As I write this story, four stars of the TIFF gala film Hustlers – Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B, Constance Wu and Lizzo – have a combined Instagram following of 153,082,000 people (give or take some bot accounts). The casts’ confirmed multimillion market signals the potential for major dollar signs when the movie has its theatrical release, meaning the commodification of stars is more necessary than ever. It’s not enough to do the interview circuit with traditional media sources; famous faces now have a non-stop press junket at their fingertips thanks to Instagram Stories and Snapchat. In fact, they’re in a constant loop of peddling their personal brands, passion projects and new releases in addition to touting any products, brands or companies they’ve agreed to endorse.
If we thought that celebrity culture was fervent before, in 2019 it’s in hyperdrive. But the road to verified fame – that is, the kind sustained by money-making endorsements in addition to box office sales – has rerouted. Relatability has taken a new precedence. It’s a trait that draws in a widespread audience, as social-media influencers know; the “social-media famous” now land magazine covers and advertising campaigns once reserved for traditionally renowned celebrities. As influencers encroach on the domain of those whose fame is a byproduct of their artistic talent, we’ve begun to see more celebrities try to demonstrate that they are accessible. Relatable.
Now, instead of adopting an aloof personality, many celebs share goofy candid photos or the occasional #nofilter post; others pick up tricks from likeable Insta-famous figures such as Donté Colley, the Toronto-based social sensation who’s been featured on Good Morning America and in a Hershey’s chocolate campaign, and who joined singer Ariana Grande on stage during her recent Toronto concert. This July, actor Jennifer Garner posted an Instagram video done in the style of Colley’s upbeat, motivational, GIF-driven dancing – a sign that the “traditionally famous” are borrowing tactics from a generation of social stars who have captured the public’s attention with endearing and engaging posts.
Being famous was once a relatively intangible thing. Sure, it’s long been understood that a star such as Beyoncé or Madonna has fans the world over, and you could see that from their sold-out concerts and box-office sales. But now, those who make money off celebrities – magazine editors, film studios and brands, to name but a few – have an even more concrete way of tracking their appeal. Stars are, in turn, more accountable for developing and maintaining their cachet. Celebrity once existed with a significant measure of distance between the well known and the not, which is why the general public relied on tabloids and the paparazzi to stay informed. Today’s social-media landscape has stripped away much of that veneer and left us with (often calculated) overtures of normalcy from those who, let’s face it, definitely do not live “normal” lives.
Emma Diamond and Julie Kramer, who run the million-plus followers account Comments by Celebs, understand that the public’s endless fascination with celebrities is now accommodated by an increase in access to their daily activities – in this case, their online interactions with other famous people. The two launched the account in 2017 after noticing an uptick in posts between and by stars, and how funny, interesting or charming they often were. “It really started when Instagram changed their algorithm to highlight verified comments,” Diamond says. “It was something that we’d never seen before, and all of a sudden we felt like we were unearthing these gems and these relationships that we didn’t even know existed.”
Diamond adds that celebrities – and their PR teams – have actually started to reach out to them with particular posts they want featured. It’s become a way to amplify reach, by way of the notion that “stars, they’re just like us!" They joke with their friends, throw shade at haters and will occasionally fan out to other stars.
She points to actor Jamie Foxx’s comments on Barbra Streisand’s posts as evidence that even someone super famous isn’t immune to star power. And if we see that stars are similar to us in even the loosest way, we’re more likely to be drawn into their world and ultimately buy in to the endorsements, campaigns and editorial opportunities that influencers and the Insta famous are increasingly scooping up, thanks to their approachability. No longer part of a distant solar system, stars are demonstrating they’re down to earth.
Erica Robles-Anderson, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University and instructor of an undergraduate course called “Fame,” says that social-media platforms capitalize on the existence of two seemingly contradictory ways of achieving fame, highlighting why the sites are such fertile ground for increasing an already-famous person’s visibility and creating a new kind of idol out of those who are “Instagram famous.”
A person can earn fame by having an ability that most people don’t have, she says – whether it be an athlete or a politician, or a person doing “something at the height of skill” that earns them status as someone exceptional. The other way to get there, she says, is by being “superrelatable.”
”It doesn’t matter much if you’ve done something really exceptional if no one cares what that is – if they can’t relate to it in some way.”
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