Sofia Chavez is a junior international studies major.
In ancient Greece, the infamous philosopher Aristotle outlined a set of criteria that men (only men) had to embody to reach fame or “eudaimonia.” They had to be wealthy, respected, and, most importantly, virtuous. Fame used to be worth something. It said something about a person’s character. Nowadays, one only needs an internet connection and opinions to achieve what Andy Warhol coined as “fifteen minutes of fame.” With today’s technology and the rise of social media apps, it’s easier than ever to become famous. In the early 2000s we saw the rise of what we now call the influencer. People who are famous almost exclusively because they know how to sell themselves. Paris Hilton was a pioneer in the field, closely followed by Kim Kardashian and her family.
Apps like Instagram and YouTube allow everyday people to create content that can be consumed by millions with the click of a button. Once influencers grow a following and attract dedicated fans, they monetize that by selling their followers their own products or products from a brand deal with a company. Currently, influencing or content creation is a career with seemingly limitless earning possibilities. Some influencers are millionaires, like Logan Paul, whose net worth is an estimated 19 million dollars. These influencers sell whatever image they wish to portray to brands for profit. They give normal people a peek into their life where they do things just like we do, but so carefully curated and choreographed that it becomes readily consumed entertainment for us.
The way I understand it, the trend of influencers came from a desire to see normal people represented in the media. Not everyone is ready to idolize figures, like traditional Hollywood celebrities, who are so far removed from the reality of most people’s everyday life. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic it was evident that performative activism would no longer be celebrated after the release of the “Imagine” video (a tone-deaf attempt to lift spirits where celebrities filmed themselves singing “Imagine” by John Lennon). While celebrities like Gal Gadot and Will Ferrell sang from their secluded mansions, people were losing their homes and getting sick. At the same time, random people on TikTok were getting famous for choosing outfits in front of a camera or sharing about their lives.
The inherent problem lies in the fact that when someone is elevated into fame, no matter how “normal” they were before, they immediately lose what made them palatable: relatability. I would describe relatability as being able to connect with people, their humor, values, and aspirations on any scale. The more an influencer makes themselves vulnerable while maintaining a wall around themselves and what makes them unique and special, the more I’ve noticed they succeed.
YouTube creator Emma Chamberlain manages to remain relatable because she has everything we want, the clothes, the relationship, the money, the fame —and yet she’s just like us. She films herself making coffee in the morning, chooses outfits to go grocery shopping, and delivers heart-wrenching moments of relatability when she opens up about issues many people face such as anxiety. The only difference between her and any other young adult is that she makes coffee from a brand that she owns in a house worth millions in Beverly Hills. This is not to say that it is a small difference. In fact, it is a difference of such magnitude that it is worthy to consider whether Chamberlain has lost what made people love her in the first place. While millions enjoy her content (myself included), it is important to understand that her career has surpassed the reach of her fanbase.
At the opposite side of the spectrum is Kim Kardashian whose allure is due in part to the fact that she took control of her sexuality when it was exploited and somehow still found a way to profit off of it. The lifestyle she portrays is so far removed from that of the average person, having elevated herself to a state of a quasi-goddess with the help of luxury and good PR to present herself to her intended audience. She is extremely controversial because of how she attained her fame and what she does with it now. Sex tape aside, Kim’s brand has been beauty and luxury from day one. She has been constantly critiqued, along with her whole family, for promoting unattainable beauty standards and appropriating Black culture. She has a whole TV show based on family drama with every pixel covered in product placement. She is not relatable in any way but keeping up with her family makes us feel a bit more normal, or perhaps some can identify with their petty squabbles and handbag fights.
The line between love and hate is a thin one. The normalization of parasocial relationships with celebrities has forced us to look within and contemplate what we as a society value and respect. Audiences now want people they can relate to enough to understand but different enough they can look up to. However, the question remains: can celebrities ever be relatable? Is what sets them apart what makes them famous? Will we ever truly admire our mundanity?