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How celebrities became irrelevant By overexposing the rich and famous, lockdown has robbed them of influence


March 18, 2021   6 mins

In a world where so much of private life doubles as public performance, the boundary that separates social media influencers from Hollywood stars can be difficult to distinguish. Both make their living by playing pretend, creating a character who audiences can love (or at least, love to hate.)

But where actors flit from role to role, influencers can only ever be one person: themselves. Or rather, their Best Self. The influencer’s outward-facing persona is a carefully curated costume, a highlights reel of personhood that feels authentic without being too real. A proper influencer has to be messy but not sloppy, open but not extra. Weeping is allowed; ugly crying is not. Done right, this complex alchemy adds up to the greatest asset an influencer can possess: a sense that you could, with just a little effort, be just like her.

It’s called relatability. And it’s harder than it looks.

In retrospect, the “Imagine” video might have been the first, worst lesson to celebrities everywhere about how tricky the job of an influencer actually is. It happened exactly one year ago, as countries all over the world started locking down. Trapped at home, their work deemed “inessential,” a group of a dozen A-list actors could think of nothing better to do than contribute to an ensemble performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. The resulting video was posted to Instagram by Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot — packaged as a show of solidarity, a declaration that we’re all in it together. As for whether it had the intended result, well, Gadot herself said it best. “I can only say that I meant to do something good and pure, and it didn’t transcend,” she told Vanity Fair in October of last year.

The desperation of the “Imagine” video is uncomfortable but also understandable, a response to the upheaval of celebrity culture writ large amid a global pandemic. Before 2020, the fascination with celebs was sustained by their ubiquity; there was always a new film to anticipate, a new show to check out, and the entertainment industry was the sun around which our culture and cultural discourse revolved. But with cinemas shuttered and concert venues closed, the stars were suddenly out of sight, and, increasingly, out of mind. Without the Hollywood hype machine constantly reminding us to care about what celebs were up to, it turned out that we didn’t think much about them at all.

And even as restrictions loosen and certain parts of the machine fire up again, it’s not clear that the spark of public interest will be so easily reignited. In a world where people were supposedly aching for the flash song-and-dance spectacle of a pre-pandemic awards show, the Grammys should have been a major TV event. Instead, almost nobody watched them.

And if the “Imagine” video didn’t transcend, it might be because the hierarchies had flipped. While the rich and famous languished without a spotlight, the worshipful applause and cheers that once rained down on them now took the form of a nightly standing ovation for our Healthcare Heroes — the only people worth clapping for in these unprecedented times. Certainly, we were not going to applaud the inspirational warbling of celebrities whose up-close-and-personal camerawork and wan, un-painted faces couldn’t hide the fact that their quarantine was not just like ours. These stars were riding out the pandemic in lush gated communities, comfortable inside their multimillion dollar homes with athleisure-stuffed walk-in closets.

What’s an old-school star to do? Their audience was right there, on the internet, separated from the entertainer by nothing but a screen and a few lines of code. But without a scripted story to facilitate the connection, no producers or editors or PR people to give it that Hollywood sparkle, it’s easy to see how actors like the ones in the “Imagine” video thought they could perhaps assume a different sort of role in the pandemic. If not cheerleaders, then thought leaders, even moral authorities (and here, witness the second-most cringeworthy celebrity ensemble effort to emerge during Covid: the “I take responsibility” video centred on last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests). They could get down with the people. They could connect directly with their fans! They were already pros at pretending to be someone else; how hard could it be to play the role of yourself? They could be, yes, relatable.

Remember: it’s harder than it looks.

The job of an actor is to tell a story. The influencer, on the other hand, tells us how to live. The person is the product, forever walking a tightrope between the attainable and the aspirational, knowing that to veer too far in either direction means losing everything. Unlike Hollywood stardom, influencers are the rare profession in which too much success can trigger failure. That up-close-and-personal iPhone camera confession about your struggles with low self-esteem and chronic dandruff won’t fly when viewers spot your champagne fountain and pet albino tiger lurking at the edges of the frame.

So when Jennifer Lopez wrote, “We can’t go out to any restaurants or anything but the service and entertainment here is pretty good… #StaySafe” above a video of her family hanging out on the manicured lawns of boyfriend Alex Rodriguez’s Miami home — a property so large that it deserves its own zip code — nobody was buying that hashtagged sense of faux-solidarity. Instead, the comments filled up with reply guys making barbed jokes about Parasite, Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning and scathing class satire set in the home of an absurdly rich and unselfconscious family. Lopez didn’t transcend her celebrity.

Applied carefully, though, a veneer of relatability — of fancy-but-not-too — can turn a D-list celeb into an A-grade influencer. Chrissy Teigen is perhaps the best example of this, a celebrity who wasn’t that famous in real life, but who, on social media, was so fun, so real, that she genuinely seemed like she might just become your best friend if you hung around long enough. Teigen maintained a brand that was at once self-deprecating, aspirational and vulnerable: relatability was an art form.

And like all good art, it made people feel. At the start of the pandemic, Teigen had a Twitter fanbase whose loyalty rivalled that of much bigger stars, spurred not by hero worship but rather by the sense of intimacy cultivated by her posts. Last May, she claimed to be so wounded by some intemperate comments from New York Times food writer Alison Roman that she could barely look at a shallot without weeping (and we believed her, notwithstanding that said shallots were presumably sat upon the counter of a $500,000 bespoke kitchen in a very swank part of Malibu). But when Roman lost her job over the controversy, Teigen claimed also to be wounded by this, which was certainly not what she wanted, and we believed that, too. This was the influencer at her best: expertly unguarded, so willing to share the good and the bad, that people forgot how much better her “good” was than everyone else’s. (Teigen and her husband, musician John Legend, have a net worth of $75 million between them.)

And yet, as the pandemic wore on, even Teigen overstepped: when she opened up on Twitter about the embarrassing moment when she and Legend “accidentally” ordered a $13,000 bottle of wine, even her most dedicated fans revolted. The veil had slipped. We’d seen too much.

We have, generally, seen too much.

This doesn’t mean that we’re done with celebrities, even as the pandemic isolation passes its one-year anniversary. But what we want from them seems to have shifted, and there may be no going back. It’s a different breed of famous person — the older ones, the less-online, the ones who seem to view social media with some combination of amusement and bewilderment and who couldn’t care less about being inspirational or on brand — who have become our best sources of joy, entertainment and even comfort for their contributions to the landscape. Sam Neill’s delightfully unselfconscious video dispatches from his New Zealand vineyard were a particular bright spot, at least until we were wrecked by the death of his beloved pet duck, Charlie Pickering. Ditto the celebs like Jon Krasinski, who chose to keep telling stories as best they could, like charitable performers offering a wholesome morale boost in difficult times, rather than join the less-fortunate masses in moaning over lockdown.

If Covid has killed celebrity culture — or at least permanently altered it — then these stars are the ones we’ll turn to when the world opens up again. The ones who embraced their role as entertainers, instead of pivoting toward influence; the ones who rose to the occasion instead of trying to stoop to connect with the common man.

About a year ago, Madonna released her own quarantine dispatch, confessing that the lockdown had left her at a loose end. “Covid-19 is the great equaliser,” she said, gazing into the camera, her body submerged in a luxurious bath strewn with rose petals, her neck draped with elaborate jewelry. It was meant to be relatable; instead, it was only an infuriating illustration of the uncomfortable, unspoken truth. The middle of a pandemic is a bad time to remind us: celebrities have never been more distant, more separate. We’ve never been more aware that some of us are more equal than others.


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

katrosenfield

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
3 years ago

Slebs have little purchase because they are imposed, not chosen. They are imposed on grounds other than talent, and the media which touts them has become a closed shop, hectoring the rest of us according to a loopy ideology we don’t really share. That we continue to see the kaleidoscope of transient performers disfiguring our papers and our screens is purely and simply because the old state broadcasters – which once responded to the public – have been captured by PC and Woke. The others are an elite cartel, subject to the same influence. Lockdown has merely accelerated the process of disenchantment. Real celebrity arises from a living culture. Ours is paralysed and putrescent. Plays, newspapers, books – all expressions of thought and art – are now policed; jokes are banned and punished – witness the miserable tale of the man who taught his dog a certain salute. And under cover of this blanket of ideological darkness, abominations go unpunished and society is wrecked. It is quite simple: twenty more years along this path and life will once again be nasty, brutish and short.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Yes. This is why people like Alex Belfield, Steven Crowder, Cutie Pie (or whatever he’s called) and various others are so popular. They are authentic and not chosen and imposed on us by the entertainment industry.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago

To Hell in a handcart with all of them for all I care. Useless, overpaid, pampered prima donnas. Megan Markle front wheelbarrow please.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

I don’t much care how people like Sarah Silverman and Will Ferrell “became” (as if they were not always) irrelevant. As long as they remain so. I don’t know who Gal Gadot is but if singing Imagine to people who lost their jobs in the pandemic is considered a great idea, yeah, irrelevant is probably too kind. Meghan and Harry picked a bad time to try to make a career as celebrities.
“Teigen maintained a brand that was at once self-deprecating, aspirational and vulnerable: relatability was an art form.”
LOL there is no one more absorbed and foul mouthed than Teigen. There is nothing even vaguely self-deprecating or vulnerable about her, but aspirational? oh yeah. Hillary Baldwin x 2.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago

Yes when H & M said they wanted to leave I thought they meant for a quieter professional life-she as an actress, him as an outward bound sort , but it seems they just want to be celebrities-famous for being famous-their own story being they are related to someone famous ( who is also discreet) who the media want to find out about.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

Trump V MeAgain markle look forward to the punchup in 2024 & Me Agains presidential Campaign,with privacy..will she stay in a cellar like Senile joe??

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin Lambert

Yes that would be fun. Though trouble with Markle is that for an actress she misses the opportunities. Her half-sister has MS and is confined to a wheelchair-if Meghan had made her her chief bridesmaid and wheeled her into the church to be met by both her parents who gave her away -or failing that her mother walk her up the aisle-how theatrical is that? ‘Caring Meghan shows her loving nature’ and that sort of thing-missed all that.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
3 years ago

Just when you thought the world of celebrity couldn’t get more vacuous, along came the “influencer”! What on earth is this? How on earth do they make a living and what or rather who are they influencing?

The west is finished. Our culture destroyed and our values trivial.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Yes, the good news is that their influence does seem to be declining – witness the 53% collapse in ratings for the uber-woke grammies/Grammys or whatever they’re called.
Further evidence came from one of the Walk Away From The Democrats videos a few months ago. The girl in her early 20s delivered all the usual stuff about having seen through the Democrats etc and then said ‘And I no longer believe in celebrities’. I thought this was quite significant, coming from one so young.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

And probably Oscars ,tonys & Golden Globes,without the excellent Ricky Gervais..will Also Tank…..in ratings

vince porter
vince porter
3 years ago

People have gotten tired of being hectored by over-indulged, plastic, bimbos on environment, correct speech, BLM, gender, etc. Talking more won’t fix their “problem”. Shutting up may help.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
3 years ago
Reply to  vince porter

Except in Canada – we made one of those over-indulged plastic bimbos our PM.
Sad but true.
Trudeau thinks Imagine is actual government policy.

Last edited 3 years ago by Walter Lantz
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

Canada’s harsh climate makes its ‘wokeness’ rather surprising. A lot of people I thought were American turn out to be Canadian ( just as a lot of famous French people turn out to be Belgian), so maybe they left to get away from it?

Jonesy Moon
Jonesy Moon
3 years ago

imo the reason the vast majority of people stopped watching award shows is that most of the celebs are trying to outwoke themselves and lecture the rest of us on how terrible our country is. they see themselves as rebels but we see them as conformists and frankly it’s insulting and boring.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonesy Moon

The climate Is changing..Geddit?…

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonesy Moon

You have perfectly described the Guardian and NYT!

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Yes, I will admit to a certain devastation that my lifelong hometown paper, the NYT has destroyed itself and I can get no pleasure or even schadenfreude from it’s downfall but the Guardian is a true jewel of entertainment. Every article is more bizarre and off base than the next. It’s like it’s a competition to see who can’t write the most inane pieces. I particularly love the women writers, angry AND off base. It’s an unbeatable combo for pure entertainment. I’d never pay for it but love to lurk in the comments for the pure joy of it. I would not be surprised to find out if it has all been a huge practical joke for many years.

Chris Scott
Chris Scott
3 years ago

The Guardian used to be half-decent newspaper (in the 90s). Coming from a background that read the Sun and Mirror, the Guardian was a breath of fresh air that actually did investigative journalism. Now, it seems to be opinion and nothing more. It is nothing more than a mouthpiece for people who don’t actually live in the real world. Take the Merkle’s ‘interview’ with Opera Winfrey; was there any analysis of the claims made by Mr Merkle and his wife Harry? And Afua Hirsch who spends all her time finding new and dastardly things to say about how racist Britain is. And interview she did on NPR was a gem. The Guardian sees the world only through the spectacles of white men bad and everyone else good. Although I must admit, it does have some nice recipes, sometimes. And don’t even get me started on the ‘Independent.’

Last edited 3 years ago by Chris Scott
Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

If your life revolves or is influenced by celebrity’s and/or influencers you have not got a life and need to get one.
Super rich celebs bemoaning their fate and pseudo celebs called influencer’s, who are just advertiser’s are not anything to pay attention to.
What a world when you give these people your attention, live your own life at least it’s reality

Last edited 3 years ago by Andrew Best
Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
3 years ago

“Imagine no possessions”… and you see all these people singing in their multi dollar houses and gardens. Don’t they have any sense of shame left in their shallow life?

Mark Preston
Mark Preston
3 years ago

News outlets who want to be taken seriously should ignore the whinings of celebs and avoid writing about them.

Alex James
Alex James
3 years ago

The cults of modern celebrity and social media ‘influencers’ are always worthy of derision, but ultimately would fade into insignificance if the majority of consumers chose to ignore.

sbisrael
sbisrael
3 years ago

Actors are paid to read out loud words that other people have written.
No original thought there!

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago

Who are the people in the photo?

Tino Joseph
Tino Joseph
3 years ago

We have our heroes, people you admire and would love to emulate, but there is a danger that with so much access to the lives of these celebrities/heroes, you just end up always on the outside of what you think is the perfect life – peering in through the window.
I do think celebrities are good for society as they entertain and provide an escape, but it’s probably better to “follow” the lives of your friends and family if you want to be happy.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
3 years ago
Reply to  Tino Joseph

Stark contrast to what celebrities did during WW2. Some actively served, some gave their lives, some provided an escape though entertaining and others offered support through public service ads and war bond drives.
I don’t recall seeing any tearful “I know what you’re going through, I’ve just lost my chauffeur” sharing.
Perhaps it was just a different time and it would certainly be naĂŻve to think that all celebrities of the day were paragons of virtue but there did seem to be an understanding that while celebrity does much to insulate oneself from the troubles of the world it certainly doesn’t preclude one from pitching in.

Last edited 3 years ago by Walter Lantz
Graham Perfitt
Graham Perfitt
3 years ago

I’m sure it’s not lost on many of us that the pandemic has rendered much of what we fill our lives with is meaningless. Shopping for things, wanting more things, spending more money. Sometimes money we don’t even have. Aspirations that mirror celebrity life styles that we’re bombarded with across the media. Maybe many celebrities are waking up to the fact that much of what they have and do is meaningless in the scheme of things.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Perfitt

Bread and Circuses, “Occ est vivere”- that is too LIVE!

Graham Perfitt
Graham Perfitt
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Perfitt

Absolutely! I won’t be too dissapointed as I know this is how it has to be… The world’s ever descending spiral of man thinking he has all the answers. As we read in scripture… “I say unto you, watch” that’s all.

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago

Out of curiosity, are the three people at the top celebrities? If so, who are they? (I don`t live in the UK.)

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

I live in the UK, and I have no idea either

David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Gal Gadot, Sarah Silverman and Ron Burgundy, sorry Will Ferrell. An Israeli and 2 Americans. I do live in the UK and I despise celebrity culture.

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago

Thanks. Oh, thats Silverman? Shes got even uglier than she was.
If you have a strong stomach and have not just eaten, watch this.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSrhJGGDqx0

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Put simply, vacuous cretins!

Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

They are Americans.

Dorothy Slater
Dorothy Slater
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

The late night :influencers” Colbert, Kimmel, etc have all been broadcasting from home for the past year and it has become clear to me, that none of them are even remotely amusing. Without their writers, make-up artists and most importantly their adoring audiences, there is nothing to keep me up late at night. They have all fixated on racism, sexism, homophobia, hatred of Trump and now Cuomo, in an attempt to be Woke I guess. I still miss Jon Stewart and Johnny Carson but I best get over it since there is no one out there like either of them.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Dorothy Slater

Andrew cuomo’s Fall from Woke ”Pin up boy” to Sexual predator, would require A heart of stone, Not to Guffaw for ten minutes?..Similar to Scotland,Salmond,sturgeon and SNP Fascists look set for small voter rejections,so not all bad..750,000 New Yorkers have fled New York since Blm riots..

Last edited 3 years ago by Robin Lambert
Pete Kreff
Pete Kreff
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

The lovely looking lady on the left is Gal Gadot.

Peter Gardner
Peter Gardner
3 years ago

So where does Meghan fit? She owes her celebrity to the Royal Family and to the title and wealth it gave her. Wow! She married a prince, every girl’s dream, and now she is a duchess. So she now seeks to be an influencer by claiming victimhood – at the hands of the people who welcomed her into that Royal Family and who made it plain to her she could not just waltz into a family and expect it to discard its traditions and practices, not to mention those of the monarchy the family represents and upholds just on her arrogant say so. No wonder she found it stressful. No doubt the family did too. And she thinks that makes her a victim! Hers is not an influence a decent, fair minded and strong society should welcome.

Last edited 3 years ago by Peter Gardner
John Brown
John Brown
3 years ago

My favourite comment on the “I Take Responsibility” video is right at the top and has 10,315 likes: “I take responsibility for clicking the dislike button.”

Perhaps there is hope after all, that sanity will prevail one day.

Last edited 3 years ago by John Brown
Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
3 years ago

“How celebrities became irrelevant”
if this is true why would anyone bother to read your writing led alone pay you for writing it?

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
3 years ago

Long article and discussion today- obsessed over folk who are obsessed with slebs? We should all disobsess from this.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
3 years ago

Further down, discussing the Guardian and its woke credentials. It always seems contradictory to embrace things like homosexuality or trans from which the huge straight majority sighs and moves on. Yet ray§cism is also a ‘thing’ which must be natural if it exists. It’s quite obvious the likes of Lammy, Abbott and Khan are utterly racist in their dislike of white people. Society has become a diode, a one way set up. Most, upon finding they don’t fit in to whatever local society, a job, a club where they feel unwelcome, move on to fresh pastures.
Anybody from whichever creed who admires, is thrilled by Hollywood away from the screen, must be as shallow as their off duty heroes. Meghan and Diana’s situations? A vom fest like Red Nose Day.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
3 years ago

The best celebrity output I have seen over the lockdown period has been Toyah & Robert’s Sunday Lunch (Wilcox and Fripp) and of course the ever inventive and brilliant BBC’s Staged (a play set on Zoom) starring Michael Sheen & David Tennant and countless others.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
3 years ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

Yes, but Sheen and Tennant are both typical lefty luvvies and completely up themselves, are they not?