.”

It’s as if Gimlet is purposefully or obliviously ignoring the resonance of giving a rich white man a platform based on his supposed business prowess and entertainment value, while ignoring his offensive words and actions and avoiding discussion of harassment and abuse. It’s exchanged excitement for engagement, and celebrity for compassion.

Sound familiar?

There are endless entrepreneurs that “StartUp” could have showcased, but they’ve chosen someone they choose to see as controversial, but who has clearly demonstrated his true colors.

Now, so has Gimlet. And if the shirt fits . . .

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Lead image: flickr/dovcharney

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