It’s no surprise that the way celebrities present themselves has changed immeasurably since the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the 1930s, the control studios and record labels exerted over stars meant they were presented as incomparably glamorous, flawless beings, closer to gods than humans. This wasn’t thanks to the superior behavior of past celebrities so much as it was to steely PR control.
The rise of reality TV, ushered in by MTV’s The Real World debut in 1992, was a major step in the changing nature of celebrity. “Normal people” became stars overnight, and first season housemates like Eric Nies went on to host MTV’s The Grind while Heather B. Garnder released rap albums.
This encouraged C and D list celebrities in need of a PR boost to launch their own reality TV ventures, the most famous of which was the 2003 Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie vehicle, The Simple Life. The show eroded the boundaries between celebrities and “normal people” and made real, relatable behavior seem like the quickest way to ensuring a meteoric rise to the top. Hollywood glamour was no longer compulsory, or even desirable.
Plus, flawless Hollywood glamour was no longer even possible. The dominance of smartphones and social media has meant the the public records every brawl, nervous breakdown, breakup and display of erratic behavior, and popular celebrities seem to have become beloved for being like us – or at least more photogenic versions of us. Rihanna and Jennifer Lawrence are regularly praised in the media for being “real,” and since it’s no longer possible to be perfect, celebrities have to settle for the next best thing: authenticity.
The triumph of authenticity over fame has become a popular narrative for former child stars and children of celebrities, proving they’re not just famous for being famous. Miley Cyrus’s metamorphosis from an apple-cheeked Disney star to a pot-smoking, pansexual musician with an allergy to clothing felt like a relatable story, and she rocketed in popularity for being so unfiltered.
And Cyrus isn’t the only one. Willow and Jaden Smith are praised for being completely themselves, with Jaden flying the flag for gender-neutral fashion and Willow being happy to speak openly about her off-beat spiritual beliefs. Macaulay Culkin’s return to relevance has been ushered in by his oddball spoofing of his Home Alone character on YouTube, and he has become the Holden Caulfield of former child stars, positioning himself outside the phony fame game.
And no wonder. When entertainment itself uses Hollywood royalty to make ironic commentary about celebrity, why would celebrities take fame seriously? The most obvious example of this phenomenon is Spring Breakers. A megastar with a taste for the meta, James Franco plays the dreadlocked, erratic Alien, who he revealed in a GQ interview to be based on the Florida-based rapper Dangeruss.
That is, he’s a major celebrity playing a character based on a minor celebrity who aspires to be a major celebrity.
Franco’s character were flanked by a group of permanently bikini clad good-girls-gone-bad played, for the most part, by former Disney child stars like Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, as well as Pretty Little Liars star Ashley Benson.
It was like watching Miley Cyrus’s evolution from child star to DGAF bikini babe three times over. If you weren’t quick off the mark in picking up the celeb-heavy theme, director Korine creates a scene where the gang sits around an outdoor piano and sings “Everytime” by Ms Britney Spears, music’s good girl celeb who went off the tracks.
Spring Breakers is in good company. Bojack Horseman garnered rave reviews for its depiction of a washed-up former sitcom star and his trajectory back to relevance as the protagonist of an emotional indie movie, and While I’m Still Here purported to be a documentary focusing on actor Joaquin Phoenix’s rebranding as a hip-hop artist and his nervous breakdown. Phoenix later admitted on a follow-up appearance on Letterman that it was performance art exploring the nature of celebrity.
The celebrity-as-artist theme may seem a bit pretentious, but it’s actually just a new variation on the aforementioned “realness” we love so much. The celebrity’s examination of his or her own fame implies that they’re as overwhelmed and fascinated by their own fame as we would be if we woke up tomorrow with all of Kanye’s Twitter followers.
Lady Gaga’s first album, The Fame, is another example. It arguably pre-dated her ascent to fully-fledged celebrity: while the album was a resounding commercial success, she wrote it when she was still unknown. However, thanks to her previous incarnation as songwriter for pop acts like Britney Spears, The Pussycat Dolls and Fergie, she enjoyed enough proximity to celebrities to know something about fame while still being a “normal person.” Gaga has continued to play with the idea of celebrity in artistic ways throughout her career.
Now you’re barely relevant as a celebrity unless you’re dissecting your own fame. Think of the sheer number of Drake lyrics focused on his own fame, Shia’s #AllMyMovies hashtag and, most recently, Beyonce’s Lemonade and Kanye’s “Famous.”
The beauty of both Lemonade and “Famous” is that they pull off the tricky tightrope walk of being about celebrities from celebrities’ perspectives, and also being relatable. Lemonade is about the very specific media narrative about Jay Z’s infidelity, and it’s also general – the lyrics are unspecific enough to make woman who’s worried about infidelity feel as though Beyonce understands her (“What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?”)
Similarly, “Famous” reinforces Kanye’s stellar credentials. The reason we can’t tell whether the celebrities are real or wax is because Kanye really does have personal access to most of them, but the video also makes him seem like the rest of us: he understands our creepy, prying fascination with celebrities’ lives and he puts it in visual form.
Even if you yearn for the days when celebrities conformed to Greta Garbo-levels of privacy and mystery, it’s hard to argue with the fact that this very public, self-conscious new vision of fame is producing a ton of entertaining new work about the nature of celebrity.
What’s most surprising about this work is that the likes of Beyonce and Kanye, despite their superstar status, are really damn good at analyzing the nature of celebrity idolatry and making it into something genuinely fun to watch. It’s hard to believe that something like The Simple Life led to Lemonade, but here we are. Our celebrities are more public, raw and engaged, and that’s here to stay.
On the topic of fame and authenticity, check out Kim Kardashian exposing Taylor Swift about Kanye’s infamous “Famous” lyric.
- Lead image: Paolo Roversi / i-D