It’s not how I’d planned to start my interview with Celeste Barber about her new Netflix dramedy which skewers the wellness industry, yet here I am logging on to Zoom 15 minutes late, dishevelled and regretting my recent attempt to have it all.
Barber is at home in Australia; I’m in the UK, where it’s 6am. I’d been intending to have only a half-pint the night before and, well, the next minute, I am being woken up by my ringing phone. The first thing Barber says to me when I crash-land into the call is how good my bedhead looks: “That’s not fair! You look amazing!” she says, in the boosterish way of your best friend.
That’s Celeste Barber for you: exactly who you’d want to run into when your day is off to a bad start. The actor and “comedy queen” has accumulated an audience of 9.4 million people on Instagram for her warm, down-to-earth, tells-it-like-it-is brand of humour.
In particular Barber made her name by parodying the absurd outfits and awkward poses women celebrities routinely contort themselves into on Instagram. (Think: Barber trying to look sexy in a hammock, copying Kendall Jenner; or chugging a can of Pepsi in a self-conscious approximation of Cindy Crawford.)
She started the social media series (#celestechallengeaccepted) in 2015, after steady work in TV as an actor and writer – including roles in The Matty Johns Show, the medical drama All Saints and the ABC series How Not to Behave.
The parodies reliably went viral, gaining Barber many A-lister followers and launching her comedy career. She has since performed standup, written a satirical guide to “becoming an anti It-girl” and two children’s books, and collaborated on skits on social media for causes as disparate as the luxury fashion house Tom Ford and fundraising for bushfire relief.
Last year she toured the UK and Europe, selling out most shows, for which Barber credits her engaged Instagram following – or as she calls them, “her ladies”.
“They’re so good to me,” she says. “Instagram is one thing ... how that would translate to buying a ticket is a different story.”
The theme across Barber’s work, down to her very body – smaller than the average Australian woman, but bigger than most permitted a public profile – is that she is not a celebrity, but one of us: relatable above all else.
Wellmania may change that, as Barber’s first major on-screen role since becoming Insta-famous. The series is very loosely based on the nonfiction book of the same name by my former Guardian Australia colleague Brigid Delaney about her intrepid personal journey through the wellness industry. Delaney co-created the series with Benjamin Law.
Barber, who also served as executive producer, had been approached about a potential adaptation before Netflix was even attached. “I read the book and I was like, ‘This is a brilliant idea’,” she says. “I love Brigid’s writing: she’s very clever, very personable – and funny! Really funny – so I was on board from the beginning.”
It being half-five in Australia, Barber has a glass of red to hand – a natural pinot noir, she clarifies, a little shamefaced. “I said to my husband: ‘Well, we are these pr*cks now, who only drink organic wine.’”
To be fair, it is better, I say. “It’s better tomorrow as well,” she says, “because it doesn’t hurt as much.”
It is those sorts of topics that the book Wellmania explores: how to make both the pub and your early morning interview; how to have three glasses of wine but not feel them the next day; how to have your gluten-free cake and eat it too.
Barber was drawn to Delaney’s experiential and even-handed approach to the topical world of wellness and all its potential cures. “It’s easy to poke fun at it – I’ve made a career out of it – but this is a multibillion industry that can save lives,” she says. “Some of it might not be a fad – it might actually be quite good – but sometimes it is just bullsh*t.
As Barber’s star rises, it brings her into ever-closer contact with the gendered glitz and showbiz shallowness she’s spent the best part of a decade poking fun at
“The wellness industry is like the new form of church or organised religion: a lot of people find answers in it. It’s so big, and so vast, you can pick and choose what helps you.”
The series Wellmania is a scripted fictional treatment inspired by those themes. Barber plays Liv Healy, an Australian lifestyle journalist and “human tornado” working hard and playing hard in New York. On a dash back home for her friend’s 40th, Liv finds herself stranded in Sydney by a health crisis, jeopardising the job of a lifetime back in the States. She will try anything to get well enough to fly, from colonics to cardio – anything except confront the costs of being permanently on the go.
Liv is a more nuanced character than the hot mess that she might initially appear. She’s self-involved, chaotic and outspoken, and sometimes thoughtless with it – especially at the expense of her friends and family (played by JJ Fong, Genevieve Mooy, Lachlan Buchanan, Remy Hii and Alexander Hodge). But she’s also loyal, caring and resourceful. “She’s really ambitious, she’s really good at what she does, she’s sought-after internationally – and a hot mess,” says Barber.
If Liv has a fatal flaw, it is her inability to accept her mortal limits – something many of us can relate to.
Barber is conscious of it herself, having turned 40 last year. “She treats her body like an amusement park, this character, and she’s at that stage in her life where you just f*cking can’t any more,” she says, with knowing exasperation. “That’s why it’s relatable: whether you like it or not, you have to reassess.”
In its preoccupation with having it all, and looking good while doing it, Wellmania is a very Sydney show. It fondly sends up the city’s culture of cocaine-and-green juice and “leather-wearing vegans”, Barber says. “That’s another thing about wellness: a lot of it is for the elite, the privileged. A lot of it is ‘Buy this $45 water bottle and it will make your husband not leave you’.”
Barber wields that same bullsh*t detector on social media, highlighting the gap between Instagram and reality; and the money to be made by stoking women’s anxieties.
“On Instagram, I’m making fun of [or] cutting down, cutting through the bullsh*t that is the body-shaming industry. The beauty industry, the fashion industry – I just don’t f*ck around with that – I think it’s bullsh*t; I’m having a go.”
Her comedy aims to provoke, and often succeeds. Cindy Crawford recently responded to Barber’s parody of her infamous Pepsi commercial with cry-laughing emojis. Model and writer Emily Ratajkowski was less magnanimous, blocking Barber for mocking her nearly naked photo shoot.
Barber shrugged it off at the time (“I like running my mouth off”) but her parodies have also drawn criticism for singling out individual women rather than the sexist systems they are operating within. Already there are signs her everywoman-in-a-string-bikini shtick may have a shelf life. A splashy 2019 magazine photo shoot of Barber alongside actor and activist Jameela Jamil, in particular, seemed to be more mocking than self-effacing; and in January she drew some criticism for a swimsuit spread in Marie Claire that appeared to have been heavily airbrushed.
Either way, as Barber’s star rises it brings her into ever-closer contact with the gendered glitz and showbiz shallowness she’s spent the best part of a decade poking fun at.
“I always feel like I’m a model; I just don’t think anyone else has ever caught on to it,” Barber jokes. But it’s true, she says, “there has been a shift in how what I do on Instagram is perceived”.
Her aim has always been to make people laugh, Barber says – but in recent years she has found herself going easier on her targets. “I think subconsciously, I’ve been a little bit lighter with the content that I create, going purely for ‘this is funny’,” she says. “It’s not lost on me that I also have a profile and I’m now entering into that space ... But a lot of the time it’s ‘I’m going to look stupid doing this – and that’s hilarious.’”
Barber never intended to be a body-positivity advocate, she says, “but it’s a movement I’m very happy to be part of”.
She recalls a woman telling her that her daughter had replaced posters of “gorgeous, skinny models” on her bedroom walls with pictures of Barber. “That makes me so happy – and that’s why I went on the cover of magazines.”
Too often, she says, women are given an either-or choice. Wellmania, the TV series, asks what it really means to be well – sustainably, not through quick fixes or a total transformation. For Barber, who has two young sons and ageing parents, the question feels especially relevant.
“It’s at the forefront of my mind, making sure that I am on top of my health, my mental health, my relationship, all of it. It’s not like Liv: go-go-go-go-go-go, until you explode.”
Barber herself strives for balance – a bit of yoga to clear her head and, likewise, an after-work wine – and to take what works for her, and to leave the rest. “That’s the curiosity of the wellness industry, isn’t it: some of it might save your life – but not that $45 water bottle.”
Sympathetic, again, with my early start, Barber suggests I begin with a coffee. – Guardian
Wellmania is on Netflix globally from Thursday, March 29th