2020 proved the 'relatable' celebrity was always a myth
- For the past decade, thanks to social media, celebrities have been their own gatekeepers, controlling what people see and shaping the central narratives about their lives.
- In 2020, in pandemic-mandated isolation, they were left to their own devices, and the results were disastrous: The veneer of "authenticity" and "relatability" afforded to them by social media finally collapsed entirely.
- "Under the harsh light of the pandemic and all the horror that has spun out of it, we've been reminded that all celebrity is, to some extent, artifice and performance — the framing of wealth, beauty, and power as not just admirable, but accessible," Anne Helen Petersen writes.
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A thrill ran through me when I first saw the images of Dominic West and his wife, Catherine FitzGerald, posing for paparazzi outside their Wiltshire home, armed with a handwritten note that read, "Our marriage is strong and we're very much still together." Days earlier, West had been caught "very at ease" with Lily James, his co-star in an upcoming BBC series, on the streets of Rome.
It wasn't bombshell gossip, but the pictures of West and James - and the transparent attempt to correct the narrative - were exactly the kind of low-stakes celebrity content I had been craving. It felt like a throwback to the rise of the paparazzi, back in the 1960s, on those same Roman streets, when photographers trailed Elizabeth Taylor, still married to Eddie Fisher, during her nascent romance with Richard Burton.
But the photo op outside West and FitzGerald's home was also reminiscent of the way Jennifer Garner would take paparazzi strolls and park trips with her young children whenever rumors of Ben Affleck's infidelity began to swirl, or pretty much everything to do with Tom Cruise's relationship with Katie Holmes. It was transparent yet messy, like so many celebrity machinations in the pre-social media 2000s.
As Lainey Gossip pointed out, Dominic West lacked an Instagram account, which was part of what forced this move; any other celebrity would have written that announcement in their Notes app and screenshotted (or posted directly in the app) and been done with it.
Instead, here was a celebrity who wasn't savvy enough to behave badly in private, trying to repair the damage from a burgeoning scandal with a badly choreographed show for the paparazzi. It was awkward and hackneyed, but besides from the people involved - we don't know anything about the parameters of Dominic West's marriage - there were no larger ramifications, and no public health concerns, unless you count Lily James' poorly placed face mask.
In a year when every celebrity scandal felt bound up in larger political and pandemic-related fears, this one felt contained. It did what celebrity gossip is supposed to do: provide a morsel of distraction.
The fact that this moment stuck out at all was indicative of what a weird, largely unwinnable year it's been for celebrities. In 2020, the self-styled "authenticity" empire collapsed. The celebrities didn't give up broadcasting their "genuine" selves. But audiences reached a point where they refused to tolerate what had already become a tedious game.
Under the harsh light of the pandemic and all the horror that has spun out of it, we've been reminded that all celebrity is, to some extent, artifice and performance - the framing of wealth, beauty, and power as not just admirable, but accessible. When a celebrity's image is properly calibrated, reading about them feels like a mild diversion, not an invitation for outrage. But when it collapses, as so many are now, it curdles.
Social media, once the key to the kingdom, became a hand grenade
Over the last ten months, stars have watched the walls of their own image slowly close in around them. Those poorly constructed structures, however, are their own design.
Over the last thirty years, the pendulum of image control has swung from powerful publicists in the '80s and '90s, over to upstart gossip bloggers wreaking havoc in the 2000s and early 2010s, and then pulled back, via social media, to celebrities themselves. Beyoncé helped lead this shift - first on Tumblr and in self-produced documentaries; now through carefully curated interviews - but thousands of others, from Taylor Swift to Barack Obama, have followed.
Social media allowed celebrities to bypass the media gatekeepers they had relied on for so long to convey messages, apologies, recoveries, and all manner of other narratives to the public. At the same time, influencers, reality stars, YouTube stars - and now, TikTok stars - collapsed the separation that provided the raison d'etre of the industry.
Before, you read TMZ or People to try and get a sense of who a star "really" was when they weren't on-screen. But this new crop of celebrities pledged there was no self save the one available to the consumer, and, as a result, there was no need to go anywhere else except their own social media feeds.
As celebrities became their own paparazzi, the publications that covered them realized they couldn't compete. They began dedicating massive swaths of space to celebrity social media material - but why spend $4.99 on a magazine when you can just follow the celebrities you actually care about on Instagram? Subscriptions and ad revenue tanked. People, once a gem in the Time Inc. crown, was unceremoniously sold to Meredith Corp. Us Weekly, arguably the most influential glossy magazine of the 2000s, has withered on the vine under the control of American Media, best known for publishing the similarly shriveled National Enquirer.
Perez Hilton was kicked off TikTok after trying to stir controversy about the dancing style of its most popular star. Crazy Days and Nights, a longstanding source of celebrity blind items, has descended down a Jeffrey Epstein wormhole. TMZ has lost much of the shine that once made it a trusted, if widely loathed, destination. The most compelling forum for celebrity disclosure is the Red Table Talk, itself an exercise in image control for Jada Pinkett Smith and her family.
These shifts happened in fits and starts over the course of the last decade, but led us to our current celebrity reality: with quiet assists from agents, publicists, and stylists, celebrities have obtained unprecedented control and authorship of their own images. And for the last year, they've largely been exercising that control in isolation.
Therein lies the heart of the problem: the vast majority of celebrities don't understand what's interesting about them, or just aren't interesting in the first place. That's part of the utility of the larger celebrity publicity apparatus, so long as it doesn't insist that the most interesting thing about every celebrity is that they're hot. But celebrities in charge of their own images often can't see what others find compelling about them.
More importantly, the thing that makes them compelling is just, at least in this moment, untoward. They're the most glamorous, the most extravagant, the most beautiful - and no one wants to think about that, aspire to that, even see that right now. And they especially don't want to listen to these celebrities' rarified thoughts on (or negligence of) COVID-19.
The celebrity clownery became clear just days into the pandemic
Vanessa Hudgens called coronavirus deaths "inevitable" on an Instagram Live feed and got immediately roasted. The Gal Gadot-organized rendition of "Imagine" was a boondoggle. Kristen Cavillari got fake stuck in the Bahamas. David Geffen posted a picture of his quarantine set-up (aka, his $590 million super-yacht) and the backlash was so forceful he deleted his Instagram account. Madonna bathed in rose petals and called Covid-19 the great equalizer. The way forward, it seemed, was either staying out of sight - or making themselves genuinely relatable in some way.
It's a difficult task. There's a reason that at the peak of The Great Depression, Shirley Temple became the biggest star in the world. As Charles Eckert has argued, Temple was conceived of as "untouched" by the larger economic deprivations. But instead of making her an object of scorn, it transformed her into a sort of innocent ideal, the cherubic, cheery future you could imagine for your own children.
In her films, Temple operated without avarice or guile, aiming simply to entertain, delight, or generally lift the spirit of everyone she encounters. You can't begrudge Temple her good cheer, and you don't even consider her significant salary or success. Her age made it so easy to love her.
But the closest we have to a coronavirus-era Shirley Temple are cute TikTok babies. The bar for making something charming or non-alienating from your lavish home - that will then be consumed by millions and millions of people trapped in their far less lavish homes - is very high.
Posting about your relationship is cloying. Posting about exercise is annoying. Get weird or GTFO. Robert Pattinson went feral in isolation; Mandy Patinkin dadded out in his cabin; January Jones, already a master of weird Instagram, seemingly never leaves her home; Leslie Jones can't stop watching MSNBC. Ben Affleck seemingly just gets iced coffee with girlfriend Ana de Armes everyday.
All of those celebrities had some measure of practice with the larger, and often unforgiving, publicity machine. Those with less - Dominic West, Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz, "Real Housewife" Teddi Mellencamp, and liberal mayors unaccustomed to national scrutiny of their dining and Thanksgiving travel choices - screwed themselves. Those whiffs were embarrassing and infuriating, but not that surprising.
The fall of a fame queen
More surprising is how badly Kim Kardashian, who, with the help of her mother, has long been a master of her own publicity, bungled her pandemic 40th birthday. When Kardashian posted pictures of her party to her social media accounts, the framing suggested she thought she'd done everything right: "After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine," she wrote, "I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time."
Shirley Temple was always playing pretend. She gave audiences permission to pretend, too. But Kardashian's moment of pretend is exclusionary - my inner circle; a private island - offered up for public consumption.
So much Kardashian content is always, in a way, a taunt, but none have been quite so bold as this one. A masked staff member at the island, visible in the background of one of the photos, drove the point home. Freedom, and the feeling of normal, is for celebrities. Caution is for poor people.
Pre-Instagram, a celebrity might have had the event, and tried to keep it legitimately private. Paparazzi would have trailed her, and she would have found herself at the center of a scandal outside her control. In this scenario, Kardashian serves as her own paparazzi, gets to pick the best (and best edited) photos to publish, and weathers the blowback on Twitter.
On the surface, the outcomes aren't that different. But the photos evidence a profound lack of self-awareness, even for a Kardashian. An untold number of celebrities have been gathering on private islands, in private villas, and on private jets over the last year. They just have the good publicity sense not to post about it. But Kardashians, and celebrities in their mold, have internalized self-surveillance as their primary mode of existence: their proof of life. If Kim didn't post the photos on social media, did it even happen? Did she?
It's difficult, in other words, to imagine Kardashian not hosting the party, or not posting the photos - the event and its documentation is a natural manifestation of the logic at the core of her image. For years, that logic was so compelling that millions of Americans watched nineteen seasons of it in action. Part of the reason was that Kardashian, like her old pal Paris Hilton, has never bothered with hiding the scaffolding of celebrity.
In Kardashian World, there's no difference between doing sponcon for a laxative/appetite suppressing tea and selling a lip kit. They aren't famous for "being famous," as the old half-insult goes. They were famous for their ability to establish their bodies as ideals - and then sell products that promise the consumer the ability to transform themselves to match them.
Stars have been pursuing similar strategies with soap, makeup, and hair dye brands for decades. The Kardashians just had fewer compunctions about the optics of selling waist trainers. While other celebrities posted pictures of themselves without make-up, the Kardashians embraced "authenticity" by leaning into the exploitative capitalist ethos that's at the heart of all celebrity.
Was it all a bit craven? Sure, but it felt like we all knew the rules of the game they were playing. This positioning allowed Kim, in particular, to become both chronically over- and under-estimated. It was so easy to frame criticism as simply unenlightened. Kim got it; she wasn't just in on the joke, she was telling it.
In recent years, that belief became more difficult to maintain - and the 40th birthday party unravelled it entirely. The joke, this time, was on all of us, and maybe it had been for some time.
In this moment, everyone's actions have direct effects on others; no one, not even a Kardashian turning 40, operates in a vacuum. The self-obsession that has typified their worldview feels not just off but vaguely pathological. The Kardashians haven't changed. And that's the problem. Looking at those 40th birthday photos now, I feel nothing but great, echoing distance.
Grief, not excess, is the connective tissue of the moment
Just weeks before, Chrissy Teigen had posted a very different set of photos, taken in the immediate aftermath of her September pregnancy loss. The immediate response was an outpouring of support, but some criticized the photos as publicity-seeking, suggesting Teigen had arranged for a photographer to be in the hospital. (Many hospitals have photographers for these moments, as families often find themselves desperate for some record of their lost child.)
Like Kardashian, Teigen's celebrity is, at least in part, rooted in her perceived savviness; the second act of her celebrity in particular has been powered by her adept use of social media. She's navigated a dynamic course through the landscape of fame: she's been a model, a host, half of a celebrity couple, a cookbook author, and, ultimately, a brand.
That brand is on cookware at Target, but its less tangible core is a mix of warmth, flip, and very relatable social media habits. In her posts, she can be sloppy, and deeply funny, and periodically ruthless; her grimacing "that's awkward" face from the 2016 Oscars remains one of the most popular reaction GIFs on the internet.
But unlike the Kardashians, whose approach to celebrity increasingly feels like an artifact of a previous era, Teigen's has felt resilient, dynamic - even, well, authentic.
The photos from the hospital are part of that larger constellation: they're devastatingly intimate, and, for millions, they portrayed a palpable, deeply familiar grief. And that, Teigen said, was the point. "I cannot express how little I care that you hate the photos," she wrote in a post on Medium. "How little I care that it's something that you wouldn't have done. These photos aren't for anyone but the people who have lived this or are curious enough to wonder what something like this is like. These photos are only for the people who need them. The thoughts of others do not matter to me."
"The thoughts of others do not matter to me" could have been the caption for so many celebrity moments this year, Kardashian's especially. It's a statement that belies the twin isolation of contemporary celebrity and quarantine, a cluelessness that makes a star image sour and go vile before our eyes. But it's ultimately the opposite of what Teigen did with the hospital images.
Instead of widening the distance between herself and those who power her fame, she worked to close it. It didn't feel like a publicity grab. It didn't feel exploitative, or an example of the sort of "performative authenticity" that's fallen so flat over the last months. It felt like a rare and invaluable recognition of unspeakable grief.
For some celebrities, industry logic has long been stifling. Freedom from "best wisdom" of the publicity apparatus - because of the coronavirus, because of the shift to self-determined management - means freedom to live as you are, as you like. The results can create profound, unprecedented connection, broader success and adoration. But the reverse is also true. The last year has clarified so much - including what, exactly, emerges when you indulge a celebrity's clearest, least adulterated vision of themselves.
Anne Helen Petersen writes the newsletter Culture Study.
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