How celebrities like John Travolta and Rob Lowe fight back against attempted blackmail

When you become famous, you’re prepared for certain indignities. Paparazzi in the bushes. Gossip about your love life. Close-ups of your cellulite. But there’s a darker side to celebrity that we seldom see, a side the stars themselves never get used to: being blackmailed.

David Letterman’s scandal may be unique in the way he’s defusing it, but he’s hardly the only star to be allegedly hit up for money by a stranger — or even a once-trusted acquaintance — with something embarrassing to tell or sell. In 2006, a man asked Oprah Winfrey to pay him $1.5 million for recorded phone calls he said would damage her image. (The FBI foiled his plot.) Rob Lowe sued his former nanny in 2008, accusing her of attempting to blackmail him for sexual harassment if he refused to pay her $1.5 million. (The messy case, which involved a countersuit, was ultimately dismissed.) Even more recently, a paramedic and a former politician in the Bahamas were arrested for allegedly shaking down John Travolta for $25 million to keep secret details surrounding his son’s death in January (a trial is currently under way in the Bahamas). And those are just the cases that went public. ”As long as there’s bad behavior going on — and Hollywood is known for a fair amount of bad behavior — there’s going to be some form of paying people so it doesn’t reach the outside world,” says a veteran industry exec. ”There’s a lot of stuff that’s been covered up in Hollywood, with the police as part of the cover-up.”

Extortion threats come in many forms — the release of a humiliating honeymoon video, bogus paternity claims, racy pictures taken before a celebrity became famous — and all that damaging information can now be spread with the simple tap of an iPhone. ”We tweet every two seconds,” says Charles L. Babcock, the attorney who handled Oprah’s case. ”It’s hard to keep anything private.” Dealing with blackmail was once a lot easier. ”The studios used to just pay people off,” says the veteran industry source. ”It was just the way of doing business. But you can’t get away with that now. The Internet has made it impossible.”

There are ways for celebrities to protect themselves, of course — confidentiality agreements, private security, a phalanx of lawyers — but sometimes the blackmail is so subtle it hugs the line of legality. Is a tell-all-book proposal written by, say, a former bodyguard to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie simply the promise of a juicy read, or is it a thinly veiled form of extortion — an offer not to write the book if the stars pay up? All we know in this instance is that the book was never published. Sometimes, though, things can get ugly. ”There’s a way to do it so it’s not [legally] extortion but in essence is extortion,” explains legendary former publisher Judith Regan. ”I was once approached by a prominent L.A. attorney who represented the live-in lover of a very high-profile female star. The lawyer wanted to know how much I would pay [for a book] because he wanted to go back to the star and say, ‘They’re gonna give us $5 million, but maybe this book doesn’t have to be published.”’

The dilemma for the blackmailed celebrity, of course, is that the cure can seem worse than the disease. ”To stop [the blackmailer], you run the grave risk that the information may be made public,” says Babcock. ”But you absolutely cannot give in to extortion.” Letterman didn’t even try to keep his affairs with employees a secret — he stepped in front of the TV cameras and spilled his own beans. In doing so, he ensured that a certain CBS producer named Robert ”Joe” Halderman would find himself in front of cameras too — standing before a judge.

(Additional reporting by Adam Markovitz, Archana Ram, Josh Rottenberg, and John Young)