March 18, 2021

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.