From Gyneth Paltrow to Trump, todays stars speak directly to their fans. But are they really controlling their message?
I have a friend, Adam, who is an autograph seller a niche profession, and one that is getting more niche by the day. When we met for breakfast last month he was looking despondent.
Everyone takes selfies these days, he said sadly, picking at his scrambled eggs. Its never autographs any more. They just want photos of themselves with celebrities.
Anyone who has attended a red carpet event or watched one on TV, knows that selfies have firmly supplanted autographs, with fans lurching desperately towards celebrities with outstretched phones instead of pens and paper. Celebrities have adapted accordingly. In 2017, a video of Liam Payne went viral that showed him miserably working his way down a line of selfie-takers, his smile lasting as long as it took for each fan to press click.
A photo of oneself with, say, Tom Cruise, feels more personal than a mere scribbled signature, which he could have given anyone (and could have been signed by anyone). But the real reason selfies have abruptly rendered autographs as obsolete as landline telephones is because of social media. Instagram is made for photos, not autographs, and whats the point of having your photo taken with Payne if you dont then immediately post it and watch the OMG!s and NO WAY!!!!s come flooding in? If you stand next to a celebrity and your friends dont like the photo, did it ever happen? Do you even exist?
Instagram launched in 2010, four years after Twitter, six years after Facebook. Although social media was originally pitched as a way for people to keep in touch with their friends, it quickly also became a way for people to feel greater proximity to celebrities, and to flaunt this closeness to others. Facebook, with characteristic hamfistedness, attempted to monetise this in 2013, when it announced it was trialling a feature that would allow users to pay to contact celebrities for a sliding scale of fees: 71p for Jeremy Hunt, 10.68 for Tom Daley. But there was no need for people to spend money for the privilege, because celebrities had already proven extremely keen to bend down low and share their lives with the peasants. When Demi Moore appeared on David Letterman in 2010, she was already so addicted to Twitter she continued to tweet while live on air to millions. (This stinks, Letterman griped.)
The appeal of social media for a celebrity is obvious, in that it allows them to talk to the public without those awful middlemen: journalists. The past decade is littered with examples of why celebrities (and their publicists) now prefer social media (which they can control) to giving interviews (which they cannot.) Its unlikely that Michael Douglas would have tweeted that his throat cancer was caused by cunnilingus, as he told the Guardians Xan Brooks in 2013 (and for which he later publicly apologised to his wife, Catherine Zeta Jones). Its even less likely that Liam Neeson would have made an Instagram story about the time he went out hoping to kill a black bastard after a friend was raped, as he said in an interview this year. Why risk such disasters when, instead, you can just take a flattering photo, slap a filter on it and post it to your already adoring followers? Mega celebrities with a hyper-online fanbase Justin Bieber, Beyonc, Frank Ocean can now go for years without giving an interview and their careers are helped rather than harmed for it.
Instagram is an airbrushing app, one that lets people touch up their photos, specifically, and their lives, generally, by deciding what they choose to post. (When Jennifer Aniston finally joined social media last month, and momentarily broke the internet, she naturally chose Instagram over the bearpit of Twitter.) Some are more honest about this than others: after he married Kim Kardashian the celebrity who more than any other has made a virtue out of artifice Kanye West proudly told reporters in 2014 that the two of them spent four days of their honeymoon in Florence playing with the filters on the wedding photo, that they eventually posted on Instagram, because the flowers were off-colour and stuff like that.