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Amid the fame and finery of a Hollywood party, you’re invited to hand your real-world anxieties off to the valet along with your car keys. But that doesn’t work for Chris Brown, who was once hyped as the new Michael Jackson, but now appears to be settling in as the fitful heir of Ike Turner. As a guest at Elton John’s tony Oscar-watching party, the 23-year-old Brown was reminded of his sins before the soup was even served. That reminder came from the overhead flat-screens, where Oscar host Seth McFarlane sucker punched the R&B singer with a Django Unchained joke: “This is a story about man fighting to get back his woman who has been subjected to unthinkable violence. Or, as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it: a date movie.”

It wasn’t the only awkward moment for Brown, who picked up the nickname Breezy back in Virginia, but is now often treated as an ill wind in Hollywood. Some of the guests glowered, others turned away or folded their arms as he passed. Brown, who seems younger in person than on the page or screen, was contrite when asked about the infamous 2009 beating he gave Rihanna on the eve of the Grammys.

“I’ve made mistakes and I made, you know, the biggest mistake of all of them on a night,” Brown said amid the din of the dinner party. “Things got out of hand. I was a kid and I didn’t understand things going on in my head. I’ve grown a lot since then and I know things now I didn’t get then. I know some people still talk about it but I’m the one who learned the lesson and I know I’m a different person now.”

Brown isn’t the first music star to punch a woman and there’s a complicated swirl of factors in the public judgments, not all of them fair or reasoned. John Lennon admitted he battered his first wife, Cynthia Lennon, but by then he had already been beatified as a symbol of 1960s peace, love and enlightment. “I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence,” Lennon said in 1980. “I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.” Lennon didn’t get the chance, he was dead by the end of that same year, a victim of violence himself.

Lennon’s sins were out of the public eye in the 1960s, but cellphones and Twitter make celebrity secrets as fagile and common as a vinyl record. And in this age of social media, a reputation is as hard to shed as those neck tattoos that seemed to be clawing at the collar of Brown’s animal-print tuxedo. Rihanna (who did not attend the Oscars party) and Brown have rekindled their relationship, but are well aware of the sneers and groans that follow them down red carpets. Rihanna told Rolling Stone for a January cover story: “When you add up the pieces from the outside, it’s not the cutest puzzle in the world.”

NEXT: PICKING UP THE PIECES

But Brown does have supporters who believe he deserves a chance to pick up the pieces. There’s the fans, of course (his fifth album, Fortune, hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts last summer) and life survivors such as Sir Elton, who champions redemption as much as he does rhythm. John (who isn’t as meek as the feathered boas may suggest) made a point to personally invite Brown to the party and make a great show of his support by mugging with Brown for photographers (they compared bejeweled wristwatches and traded backslaps) and taking the young singer on the rounds at Table No. 33, where Steven Tyler, Quincy Jones and Jim Carrey were clustered near Bono’s seat.

“It was an honor for him to personally invite me and it’s a blessing to be here,” said Brown, the Grammy-winning son of a Virginia corrections officer and a day-care center director. “And this is great event to raise money and awareness about AIDS [promotes the message that] people with HIV are people too, there shouldn’t be discrimination against them or any discrepancy or any fear about being around them. At the end of the day, I’m not homophobic in any way and I don’t focus on the negative that people bring to it.”

Some of that was likely a reference to the singer’s recent dust-up with Frank Ocean and the back-and-forth that followed it. Then the talk of sunny spirits and fresh starts continued: “I only love people. I’m focused on music now. I’m working on my album. I want to surprise you know, I want fresh ears. I want people to hear my new music. The fans and the naysayers, the peers out there and everybody. The new music I want to surpass the [expectations] and surprise them and set the bar.”

Before Brown could elaborate more he noticed Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich nearby. The singer’s expression lit up. “This is my man, he’s been looking out for me since I was f—— 15!” Ehrlich responded with an embrace and then straightened the singer’s shiny lapels. “He’s the real deal,” said the man who has produced the music awards since 1981. Afterward, Brown was reminded that Ehrlich booked Elton to perform with Eminem on the Grammys while protesters outside the Staples Center decried the rapper’s rhymes as misogynistic and anti-gay. John emphatically raised Eminem’s hand that night, a gesture of support, defiance and triumph – and also a statement that talent and music set their own agenda in a messy world. Is that integrity or is it hypocrisy? That, like music, depends on who you ask and how much they want to sing along.

“Yes I remember what Elton did that time, I think he does what he thinks is right and finding the positive while a lot of other people focus on the negative,” Brown said, scanning the room. “A lot of people say one thing but, you know, they don’t let things go, either.”

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