In a new TED talk, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and the world’s no. 1 hoarder of wealth, raised many an eyebrow when he claimed to be homeless: “I don’t even own a place right now, I’m literally staying at friends’ places,” the self-identified couch-surfer said in the interview, published Sunday. “If I travel to the Bay Area, which is where most of Tesla’s engineering is, I basically rotate through friends’ spare bedrooms.”
Musk’s net worth is estimated to stand at $300 billion, and he recently made an offer to purchase Twitter for $43 billion in cash—which seems like a lot of money just to stop people from posting photos of him pre-hair implants or posing with sex traffickers. But his bizarre comments appearing to present himself as unhoused are hardly out-of-pocket for Musk. At the beginning of the pandemic, a period during which he grew his wealth more than any other billionaire on the planet, Musk tweeted that he would “own no house,” while selling seven. He and his supporters oft complain about how he isn’t actually all that wealthy, since he claims much of his money isn’t liquid, and—god forbid—he even has to pay taxes sometimes.
Last year, Musk said his “primary home” is a less-than-$50K tiny house in Boca Chica, Texas. Okay.
Musk may be one of the loudest, but he certainly isn’t the only obscenely wealthy celebrity with a bizarre penchant for cosplaying as poor. Think of Chrissy Teigen’s era of tweeting through the day-to-day #struggles of opulent wealth (and last year hosting a Squid Game-themed party in which she and other celebs quite literally cosplayed as poor people). Consider the dozens of celebrities who hopped on 2020’s notorious “Imagine” video to show we were all experiencing the pandemic together, in the same way, from their mansions.
It begs the question: When you can afford to do anything and everything, to be on vacation 24/7, why would you instead choose to spend your days posturing as working-class on the internet? So that millions of strangers strapped in student loan debt might like you? Surely, that—an obsessive desire to be liked—has to explain Musk’s obsession with Twitter as a 50-year-old man who is ostensibly running a company and raising eight children.
According to Michael Kraus, a researcher and professor at Yale who focuses on the study of inequality, rich celebrities’ compulsive need to project their supposed, human struggles out into the world isn’t as innocent or benign as just wanting to be liked: It’s also about advancing the myth of meritocracy and legitimizing their access to exorbitant wealth and privilege.
“Increasingly, [the wealthy are] facing people saying that they’re causing all these challenges, creating all this suffering—for Musk, it’s also facing increased calls for taxation and regulation,” Kraus told Jezebel. “When they pretend to have struggles, it’s about trying to appear as if you deserve the wealth you have, like you struggle like everybody else.”
These narratives are particularly potent in the US, where Kraus says “meritocratic beliefs are much stronger” than in other countries—Americans are socialized to fetishize and even romanticize working your ass off and being exploited by corporate overlords. And the Elon Musks of the world know this. “When you show that you’ve had to and still have to face challenges and obstacles that we all do, people start to think of you as more deserving of the wealth and status you’ve obtained, because you work just as hard as everybody else,” Kraus told me.
When Musk tweets about hustling and crashing on a friend’s couch, or self-reports that he works 80 to 100 hours per week (does he count tweeting as working?), Kraus translates this to, “I’m intelligent, I’m ingenious, I’m able to pull myself up by my bootstraps and be successful, despite these obstacles.”
Despite how many (if not most) celebrities come from highly wealthy and well connected backgrounds, they often become wildly defensive about any suggestion that their wealth isn’t earned, or they aren’t self-made. Just a few years ago, the bulk of Kylie Jenner’s interviews fixated on defending her “self-made billionaire” title from the legions of social media users who rightfully pointed out her last name. In response to the persistent criticisms of Kim Kardashian and her sisters that their wealth comes from being famous for being famous, Kardashian insisted that—supposedly unlike the rest of us—they’d all worked for their millions. She went so far as to tell women business owners who want her success to “get your ass up and work”—like that’s exactly what she did.
When wealthy celebrities pretend to be just like us, whether it’s loving a good Target run or complaining about a parent who can’t stop losing individual AirPods, Kraus says, “All of it is this work of saying ‘I struggle just like you, I am a regular dude who struggles just like everybody else with their taxes.’”
But on some level, surely, there are some billionaires and rich celebs who do also just want to be liked—it probably varies per person, Kraus says.
A 2020 study found people born into high socioeconomic status are substantially more likely to self-report high self-entitlement, which could certainly include entitlement to masses of fawning fans, without performing the actual labor of giving anyone a reason to like you. Musk, in particular, seems to think tweeting about being homeless and bitching about paying taxes is an easier way to be liked than, say, allowing his factory workers to form a union, not firing employees for taking family leave, or not paying some of the lowest wages in the auto industry. If all of his posturing really is about just wanting to be liked, maybe he should try the aforementioned suggestions.