How the Pandemic Wounded the Cult of Celebrity

365 days ago, a group of actors learned that money and fame didn’t mean as much as they’d thought

A year ago, we were scared. The world had shut down, and nobody really knew how dangerous Covid-19 was going to prove to be. We were wiping down groceries, thinking that being anywhere near anyone else was a death sentence. Jobs were vaporizing; entire industries seemed to be shutting down. And we had a president we knew was constitutionally incapable of saving anyone’s life.

On this morning a year ago, Gal Gadot saw this dire state of the world and decided to do something. So she gathered as many millionaire celebrities as she could — Will Ferrell, Zoë Kravitz, Jimmy Fallon, Mark Ruffalo and more — to do something transformative.

They recorded themselves singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

The video went viral, though not for the reasons Gadot originally wanted; it was widely mocked as the empty gesture it was. Could there really have been any other outcome? The montage was grossly inadequate in a time when the world was looking for tangible, real help. While the idea might have gone over well in years past, Gadot and her friends had the misfortune of pulling it off just as society had started to realize a crucial lesson: Celebrities, for the most part, are useless.

Sure, the famous and wealthy can go above and beyond their bare minimum offerings to be truly transformational for communities. Guy Fieri raised upwards of $20 million for restaurants. Stephen and Ayesha Curry kept Oakland families fed throughout the entire pandemic. Beyoncé funneled money to Black businesses. All of that is true. And it was all appreciated.

But anything celebrities did for the greater good happened against the backdrop of a larger understanding of the societal inequities that create celebrities and allow them to flourish. Dread’s thumping descent last March only highlighted the fact that celebrities were going to be able to live comfortably in isolation, take private jets from house to house, hoard rapid tests so they could host parties with their similarly well-off friends, and generally not have to worry about sharing space with us plebes in factories or classrooms or mass transit. We always knew that celebrities lived better lives than us, but what had been a source of aspiration curdled to one of resentment. Our lives were worse than perhaps ever before, yet theirs continued unchanged, as luxurious as they ever had been.

Added to all of this was a 2020 presidential election largely focused on taxing the rich. Democratic candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were on primetime television teaching the average American that taxing the wealthiest among us could repair our roads, improve our schools, help increase the minimum wage, and essentially fix much of the problems we face on a daily basis. That information translated to a simple fact: Celebrities wouldn’t have to donate their money if they were being appropriately taxed. A $5 million check for Feeding America doesn’t feel as philanthropic once you realize that the person who wrote the check should be paying 10 times that amount in taxes every year, which would help those same people in need of warm meals.

Then there were the celebrities who proved utterly incapable of reading the room — either refusing to read a damn book, or going full Marie Antoinette while the rest of us starved. When Kim Kardashian posts about getting rapid tests and scurrying off with her family to a resort island (complete with at-risk workers serving them), it raises the bile in our throats. When Ellen compares quarantine to jail, we wonder if she even cares that Covid is killing actually imprisoned people at cruelly disproportionate rates. When Vanessa Hudgens wonders what would be so bad if people died so she could go to Coachella, and Madonna posts a bubble bath video about how Covid would be the “great equalizer,” we speed past anger and resentment on our way to numbness.

A couple of months after these tone-deaf moments, celebrities again found themselves trying to figure out how to insert themselves into a Black Lives Matter movement that was more concerned with tangible social change than worshipping the wealthiest among us. Still, they managed. J. Cole made a song about how he felt personally attacked by Noname, and begged her to educate him. Shameik Moore went on a tirade about how Rosa Parks should have taken a cab or something. Tory Lanez shot Megan Thee Stallion, and some of the same rappers who had been screaming about Breonna Taylor fell silent about his violence toward a Black woman.

Even the most well-intentioned among us struggled to adjust to the evolved state of activism. Just this week, about a year after the “Imagine” video, rapper Chika tweeted about solidarity with Tamir Rice’s mother Samaria expressing disgust over Lil Baby’s Grammy performance. In the tweet, she mentioned the existence of a “BLM celebrity group chat.” I think I understand the point Chika was trying to make about the existence of the chat and why celebrities wanted to make sure they weren’t interfering with the work. But the whole thing sounded more elitist than she intended — and the backlash was immediate.

One of the biggest lessons these celebrities taught us is that most of them are willing to join us, so long as that support doesn’t disrupt their commitment to maintaining their class alliance. Many of them aren’t willing to sacrifice their stratospheric earnings or do anything that threatens their status. Complicity and silence were just as loud as protest chants and movement songs.

That isn’t to say that the cult of celebrity is entirely dead. We’re still enabling some toxic celebrities, sacrificing the most vulnerable among us in the process. The Jay-Zs of the world can pursue all of their most capitalistic endeavors, even as they leave us bearing the brunt of the imbalances they perpetuate. I watched men in a Clubhouse room suck up to Kevin Hart while he gaslit women who were trying to press him for his problematic comments. Nicki Minaj and T.I. led campaigns to silence sexual assault allegations against them or their loved ones, while their fan bases refused to even ask for explanations. And, of course, there are still the packed shows in Atlanta and Houston for any number of B-list rappers and singers.

It’s almost as if the backlash against celebrity culture has forced some of the most diehard fan bases to cling even harder to their tainted heroes, empathy toward others be damned. Overall, though, the shift in how we engage with the celebrity class has changed irreparably over the past year. As the world begins to reopen and things supposedly return back to some semblance of what we had before the pandemic, celebrities are going to be met with a different environment than the one they left behind when they traded their live concerts for Zoom videos.

Sure, they’ll have their hives and stans, the people who will defend any form of racism or misogyny no matter what famous face is attached to it. But overall, celebrities will find themselves unable to skate by with empty gestures, unable to elicit masturbatory public indulgences of their excesses. They’ll need to embrace a new definition of talent, one that measures who manages to adapt to this brave new world — and who gets left behind.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us

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