Last year, around the time R. Kelly debuted his single ''Heaven I Need a Hug'' on a radio station in his native Chicago, he may have been thinking ''Heaven I need a good lawyer and publicist.'' On June 5, instead of a hug, the 36-year-old Grammy-winning R&B singer got arraigned on 21 counts of child pornography, stemming from a video that allegedly showed Kelly engaging in sexual activities with a minor.
The scandal quickly reminded the public of Kelly's past -- and possibly current -- penchant for underage girls: His brief marriage to then-15-year-old singer Aaliyah in 1994 was annulled a few months later by her parents. Two subsequent lawsuits by underage girls claimed Kelly coerced them into sex. (He settled one for a reported $250,000 and the second for an undisclosed sum.) By the time illicit copies of the tape hit the streets, Kelly's career looked dead.
But less than a year after the initial scandal broke -- and just a month after his Miami arrest for possession of child pornography -- Kelly's current single, ''Ignition (Remix),'' is getting MTV play and currently tops urban radio playlists, even at stations that previously barred his tracks.
''When we took the songs off the radio it was not any type of ban on him particularly,'' explains Erik Bradley, music director at Chicago's B96. ''It was the songs we were playing that we felt were inappropriate to have on at the time when all of that drama was swirling.''
The Best of Both Worlds, Kelly's 2002 collaboration with rap mogul Jay-Z, was released days after the video scandal -- and the album (which featured such suggestive songs as ''Somebody's Girl'' and ''Naked'') tanked. But this time around, Kelly fans have gobbled up Chocolate Factory, pushing the opening-week album sales to No. 1 at 538,000 -- beating out 50 Cent, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
''History shows, like O.J., Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, that a lot of times the black community tends not to see the actual wrong or alleged wrong,'' says Wendy Williams, an on-air personality at the New York City radio station WBLS. ''I love my people, but often we will support someone just because it's a 'black thing.' I think that's a big contribution to R. Kelly's current success.'' But Talib Shabazz, manager of Ear Wax Records in Atlanta, where Factory is a top seller, credits product, not racial politics: ''Everybody knows he's a freak and the man needs help. But he makes good music.''
As a ''crisis manager'' with Sitrick and Co., Allan Mayer has mopped up the messes of many troubled celebrities, including Halle Berry, Paula Poundstone, Tommy Lee, and now Kelly. ''On the one hand, you don't want to do anything that's going to compromise [the client's] legal situation,'' says Mayer. ''On the other hand, you don't want to win in court and not have a life to come back to.''
The carefully calibrated post-scandal TV appearance is one of the tricks of Mayer's trade. ''Ideally, you want to stay out in front of the situation,'' he says. Hence Kelly's May 8 interview with Ed Gordon on BET, in which the singer weepily confessed he'd ''done a lot of wrong things in [his] life'' but denied any criminal charges. If you are admitting guilt, position yourself as the punchline before everyone else does. Witness Hugh Grant's Tonight Show appearance just 13 days after his 1995 bust for soliciting oral sex from a prostitute, or Paul Reubens, who, six weeks after getting nabbed for exposing himself in a movie theater, trotted out as Pee-wee Herman at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards and quipped, ''Heard any good jokes lately?''