Do we want our celebrities to be relatable?
Written by Felicity Martin
Julia Fox’s surprisingly relatable apartment tour has garnered over 10 million views and headlines abound. But what does it say about the changing nature of celebrity?
Stars! They’re just like us. Watching Julia Fox’s recent apartment tour on TikTok, some kind of variation of this might have popped into your head. Featuring stacks of shoe boxes, dead plants and a “small mouse problem”, Fox’s home appeared worlds away from the immaculate mansions of stars on MTV’s Cribs or the mid-century-furnished abodes we see more often today in Architectural Digest. Her New York flat looked humble and lived-in, with cute, homely touches such as a toy kitchen for her two-year-old son next to the adult-sized version. “Hopefully, maybe someone can watch this and say, ‘OK, maybe I’m not doing so bad,’” Fox said, explaining her aim of “maximum transparency”.
But it did much more than that. Since the video was posted, it has received over 10 million views, and prompted headlines like, Relatable, Or Peak Celeb Madness? Fox has received praise for being down-to-earth and criticism over the privilege of living in Manhattan in the first place. At the very least, those who assumed Julia – an A24 film star and ex of Kanye West – might be residing in a chintzy Brooklyn townhouse like Lily Allen and David Harbour were proven well and truly wrong. No matter which side of the fence you stood on, the reaction to Fox’s soul (and apartment) bearing was extreme, so what does that reflect about our changing expectations of celebrity?
From Hollywood glamour in the 50s right through to the 00s era of glossy mags and paparazzi, celebrities have historically been presented to us with a sense of other-ness, a layer of fantasy making people eager to peep into their extraordinary, exclusive lifestyles. When Cribs launched in 2000, it let us into the homes of the famous to gawp at their car collections, home cinemas and impractically stocked fridges – and we couldn’t get enough (at its peak, the show had 1.6 million viewers per episode). High on voyeurism, spectators wanted to see unfettered wealth and glamour in all its gaudy glory. But as privilege is put under a microscope in 2023 (see also: the recent nepo baby discourse), lavish displays of affluence are increasingly being scrutinised. Amid a cost of living crisis, most people I know feel the same. It’s telling that, around the 2021 reboot of Cribs, commentators said its “wealth porn” wouldn’t resonate with a new generation.
“While celebrity adoration will always exist, this used to orient largely around the mystery of knowing very little, if anything, about their everyday lives,” says Dr Rachael Kent, lecturer in digital economy and society education at King’s College London. “Now, while few celebrities resist social media transparency into their routine, many share habitually; capitalising upon and relentlessly promoting their brand, their travel, holidays and luxury lifestyle.”
At the same time, the internet has made fame seem not so far from reach. The ‘us-and-them-ness’ of celebrity is something that has been blurred in recent times, says Dr Gareth Longstaff, lecturer in media and cultural studies at Newcastle University. “The emergence of social media has allowed anybody and everybody to get a taste of celebrity culture.” He sees how ordinary people “copy, assimilate and incorporate [celebrity behaviours] into their lifestyles”, and says he sees people who could appear on Love Island or The Only Way Is Essex existing in real life, in the street.
“It becomes a way to try to absorb some of that extraordinary, exclusive lifestyle,” says Dr Longstaff about everyday people assimilating fame, “but it never quite gets you to it.” Fox’s video was a valuable lesson in this: the fact that fame and visibility don’t necessarily correlate with wealth.
The advent of social media, too, has shaken things up: in the past, famous faces had to rely on magazine features and TV appearances for personal publicity, but things have changed with the creator economy. Platforms like TikTok have found public figures scrambling to adapt to a new format that rejects the static, edited and hyper-curated, and many are finding that their previous strategy doesn’t cut it. The Kardashians, for example, seem to struggle on the app, which favours genuine, un-staged displays of personality (North West’s attempts to embarrass her mum via choreographed dances, ironically, seem to be helping Kim’s brand). Celebrities who are the most creative, honest or funny online are earning a huge boost to their profiles – or maintaining their fame (Cher must be one of the best tweeters going). From Doja Cat using her Twitter account to post things like “#boob” and “penus”, Rosalía adorably making Nutella brownies on TikTok or Maya Jama’s exceptional meme-heavy presence, it’s often the stars who don’t take themselves too seriously and use their platforms for playful self-expression that we like most.
It’s now a PR move for celebrities to present themselves as flawed, imperfect, normal human beings – all things that can boost their likeability – and social media likes. But Dr Longstaff thinks it’s something that’s been hiding in plain sight for some time. “If we were to go back 60 or 70 years, the last thing a celebrity or an agent or a publicist would want was to have Marilyn Monroe sitting there without make-up on talking about her insecurities, whereas now it would be like, yeah, exactly.”
Perhaps, then, a bit of normality – because it’s closer to our reality – has more capital than lives that are seemingly out of reach. In that way, Stacey Solomon’s DIY crafts or Michael Barrymore getting bored and going to Westfield could be a more attractive viewing prospect than, say, Madonna posting about having dinner with Amy Schumer. Some celebrities’ attempts to come across as relatable have inevitably backfired: Chrissy Teigen telling her followers how she accidentally spent $13,000 on a bottle of wine or Gwyneth Paltrow doing the food stamp challenge and spending her budget on limes and herbs.
So, does this mean we no longer want our stars to really feel like stars? “The beautiful woman, the handsome man – these things still abound in culture,” says Dr Longstaff. “But alongside that, there’s more space than ever for people who do not conform to those expectations or normalities.”
Similarly, as wealth hoarding is increasingly held to account and beauty standards are challenged more frequently, our expectations of the celebrity archetype are evolving. It’s likely one of the reasons that Brooklyn Beckham and his wife, Nicola Peltz, haven’t attained the sort of fawning adoration two children of stars might’ve done in the 90s, for example. We want fresh perspectives and unfiltered realness explored in new ways – all things Julia Fox does well on her platform, where she discusses things like ageism, gun control and rape statistics, as well as Hollywood gossip.
Ultimately, it points towards a new future for how celebrities market themselves – and relatability can, cynically, be looked at as just another PR strategy. It’s possible, then, you’ll see more famous faces shitposting memes, putting up blurry selfies or oversharing on video, in order to feel just like us. Keep that in mind next time you see Kim Kardashian posting on TikTok.
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