Lighting is everything, Kim Kardashian once said about taking the perfect selfie. It’s a fact that celebrities and those who emulate them know well. Lights are not merely a way to optimize one’s appearance for the sake of keeping gazes trained. They’re a barometer for success. Stage lights, names in lights, the machine-gun blast of paparazzi flashbulbs. Or cop lights, flashlights, spotlights, strobe lights, street lights, as Kanye West rapped in “All of the Lights,” one of several luminescence-obsessed songs released this century, a golden age of paparazzi. Gaga sang about lights, of course. So did Justin Timberlake, and Lana del Rey.
Lights, very simply, signify power, which makes right now a particularly strange time to rest one’s eyes on the famous. In this quarantined world of ours, they are lit terribly, matte and overexposed, shadowy and bleeding into their backgrounds. Locking down has de-glossed celebrities virtually across the board. They are no longer flattered by intricate in-studio lighting rigs or by the glare of flashbulbs. The stay-at-home celebrity beams in via a makeshift setup. The imperfections of subpar lighting and nonprofessional lenses are the norm, even on broadcast television, which now mostly looks like YouTube.
What does it even mean to be a celebrity in a time when everyone is using more or less the same equipment to capture and broadcast their likenesses? The analysis of historian and social critic Daniel J. Boorstin is particularly useful for sorting this out. In his influential 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Boorstin famously described a celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” Boorstin’s argument, somewhat myopically, did not account for art. He also did not contend with the way a celebrity’s artistic output affects his or her public image, or analyze fame as a byproduct of achievement in one’s medium. (Prince, for example, was a musician first and a celebrity second, although he did approach fame with the same virtuosity as he did any other of his instruments.) For Boorstin, a celebrity was a celebrity was a celebrity. He did not distinguish between those who are “famous for being famous” and those whose fame was more virtuously earned; it was all one class “made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who buy recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends.”
And yet, Boorstin’s essentialism was prescient in its emphasis on public performance. This calculation has only intensified as a result of social media, something Boorstin had no concept of and yet effectively predicted. “Anyone can become a celebrity, if only he can get into the news and stay there,” wrote Boorstin. Even now, stripped of their teams, celebrities have more tools than ever to do so. At a time when people keep repeating the fallacy that “we’re all in this together” (class divisions ensure that could never be true), there is great satisfaction to be had in watching celebrities struggle with the mundane. That they are believed to be extraordinary renders their brushes with normalcy remarkable. A celebrity can never be too perfect nor too human, but when they have either quality in excess, I long to see the other. In its absence, I become bored.
In the past few months, writers have identified mass disillusionment with celebrity as part of the overall ennui of this cultural moment. And who can blame these thinkers for being fed up? It’s grating when stars remind us of the privilege that we’ve helped facilitate, and they’ve been doing a lot of that in the wake of the pandemic. On the at-home version of her talk show, a backlit Ellen DeGeneres compared quarantining in her mansion to jail. (She would probably consider staying at my Bushwick apartment to be a punishment along the lines of waterboarding.) Sitting in a bath among rose petals, Madonna called the coronavirus the “great equalizer” from whatever obscenely expensive property of hers she was holed up in. Writing about that excruciating video featuring celebrities singing “Imagine” that it seemed everyone hated, the New York Times’ Amanda Hess observed, the “Most of these people cannot even sing; their contributions suggest that the very appearance of a celebrity is a salve, as if a pandemic could be overcome by star power alone.”
Because luck and media-savvy factor so heavily into the celebrity’s acquired status, Boorstin portrays the public’s investment in those chosen few to be something of a mental gymnastics routine, an active and absurd process that requires faith if not delusion:
When we talk or read or write about celebrities, our emphasis on their marital relations and sexual habits, on their tastes in smoking, drinking, dress, sports cars, and interior decoration is our desperate effort to distinguish among the indistinguishable. How can those commonplace people like us (who, by the grace of the media, happened to become celebrities) be made to seem more interesting or bolder than we are?
Boorstin wrote this decades before Us Weekly developed its recurring feature “Stars—They’re Just Like Us,” a column predicated not on the belief that commonplace people transubstantiate into gods by sheer spectator will, but that our elected gods are capable of commonplace behavior, if only briefly. The “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” ethos does not invalidate Boorstin’s notion of our desperate efforts to venerate; instead, it works in concert, in a perpetual motion machine. We invest such belief in celebrities’ exceptionalism that signs of their mundanity become appealingly novel. This cycle is cousins with an old cliché about fame that even non-scholars can rattle off like their phone number: We build them up just to break them down. Once they’ve fallen from grace, of course, they’re eligible for underdog status; their vulnerability makes them so endearing that the temptation arises to build them up again, reentering them in the cycle. In favorite song about the doomed nature of fame, “For the Roses,” Joni Mitchell sings, “Oh the power and the glory/Just when you’re getting a taste for worship/They start bringing out the hammers/And the boards/And the nails.” The song ends with the lonely image of its narrator by herself in nature at night, the moon shining on black water “like an empty spotlight.”
Because few celebrities have Mitchell’s aptitude for self-reflection, even when they’re trying to be “normal,” they have a knack for reminding us that they are not. Celebrities performing the acts of mere mortals are sometimes received with an almost grotesque awwww-it-thinks-its-people pandering. The Real Housewives of New York’s Ramona Singer made headlines in March when she was captured on social media cleaning the entirety of her toilet with a brush meant for just the bowl. Without the help of her help, Ramona Singer smeared fecal matter all over her bathroom. If Boorstin had been alive to see this, he probably would have dug himself a grave to spin in.
I get it though. Witnessing these moments can be thrilling. Signs of life that lurk in fame’s shadows can be as dazzling as the lights that beautify stardom. I’ve long loved the celebrity QVC/HSN appearance, during which stars are forced to speak without pausing on live television, often for hours at a time. In a media-trained world, in which self-expression is compressed and perverted into easily consumed sound bites, a home-shopping sales gig is the final frontier of celebrity honesty, or at least unscripted babbling, as legendary appearances by Mariah Carey, Paula Abdul, and Liza Minnelli attest. It’s a joy to watch celebrities wild and unfiltered, like they’ve just broken character. You feel like you’re getting away with something.
That old QVC feeling pulses through the daily “talk show” that Naomi Campbell launched April 6 on YouTube, No Filter with Naomi. It runs live for roughly an hour on weekdays and features Campbell in a video chat with a famous friend—Cindy Crawford, Adut Akech, and Paris Hilton have all shared her screen. The “show” is compulsively watchable, even at a time when class resentment is boiling. Though Campbell refers to No Filter as a talk show and, at one point, revealed it had been her lifelong dream to host one, it has all the formality of a FaceTime chat with friends. It is about as illuminating, too. Within five minutes of rolling, Sharon Stone used the word “midget” to refer to how she felt among supermodels at some Thierry Mugler show she and Campbell walked. She described her AIDS activism in detail, at one point confusingly revealing that, “I was a person taking the AIDS virus out of freezers and studying it under a microscope with scientists.” Nicole Richie told Campbell that Prince gave her a dog when she was 4 years old, though the details were scant. “I don’t even remember what the dog’s name was but I think it was a white Maltese. I think…”
Can you imagine not remembering the name of the dog you had at age 4? Can you imagine not knowing every single detail of something bestowed to by a legend of Prince’s stature? I can’t!
Celebs inadvertently revealing a little too much and shading in their eccentricity is one thing, but No Filter with Naomi really soars when it glitches. It has consistently proved to be a comedy of errors. While talking to Christy Turlington, who was perfectly centered in her box, Campbell encouraged her to move to the right, thereby directing her nearly out of frame. Later in that interview, Campbell’s screen froze and her image distorted into rearranged pixels, tiny bits of her stacked in the wrong order that looked like they might blow away. Turlington’s face registered a momentary glee that made me wonder if she too loves a celebrity blooper, even from inside the machine. “Guys, we’re pixelating!” Campbell called frantically. During her interview with Marc Jacobs, the designer began a heartfelt discussion of how he had turned his health around. Campbell’s side of the screen went black, as if she had no time for earnest yammering.
When she returned, she said, “Hello!” like Mrs. Doubtfire with icing on her face and explained, “We had a technical hitch. These things happen and with the climate of the way that things are in the world… we’re powerless.” Discussing this moment on the Who Weekly? podcast, as well as the faulty mic that captured Laura Prepon’s oatmeal-cooking segment on a recent social-distancing episode of LIVE with Kelly and Ryan, Lindsey Weber said, “I have to say as an independent podcast producer and host, I’m really appreciating the celebrities having to hit these walls of technical difficulties that they have to figure out themselves.”
“Now they know,” added Bobby Finger. “Now they know what it’s like.”
Sometimes the emptiness of watching celebrities exist is so striking, that which purports to be entertainment ceases to be so. Watching the first social-distancing episode of Saturday Night Live that aired April 11, I had to ask myself why I was putting my time there and not just having a Zoom conversation with my friends who, whether they’re objectively funnier than the current SNL roster or not (and I think they are), have a collective sense of humor that is way more customized to my interests and sensibilities. Not all ways to waste time are created equal.
Boorstin discussed at length the tautology inherent in the realm of those known for their well-knownness: “Celebrity is made by simple familiarity, induced and re-enforced by public means. The celebrity therefore is the perfect embodiment of tautology: the most familiar is the most familiar.” One could reasonably assess this as proof that thinking about this stuff too much is a giant waste of time, but I like how that tautology reminds me of the absurdity underpinning a system that fosters inequity. It’s all so silly, all so constructed. It’s therapeutic to gaze at the illusion, really see it, resplendent in its invisibility.
I tune in everyday to watch Naomi Campbell, because she is Naomi Campbell, but I also watch hoping for her to do something that is discordant with her public image. In that little YouTube box, she is Schrödinger’s supermodel. This is a perfectly fine way to pass time in that it offers me even more opportunities to pass time by then writing or even just thinking some more about Naomi Campbell. On her April 9 show, and only on that show, she donned a blue splint on her left pinky. I’ve thought a lot about that splint. What happened? Why just that day? Does she keep splints in her bathroom? Is her left pinky prone to injury? Well, why is that then?
The same day that No Filter with Naomi launched, April 6, Wendy Williams started broadcasting a lo-fi show from her apartment in New York. For about 20 minutes a day, she sits at her kitchen table rambling about whatever: things that make her cry, the “royalty” of New York area codes (212 obviously reigns), celebrity gossip of course (not that there’s that much of it these days). For the first few episodes, her broken smoke alarm beeped steadily—she acknowledged it but seemed completely unconcerned, assuring viewers that they’d become as desensitized to it as Wendy as her cats have. “You know, your house probably has something broken, too,” she added.
Williams is doing so little in the timeslot that once held her dynamic, cornea-burning talk show, it feels like a provocation. There’s nothing to see here, Williams seems to say. It’s a silent dare to look away made by someone with the great confidence to know that you won’t. (Or at least, I won’t.) Like a lot of drag, it’s a power move. A career gossip, Williams is a scholar of fame. She’s more in on the joke than a lot of people. (In the wake of her spontaneous hiatus and ensuing split from her husband Kevin Hunter in 2019, she repeatedly pointed out that she was becoming her own Hot Topic—that is, a regular subject of her own show’s current-events segment.) Her non-performance smacks of performance. She eats as she talks, chewing loudly and licking her lips. One day, she roasted a Slim Jim with a lighter and ate it, which I read on Twitter is something she’d done during the first week of The Wendy Williams Show when it debuted in 2008. She knew exactly what she was doing, and she knew the most entertaining way to telegraph that was by pretending to be herself obliviously.
It’s extraordinary, thrilling even, to see something so broke down on network television. I can understand how it would repel the aesthetic snob, and I wonder if my tuning in isn’t at least partly a product of habit: It’s 10 am, so Wendy is on, no matter what. The entitlement afforded to celebrities is galling and toxic, I know this intellectually, and am often flabbergasted by the way it manifests (don’t get me started on the most recent GQ profile of Kanye West). And yet, I return. They are my entertainment, comfort food for my senses. There’s also something therapeutic about observing society writ as large as it is in the funhouse mirror of celebrity culture. Part of what makes celebrity feel inescapable (when I could be using my time to read, I don’t know, philosophy or books about science) is the organizing of civilian social worth mimics that of celebrity. Today more than ever, the concept of meritocracy looms oppressively—the idea that anyone is capable of lifting themselves up by the bootstraps and eking out clout. To be “very online” is to enter a hierarchy where your progress and apparent worth is quantified in terms of followers and response. Hollywood is a numbers game, and increasingly, so is human connectivity. We’re all in the long tail of the attention economy together.