A pandemic like COVID-19 renders celebrity nearly useless, and the lack of fan adoration—not a pandemic—is the celebrity’s version of a global crisis.
At the beginning of March, it became very clear that COVID-19 had finally reached the United States. And because this doodoo-ass country had spent the last, what, EIGHT decades chipping away at what used to be a robust social safety net, we were about to be in for the fight of our lives.
Around March 15, the CDC recommended gatherings of 50 or more be canceled to minimize its spread. Whole sports seasons and movie premieres were canceled. Mayors and governors (since the Orange Chump is not about to do his actual job) ordered bars, restaurants, and schools to shut down. Citizens were encouraged to cancel any pending travel plans and return home if they happened to be abroad at the moment. Millions of Americans were either ordered to work from home or laid-off entirely. Any business that wasn’t essential (i.e sanitation, service workers where groceries were concerned, the postal service, etc) was ordered to close as well. “Social distancing” was to be the new norm for a while and we were going to have to deal.
Sounds miserable and shitty right? You’d be correct. But nothing could have prepared us for what for an unseen variable that was going to exacerbate the already simmering anger of a collective that was quickly being herded toward mass poverty and death. And what is this unseen variable, you ask?
Well, it is what I call “the celebrity pandemic response”.
There are so many ways I could sum up this interesting phenomenon I’ve observed since “social distancing” has taken hold. But if I were to give it a definition, I’d call it the act of a celebrity doing completely nonsensical things that do not meet the immediate and/or material needs that a crisis like a pandemic calls for. And this is never to help. No. This is merely to gain the attention that has been deprived of them due to the crisis.
This includes things like, say, singing a song by a famous abuser, misogynist, and racist from your ivory tower in order to lift the spirits of us plebeians. Or asking these same plebeians to donate money to causes that you could fix just by writing a check. Or cruelly telling the general public that you do not care if they live or die, for you are above it all. Indeed, Gal Gadot (and her hoard of celebrity friends), Pharrell Williams, and Vanessa Ann Hudgens all learned this the hard way recently and were met with calls on social media to shut the fuck up, and as Rosa would say, open their fucking purses.
Some may have anticipated these celebrity antics as the pandemic worsened. But many others remain bewildered by them and are even more bewildered by the vitriolic responses that they’ve been met with. And while this definitely deserves its own thesis and research, here is one important reason that the backlash against these starlets (and their meltdowns) have been so intense.
A global crisis like COVID-19 renders celebrity nearly useless. And separates the people who have not lost touch with their humanity as celebrities from the ones who were clearly body-snatched years ago.
Or maybe, this is who they always were.
Why is this important to note? Well, in a true crisis, certain needs get prioritized—and mainly those that have to do with survival, safety, and if one has any spoons left, love. Abraham Maslow summarized such needs years ago in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” (see below) and while it’s been modified since then (in that certain needs don’t to be met 100% before you move on to the next level of needs that require fulfillment), the central point remains. Human beings, in particular, are always gonna try to meet needs that focus on survival, security and safety first (like food, water, shelter, clothing, health, order, and sex—in the “reproductive” sense) before moving on to more mental and emotional needs (like love, self-esteem, and self-actualization). Maslow referred to the former as D-needs and the latter as B-needs. And guess which group “love and adoration for celebrities—aka people you don’t really know, might never meet you, and wouldn’t care if you drowned in a puddle of your own mucus—falls into?
Exactly. When shit hits the fan, extraneous love and adoration for someone who doesn’t even meet your immediate survival needs are going to go out of the fucking window. And do you know what crucial social and societal currency is the first thing to get yeeted towards the sun when the general public decides to abolish extraneous love and adoration towards celebrities for the time being?
It is truly as simple as that, my dear readers. Celebrities thrive on attention. And it’s not as simple as how we’ve made “clout” out to be. And it’s not merely to boost their self-esteem or stroke their already fragile egos (although that is most certainly a byproduct). No. You see, because celebrities and their existence fall into the extraneous needs category, their currency is nothing like ours. While we, the plebeians, deal in the currency of physical money, celebrities deal in the currency of attention. Attention is their “money” and it’s the economy they bow down to. This is because attention—or the amount of it—is converted directly into power, money, and bourgeoisie-level access. And the goal is to amass as much of it as they can and as quickly as they can. And the interesting thing about this “attention economy” is that it too, as my EIC Lara Witt explained to me, has its own hierarchies.
This refers to what people understand as A-List to the D-List (or rather, no-list) celebrities.
For celebrities (usually singers, musicians, actors, athletes, and the rare TV/reality TV personality) at the top (A-List), all the attention they have accumulated over the years through hard work (hopefully), talent (hopefully), likability (subjective), and sheer luck (occasionally) is maintained through measured appearances and work. These are the celebrities that have made a lasting cultural impact. Because they understand they can get a lot of attention with minimal work, while simultaneously understanding that too much positive or negative attention (overexposure) for nonsense things—like, I don’t know—clapping like a seal on your balcony—cheapens your celebrity and risks you descending into a lower class of celebrity. A good example of this? Beyoncé. The woman is beyond the A-List (A+) and she’s the famous person that even other famous people fawn over because she has her foot on the neck and heartbeat of the attention economy. And she has a key understanding that her measured and calculated secrecy and talented work mean that the public will never lose interest in her.
B-List celebrities are still usually actors, singers, musicians, athletes, and etc. and still pretty famous, and have managed to impart some cultural impact but their appearances—while welcome—are not as highly sought after for social functions. But they are still expected to make these appearances more often than A-List celebrities but in a similarly deliberate way to avoid overexposure. This is the difference between, for example, popular MCU actors (that is A-List celebrities like RDJ, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth) and lesser-known, lesser liked, or lesser-fawned-over actors (say, Mark Ruffalo, the inferior Chris, and—barely—Yeehaw Barton’s actor). C-List is the next step down. Entertainment Weekly once defined this as “that [person with] the easy-to-remember but hard-to-name character actor.” You are well aware of their skills and talents as an actor or singer or whatever and they pop up in your media a lot, but their name sometimes escapes you (think… Cillian Murphy for example. Bet you just went “That name sounds familiar… and yet…”). The type of celebrities have made minimal cultural impact and rely on paparazzi shots, walks, premiere appearances, and constant media attention. They are allowed to occasionally dip their toes in overexposure, as the alternative is a quick slide into obscurity… via the D-List.
And the D-List (and below) is where everyone else lives. Name that person and they’re probably a D-List celebrity. This class is reserved for “up and coming” singers, actors, musicians, reality stars and even some “influencers” who do have some type of talent or quirk that interests the general public, but haven’t amassed enough love, adoration, and goodwill to just coast on all of that. This list also includes has-beens and stars of yesteryear. They have made little to no cultural impact. This makes them, interestingly enough, the hyper-celebrity class. Overexposure is the name of the game here and if they don’t play it—they lose their place in celebrity hierarchy and are forced to start from scratch. A good example of this (and who straddles the fine line between the C and D lists) is singer Camila Cabello. While she has her share of musical bops, the singer needs constant media attention and audience interaction because she has yet to leave the type of cultural footprint that A-List celebrities have and receiving no attention would mean the death of public interest in her and the death of her celebrity status. Which likely explains her (alleged) PR relationship with fellow singer Shawn Mendes. And I’m sure the racism doesn’t help. But of course, death of celebrity is not something that is just reserved for the D-Listers.
Everybody on these lists is subject to the attention economy and celebrity death based on time, trends, and the changing attitudes of the public—in an assorted amount of ways.
Unless, again, you are beyond A-List. This means that without “on the ground” attention like film sets, paparazzi attention, regular interactions, celebrities are rendered “lost” or “forgotten”. Because their very self-worth is measured by attention and their livelihoods are quite literally funded and powered by it. Without it, who are they? How will they be able to make money? And what value do they bring to popular culture and the world-at-large in the absence of “on the ground” vehicles for attention?
So this, dear readers, is why you see celebrities like Gadot, Hudgens, and even Williams and others losing their fucking minds and willingly throwing themselves and their reputations into the fray and leaving their fates to the will and whims of an angry proletariat. The negative attention they receive for such things is technically not great (and sustained negative attention can definitely erode celebrity over time), but negative attention for them is certainly better than no attention. Because no attention—not a pandemic—is the celebrity’s version of a global crisis. Which is why we have all these dickheads singing, dancing, and clapping at us. But the interesting thing about this is that those celebrities who have retained their humanity recognize both the importance and reverence that would be ascribed to them as well as the attention that would be given to them if they were to act in this moment and, as previously stated, open their fucking purses to assist in fulfilling the survival, security, and safety needs of the general public. Those who don’t recognize this are the ones who have attached their personalities to celebrity, rather than using it as a means for money and adoration.
And they are the same celebrities who will not survive such pandemics. Not COVID-19. And not the collapse of the attention economy either.