Is celebrity culture a thing of the past?

The Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times are amongst the many media outlets that are questioning whether the age of the celebrity culture is a thing of the past. What’s going on? Why are celebrities getting so much flack?

Drew Barrymore poses make-up free Photo credit Instagram

A lot is being blamed on our newest star stealing the limelight: COVID-19. Not a new rapper but the virus that is threatening and shuffling our values. Of course, a pandemic cannot affect the world on the scale of COVID-19 and not bring about permanent changes. We only need to look at the time immediately after the black death in medieval England. Millions of serfs had died during the three pandemics that took an estimated 50 million lives, or 60% of the population, across Europe. Afterwards English landowners found themselves in the unenviable situation of having to cut back somewhat on their extravagant lifestyles as they were forced to start paying their workers or not have their land farmed. A pittance pay it might have been, but serfdom made its toddler steps towards becoming just a strange word in history books.

Today we can see that the role of the great leader has been on a steady decline for some time. Take royalty or politics: Royal children are expected to cycle to school and prove they are earning their keep when they grow up. They have been largely replaced in the media by the big celebrities – unless you’re a British royal of course. Donald Trump might still have a happy following but gone are the days when the majority of the populace would just play follow the leader without thinking. Only a few decades ago Western European politicians were picked up in limousines and driven to work by chauffeurs. The local populace were able to tell stories for years about passing a famous politician on the street. But there’s a big chance that a politician of equal standing today will get a string of abuse hurled in his or her face on the same street.

Are we in a moment in time when, grappling with unexpected and unknown circumstances, no longer interested in some misplaced attempts by big stars?

What will the long-term effects of the pandemic of 2020 be? Will it also affect leadership in some way or another? Obviously, the jury’s out on that one, as we are still worrying about a second wave. But trends are showing, and it is clear that the stars are going dim around celebrities’ crowns.

One might question whether celebrities are actually leaders. If leaders are defined by having followers, then undisputedly they are. A celebrity only needs to change their hairstyle and a new trend is set around the world within days.

Kylie Jenner, Justin Bieber, and Madonna reportedly broke self-isolation rules. Evan Agostini/Invision/AP; Steve Granitz/WireImage; Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The problem is that a celebrity, whose very existence depends on being seen by other people, has a problem when we are all stuck at home. No red carpets or flashing cameras, no VIP parties to attend or concerts to promote their work. No million-dollar yachts to be seen posing on, unless they’re self-isolating on one, in which case it’s not wise to let those isolated in a tenement see you and speak about everyone staying safe.

Naturally many celebrities are going for the various online options, and many are failing miserably. The average person seems to be going online seeking connection with other people, the empathy of like-minded people, inspiration from ordinary people like themselves. Health workers became the celebrities of the hour. Police patrolling the streets in Italy and singing to those locked indoors go vital. Captain Tom Moore, a 99-year-old war veteran who raised over £30m for the British health system by walking lengths of his garden, was far more interesting than a bunch of famous actors attempting to stay in the limelight.

Many celebrities seeking attention or self-promotion have been ridiculed.

Like all of us, they were stuck at home with nothing to do, but how do they fill their time, what do they put online? A whistleblower who died of COVID-19 in Wuhan rated far more emotional pull than most attempts.

Over the past decades, there have been enormous changes in how businesses define their brands and engage with customers and consumers. Today, the product is not enough. Branding is generally understood to be a holistic endeavour. In surveys, 86 per cent of consumers say authenticity is important when deciding what brands they like and support. 81 per cent said that they need to be able to trust the brand.

A performer is a branding. If they are not authentic then they are not going to get the popular vote. If they sing out of tune a song about all being in this together from their spacious mansion, it’s not going to ring true.

A celebrity claiming that the pandemic is a great equaliser has got it upside down. It actually makes it difficult to ignore the inequality. It’s not just financial inequality, but inequality to what is needed to stay healthy: space, good food, the best health care.

Shutting themselves behind doors and saying nothing is not going to keep them in the public eye, or even be seen as a popular move. Tom Hanks seemed to hit the right note when he wrote a letter and gifted a typewriter to an eight-year-old Australian boy who said he was being bullied because his name is Corona. It wasn’t the money; it was the act. Other celebrities have done small acts which touch people, such as bringing food to health workers. Others have made large donations to support frontline health workers and those infected by corona, to buy personal protective equipment (PPE), or to feed those suffering food shortage due to the virus.

For every stupid act by a celebratory, there is a good one. But at the moment the trend is that the stupid acts are getting more attention. Will stardom last the pandemic? Are we looking to the value of the actions done by people, not the acting?

Sarah Johnson

Sarah is a British born Communication and Media Graduate from the University of Leeds. Sarah has written for a number of publications and has an avid interest in theatre and the arts in general.

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