Every so often, we come across a megastar who upends all rules pertaining to celebrityhood and how to deal with it in the public eye. We sit up and take notice, the memes pour in, and, in most cases, it all fizzles out soon after, especially when another celeb spectacle du jour takes over our attention.
But not Kanye West.
Unless you’ve been in an inaccessible igloo all this while, chances are, you have some idea of what’s gone on these past few weeks with Ye, as he’s now legally known. After Kim Kardashian filed for divorce last year, seven years into her marriage with West, the couple’s private life got even more public scrutiny. With a combined wealth of $2.1 billion and almost 300 million Instagram followers between them – not to mention four children – the dissolution of Kimye was never going to be low-key.
But then earlier this week, West took to Instagram to express his angst at the whole situation and launched a one-man smear campaign against Kardashian’s boyfriend, Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson. In a series of now-deleted posts (all in all-caps), he shared details of their breakup, how he wants nothing more than to see his family united again, and screenshots of his chats with Kardashian in which she asks him to tone down his vitriolic rants on Davidson (whom he refers to as “Skete” for mysterious reasons) in the interest of his safety.
West’s nearly 14 million Instagram followers have been thoroughly amused, heartbroken, and puzzled at the same time. Nearly every second person you knew was either sharing his posts or talking about them. Admittedly, I was obsessed too. As an ardent fan of his music since forever now, I say the brand that is Kanye West can’t be swept under the rug.
But what explains our collective obsession with celebrities going into meltdown mode? Why do we love watching celebrities reveal their claws, getting vulnerable for reasons known probably only to them?
We have always been amused, entertained or at least hooked to stories of celebrities “falling from grace”. When Amy Winehouse battled manic depression and drug addiction, a British tabloid even put out a picture of her snorting coke on their front page; we obsessively followed Britney Spears’ story of shaving her head and ending up in psychiatric care; we shook our heads when our childhood favourite star, Lindsay Lohan, had legal troubles and difficulties with alcohol and drugs.
According to Ruksheda Syeda, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience, our fascination with famous people’s erratic behaviours and public meltdowns is age-old.
“Back in the day, the inner lives of kings and queens appealed to us,” she told VICE. “It seems that celebrities are omnipresent in our lives. Psychologically speaking, this fosters a feeling of friendship with such celebrities, and is technically referred to as a parasocial interaction.”
In parasocial relationships, listeners and viewers end up developing a one-sided relationship with celebrities whom, in all likelihood, they’ve never met and never will. Often caused by repeated exposure to the celebrity of their choice, viewers can end up having an illusory relationship with whom they stan, experiencing mood swings when their celebrity falters or euphoria when they achieve great heights.
Syeda said that in certain cases, our obsession with the success and failure of the celebrities we idolise may take on a darker hue when we identify an antagonistic figure in their lives that’s causing them pain.
“So, in West’s case, some of his diehard fans might also derive sadistic pleasure from seeing Kardashian suffer,” Syeda said.
Voyeurism, she added, has become a socially acceptable activity. But this voyeuristic urge, she believes, ties into celebrities becoming relatable to us.
“When we see them fall from grace, they become instantly relatable,” said Syeda. “But voyeurism also means that we’ve lost empathy.”
Culture commentator Santu Misra compares the public perception of celebrities to that of a perfectly manicured garden. “And Ye has just upended it,” he said. “Usually, celebrities would do sit-down, tell-all interviews for a big reveal. And now, to see the entire system that is so protected and careful being outed on Instagram so recklessly, is funny to me.”
Misra added that even West’s choice of doing it all on Instagram, a move that’d be “usually considered tacky by PR reps,” is refreshingly unique.
“But during such celebrity meltdowns, we often lose sight of the fact that it’s a person who is hurting and probably hurting others around him too,” said Misra.
Nicholas Nhalungo, a 23-year-old writer and West fan from the city of Maputo in Mozambique, is apprehensive that our obsession and amusement with such meltdowns might end up trivialising mental health too. “In the past, [West] has been clinically diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I’m afraid that these posts end up painting a distorted portrayal of it. I keep hearing people joke that his therapist needs to be fired and such.”
Syeda also believes that we might end up reducing the whole situation to a joke. “If someone behaves this way in real life, we might simply say ‘Don’t be a Kanye.’ This would essentially mean we’re no longer allowed to have a human moment.”
She cites the example of Britney Spears and the way people’s reaction conveniently changed over the years. “Initially, people were amused whenever she had meltdowns, but only now do we know that she suffered from postpartum depression. Now that she has won her conservatorship, everyone is supporting her and patting themselves on the back for tweeting #FreeBritney.”
Our obsession and lack of empathy with celebrity meltdowns can also be attributed to our shorter attention spans and the many needs that arise from it. “As a human race, our attention spans have shortened and our need for entertainment has increased,” Syeda said. “We don’t care about the facts when it comes to a celebrity meltdown, because as long as we are entertained, it’s free for all.”
A 2019 study by science journal Nature on shorter attention spans across various mass media found that our “competition for novelty in content” is the primary reason we keep exhausting sources of entertainment – thus leading to shorter attention spans.
This “race” to always be the first to watch the newest viral show on Netflix, or that latest celebrity meltdown, Syeda elaborated, makes us less empathetic towards the people who are the objects of our entertainment.
“Because we are all competing with each other this way, we end up sacrificing empathy, focusing purely on the entertainment value of a situation,” Syeda said. “When that happens, we don’t want to acknowledge that when a celebrity suffers, it’s also a human suffering.”
Even the phenomenon of doomscrolling – browsing content with indifference even through tons of bad news – can be understood in this context. We proceed to the next trending topic sooner than we can form feelings for what we’re seeing.
When it comes to finding a common ground with celebrities during their meltdowns, Nhalungo said celebrities aren’t only relatable when they go through erratic mood swings and toxic behavioural patterns.
“Look at Adele,” he said. “When she spoke about motherhood and music, it was raw and real, and it resonated with so many people.”
But it’s the breakdown of female celebrities that especially gets the media abuzz. For instance, Glamour noted that while Zac Efron’s drug addiction barely received 30 seconds of coverage before everyone focused on his abs, Demi Lovato’s substance abuse is still analysed in great detail even after seven years.
As far as West is concerned, not everyone is necessarily amused by the recent turn of events. Mohamed Hashem, a 23-year-old finance student from Cairo in Egypt, told VICE he empathised with the way West has been reacting to the divorce because of his own experience growing up with divorced parents.
“To me, this is a guy who is afraid that he will lose another important woman in his life after losing his mother,” Hashem said. “I understand the crests and troughs of his reactions. One day, he is angry with Kardashian for putting up pictures of their daughter on TikTok without his consent and the next, he wants her back. This roller coaster is something my parents and I went through too.”
If we’re obsessed with celebrities breaking down in public because it makes them relatable, then, Syeda said, we’re all collectively setting ourselves up for a lot of pain.
“Pop culture was always meant to be a way we can bond and socialise,” she said. “We need to get over this idea that even though he is crying in his Mercedes and I am crying on the footpath, we’re both equally miserable.”
Follow Arman Khan on Instagram.