It’s undeniable: we love being kept on our toes, and we love gossip. The harder something is to find out, the more we want to elucidate it; being aware of the very presence of secrets is enough to spark our interest. So it comes as no surprise that celebrity gossip is a booming industry that generates more than $3 billion in the United States every year. What’s more, social media has offered up a place where celebrities have the power to mystify themselves, even as a means of creating more traction. Remember when Kylie Jenner went off the grid in 2017 to hide her pregnancy—and how crazy her unexplained absence drove fans?
With privacy becoming rarer in this age of ever-circulating information, it is now easier than ever for us to feel close to famous people. Forming an idea of their personalities, political views, and day-to-day lives is a natural reflex for our pop-culture-obsessed selves. Yet it often seems as if the celebrities we admire the most aren’t necessarily the ones who share the most.
For instance, I love scrolling through “vintage” Instagram accounts that post decades-old paparazzi snaps, red-carpet photos, and behind-the-scenes celebrity content. These pictures and videos admirably combine the relatable aspect of online influencers with the unattainable allure of celebrities; the photos remind us of our distance from their glittery lives, while offering a candidness that today’s influencers are constantly trying to emulate. Think of the paparazzi pictures that personalities like Tana Mongeau repost. Or the party moments that are deliberately documented on film cameras that make it look as if they were captured decades ago, despite these influencers’ access to iPhones.
These social media trends are reminiscent of the peak of the paparazzi industry, known as the “gold rush” era of the early 2000s before the global financial crisis and the meteoric rise of online social media. Back then, pictures of celebrities going about their everyday lives—acting “just like us”—were worth thousands of dollars as they offered insight into famous people’s otherwise private lives.
Truth be told, Instagram feeds on which celebrities and influencers post pictures of their mundane lives seem to act as a self-made substitute for paparazzi snapshots. Nowadays, the “candid” photos we see online are hardly ever spontaneously taken. Who even uses Instagram’s camera to post pictures anymore?
There’s an obvious relationship between the divinity attributed to a given celebrity and how they choose to show themselves in the public light. Who we consider to be a true “icon” is more or less subjective: there isn’t a set of criteria that can make us unanimously agree on a fixed list of names. However, it’s undeniable that some figures have been able to create an untouchable aura by maintaining an impeccable image of themselves.
Take Beyoncé and her team, who are known to control which photos of her are shared. The superstar’s representative, Yvette Noel-Schure, asked BuzzFeed to remove “unflattering” photos of her from an article about her performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. Noel-Schure’s email reads, “As discussed, there are some unflattering photos on your current feed that we are respectfully asking you to change. I am certain you will be able to find some better photos.” The website refused to take them down. So as to avoid future unpleasantries, the singer and her team took the decision to ban all professional photographers from shooting her shows during the 2013 Mrs. Carter World Tour. Unsurprisingly, the decision raised controversy: were the measures to protect Queen Bey’s brand perhaps being taken too far? What did this mean for freedom of press?
Sometimes, it’s easier to create a favorable opinion of a person when you know very little about them. It’s sort of like the honeymoon phase in a romantic relationship, when we swoon over a person before getting to know every aspect of their personality. But the recent rise in calls for accountability is making it increasingly difficult to separate famous artists from their craft. Cancel culture, for example, has great potential to taint the myth of an icon: when we find out a fave is “problematic,” we can’t help but feel disillusioned by the image they’d created. It seems pop culture is rarifying the existence of “icons” as we understand them.
While discretion and privacy do keep people talking, it’s perhaps just as admirable to be genuinely candid. Nevertheless, the kind of admiration we have for people we know well is different from the kind we have for those whose highlight reels are all we get to see from them. There’s a compelling relationship between the veneration that surrounds some celebrities and their ability to put their best foot forward, all while keeping their enigma intact—in other words, the balance between mystery and conviviality. It’s a relationship that exemplifies the human impulse to idealize, and our impressive ability to imagine. We all create assumptions of people we know or think we know. We speculate and try to paint a faithful portrait on which we can rely—but just how much of it stems from our own presuppositions?
By Irène Schrader
Illustration by J. Longo