We get the celebrities we deserve. And it is high time for some introspection. Gone are the golden days of Hollywood and braggadocious rock stars. If the roster of 2022’s most famous faces says anything about the cult of modern celebrity it is that it is unimaginative, predictable and dull.
In the early days of the pandemic, in March 2020, the New York Times declared that celebrity culture “was burning”. Coronavirus didn’t generate the yawning chasm between the Hollywood elite and everyone else, but it certainly made it more explicit. And so among the several social byproducts of the crisis – so the argument goes – would be a dismantling of the famous, a destruction of their mythology.
The prediction didn’t come to pass. The year 2020 may have altered the landscape for good, it certainly put a pin in the notion that any of the world’s A-listers were relatable. The “just like us” visage finally fell away. But that was the extent of the phenomenon.
The celebrity industrial complex is as big as ever. We are still obsessed. We elevate the undeserving to icon status, and hand them continued dominance in the public psych. But why, then, are they all so boring?
The Sussexes might have successfully emerged as the predominant celebrities of 2022
Plenty profess no interest in the lives of the rich and famous. It is perfectly understandable, but no longer is it a tenable position. Because no matter how hard you try, it is not possible to opt out of celebrity culture entirely. We can blame this on several things – the 21st-century social media explosion is an obvious culprit. But so is the blurring of the cultural and political spheres – most famously represented by the elevation of Donald Trump to the White House.
He is just one example among many. Kim Kardashian has spoken in the Oval Office. Elon Musk broke free from the ranks of business into the A-list. Democrat superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the Met Gala. Harry and Meghan seem totally incapable of deciding whether they are private individuals or members of the most important public serving family of all time.
Given this, we might at least hope the mega-stars are exciting, challenging and refreshing. If they can’t be avoided, may they at least entertain? Sadly the modern A-list is staid, devoid of character, automated and press-trained. And as politics and culture become more closely entwined, a return to the good old days seems unlikely.
The Sussexes might have successfully emerged as the predominant celebrities of 2022, pulling clear of all those desperate for attention no matter the cost. And they are perfect ambassadors for the modern breed of celebrity – they desire to be taken seriously, they reflect geopolitical and social anxieties, you would never see them stumble out of a nightclub.
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Their Anglo-Americanness is a perfect vehicle to analyse that treasured special relationship. They are living metaphors for the presence, or absence, of racism in modern society (depends on who you ask). They reflect the crumbling institution of the crown, or are proof of its ultimate robustness (also depends on who you ask). Whatever one wants to believe about the world, the most famous couple of 2022 can prove it.
But that’s about it – they are interesting for what they represent, not who they are. “Doesn’t it make sense to hear our story?” Meghan asks in the trailer for their new docuseries. Sure, but we have heard it a few times already: on Oprah last year, on Meghan’s “Archetype” podcast series, now in their Netflix documentary, in Harry’s upcoming memoir. It is a good story, of course. And it may sustain the content mill forever. But is it not time for some new material?
Kim Kardashian straddles these two worlds as well – as both an advocate for prison reform and a member of the most famous reality TV family on the planet. Her desire for seriousness, however, has limitations. The qualities of being an effective advocate for justice don’t rest easy with those required to be a sensationalist TV star, an old-school socialite, and a celebrity in the traditional sense. What we end up with is a half-baked version of both.
In May she attended the Metropolitan Costume Institute’s Gala in Marilyn Monroe’s dress – Kardashian had to starve her already tiny frame to fit into it. It was all borne out of a desire to create a moment, generate attention and social media buzz, to consciously create a link between her and Hollywood royalty. But, and with apologies to Kim, as a stunt it was tawdry, outdated and, worst of all, so cripplingly, depressingly obvious.
Are these really the best icons of the age? The Sussexes? Kim Kardashian? All the celebrity crypto hucksters? Perhaps we are just short of imagination, and these are the best we can muster when it comes to defining the era. If that’s true then it’s probably time to look inward.