Things are ... not going great. One in three Americans is living under lockdown, a number that is rising every day. The stock market is in shambles; the unemployment rate could feasibly hit 30 percent before the pandemic is over. There aren't enough medical supplies for doctors or patients; convention centers are being re-purposed into makeshift hospitals; mercy ships are en route to the ghost town that is America's greatest metropolitan area, New York City.
Celebrities have responded by stepping up to show solidarity and raise awareness about the public health crisis: Margaret Qualley has demoed proper hand-washing in her kitchen, JoJo rewrote the lyrics to her hit "Leave (Get Out)" to urge proper social distancing, and Britney Spears is inexplicably calling for wealth redistribution on Instagram. The only problem is, in attempting to connect with fans over the pandemic, celebrities who previously passed as "relatable" and "down-to-Earth" are exposing themselves as the opposite.
To be fair, we've always known the rich and famous were out-of-touch, to some degree — that's why we follow them in the first place. But while the rest of America is becoming accustomed to life in protective, isolated bubbles, it's becoming bitterly clear who has never left theirs.
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Celebrity culture reels us in with the glimpses we catch, through the window of tabloids and social media, at a lifestyle that feels potentially attainable. The attention economy is oiled by our addiction to aspirational wealth porn, as well as our inexhaustible fascination with the antics of famous people who we pretend to not actually care about. Celebrities, in turn, perform roles back to us to keep us sucked in: they pretend to be our best friends — "a celebrity is, by definition, someone whose career depends on familiarity," once wrote GQ — or to be awkward geeks "just like us." There is always just the right removal, a calculated amount of information withheld, so you can imagine yourself in their shoes or as a member of their squad.
But these are not normal times, and the quarantine has greatly limited the sort of content celebrities can make. The only available stage is whichever of their homes they've holed up in to ride out the pandemic — mansions with pointy stainless steel appliances, gargantuan marble bathrooms, and slick ultramodern windows and balconies. Homes that no longer succeed in making us want to see more, but that exaggerate the cramped places we're spending our own time in, suffocated by homeschooled children, stir-crazy roommates, or high-risk parents. Will Ferrell doesn't sing "Imagine" in a collaboration with Gal Gadot and inspire us; he draws attention to the hypocrisy of dreaming about "no possessions" while crooning from his $9 million home he bought from Ellen DeGeneres. Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard don't simply suspend tenants' April rent out of the goodness of their hearts, they're "outed as landlords." We've learned that "Jennifer Lopez's house weirdly looks like the movie Parasite," and maybe that ought to tell us something.
Unlike a few weeks ago, when we might have enjoyed each voyeuristic glimpse of Kim Kardashian's walk-in closet with a sort of tame and distant jealousy, the outbreak has made us hyperaware of our own unequal conditions. "You don't want to see someone's big house right now," Who? Weekly co-host Lindsey Weber explained on the latest episode, with Bobby Finger agreeing: "I don't need to feel envy." We're feeling enough already as is. What had once been an escape — actors' Instagram Live videos, models' poolside selfies, influencers' advertisements thinly-veiled as authentic endorsements — now only enhances the feeling of how trapped you are. In a video of Kate Bosworth opportunistically pitching at-home exercise equipment, I found that all I could focus on was her spacious living room, back-dropped by a perfectly manicured garden. Who's mowing her lawn?
Such revelations about how the other half live aren't the same as the gossipy headlines they might have produced four weeks ago. Because along with "inspiring" videos of celebrities singing off-key has come the slow, steady drip of news about who does and does not have COVID-19, even as regular Americans struggle under life-threatening conditions to get tested themselves. "So far, that seems to be a lesson of this virus: it shows us who and what gets protected, as the ship sinks," The Guardian wrote about the situation in the U.S. "On the Titanic, it was women and children. With COVID-19, it's the wealthy and powerful."
It's all the worse, then, that these are the very people who've become the mouthpieces for public health announcements and awareness campaigns. "We need to get our influencers — Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell — we need to get Kylie Jenner, and our social media influencers out there helping folks understand that this is serious, this is absolutely serious, people are dying," U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams has said. In practice, that has meant people who are worth millions telling hourly workers to forfeit their incomes and "stay home." It's meant chains of celebrities participating in "quarantine challenge" videos while unemployment websites are crashing. It's the let them eat cake of the year 2020.
At one point, maybe, it could have worked. "We need celebrities to post tone-deaf stuff on Instagram so we can all have a little laugh at their expense," Cait Raft, the host of Celeb News, said in a recent episode. "Just a little laugh. Listen, that's the trade-off, you guys get to have big, big mansions and we get to laugh about it." Only, with millions losing their jobs and the wealthy hoarding ventilators, the question is how much longer anyone will have a sense of humor about "celebrity clownship."
Madonna, who is worth an estimated $580 million, sunk into a bathtub filled with rose petals on Monday and philosophized that COVID-19 is "the great equalizer ... We're all in the same boat. And if the ship goes down, we're all going down together."
But we won't, of course we won't. That's just what they want you to think.
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