The end of the year marks the time for misty-eyed reflection, and more so in 2020 than any other.
It’s been a year we’d all rather see the back of – one so tumultuous that Brexit, Megxit and the Goop vagina candle all happened in JANUARY. And with it goes a number of relics from the “before time”: handshakes, all you can eat buffets and the near religious reverence of the rich and famous.
Pre pandemic, stanning was something we actively encouraged as a society. Allegiances to Rihanna’s Navy, BTS’ ARMY, or owning a kitsch Jeff Goldblum coffee mug were once as integral to your identity as your favourite TV show. Maybe you pinned that brief interaction you had with a fave to your Twitter profile. But over the best part of this year, it’s been pretty clear that the very famous have been the virus all along.
When Gal Gadot assembled celebrities like Sarah Silverman and Mark Ruffalo for an Insta-ready rendition of John Lennon's “Imagine” in March, it was so smugly saccharine, cheese-filled and corn-covered it made Glee look like Skins and left a bad taste in mouths en-masse for months. Presumably the intention had been to bring everyone together during the early days of coronavirus, but the damage was twofold: viewers were ardently furious at the tone deaf (both literally and figuratively) video itself, and then again at friends and family members who shared it with non ironic earnestness.
It was the same for the now infamous naked voting PSA absolutely no one asked for (again, featuring Sarah Silverman and Mark Ruffalo, who have earned their spot as the first casualties of the inevitable civilian uprising). The PSA wasn’t only an artful example of the yawning chasm between celebrity and common people’s priorities during a once in a lifetime crisis – attention seeking vs trying not to die – but the fact it came so soon after the backlash against the “Imagine” horror show could not have been a clearer indicator of who this content was really for. These videos weren’t to warm the cockles of us plebs but to boost the egos and profiles of celebs; we hated them and yet the “creative diarrhea” simply kept coming (not my words, but those of actor Chris O’Dowd, who took part in the “Imagine” video but for this comment alone will be spared).
Then there was the toe-curling “I Take Responsibility Video”, fronted by 14 white celebrities including Sarah Paulson, Justin Theroux and Kristen Bell in response to Black Lives Matter movement, which currently has a ratio of 74,000 dislikes to 1,000 likes on YouTube. It’s this craven need for relevance, these cringeworthy attempts to claw back headlines from coronavirus, that has the phrase “eat the rich” feeling incomplete without the words “and famous” at the end of it.
From Live Aid to Comic Relief, celebrity charity efforts have always been a bone of contention. But at least there was a fundraising element attached to these prior PR campaigns. Make A Wish hospice visits and the Cameo app have led to celebrities truly internalising their status as ‘beautiful people’, convinced their faces alone can save lives. To paraphrase the words of former US presidential candidate, Kanye West, celebs seemed to believe their presence was the present this year.
This need to chaotically pop up again and again was illustrated best by repeat offender Madonna, who dubbed coronavirus “the great equaliser” while sat in a luxury, milky bathtub filled with rose petals. Weeks later she trotted out 14-year-old adopted Malawian son David, dancing to Michael Jackson's "They Don't Care About Us" in tribute to George Floyd, followed by the hashtags #davidbanda #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd #MichaelJackson.
Other cancellations took place retrospectively. With a rise in nostalgic binge watching, the masses were reminded of rebate backlash that had been a long time coming for some. Tyra Banks’ had a belated reckoning when clips of her casual cruelty on America’s Next Top Model resurfaced, which included encouraging contestants to don blackface. Her response was characteristically unapologetic, in that it didn’t feature an apology but a nod to what she agreed were “really off choices”. Rumours of Ellen DeGeneres’ meanness also came to a head in a viral twitter thread documenting her bad behaviour towards people, including her crew members, over the years. Her case was not remotely helped by her suggesting quarantine in her $27 Million mansion felt like "being in jail", the final nail in a coffin that she's dodged for the best part of a decade.
While some celebrities feigned empathy, others showed Dickensian levels of indifference toward the world’s COVID quarantines. A few days into lockdown, Vanessa Anne Hudgens bemoaned the scuppering of her Hot Girl Summer due to quarantine, stating the deaths were “terrible but like, inevitable?”. Real Housewives star Kelly Dodd claimed the subsequent deaths were “God’s way of thinning the herd”, while Grayson Perry assured the economic fallout would clear galleries of “dead wood”. “I think every part of life has probably got a bit of fat that needs trimming,” he said in all seriousness to Arts Society Magazine.
These displays of ‘celebrities; they’re absolutely nothing fucking like us’ disconnectedness grated but were arguably preferable to celebrities cosplaying as passengers on the Titanic, all of us all aboard this sinking ship together, while omitting the fact that rich people got lifeboats.
Alongside the pandemic, the political fraughtness of 2020 led to even less patience for celebrity shenanigans. Notable mentions include Virgil Abloh donating $50 to a Black Lives Matters protesters' bail fund, despite a net worth of $20 million, and Kim Kardashian posting about “humbly being reminded of how privileged her life is” at her 40th, from a secret location on a private island as the death toll in the states approached 250,000. Rappers Lil Pump, Lil Wayne, Ice Cube and Waka Flocka Flame also came out in support of Trump, while the idleness of quarantine saw Mick Hucknall compile a definitive list of his “coolest cultures on planet Earth” because ranking ethnic groups is something that has always gone down well historically. “Flamenco Gypsies'' came in at five.
With little else to do, celebrities have been showing their asses at every opportunity. Similarly, as we sit at home with nothing to do, we have been more than willing to hand their asses to them with newfound rigour.
But what has truly changed? Like most of the learnings gleaned from the pandemic (prevention is better than cure, you probably didn’t wash your hands as thoroughly as you could have), the revelation that inequality is rife and celebrities are dreadful isn’t remotely new. I’m not even sure we can argue that celebrities have been markedly worse this year. Increasingly, our ire is for lack of something to do, somewhere to aim rage that feels directionless when our common enemy is a pathogen. Sick to the back teeth of Duolingo and sourdough, we all needed a new hobby – and in 2020, this was cancellation.
We’d be best placed using this time to reevaluate our collective relationship with fame and interrogate the gliteratti’s saviour complex that didn’t form in a vacuum, to think critically about why we have become so accustomed to turning to famous people for answers – a thought process that may have saved us from a Donald Trump presidency. But with 60,000 people voting for Kanye at this year's US election, we still may have some way to go yet.