NEW YORK • For roughly four years, actor Charlie Sheen worked to keep his HIV diagnosis out of public view, by jousting with the media and paying several people in what he called "shakedowns" for their silence.
To track the push and pull between Sheen and the media over several years - his illness flickering in and out of public view - is to see behind the veil of how celebrity secrets are kept hidden and ultimately disclosed.
For the bloggers and tabloids competing for scoops, the tactics included blind news items to elicit tips and spark rumours on social media. Sheen's side used legal threats, non-disclosure agreements that visitors to his home had to sign and money to keep those who knew from disclosing his medical condition.
In 2014, a Sony television executive appeared to mention the actor's HIV in an e-mail to several colleagues, but the message would not become public for many months. That same year, a blogger revealed Sheen's status. The first post appeared in April 2014, about three years after Sheen said he received the diagnosis and 19 months before he sat down with Matt Lauer during the Today show.
It appeared on the blog Diary Of A Hollywood Street King, which was co-founded and is largely written by former rapper Jacky Jasper. It reported that Sheen was paying a 25-year-old woman to keep his secret.
Over the next few months, Jasper posted about a half-dozen items citing Sheen's condition. He was emboldened, he said in an interview, by seeing photographs of Sheen's antiretroviral medicines. The photos had been taken by a woman after she had sex with Sheen and had been provided to the blogger by her acquaintance.
But at the end of the summer of 2014, the posts disappeared.
A lawyer for the blog, Mr Ronald Richards, was approached that July by another lawyer, Mr Keith Davidson, e-mail messages between the two men show. Mr Davidson had previously represented a woman who accused Sheen of abuse. Now he was seeking "a complete blackout on objectionable subject matter", according to e-mail obtained by The National Enquirer and provided to The New York Times.
Mr Richards said he did not ask Mr Davidson whom he was representing. Mr Davidson later thanked Mr Richards in an e-mail message and spoke of four payments of US$15,000 (S$21,500) being made as a result.
Jasper said he had not been aware that items were taken down or that money had changed hands. He said the technical and business operations of the site were handled by a colleague, Darrick Angelone of AOne Entertainment. Mr Mark Burg, Sheen's manager, said the actor had nothing to do with the payments.
As it turned out, The National Enquirer was also pursuing the story. Dylan Howard, the top editor at that tabloid, said the paper began looking into rumours that Sheen was ill in the autumn of 2013 and its curiosity was piqued when Jasper's blog posts came down.
He said that over the next 11 months, The Enquirer turned up additional evidence that confirmed Sheen was HIV positive and had paid to keep that information hidden.
Last October, it ran a blind item about "a bad-boy Tinseltown star" hiding "an explosive secret from the world - he is HIV-positive". "We were batting the ball across the table and seeing what bounce it got," Howard said.
Web forums filled with speculation. Pressure on Sheen built. His ex-fiancee Scottine Ross was threatening to make his condition public, according to court papers his lawyers filed last month in California.
On Nov 2, representatives for Sheen called The Enquirer to ask if the paper planned to publish the actor's name, Howard said. That same day, Sheen's lawyers agreed in principle to pay Ross US$1 million and a percentage of the profits from his TV show, Anger Management, according to a copy of their settlement. On Nov 11, Howard said, The Enquirer told Sheen's camp that it would publish soon. By the following day, Sheen's camp had begun discussions with NBC about an interview with Lauer.
An NBC News executive said that, actually, the network, acting on a tip, had approached Sheen first. Lauer contacted the actor directly. Soon after Sheen's announcement, the posts about his HIV went back up on the Hollywood Street King blog. Then, surprisingly, he agreed to an interview last month with The Enquirer.
"It was such a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders when I made the announcement," he told Howard. "I realised afterwards, I wish I had possibly done it sooner."
NEW YORK TIMES