(Corrects the spelling of Bob Witeck's name in the second paragraph.)
For the past two decades, Meredith Baxter, 63, was stuck in the lower rungs of the celebrity caste system. After starring as Michael J. Fox's mom in the 1980s sitcom Family Ties, the Emmy-nominated actress labored away on TV bit parts (Cold Case, The Closer) and feature roles on unmemorable made-for-TV movies (Miracle on the 17th Green). That all changed in December 2009, when Baxter went on the Today Show to make a confession: She's gay. Then she landed a six-figure book deal with Crown Publishing. It doesn't matter that she had long fallen off the radar. That's the point. In these enlightened times, Baxter is the most recent beneficiary of the entertainment industry's career rehabilitator of the moment—the post-closet bounce.
As her memoir, Untied, appears on shelves this month, Baxter is scheduled for a media blitz that includes the ultimate best-seller-minting machine, The Oprah Winfrey Show (which is where Ellen DeGeneres outed herself in 1997). All signs point to a boon met by similar post-closet profiteers. Lance Bass, formerly of 'N Sync, went from boy-band has-been to New York Times best-selling author and Dancing With the Stars contestant following his 2006 revelation. That same year, Neil Patrick Harris came out—then embarked on a career revival that led to hosting the Emmy Awards and appearing on Time's 2010 list of the world's most influential people. After announcing his homosexuality last March, much-derided pop star Ricky Martin released an album in February, his first since 2005. Musica+Alma+Sexo debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. "If these people hadn't come out, says Bob Witeck, co-owner of Witeck-Combs, a leading LGBT market communications firm, "their phones wouldn't be ringing."
When it comes to the post-closet bounce, timing is everything. Actor Rupert Everett says his self-outing more than 20 years ago doomed him to a lifetime of supporting roles. Yet with forgotten celebs such as Baxter and Star Trek's George Takei, who came out in 2005, "their reintroduction is of great interest to a large crossover audience—older people familiar with their past work and younger gay audiences," Witeck says.
At the center of the coming out publicity trade is Howard Bragman, the openly gay publicist who's engineered the self-outings of more than a dozen stars including Baxter Bewitched's Dick Sargent, and Married with Children's Amanda Bearse. "You can get a lot of attention. You're stupid and naive if you don't take advantage of it," says Bragman, whose clients also include another segment historically unlikely to cop to being gay: pro athletes. In 2004 golfer Rosie Jones came out so that she could accept a sponsorship from a lesbian travel company. "It was under six figures, but when you're a golfer of a certain age"—Jones was 44 at the time—"I think it's just lovely," Bragman says.
Bragman cemented his reputation with the coming out of former National Football League player Esera Tuaolo. The retired lineman parlayed his 2002 revelation into a pop album, a book deal, and a national TV ad campaign for Chili's. Bragman also helped reinvent the career of British-born former National Basketball Assn. player John Amaechi, whose 2007 disclosure led to a blockbuster book, Man in the Middle, and more than 500 interviews, including sitdowns with Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. "People would not have bought a book that was just about my rise to the NBA from Britain," says Amaechi, who is now a psychologist.
It's unclear whether this kind of fame can hold. Coming out "cannot guarantee a dedicated fan base" for the long term, Witeck says. Although "it typically ups their visibility, leading to jobs and a brighter future," says Bragman, coming out can backfire. Former country music star Chely Wright told the lesbian blog Autostraddle in January that her album sales diminished by half after she came out to People last May. What she gained in exposure for her memoir, Like Me, she may likely have lost in music sales. Alas, all fame, gay or straight, can last only so long. Says Out magazine Editor-in-Chief Aaron Hicklin: "I don't think Lance Bass is on anyone's radar anymore."