As a longtime consumer of all things celebrity, I’ve been using famous people to escape from myself for as long as I can remember. When I was little, celebrities were my own personal Barbie dolls. My sister and I would play intricate games where we would pretend to be various celebs, whom we sorted into families; this allowed us to inhabit a universe where we were widely beloved, blonde, and lived on a private island. As a school kid in the late 1990s, I was uninterested in playing with my peers, some of whom bullied me, and would instead spend recess pacing back and forth across a secluded nook in the playground, pretending to be a world-famous pop star with blue eyes and a belly button ring. It wasn’t any particular celebrity I was interested in becoming, rather it was the idea of fame — of being on TV, of being the center of attention — that was so intoxicating to me.
I grew out of playing make-believe games at an appropriate age, but my celebrity obsession lives on. The older I’ve become, though, the less I actually want to be famous myself. When I was a girl, my relationship with stars was pure idol worship, but as a woman, the power dynamic in the relationship has switched. Following the small dramas of their everyday lives remains a way for me to escape my own life, which I now do through the lens of superiority.
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Celebrities have stupid and petty problems — just like us! Unlike when I read “hard” news, I can immerse myself in their dilemmas without any fear it will make me feel bad about the world. I look back on summer 2017 warmly, because that was when Lena Dunham put her rescue dog Lamby up for adoption under peculiar circumstances. Lamby, who Dunham wrote and posted about excessively for years, apparently suffered from behavioral issues that not even a stint at doggy rehab could fix. But the shelter where she adopted him disputed her claims — “when she adopted the dog from us, it wasn’t crazy.” Internet sleuths like myself spent too much time going through her old tweets about the dog. It was the perfect celebrity drama to lose myself in: No harm came to poor Lamby, but the situation still involved a millionaire spending more money on dog therapists than my rent. I could be ruthlessly judgmental toward Dunham without feeling guilty.
Nowadays, as celebrities hunker down in their mansions, broadcasting themselves without makeup on Zoom and TikTok, I can barely muster the energy to dunk on them. When I click on an item about Kim Kardashian’s latest Instagram post, where the mogul is wearing leather chaps and a white bra while standing in front of her Mercedes-Benz, her hair white, looking glamorous like she always does, I am overcome with anxiety. A Vogue story about Justin Bieber’s closet, which notes that he has a Louis Vuitton x Supreme skateboard trunk that’s selling for $100,000 on eBay, elicits a wave of nausea. Learning about the backlash to John Krasinski selling his ultra-positive quarantine YouTube show “Some Good News” to the highest bidder makes my nose twist in disgust. Some people are making money off these dire times, and it sure as shit ain’t me.
Under lockdown, there’s more celebrity content than ever. The stars are confined to their homes, whittling their days away by unloading post after post on their social media accounts. On Instagram, Chris Pratt admits to accidentally deleting 35,944 emails. (Boo hoo!) Meanwhile, Chrissy Teigen documents getting a Covid-19 test so she can get her breast implants removed. (Who cares?) But more content does not beget more outlets for escapism. Instead, it’s become a chilling reminder of just how unequal the world is.
Celebrities have always had an outsized sense of self-importance. They have always flaunted their wealth, but the pandemic-induced economic collapse has made me feel increasingly uneasy about it. In 2007, before Instagram existed and celebrities could carefully curate their public image, Britney Spears’ iconic meltdown was big news, a story that was wickedly entertaining and unbelievably sad. “I don’t want everybody touching me,” she said at the time, per Us Weekly. “I’m tired of everyone touching me.”
I could lose myself in the drama because it illustrated the pitfalls of superstardom. Sure, it was near impossible to find a job at the time, but it’s not like anyone read about Britney and thought, “If only that could be me!” It was a feel-bad story, the tragic tale of someone driven to the edge by fame. As the economy slid into a recession, tracking Britney’s breakdown was a totally immersive experience, a vehicle to forget about yourself.
No matter how hard they try, celebrities have no idea what it feels like to be a normal person right now.
Sitting in my apartment, like I’ve been doing every day for the past three months, I find myself returning to a quote from an article about nannies working for super-rich families during lockdown: “If you have money, you have no fear. You’re not afraid of anything.” Every time a celebrity attempts to brighten our days by providing entertainment from their mansion — like Kate Beckinsale sitting on her kitchen counter playing hairdresser to her grumpy cat, or Jennifer Garner bopping along to a TikTok dance in her enormous laundry room — I am reminded there are people who don’t have to be afraid right now, and how unfair that is.
In the before time, I was better able to shrug off extreme displays of celebrity wealth because I felt comfortably middle class, significantly less afraid of not being able to pay my bills, and somewhat optimistic about my ability to earn money in the future. I would slurp up an item about the $325,000 mansion Paris Hilton bought for her dogs in 2009, sneering at her conspicuous consumption without feeling worried about my own position in the world. Building a six-figure dog mansion was a behavior that was so obscene, it made it impossible for me to feel any sort of yearning for her life. The celebs, they’re all criminals, I would think to myself with a smile. And I can’t wait to read more about them.
In the days of yore, billionaire David Geffen posting an Instagram of his yacht might have gone unnoticed; now it’s a patch in the quilt of tone-deaf celebrity social media posts that are laying groundwork for a 21st-century class war. The masses can delight in scolding Geffen for being so out of touch, but he’s still on top, self-isolating on a luxury boat in the Grenadines while you’re worrying about whether you can afford groceries next week. I’m a winner, his Instagram suggests. And you’re a loser.
The pandemic has altered our relationship with celebrity culture, maybe forever. Celebrities once had movies to star in, press junkets to suffer through, runway shows to walk in, and world tours to embark on, all of which were crucial to maintaining their personality cults. They might be filthy rich, but they were still entertainers; they were still working for us.
Now, celebrity coronavirus content tends to be charmless. In their TikTok uploads and Instagram stories, they aren’t acting anymore. Instead, they’re looking at us in the eye, and like us, they are naked and scared.
But unlike us, they’re still safe. No matter how hard they try, they have no idea what it feels like to be a normal person right now. And even though they’re living in a slightly different universe than we are, following their lives no longer provides solace. Whether it be through a quarantine selfie on Instagram or a good-intentioned PSA, they remind us of all the terrifying things happening in the world right now. We always knew celebrities couldn’t save us, but now they can’t even help us circumvent reality. What are they even good for anymore?