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Is Celebrity Culture Dying?

How has the pandemic has affected our feelings towards class and celebrity culture?

Women eating cake illustration
Is Celebrity Culture Dying?

Artwork – Let Them Eat Cake, Elish Kathleen, 2020.

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, we have been obsessed with celebrity culture. In the early 2000s we saw the rise of ‘it’ girls like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie who weren’t particularly famous for anything really, other than being wealthy socialites. They attended the best parties, wore the best clothes, and got the most drunk – they were perfect tabloid fodder. The age also saw the rise in reality TV, with shows like Big Brother becoming huge successes, in which ordinary people were suddenly plummeted into celebrity status. It’s easy to track the growth of this phenomenon so that every type of reality TV show you can imagine proliferates, but they are usually most successful when they revolve around attractive young people who are beautiful and naive enough to be seduced by fame (e.g. Love Island). Our culture is saturated with celebrities who essentially became famous through reality TV, as well as ‘real’ celebrities, who may be actors or singers, but have had to sell themselves on Instagram and behave much like influencers.

Instagram has changed marketing and has also acted in a similar way to reality TV shows. If someone has tens of thousands of followers, they are indeed famous in that very corner of the internet and so hold power in that following. So in an age where anyone can be famous, the question is: do we even want celebrities anymore?

Something has shifted recently in our cultural conversations during the COVID-19 crisis. Celebrities, it seems, are no longer worshipped, but increasingly disliked and ridiculed on a mass scale. It was clear pretty early on in the pandemic just how out of touch celebrities were with the rest of society. We saw them cry on Instagram Live, despite living in luxury mansions and having private gardens to leisurely walk around in. We watched as they fell apart and wondered, what exactly has changed for them? We were all stuck at home, but some of us were stuck in far nicer places than others. Nothing encapsulated inability of celebrities to ‘read the room’ quite as much as a host of actors and singers recording themselves singing ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon.

Their attempt to reach out in solidarity to us mere mortals was met with laughter, anger, and sheer confusion. Many on Twitter declared it as the end of celebrity hero-worshipping. They’d shown themselves up to be completely disconnected. It was offensive to promote a ‘we are all in it together’ rhetoric when we know that this virus, and its consequences, hit those in poverty the worst. We know that the upper and middle classes could afford to work from home and protect themselves, while the working classes were in public-facing roles. To dilute this down through demeaning an iconic song with the aim of making people smile felt ridiculous, confirming that celebrities do indeed exist on their own planet.  

However, you can’t talk about celebrity culture and its varying degrees of success without talking about the Kardashians. We have all watched them grow from a fairly upper-class family searching for fame to, finally, a family in the throes of outrageous levels of celebrity and wealth. It was announced in September, that next year would see the final season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Again, this could be a signifier of a lack of interest from the public; in a time where people are losing their incomes, jobs, and homes, do they want to watch those who don’t have to worry about whether they lose work? The entire family (including the children) could probably stop working now and still have enough money to live wealthily for the rest of their lives. The combined wealth of Kim Kardashian-West and her husband Kanye West is at least $1 billion, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg when you start to add up the incomes of the rest of the Kardashian-Jenner-West dynasty. This class divide between the obscenely rich and, well, everyone else is becoming clearer as the pandemic rages on. In such a climate, it’s uncertain that this kind of celebrity television provides escapism as much as it does a kick in the teeth. There has been a slow decline in our interest in celebrity culture over recent years, particularly exemplified in the declining figures for reality TV, but the Coronavirus seems to have been a catalyst to accelerate that decline. Are we finally over it?

As for the Kardashians, they have made a fundamental error in their already falling popularity during the pandemic. At the end of October, Kim Kardashian-West posted a thread on Twitter of herself and a ‘close-knit’ group of at least thirty others celebrating her 40th birthday on a private island. The posts were tone-deaf to say the least. Reactions ranged from fury to mockery. When so many people have missed out on spending the best part of a year with their loved ones, seeing the ultra-rich live out their lives normally – spending time with their friends, celebrating, drinking, hugging, doing everything that we all wish we could do right now – hurts. It hurts to see the rules flouted by celebrities and the rich simply because their money enables them to do so, and then to have them brag about it online only adds insult to injury. To the many key workers who have sacrificed time with their families, to those with health conditions who have stayed at home since March, to those who could not say goodbye to their loved ones because of the restrictions: how must it feel to see that their sacrifice is not a universal one?

One of Kim Kardashian’s tweets stated: ‘After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal for a brief moment in time’. For one, this is not entirely believable: you surprised your friends, yet they knowingly quarantined and had tests for two weeks prior? And secondly, did Kim Kardashian really have to brag about her lovely birthday on a private island with all her ‘close’ family and friends – couldn’t she have simply not posted?

Apparently not. While the internet is extremely fast to put celebrities in their place when they slip and show their ignorance, as we saw with the flood of memes which were produced almost immediately in response to the tweets, the Kardashians continued to post photos on Instagram of their holiday. Then upon their return, less than a week later, Kendall Jenner – one of the two younger sisters of the Kardashian-Jenners – threw a Halloween-themed birthday party with a reported hundred people in attendance. And, of course, the family just had to post pictures of the occasion. One video posted shows a masked waiter dodge Kendall Jenner – who was unmasked – as she blew out the candles on her birthday cake that he was holding. A picture indeed paints a thousand words. It should be noted that Kris Jenner, their mother, did defend the choice, claiming that the family and their friends are getting tested ‘religiously’ and that they remain ‘sensitive’ to the situation.

But, still, there is something unsettling in trying to understand the thought process behind this incessant need to post pictures, videos, proof on Instagram – for all of us, not just celebrities. However, you have to ask: did a family, with this much money and such celebrity status really think it was a good idea to boast their privilege so unabashedly in a time of such loss and restrictions? Are celebrities so warped, and so deeply oblivious to reality, that they truly believe they will still be admired for everything they do – be it unethical, offensive, or even a downright absurd display of wealth in the middle of a recession? Even more troubling, are we the ones to blame?

Whether we are or not, the people have spoken (in meme form, of course) and they’re sick of it. Perhaps our world is too broken, the realities of it too inescapable and so, we can no longer find entertainment in submersing ourselves in the lives of the rich and famous. There is simply too much to escape in day-to-day life. There is something about the sheer privilege and distance from reality of celebrities that can no longer be celebrated, or even ignored. While the rest of the world suffers, the rich dance. The virus has shone a light on the extremities of our class divides. Celebrities no longer represent our aspirations; they have now exposed these dreams to be false. If our veneration of celebrity culture is dying, then it means they won’t have got the message yet and will only continue to show themselves to be out of touch – and frankly, that’s a form of celebrity entertainment that I can’t wait to watch.

Written By

Rochelle is the co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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