Whether it's a product of social media, the pandemic, or a sign of the times, celebrities who sell us their brand of relatability repeatedly end up in a cycle of controversy and notes app apologies. Lydia Burgham discusses the pitfalls of being "a relatable celebrity" in 2021 and talks to registered psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald about why fans can feel betrayed by their favourite stars.
In March 2020, the illusion of celebrity perfectionism smashed into thousands of pieces in a series of zoom backgrounds. Every note hit in that bizarre Imagine collab still rings in my ears - the one that flopped so terribly it had a danger of ending Gal Gadot's career on the spot.
We have all given into the illusion at some point or another, the fallacy which makes us believe famous people are our friends. When celebrities convince us with comedic tweets or soundbites about the time they too lazed around all day on their couch, they're not trying to be like us - they are selling us the idea that they are like us.
Look at Chrissy Teigen and Ellen DeGeneres. What do these two women have in common? Being relatable is their brand. They sell us merchandise and cookbooks, and in return, they continue to be highly visible figures. What else do these two women have in common? Social media turned on them almost instantaneously when controversy arose.
James Corden is another name that springs to mind - my impression of his brand is the "cool uncle" of late-night television, and yet when he was confirmed as featuring in the Friends reunion the backlash was immense. At the height of Carpool Karaoke, he was arguably a lot more popular. Did hordes of his viewers simply get sick of the act?
The psychology behind the celebrity image
The case of building a person up in order to rapidly tear them down is not a new phenomenon, but it seems like being relatable exacerbates our needs as humans to knock them down a few pegs, to clutch on to any suggestion they are less than what they seem.
Registered psychotherapist and Mind Matters columnist Kyle MacDonald agrees - he thinks it's common for us to both idealise and aspire to be like celebrities. That level of idolisation can have negative effects, like thinking we truly know someone.
"We fill in the gaps from our own sort of fantasies or our own ideas about what we aspire to, and create an unreal person when we do that," he explains.
When stories come out, like allegations from workers at The Ellen Show or the resurfaced messages from Chrissy Teigen, fans' idealisation crumbles. Fans who treat their favourite celebrity like their friend have a conundrum on their hands: defend them, or turn on them.
"It can be very upsetting for people who are fans," he says and adds it can spark a strong reaction from people. We tend to feel disappointed. "We thought these people were these ideals that we aspired to be."
So why do these celebrities try so desperately to be relatable? There are two main reasons: To share something powerful with their fans, like tennis player and activist Naomi Osaka, or to sell you something, like Ellen DeGeneres or Chrissy Teigen.
Even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle fall into this trap: I couldn't help but think after listening to his podcast with Dax Sheppard that he made such a big point of trying to sound like your next-door neighbour. In some respects, it's great that they bring a human element to their image, but it risks coming across as disingenuous.
"I think it's important to be clear that these generally wealthy privileged people who don't necessarily have the same day to day struggles that we have - good on them for trying to break down some of that culture," MacDonald says.
"But again, it's about recognising that actually, we can admire these people, at the same time as recognising that actually, we don't really know who they are.
"It's something that they're choosing to manage and put out there for particular kinds of reasons."
When saying 'sorry' backfires
When there are obvious, human reasons to question a celebrity's platform - like bullying, criminal acts or maltreatment of staff members, it makes sense to disavow them. Celebrities may act like they are down to earth, but their influence has to be taken into account.
Celebrity controversy is a well-oiled machine: The news breaks, Twitter implodes, and a reputation management crisis is on in the hands of publicists.
Such is the predictability, that one of my favourite TikTok accounts has dedicated her profile to being Hollywood's pretend publicist, and nicely persuades her "clients" to deal with things in an intelligent way:
Most recently, Teigen's apology on her outlet of choice Medium caused a furore - and she directly references her desire to come across as "cool and relatable".
"My targets didn't deserve them. No one does," she admitted, speaking of her bullying allegations against her.
"Many of them needed empathy, kindness, understanding and support, not my meanness masquerading as a kind of casual, edgy humour. I was a troll, full stop. And I am so sorry."
Ellen too was caught in the crossfires of her own humour when she addressed the accusations of bullying on her talk show.
While her carefully worded monologue didn't make light of the situation exactly, she didn't deliver an entirely serious apology. And for that, she attracted plenty of critics.
Celebrities will likely never stop trying to sell us a down-to-earth version of themselves, and fans will probably not stop treating them like their friend. But there are healthier ways to view our famous few from a mentally safe distance, without putting them on a pedestal.
"It's fine to sort of idealise these people, probably a lot of people feel that way," MacDonald says.
"But it's also about recognising that they're human and they make mistakes. And we can respond to that with understanding rather than punishment."
Next time we see another hilarious celebrity make a bad decision, we shouldn't take it as a personal attack.
Instead, we should use it as a reminder of just how flawed we all are - while also holding the powerful to account.