Listen: Are the Celebrities Okay?

A culture in quarantine

On the latest episode of the Social Distance podcast, staff writers Hannah Giorgis and Spencer Kornhaber update James Hamblin and Katherine Wells on where all the celebrities went, and whether our fascination with them will survive this moment.

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: Here’s my theory: This whole thing actually became real for a lot of people when Tom Hanks got coronavirus. Yay or nay?

Spencer Kornhaber: 100 percent.

Wells: Then celebrities dropped off the face of the Earth, as far as I can tell. I want to know both what happened to them and what you all are thinking about, because you cover culture in a much more sophisticated way than Jim and I could.

Hannah Giorgis: I think they’ve gone a little unhinged. They’re all at home, like we are. But celebrities are a group of people who are used to having the things that they want available to them at all times. Suddenly that’s not true, and it’s affecting them in ways that seem more comical and also profound than for us lay people.

Wells: What’s an example? The last celebrity news I heard about was Tom Hanks getting coronavirus.

Giorgis: You’ve missed a lot of Instagram dispatches.

Kornhaber: You know about the pillow challenge? That’s where hot, famous people take off their clothes and wear a pillow as if it’s a dress, and they post a picture. I don’t know what the fashion term is for the kind of dress it looks like, but it’s very chic.

James Hamblin: Is it like the “Ice Bucket Challenge” benefiting coronavirus relief?

Kornhaber: My understanding is it’s not a charity thing; it’s just a fun thing to do. It’s mostly a way to show off your shoulders. There have been other things like that with, for example, hot male actors doing this handstand challenge where they do a handstand, and they put on a shirt during the handstand somehow, and that’s it.

Giorgis: There’s been a lot of bathtub content. Madonna was in the bath talking about how this moment could be the great equalizer, which is a horrifying thing to say, given everything we know about the statistics.

Wells: Was she imagining that we’d all somehow all get really nice bathtubs out of this?

Giorgis: I think the idea is that human beings, in theory, are all susceptible to a virus, and so therefore, we are all scared, and that’s an equalizer. Sia posted a graphic that said “VIRUS” in all caps, but the V-I-R was crossed out, so it just said “US.” A lot of really trite stuff like that.

Hamblin: Do you think we will get to a point where people stop finding it entertaining and start being angry about stuff like that?

Giorgis: I think we’re already there in some ways. Ellen DeGeneres, in her first at-home special, was sitting in her palatial mansion and joked that quarantine feels like being in jail. And the end of the joke was: “Because everybody here is gay, and I haven’t changed my shirt in 10 days,” or something like that. People were really upset, and they responded by taking her to task for making a comparison to incarceration, especially at this moment when we’re seeing the virus spread intensely and become unmanageable in jails and prisons across the country.

Kornhaber: I actually think that when we first went on lockdown is when celebrities seemed the most obscene. That first couple of weeks when everyone was having this traumatized feeling, there would be these smiling, pretty people on your Instagram talking about how difficult the situation is from their beautiful backyard or in front of some giant window wall that celebrities always have. There was a lot of backlash in that moment. That was the moment when the actress Gal Gadot got together a bunch of friends to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” And it was just horrendous.

Wells: What was horrendous about it?

Kornhaber: Well, it sounded horrendous; none of these people were in tune. And it was edited in this really janky way, where everyone was coming from a different angle. It became immediately clear that these people who we’ve elevated, without producers or editors or the whole Hollywood apparatus, actually don’t have a lot of skills or polish or ability to present themselves in an attractive manner. That was a little revolting.

Hamblin: If they’re going to be more authentic and drop the veil here and be like, “I’m here in my T-shirt, just like you,” does that still erode the magic of the pretense that there’s some real superhuman qualities to these people?

Giorgis: I don’t necessarily think so. We’ve had enough Instagram and Twitter footage of them and more direct interaction with celebrities in recent years, so that isn’t what feels the most jarring. It’s more them attempting to present an older version of themselves through this new filter that feels weird.

Kornhaber: The idea of “celebrities are just like us” is true in this moment. They do seem to be just as stir-crazy and at a loss, as we all are. Celebrities are the people who have most successfully lived out the directives society gives us to sell our entire lives and seek affirmation and climb up the ladder and always be working on the next thing, and they’ve been shut out of that—we all have—and they seem really screwed up by it. There’s something relatable there. But at the same time, they’re doing it in these amazing settings with this aura of them mattering that does grate.

Wells: We’ve been talking a lot about how we valorize people with wealth. A lot of the American mythology is Billionaires earned it because they’re special. But celebrities, it seems, often get a pass on wealth. Am I right or wrong about that?

Giorgis: I think that’s generally true, because with celebrities, you can see the thing it is that they do so amazingly; you see that the reason that they “earned” or “deserve” all that money. You see their movies; you hear their music. You interact with all of that in a way that you don’t necessarily with all sorts of other classes of wealthy people.

But I think that’s changing, and that’s one of the things that I’ve been writing about the past couple of days, is how ridiculous it feels and how upsetting it is for many people to see folks like Pharrell say “Everybody, let’s come together and donate to this cause,” because people are unemployed. Why don’t you donate, Pharrell? You have the money. Or for example, Swizz Beatz and Dr. Dre and Diddy might do a live battle of sorts. And Swizz made the suggestion that perhaps instead of on Instagram live for free, maybe they do a pay-per-view fundraiser. But Swizz Beatz, Diddy, and Dre combined have a net worth of over a billion dollars. Just donate the money and let us watch the thing for free. People are unemployed, at home, frustrated, and it feels really condescending to have these people saying that.

Wells: Hasn’t the celebrity telethon been a staple of crises for generations?

Kornhaber: That’s definitely true, but most of the crises are more localized and not involving millions of people losing their jobs. Did we have a telethon for the recession in 2008? I don’t remember that.

Giorgis: Now it feels like they’re asking for help from the same group of people that needs it, which is a little ridiculous in a way that, to Spencer’s point, is different than more localized things in the past that we’ve seen.

Wells: Are there any celebrities who are really seizing the moment and doing great?

Kornhaber: The kind of celebrity that is doing well in this moment are people who are legitimately charismatic and hilarious just by being themselves on social media. You have someone like Cardi B, who came to fame first as a reality-TV person, as a social media person, and she has just been fabulous. She’s ranting on Instagram all the time, and those rants are being turned into samples that are in songs that people can’t get out of their heads. But at the same time, she’s also done political content and interviewed Bernie Sanders and has yelled at the Pentagon in these feeds. And it’s all working because she has that verve.

Giorgis: And she’s been doing that; it’s not some new thing. People appreciate that level of continuity. I think DJs are having a really interesting moment right now. D-Nice has a ton of people tuning in anytime he does a live Instagram show, Questlove—people who have a really clear ability to share the thing it is that they do well with a broad audience right now, which is a surprisingly small number of celebrities.

Kornhaber: You have someone like Leslie Jordan, who’s a senior citizen, a character actor who’s been around a long time, and he’s just making these hilarious Instagram videos of himself complaining to the camera. He’s now a superstar, and he never was before. We’re going to have people like that emerging.

Giorgis: People for a long time have liked Ina Garten as a person and have liked her work and her recipes. And now, there’s something especially comforting about the Barefoot Contessa, the domestic goddess, the person who does this thing from a space of joy and excitement, who stays home and loves it and loves hunkering down and being real about the ways that that’s not always perfect. Our colleague Sophie Gilbert wrote a really great piece about her recently.

Wells: I am a little suspicious of this, but certainly there was a notion that this pandemic is going to change everything. That we’re going to come out of this a fundamentally different society than we were before. Do you think audiences will think differently about celebrity after this?

Kornhaber: It’s definitely possible that we’re going to have a whole consciousness change, and after this we’re going to be more service-minded and more egalitarian. That’s a nice idea. [Laughs.] I would love to hear evidence for that. My understanding is that certain crises in history have caused shifts of that sort and others have exacerbated inequality. I don’t know how this is shaking out.

Giorgis: We could see a bit of both. We could see people having a visceral distaste for some of this stuff and also being so deprived of joy and entertainment and wanting that so badly that it ultimately doesn’t matter; people are still going to rush to movie theaters or concerts as soon as they can. Not necessarily because they still endorse the mechanisms of celebrity, but because they want to have fun and let loose and haven’t been able to for so long.