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COVID-19 changed celebrity culture—and it may never go back to normal


Across the internet, in group chats, and on Zoom calls, people are asking, “Where is the gossip?”

Click through the Star Tracks gallery of People.com, updated daily, and it looks like every celebrity is doing the same thing I did today: going to the grocery store in a tracksuit. Or what I did over the weekend: looking terrible while taking a socially distanced walk with a friend. Endless paparazzi photos of celebrities with covered faces going to upscale grocery store Erewhon (to buy ridiculous items like $9 “germ warware” shots) do not a compelling story make.

With so many of us stuck inside, gossip seems to be in short supply.

Scroll down celebrity Instagram feeds, though, and it’s a different story.

Exhibit A: Demi Moore’s Instagram photos showing her quarantining with ex-husband Bruce Willis.

Save for the bright spot of Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik’s pregnancy, there has been almost no celebrity “news” to break the relentless and hopeless COVID-19 news cycle.

The paradigmatic celebrity gossip event of the pandemic has been the now notorious “Imagine” video. When Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot assembled a team of celebrity friends to sing John Lennon’s anthem to unity on Instagram, she almost certainly did not anticipate the internet vitriol she would unleash. The video was a weird disaster: an unenthusiastic Natalie Portman sang-talked while walking through nature; earnest 50 Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan reportedly filmed his clip sitting on a toilet; and Will Ferrell had a bonkers haircut.

The video exposed both how out of touch the famous people we might follow on social media really are, and how much attention they crave. The public’s response was an unanimous cringe.

But while the video was picked up and widely covered by gossip outlets, it illustrated the shifting balance of power in the celebrity news world. Fans and a new crop of internet purveyors created the gossip from the event, discovering the locales in which many of the celebrities produced their contribution—such as Portman shooting her video so as not to show her $6.5 million home—and picking apart their moods and any incongruities in the video.

“[When quarantine began], I was pretty confident that celebrity news would continue, but that it would change. It was already changing,” says Cait Raft, who’s the one who figured out where many of the “Imagine” celebs shot their videos and who hosts Hot and Rich, a podcast and Twitch stream dedicated to celebrity gossip, which debuts today. “It’s all social media-based now.”

Social media is now most often the first platform where gossip is broken—either directly through a post or increasingly in the comments section—before outlets such as The Daily Mail, Us Weekly, and People pick it up. This development has only accelerated under quarantine as famous people are mostly stuck at home and their industry is largely shut down, forcing the traditional gossip machinery to play catch up.

From public relations to the comments section

These days, when there is tabloid gossip, it feels as though we can see the normally obscured wheels of the celebrity PR machine turning.

On her daily walks with new boyfriend Ben Affleck, Bond 25 femme fatale Ana de Armas has been seen motioning to photographers to shoot them, and singers Shawn Mendes and Camilla Cabello have been spotted on “candid walks” holding completely empty coffee cups and walking slowly to help photographers get good snaps of them.

In the past, when a celebrity wanted to announce an engagement or a pregnancy, their PR team would arrange a feature or cover with gossip outlets. In 2008 Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie (RIP) were paid $14 million by People and a British tabloid for photos of their newborn twins. They donated the money to charity.

Today, many pregnancy announcements are made on Instagram, in posts sponsored by at-home pregnancy test ClearBlue. Raft points to Ashlee Simpson’s post from April 30 about expecting her third child, which shows her holding a pregnancy test up with her husband.

“Social media has given celebrities their power back in some ways,” says Julie Kramer, cofounder of Commentsbycelebs, a burgeoning media empire built on top of celebrity Instagram posts and the responses they attract from their fellow bold-faced names. “They can communicate directly with their followers. At the same time, it gives them a lot of responsibility, because it’s so much easier to screw up.”

Stars, they’re just like us?

Commentsbycelebs—founded by Kramer and Emma Diamond in 2017 when they were USC undergrads at the time that the Instagram algorithm started prioritizing comments by famous people underneath photos (giving comments from verified accounts more weight)—is the startup that’s most capitalized on this shift to social media. Their Instagram account now counts 1.5 million followers, and the duo also has a podcast and sells merch through their website.

Diamond says the account took off when IG comments started making headlines. “In 2018, Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson’s relationship was basically confirmed through an emoji,” she says. “Same thing with Priyanka [Chopra] and Nick Jonas.”

While many of us hadn’t seen the inside of any celebrity homes prior to joining Instagram or looked through their bookshelves before seeing them on Zoom, now we see them all the time. “As little as five years ago, celebrities were seen as existing in this other world. They were so unattainable. But as we’ve gone into this culture of social media, unattainable isn’t cool anymore.” Diamond says.

Now, we feel like they could be our friends. We know the brands they use from the products they shill in sponsored posts (Clearblue!), and sometimes it’s comforting to see them doing the same things as us: being clueless in the kitchen, for example, or feeling tired after dealing with kids at home.

But seeing their lives—the private jets, the fancy mansions, the extended trips to the Bahamas that lasted long after the government had asked foreigners to leave—from our small, crappy apartments or suburban basements makes it abundantly clear that the lives of the 1% are not like ours.

In quarantine, those differences are further amplified.

At a time when unemployment has hit a record high with thousands furloughed and facing economic uncertainty, and with mounting death tolls throughout the country, it can be rage-inducing to see Madonna rambling about the coronavirus being “a great equalizer” from a luxury gilded bathtub.

Indeed, Vanessa Hudgens’s career may never recover after she posted an Instagram story callously complaining about the lockdown restrictions.

“Kylie Jenner’s got a new $36 million house, and she’s taking a bunch of like, thirst traps in it and promoting her products in this house that she bought during a pandemic. I think people are burned out on that type of content,” says Raft, who also recaps Keeping Up with the Kardashians episodes for Us Weekly. She added that the upcoming season will show the Kardashians filming themselves or talking to each other on Zoom. “I think people are going to hate it. They’re all losing their minds, and they have more land than almost everyone else in the world. It’s hard to see celebrities flip out.”

But what do we want?

We may not be responding well to aspirational images of celebrities in their vacation homes, but it can be dull to see them look just like us, greasy hair pulled back wearing a mask to pick up some kale. Celebrities are using the same platforms—Instagram, Twitter—that we use to feel seen, but now that they don’t have red carpet premieres to attend or fashion shoots, they are posting similar content to ours.

As the distance between us and them gets smaller, the differences—the nannies, the huge backyards—seem to be amplified.

At the same time, Raft remarked that there was an upside to the paparazzi photos still being published. “There’s something comforting about the celebrity news cycle continuing,” she says, “even if it’s just pictures of Ashley Benson at the grocery store.”

On Twitter, it seemed as though Gadot’s “Imagine” video generated the same amount of rage as when Trump suggested we might all inject disinfectant to cure the coronavirus. Gadot’s video may be absurd, but complaining about it gave me something to do.

At least she was doing her job.

At least she was still entertaining us.





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