The celebrity response to the coronavirus crisis has been extensive and varied.
The actress and activist Jameela Jamil “can’t help but wonder if this virus is the clap back from Mother Nature we were waiting for”. The singer and actress Jennifer Lopez thinks we should “Meditate. Move. Pray. #staysafe”. Gal Gadot, the star of Wonder Woman, co-ordinated a mass celebrity YouTube, um, reimagining, of John Lennon’s Imagine, enlisting Kristen Wiig, Natalie Portman, Will Ferrell and Cara Delevingne — among 20-odd others — to sing a line each from the depths of their respective quarantines. Jessica Alba live-streamed a self-care party.
The singer Sia — also a star (though, should we call them “stars”? Really?) of Gadot’s Imagine video — posted an image on her Instagram feed, a variegated blue backdrop against which a single word was written: “virus”. Except the “vir” had been lightly scribbled out in pink, so the post effectively read “us”. Robbie Williams started holding regular karaoke nights on his Instagram feed. He calls them “Corona-oke”.
Jameela Jamil “can’t help but wonder if this virus is the clap back from Mother Nature we were waiting for.”
John Krasinski, from the American version of The Office, has launched a YouTube channel dedicated to sharing good news, nothing but “a few heartwarming, good stories that people might be looking for right now while stuck at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.” The broadcaster Ellen DeGeneres is posting winsome vignettes in a lemon hoodie about how “stir crazy and anxious” she is feeling. Madonna has taken to posting her “quarantine diaries”, the most famous of which shows her languishing in a bath filled with rose petals, declaring Covid-19 “the great equaliser”, while a gentle piano plays (possibly live, who can say?).
It would seem that all our celebrities — mired, as we are, in their homes, with little hope of escape and no more sense of how and when (and if) this will end — want us to know just how they are thinking and feeling. They want to share their notions, their musings. They want to engage, relate, emote, share.
The question is: do we care?
Embarrassment of Riches
Do we give a damn how these pampered, privileged, heartbreakingly pretty remnants from our decadent, pre-corona past, these emblems of a time when we actually needed distracting from our quiet, uneventful, stable, blissful little lives, because nothing exciting ever really happened … Do we give a flying f***, how they are responding to the greatest trauma of our lifetimes?
If we don’t, what does that mean for the future of celebrity culture?
Celebrities want us to know how they are feeling. The question is: do we care?
Now is a difficult time to be a celebrity. No! Really! I mean it! Think about it: the world is in crisis and they — accustomed to having far more agency and power than the rest of us, to getting their own way, to being generally much less fettered and much more fêted — must make a bigger adjustment to this, our new normal, than those of us not accustomed to those things. With the possible exception of the billionaire David Geffen of course, a man who, just four days ago, posted a picture of his self-isolation experience: on the deck of a superyacht in the Grenadines, captioned: “Sunset last night … I hope everyone is staying safe.” Except, even Geffen must be enduring curtailments, mustn’t he? Limits he has not faced in decades?
So the abject humbling process to which we are all now subject must be more intense for them. They have so much more humbling to do.
Ah, but more than that: celebrities must try to navigate us, their (formerly) adoring public! They must try to work out how to talk to us. How to relate. How to beam their images and words and sensibilities directly from the glossy interiors of their palatial mansions, into the depths of our crappy little flats, without really pissing us off. How to dodge the trending Twitter hashtag #guillotine2020. How to avoid the mass condemnation to which Gadot’s Imagine was (somewhat inevitably) subject: damned for being both patronising and atrociously out of tune.
So far, largely, and with some notable exceptions, they’re getting it horribly wrong.
I mean horribly.
I write this as a long-term admirer of celebrities and celebrity culture. I am not only an interviewer of many famous people (Ryan Gosling, Donald Trump, Little Mix, Harry Styles, Piers Morgan, Take That, Rod Stewart, Kate Moss, and Martin and Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet), I am a lifelong, devoted consumer of celebrity culture. I loathe the pseudo-intellectual snobbishness that dismisses it, derides it; that insists celebrity and any interest in it demeans us. I see no more shame in being caught up in the ructions of celebrity lives than I do in being passionately involved with the fortunes of a football team. They amount to the same thing: a projection of the human condition, the triumphs and the failings, the righteous and the foul. So it is with affection and admiration that I say: “Dear me, no, celebrities. Don’t do that!”
Robbie Williams started holding karaoke nights on Instagram. He calls them “Corona-oke.”
I say it to Idris Elba, who thought sharing his positive Covid-19 test result with the world would invoke sympathy, possibly even envy, that he got in there first. Instead, it prompted angry questions about why he — a man with no symptoms — had managed to get tested, while frontline NHS workers — with or without symptoms — had not. I say it to Sam Smith, who documented his breakdown, frame by fetching frame — the modern equivalent of watching oneself cry in the mirror — from the floor of a home that the tabloid press was quick to point out had cost $14.8 million.
I say it to Katy Perry, who posted a fake video of Italians (not actually) singing her song Roar from their balconies while locked down, alongside the caption: “You cannot break the human spirit.” And I say it to Lionel Richie, who has proposed a remake of the song We Are the World, because … Who knows why? Who has any idea?
If I have learnt anything from two decades of interviewing celebrities, it is that they do not know more than us about pretty much anything. They can be spectacular. Charming, hilarious, mesmerising; they are always surprising, always gentler or sweeter or sillier or harsher or scarier or angrier or rather more dull than you’d assume from all your years of watching them on the telly. But they are also, very much, just people; exceptional in their one particular, hugely commercial, way — otherwise: ordinary. Like any of us, just with wardrobe and staff. Their exceptional talent does not come with exceptional wisdom. Their physical beauty is not necessarily matched by inner grace. The size of their bank balance is often quite at odds with their capacity to be self-aware.
Which is why they can contribute no more to the crisis, be no more informing, or constructive, or useful than your mum. Unless, of course, your mum is a key worker, in which case, celebrities are less helpful than your mum.
Yet, try telling them that.
Now is a difficult time to be a celebrity. No! Really!
Coronavirus catches our celebrities at an interesting stage, developmentally speaking. The past seven years have given them the distinct impression that they are — or perhaps insisted they must be — much more than mere musicians, actors and so forth. Celebrity culture has collided with social media, grassroots activism, Trump, Brexit and Me Too. The consequence has been that people with what we now routinely refer to as a “platform” have felt the urge, or the pressure, to use it to quasi-political ends. Feminist ends. Ecological ends. Mental health ends. Non-specific spiritual ends — a stance best expressed through regular Instagram images of them in extraordinarily accomplished yoga poses, or with a multitude of utterly vapid “inspirational” quotations.
All of this, until the advent of corona, went down terribly well with their legion of social media followers, who took to routinely reassuring them that their extended vocation was “inspiring”, “soul-shaking”, or — having presumably been struck temporarily dumb by the impact of Beyoncé proclaiming “Your self-worth is determined by you. You don’t have to depend on someone telling you who you are” — simply made free with multiple examples of the “preach hands” emoji.
So celebrities became accustomed to performing these additional duties. All the pop stars-cum-philosophers. The hip-hop stars-cum-priests. The actors-cum-activists, movie stars-cum-wellness gurus, reality TV phenomena-cum-vegan crusaders, sports stars-cum-shrinks.
But, quite suddenly — as of, what, three weeks ago? — all that stopped meaning anything.
Namaste to Wellness
We no longer wanted their non-expert hunches, their unqualified proclamations, their inspirational quotes, their “it is what it is”-level insight. We rejected their clean-eating, Malibu-meditating calls for radical self-acceptance, whatever the hell that may be.
We started wanting cold, hard stats. The daily briefing with Dishy Rishi. Exponential graph-tracking we can trust. We wanted to know when we’ll have tests, when the NHS will have personal protective equipment (PPE). To stand up and applaud frontline health staff, binmen, delivery drivers and supermarket staff.
This is not to suggest we have absolutely no time at all for celebrity any more. We do. Of course we do. But we only have time for those we perceive as proceeding with integrity, who can largely be divided into two categories. Those who are doing something active and meaningful, rather than, I dunno, singing songs badly (the actor James McAvoy, who has denoted $340,000 to a PPE crowdfunding appeal and also applied to join the NHS volunteer scheme, being a case in point, along with Rihanna, who has donated both PPE and more than $5.2 million through her foundation to help organisations fight coronavirus). And those who have remembered, and started honouring, their core purpose: to entertain, purely, simply and well, without righteous posturing, lecturing or whining (Arnold Schwarzenegger playing chess with his miniature donkey, Lulu, if you will).
We wanted to know when we’ll have tests, when the NHS will have personal protective equipment.
But what of the long or even mid-term future of celebrity culture? Will corona be the undoing of the whole shebang? Will we, as an international community, on emerging from this crisis, re-evaluating our priorities and lifestyles and belief systems, finally see fit to free ourselves from the shackles of celeb worship; bow down no more before that gilded, overprivileged, overdressed, overpaid minority? Will we find our heroes and our icons elsewhere in society; carry on applauding those actual pillars of society, whom we have only, just now, come to see clearly?
No. Of course we won’t. I was a journalist during 9/11, the Iraq war and the 2007-08 financial crisis. Each time we felt the world’s priorities shift beneath us. Each time we felt the tone change, become infinitely more serious, infinitely less frivolous. Each time we predicted that this, then, was finally it, for all that. And each time, we were wrong. Each time, as the crisis abated, celebrity culture reasserted itself in its wake.
Corona may be a bigger crisis than any of those. Its ructions will certainly be felt for longer, and some things will, without question, change for good. But not celebrity. Not that.
We need those shiny, pretty, attention-seeking glamour bombs. We need them every bit as much as they need us.