Could Rihanna's Star Fade?

Early Show - rihanna - March 2, 2009 AP Photo

More than a month after the assault that left Rihanna bloodied and bruised, the situation gets more grim for the once-brilliant career of Chris Brown, her boyfriend and alleged attacker.

Despite reports that the couple has reconciled - including reports of an apparent duet recording session - public animosity toward Brown, Billboard's artist of the year for 2008, seems to be growing.

Radio stations are dropping his music, and on Wednesday he voluntarily removed his name from the ballot of Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards, for which he was twice nominated just before his Feb. 8 arrest for allegedly beating Rihanna.

"Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding the incident last month has shifted the focus from the music to whether he should be allowed to be among those nominated," a statement from his representatives read.

At 19, Brown is already a multiplatinum star who has not only dominated music, but made the leap to film in movies like "Stomp the Yard" and "This Christmas." He was a favorite of kids for his lithe voice, danceable beats and formidable dance skills; of young girls for his handsome looks; and of parents, because of his clean-cut image.

That winning combination helped him rack up album sales and awards: Billboard named him as its artist of the year for 2008. But figures show his overall audience, if not his fan base, has shrunk since his arrest. A leaked photo showing the battered face of Rihanna didn't help, and an affidavit released last week included details that highlighted the apparent brutality of the attack.

While Brown didn't have any new music out at the time of his arrest, his top hit "Forever" was still getting substantial radio play at the time. According to Billboard's Hot 100 Recurrent Airplay chart, the song was slowly drifting down, and was at No. 14 before the arrest, for a radio audience of about 16 million people.

According to Billboard, right after the arrest, the song plummeted from 14 to 58, or an audience of about 9 million. It is now off the chart.

Even having Brown featured on a song may be a bad move: Jive Records labelmate T-Pain, who did a duet with Brown called "Freeze," is offering an alternative version to radio stations that deletes Brown, according to people inside the radio industry who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation.

Bill Werde, the editor-in-chief for Billboard, said it may be too early to say whether the severe damage done to his career in the short term will affect Brown permanently.

"People's memories can be short, and I think sometimes an amazing hit can trump even people's expectations," he said Wednesday. "That said, Chris Brown is a guy who sort of developed his career around a very clean image, and an image that was safe for teens and tweens. ... When you have an artist whose career has been so predicated on keeping a clean image, this is a little bit of a tougher hurdle to get over."

Howard Bragman, veteran Hollywood publicist, damage-control specialist and author of the book "Where's My Fifteen Minutes," said Brown's youth may also be an asset to him in the long run if he makes a sincere attempt at rehabilitation.

"I do think he can come back from this, I think if he made the mistakes people think he made," he said. "I think he is young enough and talented enough; eventually there are people who will forgive you."

Rihanna may endure a challenging road herself whenever she finally decides to relaunch her equally white-hot career. Already, she had seen her image transformed from pop's femme fatale to domestic violence victim whose decision to go back to her alleged attacker has been endlessly called into question.

"What I think the caution is, she has not to let this incident define her. And I think that's the biggest risk to her career," said Bragman.

An apparent reconciliation with Brown may only exacerbate that risk. Rap mogul Diddy confirmed he let the couple use his home to "talk about a situation they're in," and producer Polow da Don told the Los Angeles Times he was working with both stars on a duet (however, People.com, citing sources it did not name, said the couple has not yet recorded a duet that was penned for them to be included on Brown's new album.)

"I think people are critical of her, saying, 'Oh my god, you're crazy, what are you doing?" said Cori Murray, entertainment editor for Essence magazine. "Then there are people who are like ... they don't want to pass judgment on her because they don't know the whole situation."

While neither representative for the couple would comment on whether the couple was indeed reunited or recording together, that hasn't stopped others from weighing in on the situation.

Oprah Winfrey is devoting an entire show Thursday "to all the Rihannas of the world" and on an episode last week, warned Rihanna: "Love doesn't hurt, and if a man hits you once, he will hit you again."

On Tuesday's episode of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," the host grilled Diddy about reports that he had lent his house to the couple to reconcile, and expressed her outrage about it in an intense exchange with the rap mogul: "I was a huge fan's of Chris' ... but to hit a girl," DeGeneres said, " ... I don't want any girl out there thinking it's OK to go back to a guy who hit her."

Blogs have questioned everything from her mind-set to her sanity, but Werde said Rihanna still has overwhelming support and sympathy.

Like Brown, Rihanna, 21, is between projects. But she still has singles in the Billboard's top 50 - her solo hit "Disturbia" (co-written by Brown) and "Live Your Life" with T.I. And the multiplatinum selling singer was recently featured in a new ad by CoverGirl, for which she is a spokeswoman.

"I don't really expect Rihanna to face any hurdles here. It's pretty tragic what happened to her, and I'm certainly not about to try an alleged victim," Werde said. "I don't think that people are going to judge her harshly ... You can't blame the victim in any situation, especially in a domestic abuse situation."

By NEKESA MUMBI MOODY
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