The splintering illusion of “celebrity”

Sraavya Sambara, Editor-in-Chief

Dear Reader,

I find it wildly ironic when a celebrity gives an interview in which they scorn the concept of “celebrity.”

In the classic era of “Old Hollywood,” “celebrity” was, if not more tangible, at least more clearly defined than the nebulous modern phenomenon it’s morphed into. The glamourous pop culture of the past was unfailingly characterized by the larger-than-life celebrities who reveled in it all. You know, the Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo-types: celebrities who were so ridiculously, defiantly fabulous that they were myths. Fans didn’t know their icons except through the glossy pages of a magazine, and each concocted tidbit of information gave them the illusion of a personal connection despite the looming truth that they didn’t really know these people at all. And the sheer fantasy of ‘celebrity’ was exactly its point: carefully negotiated between stars and the media to create a culture of manufactured fame.

The consumerism of celebrity hasn’t changed at all since then; if anything, it’s deepened. The recent San Francisco-based startup IfOnly, for example, has created a marketplace for celebrity experiences: avid fans can purchase anything from a 30-second video message from Joe Montana for $14,500 to a meeting with Shakira for $15,000. Charitybuzz, another celebrity vendor, auctions outgoing voicemails from Grace and Frankie star Lily Tomlin starting at $625. The underlying idea driving these businesses and many others is that when it comes to celebrities, it isn’t just their professional contributions people are after: it’s their personality.

All that is old news, but what has changed today is the ‘realness’ quotient. While past celebrity culture has been dedicated to the myth, fans today are demanding reality. Reality often along the lines of “Chrissy Teigen Revealed Which Of Her Tweets She Regrets Most and It’s So Real” and “18 Real Celebrity Text Messages We’re Privileged Enough to See.” It’s really quite bizarre. The whole premise of celebrity is the extraordinary, so when people are reaching for the ordinary, it’s possibly given rise to yet another layer of artifice. We’re grappling with the illusion of celebrity itself, trying to break through it, but often by magnifying it.

While past celebrity culture has been dedicated to the myth, fans today are demanding reality.

The turbulent “celebrity profile” is perhaps most indicative of this shift. From its conception, the celebrity profile was intended as a testament to the myth of the celebrity: magazines idealized and idolized their subjects, assigning esoteric meaning to each one of their arbitrary movements. When a celebrity casually set their bag on the table during the interview, it symbolized their indifference for material goods. When a celebrity ate a salad a certain way, it offered deep insight into their relationship with food. It was a two-way marketing scheme: by catapulting celebrities into fiction, both magazines and celebrities established  their mutual relevance in pop culture.

Some of that old-fashioned craft still survives today: Vogue, Esquire, and The New Yorker famously continue to practice the form. But peddling the celebrity illusion is rapidly losing traction, something possibly best illustrated by Anthony Lane’s infamous 2014 profile of Scarlett Johansson for The New Yorker. In what was ultimately a blatantly clichéd, misogynistic piece described by journalist Esther Breger as “the worst profile I can remember reading in The New Yorker,” Lane creepily fawned over Johansson: 

“She seemed to be made from champagne… using nothing but the honey of her voice… Then came the laugh: dry and dirty, as if this were a drama class and her task was to play a Martini.” 

The illusion went too far, and it splintered.

Following disasters such as Lane’s, the more popular, modern renditions of the celebrity profile today are characterized by the celebrity’s increased ownership of the narrative being told, such as Beyoncé’s autobiographical Vogue cover story in 2018 or Jennifer Lawrence’s interview of Emma Stone for Elle. All profiles of this variety necessarily feature “candid” conversations with celebrities, stripped of journalistic flair, offering “real” glimpses into the star’s life. Beyoncé narrated her body and racial image post-pregnancy. Emma Stone talked about social media transparency. It’s becoming clear that most celebrities are no longer pursuing exclusivity, but relatability. And when celebrity “realness” means honest discussions about body image, mental health and other important social issues, that’s awesome. But, when celebrities present “realness” only to capitalize on it, that’s when the ultimate illusion emerges.

Take Joe Biden’s 2019 profile in The Atlantic: a thoughtful, vulnerable look into Biden’s boyhood stutter and the reporter’s continued struggle with his own. But there’s a sentence in the piece: “I can only speculate as to why Biden’s campaign agreed to this interview, but I assume the reasoning went something like this: If Biden disclosed to me, a person who stutters, that he himself still actively stutters, perhaps voters would cut him some slack when it comes to verbal misfires, as well as errors that seem more related to memory and cognition.” It’s unkind and unfair to say that this particular article was just a PR ploy to mollify Biden’s voters, but it does make me wonder about other shows of celebrity “realness.” There’s an important difference between “Let’s talk about mental illness” and “Let’s talk about mental illness and oh-by-the-way please-watch-my-movie.” When Kendall Jenner talked about her jarring experiences with acne, for example, it was a very obvious plug for Proactiv. It’s definitely a slippery slope, and there has yet to emerge a golden standard for celebrity behavior; the simple fact remains that most celebrities have something to sell, and that probably influences the narratives they share.

So while I do think that celebrity culture is captivating in its own right, there’s really no point in denying the inherent illusion in it. And even though the nature of this illusion is constantly evolving to most productively (and probably profitably) fit our minds, I don’t think the fact of it will ever change.