As I watched Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Kimmel interview each other about wallpaper for almost ten minutes, I thought to myself: 'I feel nothing. Less than nothing, in fact; I have negative feeling. Feeling has been drawn from my body and spat out, like a poisonous venom.' Every time a blonde supermodel bravely opens up about her love of a global fast food chain, a deep and dreadful sense of boredom washes over me, like a kind of death. Whenever James Corden wears a shit polo shirt on television I can feel my organs failing.
In the past, celebrities were strange, faraway creatures with unclear beliefs, intimidating speaking voices and and charisma that entered the room like a bottle of smashed perfume. Now, we know too much. The undercurrent of every late-night talk show appearance, cover story, social media post and award acceptance speech is "relatability" – a PR spin on "authenticity" invented after the global financial crisis to bridge the obvious and ever-widening gulf between the celebs and the plebs by convincing us we’re the same, actually. We’ve heard their daily routines, we’ve seen their toilets in the background of their bathroom selfies and we’ve watched them do burpees on Instagram live. The spell is broken.
"Celebrity culture is burning", declared the New York Times’ art section a few weeks ago, rejecting A-list America's recent efforts to boost morale during COVID-19 – Gal Gadot and friends doing a cloying rendition of "Imagine", Ryan Reynolds sitting in a barn, imploring America to "#PlankTheCurve" and so on. Relatability doesn't count for much in a crisis, it seems. But did it ever?
THE BIRTH OF THE RELATABLE CELEBRITY
As the world economy crashed in symbiosis with the rise of social media, a new audience emerged: one that was broke, depressed and online. Self-made celebrities – who were also broke, depressed and online – began to occupy more of our time and attention. Influencers took over reality TV, former reality TV stars took up politics. Jobs, prospects and sanity fell off a cliff-edge. We plugged the holes by live-blogging our frustrations and traumas, hoping for the balm of having some of them mirrored back. Somewhere in this great pivot to voyeurism, the glory – the fun – of fame lost its currency. Celebrities having public breakdowns and racking up DUIs became sad and shameful. Aspiration surpassed admiration as the nature of popular entertainment turned its attention from impossible fantasy to the banal realities of those left unscathed by the crash. If people escaped the Great Depression through the formidable footwork of Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts, we escaped the financial crash watching millionaire families eat big salads in athleisure.
In a way, it was a necessary change. Celebrity culture in the 2000s was rapacious and desperately cruel, with very little humanity to balance it out. So, as celebrities moved online along with everyone and everything else, the instant access gave way to a certain degree of transparency on their terms. Celebrities have anxiety, we learned. They struggle with their body image, they fritter away the hours replying to egg accounts on Twitter, they use dating apps. They are, at heart, just like us.
Unfortunately, the people who needed to hear that most continue to publish six news stories a day about Adele's weight, while the rest of us are treated to performances such as "contrary to my slim figure and modelling career I actually love carbs", "I was weird at school" and Chrissy Teigen.
WHY IS THIS STILL HAPPENING PLEASE, IT'S 2020
My best guess is that "relatability" is a safe bet for today's celebrities. We’re all constantly vying for their attention, and it’s worse now that we might actually get it. This false sense of intimacy has led to an over-reliance on them to embody our values, opinions and visions of integrity, because no one in charge of anything seems to, and when they don’t we spend a week dragging them to hell. When licking a donut and saying "I hate America" embroils you in a controversy spanning national pride and the obesity epidemic, it’s better to tread lightly and stick to tepid banter about texting. We’re as much to blame as they are, but the charade has gone too far. For the most part, celebrities just want their humanity recognised, and we just want them not to do stuff like claim Ebola is a form of population control or covertly set up a fracking empire. It's not hard.
The entire point of celebrities is that they are, crucially, not like other people. There’s something special about them that justifies why they are rich and famous and the rest of us just sit around all day thinking up viral tweets about them. Why would I want a celebrity to be anything like me? That's what influencers are for. I actively want celebrities to be completely unlike me, better than me – or at least to act like it. Otherwise, why do they deserve to be a celebrity at all? I wouldn't expect an athlete to pretend to be out of breath after running to catch the bus just to make me feel better about myself. If being so normal is all it takes, why aren’t I a celebrity? If I wanted to hear moneyed white women oversharing about their bowel movements and how often they fall down the stairs I'd simply go to Hampstead Ladies Pond.
I want peculiar celebrities, annoying celebrities, celebrities who aren't so desperate to appear ordinary they spend £300 on a grey T-shirt from the Normal Guy Store For Normal Guys. I want celebrities who are so out of touch it doesn’t even occur to them that they have anything to overcompensate for. I want them to tweet deranged statements regarding their own genius, call their children "X Æ A-12 Musk" and dismiss getting shot in the stomach mid-interview by saying "it was not a significant bullet". At least they’re being themselves.
When Madonna posted that sombre video of herself naked in a bath full of rose petals the other week and called COVID-19 the "great equalizer", I was thrilled. Not because of what she said, which is stupid, but because the entire display was so disconnected from any accepted form of reality that I had no choice but to respect it. 'Thank god,' I thought to myself, 'a real celebrity.'
THE TWO TYPES OF RELATABILITY: INHERENT RELATABILITY VS FARCICAL RELATABILITY
There's a big difference between someone begging it on Graham Norton because they have an album out and someone who became someone through the sheer force of their personality. The latter is "inherent relatability", and refers to celebrities who are equally famous for who they are as what they do. It’s a rare quality coveted by the entertainment industry, but typically only found in (approx) three reality TV stars per franchise. Gemma Collins, Charlotte Crosby, Ovie Soko: all relatable, all beloved. The same goes for The Rock, Cardi B and Stormzy. Adele and Lewis Capaldi have it, Lily Allen and Ed Sheeran do not. See what I mean?
The interesting thing about inherent relatability is that a celebrity who has it isn't necessarily "relatable" at all; fundamentally, they aren't, and they know that. It’s more that their personalities are recognisable; exaggerated versions of a combination of people we’ve encountered in real life. They’re like superior avatars we've elected to represent society, like a collective response to the question "who would play you in a film".
Conversely, we have relatability as farce – a neoliberal perversion of the form especially common among women who embody traditional beauty standards and feel guilty about it, older celebrities who don’t quite understand the internet, and politicians. See: Change UK going to Nando’s, Hillary Clinton’s tweets and Rishi Sunak having a really showy cup of tea. As a result we have celebrities who act increasingly like politicians, politicians who act increasingly like celebrities, an endless procession of Marvel films and about three elected representatives who can string a sentence together without lying.
A BRIEF INTERLUDE REGARDING ROBERT PATTINSON AND PERFORMATIVE UN-RELATABILITY
The inverse of farcical relatability is performative unrelatability, i.e. people pretending to be eccentrics for attention. This is a very rare but no less real phenomenon. See: Katy Perry showing up to various high profile events dressed as a burger or whatever, and Robert Pattinson spending a large portion of the interview for his recent GQ cover exploding a microwave he’s "mistaken" for an oven while recreating a meal he's invented out of sugar, cornflakes and pasta that looks "like, the hair bun on a girl".
Robert Pattinson has always been an evasive man who is either transparently trying to cultivate a sense of mystery around himself, pretending to be transparently trying to cultivate a sense of mystery around himself for a laugh, or is just a bit anxious and clever. It doesn’t actually matter which, because the end result is the same: you never come out the other side of an interview knowing more about Robert Pattinson, the man. You are simply given more tidbits of information that contribute to the concept of Robert Pattinson, the concept.
Depending on where your sensibilities lie, this is either infuriating, amusing or a bit of both. Personally, I rate it. It might not be sincere, but if you’re going to deflect by dedicating to a "bit", at least it’s more interesting than cosplaying any old ninny who had to delete Facebook due to a Farmville "addiction".
THE FINAL BOSS OF RELATABILITY: TRUE RELATABILITY
All that said, there is such a thing as a relatable celebrity – but it cannot be found in one person as a whole. The most relatable celebrity stories of our age are not calculated performances or cultivated personalities, but unintentional occurrences. Fleeting, flash-in-the-pan moments where humanity appears like a Marian apparition, unquestionable and sublime: Harry Styles throwing up on the side of the road; Ben Affleck becoming a walking embodiment of the abject nature of our times whenever he sparks up a cigarette; that screenshot of Kim Kardashian in bed staring at the ceiling that deserves to be the Oxford Dictionary definition of ennui.
These are the acts that comfort us, these are the times when celebrities are able to meet us on our own level – wallowing, hungover and knackered, in the void. This is true relatability, and it can only be achieved through accident or serendipity. Like all things good, it cannot be forced.
As the era of everyman cosplay comes to a close, let's give it up gracefully. Find your role models in real life and let celebrities do what they're supposed to do best: entertain us and be beautiful. Think of it this way, do you want to live in a society where Madonna has informed and constructive things to say about Covid-19? Would anyone even expect her to, if the crisis wasn't being grossly mishandled? No. Madonna is here to make good music, suddenly start wearing an eyepatch and then give several completely different answers as to why. I want Madonna to be Madonna, and I want competent governing bodies so that when there's a global pandemic on for example we don't need an urgent broadcast appeal from Ryan Reynolds.