February 26, 2013 at 09:55 PM EST

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.”


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