By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tracking celebrities in trouble used to be so easy. First, there was the problem, then a public apology followed by a trip to rehab and interview in People magazine or on Oprah Winfrey's talk show.
Now, there's Charlie Sheen.
The actor's eerie, self-made webcasts dubbed "Sheen's Korner," posted online this week to mock his former "Two and a Half Men" bosses and defend himself, mark celebrity behavior that has gone beyond the norm. And his Web rants may signal a future in which stars use the Internet to give fans unfettered access to their antics, for better or worse.
"Since YouTube, digital culture has aided and enhanced -- or maybe the better word is abetted -- the celebrity meltdown," said Wired magazine senior editor Nancy Miller. "This will be a future where we see celebrity screw-ups happen in real-time."
Sheen's expletive-filled webcasts show him agitated, smoking cigarettes through his nose, spewing energetic rants and repeating the same phrases over and over. Even celebrity website TMZ, which is known for publishing videos of outrageous celebrity antics, labeled Sheen's videos "disturbing."
His behavior contrasts to pop star Britney Spears' when she suffered her career meltdown in 2007 and 2008. At that time, most of her antics were detailed the traditional way, by the paparazzi. She eventually found treatment, had her affairs taken over by her father and got her life back on track.
Sheen has done just the opposite, making decisions on everything that goes on around him and pouring out his unchecked views to fans via online videos and tweets.
"The more out-of-control the situation has become, the more he has broadcast himself -- literally streaming his opinions, views and rants," said People magazine assistant editor Kate Coyne, adding Sheen has invited people to watch his apparent breakdown "as it occurs, which is unprecedented."
Yet, while it may seem bizarre to some, his behavior has proven popular. The 45-year-old has gained more than 2 million Twitter followers. His buzzwords such as "winning" and boasts of possessing "tiger blood" are rapidly invading pop culture.
His erratic webcasts -- which appeared filmed with his own phone -- were viewed more than 700,000 times, and his name has been linked to products ranging from soft drinks to comic books. To some, Sheen is still the rebellious Hollywood hero.
He has "created a new genre of 'meltdown-as-miniseries' that will inspire others to emulate him," said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of popular culture. "We seldom hear human beings talk like this, especially not human beings we all know through their on-screen work," he said.
Indeed, an old rule among the star-making machinery of publicists, talent managers and other celebrity handlers has been to keep clients' personal lives private for fear they might jeopardize public images and lead to fewer job offers.
But as technology gets easier to use and performers find it simple to post self-made videos and connect directly to fans, publicists may find them harder to control.
It may seem that, so far, Sheen's antics have only added to his fame, but some Hollywood watchers are saying the actor has reached the point where he crossed into infamy.
"His online appearances to date are quite freaky and really show that without a script he has little to offer," said Deadline Hollywood columnist Pete Hammond.
The detractors -- Sheen would call them "trolls" -- have already produced a "Sheen Free" feed on Twitter.
Whether Sheen's rants are seen as the truthful observations of a Hollywood star or odd, stream-of-consciousness outbursts during a personal meltdown, one thing is certain: more and more celebrities will be bringing their lives online.
"We can look forward to higher levels of famous people stooping to new lows. And then, the montage on YouTube. And then, the remix," said Miller.
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)