Allegations of vulgar acts and wanton destruction, a backdrop of jaw-dropping wealth and privilege – it's time to cut these 'idols' loose. By Anthony Brett.
Celebrity was put on life support in March, when Gal Gadot assembled a squad of earnest Hollywood types to serenade us through a pandemic with John Lennon's song Imagine. Its death, however, came a fortnight ago, in London's High Court, when Johnny Depp accused Amber Heard of defecating in their marital bed.
Both were exercises in unasked-for discharge and they embodied the increasingly wide distance between two very different worlds: those of us who live in reality and the others, who only pretend they are.
The Depp trial has unearthed a raft of salacious allegations, exposing the fraudulence at the heart of celebrity. Group sex, "haymaker punches" and alleged threats to slice off the penis of Elon Musk have dominated headlines. But there has been far more alleged than that.
There was the allegation of violence committed against Heard on a private jet. There were the fights in one of the five penthouses Depp owns on the top of an LA apartment building or while he was allegedly detoxing on his private island. There was the 2016 argument that followed Depp discovering he had lost $650 million and owed $100 million in tax.
The stories went on. There was the security guard who alleged Heard would declare she'd packed her suitcase and left Depp, while ordering the couple's staff to arrange a fleet of taxis for her, only to turn them away once they arrived.
"We would pick up the suitcase and there was nothing in the suitcase at all," the guard claimed on the stand. "[It was] all for show." There was the time Depp allegedly asked his personal assistant in a text message to "squat in front of the door of the master bedroom and leave a giant coil of dookie so that Amber steps in it … It'll be funny!!!"
Then there's the tales of petty destruction and vulgarities – Depp allegedly scrawling on a painting by Heard's ex-partner, Tasya van Ree, changing her name to "Tasya van Pee"; the moment he allegedly wrote "Easy Amber" in his blood on the bathroom mirror of the Australian villa in which the pair were staying while he filmed a Pirates of the Caribbean film.
Heard claimed in court that the pair were subsequently escorted off the premises and that Depp went back in to urinate all over the floor. The couple's estate manager recalled being asked to find the tip of Depp's severed finger, which Depp had said was somewhere near the home's bar area.
In fact, when Heard declared that she would "never leave" dog faeces in her bedroom for the couple's housekeeper to clean up, it was one of the more surprising moments in the trial. But only because it was someone finally acknowledging their privilege in a situation where everyone around them seemed to exist to deal with their mess.
If anything has become clear during the last four months of lockdown, it's that the gap between mere mortals and those who are famous has become wider – and not in the way celebrities tend to like. One of the biggest pop-cultural conversations during the pandemic so far has been whether celebrity as we know it is over.
The relationship between stars and the masses has, in recent decades at least, been driven by the perception of relatability. We want famous faces to be down-to-earth but glamorous – it could be us, if we just pulled ourselves together a bit. Tabloids hinge on beauty and wealth colliding with everyday monotony – look at a paparazzi photograph of Charlize Theron pumping gas or Robert Pattinson buying milk.
It's only been this summer that we've suddenly been made aware of the faceless minions propping up much of the illusion, be it the presumed crew of cameramen and assistants recording Madonna's expensive "quarantine diaries" (recorded in her bathroom), or the gardener, housekeeper and personal driver still residing with US lifestyle mogul Martha Stewart during lockdown.
The nadir was Gadot's Imagine video, which featured her warbling alongside a parade of A-listers including Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Adams and Mark Ruffalo. It seemed to suggest that the mere presence of a recognisable face would somehow be soothing for the masses in a moment of global crisis.
But the sudden and regular glimpses into celebrity homes, from Jennifer Lopez's Parasite-esque back garden to Lady Gaga's enormous swimming pool, seemed inappropriate at a time when many of us were confined to cramped conditions. Ellen DeGeneres' gag that she felt like she was in prison, while sitting in a living room bigger than an average London renter's entire flat, landed like a lead balloon.
"I've been keeping really f***ing quiet," joked Minnie Driver to Vulture in April. "I've been watching [other celebrities] like, 'Oh, no, don't do that.' Just put up another awesome video of somebody doing something funny that will make people smile. That's the extent of our duties right now."
Political protests and calls for change have become celebrity-phobic zones. Where once stars could get away with merely gesturing to a movement like Black Lives Matter, the Instagram feeds of the rich and famous have instead been bombarded with calls to actually do something – use their platforms to spotlight charities and activists on the ground, or "open their purses", to quote a popular internet meme, rather than urging others with far smaller incomes to donate their time and money instead.
Call to Unite, a celebrity-filled 24-hour livestream to raise money for coronavirus relief and spearheaded by Oprah Winfrey, sparked backlash in April for appearing to leave the funding of systemic change to ordinary people rather than the 1 per cent.
But what has made the Depp trial so shocking is that the allegations go against what we used to think we knew about him.
Since the earliest days of his fame, much of Depp's appeal had been related to what he was not. He chafed at being a teen idol, despite the 1980s TV show 21 Jump Street making him a Tiger Beat pin-up.
He also didn't want to be a real name-above-the-title "Hollywood actor"; he famously turned down Titanic, Interview with the Vampire, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Thelma & Louise. They probably would have made these films anyway but it's doubtful Keanu Reeves or Brad Pitt would have become internationally famous so quickly if they hadn't been allowed to dive into Depp's reject pile.
"[Movies] are about f***ing the girl and carrying the gun," one of Depp's agents told him when he chose to do Ed Wood rather than Speed. "I'm not Blockbuster Boy," he would say in a 1990s interview. His fame hinged on an air of rebellion and danger – the leading man you're more likely to find in the smoking area of a grungy nightclub than a private member's bar. Rather than accept an enormous pay cheque for clean-cut roles, he'd be hanging out with Marlon Brando and Jim Jarmusch.
Depp always emphasised that apparent rebelliousness whenever he deigned to sign on to something expensive. He boasted that his flamboyant portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, the franchise that would rapidly evolve from a breathtaking career-pivot to a suffocating albatross, would terrify straight-laced movie execs. When his similarly outsized interpretation of Willy Wonka didn't conjure similar anxiety in 2004, he was terrified.
"It's like something's wrong, because they're not flipping out," he told Rolling Stone. "I'm not doing my f***ing job! But then months into it, Alan Horn, the president of Warner Bros, finally admitted to having felt a little tinge of fear over the initial dailies and I thought, 'Okay, I'm all right.'"
For years, Depp personified a thinking person's leading man. He was the American somewhat ashamed of the silliness of his own profession, uninterested in celebrity, finding solace in continental Europe and friendships with legends much older than himself. "Where is our generation of Dean Martins and Frank Sinatras?" he asked during a Vanity Fair interview in 2009. The UK and France seemed to adopt him, too, when he married French musician and model Vanessa Paradis and began speaking with a mid-Atlantic accent. (We didn't even find that annoying, as we had when Madonna did it.)
If Depp was anything, it had never seemed to be what recent stories suggested: a movie star with close to a billion dollars in the bank, who seemed bothered by tabloid stories of his spending only when they low-balled the actual figures. But in recent years, things had begun to change. "It's insulting to say that I spent $30,000 on wine [every month]," Depp told Rolling Stone in an infamous car-crash interview in 2018. "Because it was far more." As for the tale that he shot Hunter S. Thompson's ashes out of a cannon? "It was not $3 million to shoot Hunter into the f***ing sky," Depp insisted. "It was $5 million."
The London trial has twisted the knife. It hasn't just swiftly dismantled a public image crafted over the course of decades in the public eye. It's also because all the wealth, indifference and flippant treatment of Depp and Heard's staff, issues that are baked into the allegations, have been treated as mere background noise to sensational acts.
Even the trial itself has caused a stir among barristers, with several asking why a celebrity libel trial is taking up so much in-person court space while half a million cases are stuck in backlog due to the pandemic. Or, even in highly sensitive circumstances, taking place over Zoom.
At the trial, Depp's Los Angeles housekeeper of 30 years, Hilda Vargas, submitted a written statement translated from Spanish into English, in which she spoke of her disbelief at finding faeces in Depp and Heard's bed.
"I pulled back the top sheet on the bed and saw a large pile," Vargas said. "I was horrified and disgusted. It was clear to me that this was human faeces. I knew that the faeces could not have come from either of Mr. Depp's or Ms Heard's two small dogs. I have cleaned up after those dogs many times and their faeces are much smaller." She said the incident showed "a lack of respect" and left her "angry".
The statement quickly became about other things – who the faeces belonged to, whether it was an accident or a deliberate act of spite - and even whose bed it was. A building supervisor claimed Heard told him it was "a harmless prank". Heard, on the stand, denied responsibility and claimed it was likely a scatalogically-humoured Depp who had done the deed.
But at its crux was a simple fact. An elderly woman was being expected to clean up excrement, which was caused by, at best, a lazily-trained dog or, at worst, one of two wealthy movie stars pulling a prank on the other. Celebrity had a good run but it's over now. It was the faeces that did it in.