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How the pandemic has fundamentally changed the nature of celebrity

By April 16, 2021April 17th, 2021No Comments

Do we still ask the same of our celebrities, now that they’re living the same lockdown lives as we are? Megan Cassidy looks at how celebrity has changed in the pandemic…


Have you noticed how gossip has undergone a seismic shift in the last year? Celebrity gossip yes, but even our own daily gossip with that person we’re quarantining with. It’s no longer all about who’s having an affair in the office, or what so-and-so said to someone else at a hen party. It’s now about whether socks are an essential item, who in a household should be responsible for childcare, whether corporate life is really for you, and how much involvement should the government have in our day to day lives.

At once, it’s all closer to home, and yet, it’s much bigger gossip. We’ve had a year to reflect on what’s important to us and what isn’t, and we’re having these conversations with the same people every day – meaning instead of piecemeal weekly catch ups, the conversations are more concentrated and we’re going deeper.

Our gossip is now more than ever a vehicle to get to know ourselves. As such, what we expect and demand from our celebrities, literally our ‘celebrated’ people, has changed drastically in a year. The era of the aloof celebrity is coming to an end, and they are visibly scrambling to find their place in a new media ecosystem.

This time last year, as we all adjusted to lockdown life, Gal Gadot rallied her celeb pals to spread ‘love and light’ through a rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ on Instagram. Gadot explained afterwards to Vanity Fair that she had wanted to do a ‘good deed’ but that maybe it wasn’t the ‘right good deed’. Gal, not alone was it not a good deed, it wasn’t even good. To think that we’d be so awed by the sheer star power in the video that we wouldn’t notice how out of TUNE it all was, just added insult to injury.

For a bunch of celebrities, in a global pandemic, to call on us to ‘imagine no possessions’ from their minimalist mansions while us plebs were plundering Dunnes for toilet paper, just highlighted the pointlessness of it all. The public turned on celebrities in a big way, demanding more than just ‘love and light’, turning them upside down to empty their pockets. Ironically, the phrase ‘We’re all in this together’ became the very point of divergence between us and them. The biggest stories were consistently about those who flaunted their privilege – whether it was Irish politicians breaking the rules at a golf dinner or Madonna referring to Covid as ‘The Great Equaliser’ from a bathtub full of rose petals in a sprawling mansion.

The pandemic flowed in suddenly like lava, freezing and preserving us all in our circumstances, whether that was a crowded apartment in Dublin city centre or a compound in the Hamptons. Dreams of social mobility were suddenly dashed, class divides were more apparent than ever, and celebrities were very clearly not ‘just like us’. Marvelling on ‘how the other half live’ was suddenly not fun or funny anymore.

A year on, the initial anger and vitriol directed towards celebrities has been replaced by a sense of apathy – an emotion that stands in direct opposition to the very nature of celebrity. By definition, celebrities need attention to exist, and our attention has shifted.

If you think about the nature of celebrity pre-pandemic, it boils down to two key traits sensation and mystery. The latter is the founding characteristic – with the draw of celebrities 100 years ago lying in their transcendent nature. We knew little to nothing about their personal lives, let alone what was in their fridges or what tchotchkes featured on their coffee tables. There was a very clear otherness and we wanted to know more.

Modern examples include Gigi Hadid and Jennifer Aniston. Pre-pandemic, these celebs who thrived on a sense of mystery and transcendence did so with a set of very specific tools to make sure there was a steady flow of attention, tools that are no longer available to them. Red carpets, magazines, publicists and work kept them front and centre with narratives created by teams of staffers. These celebrities didn’t need to understand their own appeal, as long as their publicists did. They had the luxury of aloofness. If they wished, they could leak their whereabouts to paparazzi, strategically sell stories to magazines, but simultaneously beg for privacy and bemoan the constant attention.

Now, without the staff and the events and the movies to promote, celebrities are in charge of their own narratives, they’re holding their own cameras, and this calls for a whole new set of skills.

Some pulled it off with aplomb. Liz Hurley inspired the Daily Mail headline ‘Liz’s luscious lockdown’ by draping herself around her house in Versace and making marmalade in belly tops while hash-tagging #stayathome. Liz has demonstrated a complete understanding of her own appeal – she is camp, she is fabulous, she is NOT just like us. Sensation with a smattering of mystery.

Sophie Ellis Bextor’s ‘Kitchen Discos’ were homemade and wholesome, but it taps into the glittery nostalgia that we love her for and put her back on the map.

Gal Gadot is a great actress, but she didn’t understand that we’re probably not interested in her basking in the beauty of her own virtue through song.

Celebrities who traded on mystery have had to completely revisit their strategies. Gigi Hadid, whose appeal is hinged on her other-worldly beauty, rarely used social media prior to the pandemic, except to promote her work. Now, she reviews granola flavours and crowdsources interior design inspiration for her baby’s nursery on Instagram. Jennifer Aniston, who regularly laments unwanted media attention is now also reduced to using Instagram, the platform of the masses, to be seen. The simple fact is Gigi and Jennifer are celebrities and celebrities want to be seen.

But the cruel irony is, the more they want it, the less we care. We have a whole host of new celebrities – Think Leo Varadkar, Tony Holohon, Paul Reid, Jacinda Ahern.

Our shift in values has resulted in a change in what holds our attention. We’re craving great TV that moves us forward culturally, strong leadership, philanthropy and think pieces. We’re studying the morality of economics, focusing on our personal finances and fertility options. Celebrities who have really come out shining are those who have done something real with their privilege, moving to close the divide in a tangible way.

In the first months of the pandemic, Rihanna donated 4.2m to organisations around the world fighting Coronavirus. Dolly Parton donated 1m towards the development of the Moderna vaccine. Lady Gaga, Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Oprah Winfrey have all donated generously to the cause. Madonna sought redemption for her bathtub blunder through a 1m donation to the Gates Philanthropy Partners’ Covid-19 Therapeutics Accelerator. This is a promising trend.

With everyone fighting for space in the same small squares of Instagram, only those making great work and showing strong leadership are cutting through the noise, with the odd Liz Hurley bikini shot for titillation. Imagine a world with no vain and useless celebrity content? It’s easy, if you try.


Featured image created using imagery from Instagram