Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Before the late twentieth century, celebrity was defined by difference: individuals were propelled into stardom due to their separation from ordinary people. Following the introduction of reality tv in 1973, fame shifted, becoming “more achievable”, as Charles Kurzman writes. Social media has only increased the accessibility of fame, suggesting that celebrity has become more democratic; anyone might be able to have their “fifteen minutes” of the spotlight. As celebrity becomes accessible to ‘ordinary folk’, and micro-celebrities emerge from every corner, ordinariness has evolved into an asset, ensuring that both categories− famous and non-famous— are constrained by what they are not.
Youtubers take the idea of an “achievable” fame further. As self-directed reality stars, they often produce more intimate visions of celebrity. One of the most popular searches on TikTok with Emma Chamberlain, the content creator, includes the accusation that she is ‘out of touch’. 21.3 million people have watched the videos under the tag, all decrying her removal from her fans, and ‘ordinary teens’. Around 2020 and 2019, when ‘clickbait’ titles were at their peak, Chamberlain's most watched YouTube videos included titles featuring ‘mental breakdowns’, the words ‘lonely’, ‘meltdown’, and the simple tagline: ‘I need help’. No accusations of inauthenticity emerged. It was only following her movement into the fashion world (see the met gala interview) that these complaints surfaced. Chamberlain’s recent podcast, Anything Goes, has been criticised by fans for its indulgence, and the figure has become a source of general disdain: ‘We get it, Ethan Dolan dumped you bc he didn’t like iced almond milk lattes’, one TikTok tagline reads. What once made Chamberlain able to connect with her audience— her honesty with the viewer, and her vulnerability surrounding her mental health struggles— turned into alienation.
Before Chamberlain’s ‘rise’ into new worlds, the Youtuber occupied the perfect space for the viewer, poised between relatability and inaccessibility. People like to watch beautiful things, and beautiful homes, only when it appears just in reach — celebrity-fan interactions are often “aspirational”, as Kineta Hung writes. If a content creator has less money, their struggles become too real, too unsightly; more wealth, and their lifestyle becomes impossible to obtain, and the aspiration is defeated. The modern celebrity must have a life their viewers desire (several bottles of olaplex in their bathroom, a hair stylist, a dog, their own apartment), but once their fame reaches a peak (a mansion too many, a new car), it is suddenly unattainable, and therefore not worth watching.
Even major celebrities, whose fame is not immediately linked to their ‘relatable’ qualities, are often posited as ‘everyman’ figures after their ascent. The Kardashians are often referred to as having “humble beginnings”, the richest member of the family, Kim, now having a net worth of 1.2 billion. The phrase “humble origins” is also used when referring to the “second richest self-made woman in music”, Taylor Swift, by both the media and her fanbase. Both figures, however, originated from wealthy families: Swift’s parents were highly successful in the finance sector; the patriarch of the Kardashian family, Robert, left the family with a large inheritance. This is not to say that their fame is undeserved, or that their success (and talent) ought to be minimised: questions about deserving lead nowhere. What is interesting, however, is how the illusion of poverty, those “humble” backgrounds the articles refer to, appear vital for their fan bases' devotion.
The ‘rags-to-riches’ tale, spun by both Swifties and the Kardashi-stans, follows Neal Gabler’s theory of celebrity. For Gabler, talent alone is no longer enough: it is stories which propel individuals into stardom. A perfect celebrity has a ‘narrative arc’— a ‘before’ stardom story, and a post-celebrity state. Their story, pre-celebrity, is typically an adaptation of the American Dream: working-class beginnings, a desire for success, and the realisation of their dream through financial success. This ‘arc’ enables celebrities to remain tethered to ordinariness, while making their fame appear like an act of God. For the Kardashians and Swift, relatability is developed post-celebrity, in order to place them within a neat, American narrative, whereas Chamberlain’s is the starting point for her career. In both cases, however, the idea of normalcy is essential for their continued popularity.
Twenty-first century celebrity, therefore, must have the illusion of obtainability— it must look easy, as though the person watching the famous person might be able to turn on their cameras, and switch places. For ‘relatable’ celebrities, success becomes self-defeating: the wealthier they become, the less like their fan base they are, detaching themselves from their source of income. And those who are already established as wealthy must do all they can to peddle their upbringings, reminding their fanbase that they were not always like this: the ferrari-driving, louis-vuitton-wearing, coconut-water-drinking celeb in shades. Nobody appears to ‘win’ from this model— not the celebrity, or the fan. Both become involved in cycles: the ordinary person dreaming of a time when they will be a little richer, more beautiful; the ‘celeb’ tied to their before-stardom state, looking back at their poorer, more relatable self wistfully. But God, does it make good tv.