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For politicos, the Democratic National Convention this week, in Philadelphia, is a time for presumed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to officially secure her party’s nomination, but the event marks the anniversary of an altogether different event in pop culture too. The 1988 DNC, held that year in Atlanta, was the place where the Rob Lowe sex tape — known as the forerunner of all others — was born.
Lowe was 24 and only three years out from being named one of the core members of Hollywood’s Brat Pack, a moniker he despised at the time, that was bestowed upon him and several other young actors by a New York magazine writer. The St. Elmo’s Fire alum wanted be taken seriously; his dream was to play the lead in a Martin Scorsese movie. So Lowe, who was a political junkie wanting to change his image, went to the Georgia capital to campaign for the party’s frontrunner, Michael Dukakis — see, serious! — and ended up publicly embarrassed.
The dashing up-and-comer spent the night before the convention began partying, as he often did in those days, at a bash hosted by CNN founder Ted Turner, then dropped by a club with Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson. When Lowe decided to head back to his hotel, two young women went with him and agreed to be videotaped. Everything was going as planned until the ladies left with cash and the videotape while Lowe was in the bathroom.
Of course, the tape soon popped up again. By June of 1989, the Los Angeles Times reported that “copies of the tapes have slipped out of Atlanta and are in wide circulation around the country.”
Turned out, one of Lowe’s pickups was just 16. (The other was 22.) Lowe claimed that he hadn’t realized the girl was underage, because she was at a nightclub.
No matter to the teen’s mom, who slapped Lowe with a civil lawsuit for allegedly using his celebrity status to entice her daughter into making a pornographic tape.
As the local district attorney for Atlanta reviewed the case, the Times pondered whether Lowe would fall out of Hollywood’s favor as a result of the scandal.
“What kind of a career does he really have (to harm)?” a Tinseltown executive mused. “He is not a major star … I would think the fact that he is getting this attention will probably just make him better known to people. If it had been a gay film, it would have been a (career) killer.”
It must have felt like a death to Lowe. He recalled that his phone practically stopped ringing — only former co-star Jodie Foster and producer Don Simpson called — while the paparazzi was camped out at his house and everywhere he went.
“This is how I knew I was in some serious trouble: I turned on the television and I led the evening news with Tom Brokaw,” Lowe wrote in his 2011 memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. “The second story literally was Tiananmen Square.”
In the end, Lowe settled the case out of court with money and an agreement to perform 20 hours of community service. He was never charged with any crime.
Still, the experience had a lasting effect on him. The scandal meant there wasn’t much interest in him for the kind of serious acting roles he wanted.
“There’s only so much abuse anyone can take before their confidence is shaken,” Lowe noted in a 1990 interview with People. “When it was bad, I would call my manager, and he would tell me it was like a mild anxiety attack. He’d say, ‘Everything will work itself out.‘”
His friend and fellow Brat Packer Ally Sheedy added, “I think he was a lot more hurt by it than he at first wanted to admit.”
Lowe’s career continued to founder, until Lorne Michaels asked him to host the 1990 season premiere of Saturday Night Live, where he showed off the comedy chops that no one knew he had in sketches making fun of himself.
Weeks later, Lowe made another fateful decision when he checked into rehab for alcohol abuse. He had support from his then new girlfriend, Sheryl Birkoff.
The end result has been a long career with a mix of comedic roles in movies such as Wayne’s World and TV’s Parks and Recreation, along with more dramatic, political roles, such as in The West Wing and Killing Kennedy. Last season’s sitcom The Grinder was canceled in May, but he’s already joined the cast of CBS medical drama Code Black. More importantly, Lowe’s family life appears happy and full: He and Birkoff are still together and have two adult sons, John Owen and Matthew, often featured on their dad’s social media accounts.
Lowe marveled at how things have turned out for him in a 2011 sit-down with Oprah Winfrey.
“It ends up being the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he said of his sex tape. “Because what it ends up doing is accelerating my alcohol [addiction] to where I finally get sober. I have been able to have the rest of my life that I’m so blessed with, which is now 20 years of sobriety.”
Make that 26! So don’t expect to see Lowe popping a bottle of champagne to celebrate Clinton’s candidacy in Philly this week.