The Cult of Celebrity During a Global Pandemic

Is time running out on celebrity culture?

By Emi Eleode

December 2022

Thumbnail illustration by Carole Maillard

Thumbnail illustration by Carole Maillard 

This piece was written at the height of the global pandemic in 2020.

I recently came across the song ‘The Cult of Personality’ by Living Colour and was not only blown away by the musical artistry (who said black people can’t do rock), but the lyrics rang astonishingly true leaving me to pause for thought. Even though the song came out in 1988, now more than ever, its relevance speaks volumes today:

I sell the things you need to be
I’m the smiling face on your T.V.
I’m the cult of personality
I exploit you still you love me

– A small part of the lyrics by Living Colour.

We might think of the cult of personality as being about politicians who are presented as this big figure to be appreciated and respected. But really, it can relate to an individual who creates an identity for the consumption of the masses through lies, the media, the arts and social engineering. Sounds a lot like reality TV (think Keeping up with the Kardashian’s), but the disconcerting thing is that we come across these characters all the time. Not only on TV screens, in magazines, books and on the radio, but in real life too. We can’t get away from them.

This now leads us to the cult of celebrity. Defined as the ‘tendency of people to care too much about famous people’, we’ve become conditioned to admire these personalities. Even if you claim not to care about them, there is still a small part of you that can’t shake off this fascination as they live such disparate lives to you and me. Sometimes looking up on celebrity news and checking out these social media stars is a guilty pleasure to monotonous day-to-day activities.

We have created a new religion where celebrity worship has taken centre stage in our lives. This idolatry is manifested in our society through the idea we have of influencers and celebrities. The media plays a major role in all of this. They encourage the cult of celebrity and pump out stories daily to keep us satiated enough to navigate through life at a pace we’re unsatisfied with but too stuck to do anything about it. Breaking out of that circle becomes challenging. Often, you end up becoming the other and no longer fit in the social box that they placed us in.

Different social constructs influence the way we go about our way of living. We’ve placed so much emphasis on the importance of figures richer than us and apparently more attractive and ‘better’ to the point that people aspire to be like them. We ignore our true selves in favour of wanting to look good to please others. It’s all become one big performative piece of smoke and mirrors. But is it because of our capitalist consumerist society? Or is there a deeper meaning as to why we project our wants on celebrities and influencers and idolise their seemingly ‘perfect’ lives which look unattainable?

“I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am”

– Charles Cooley on his looking-glass theory.

As capitalism is still the dominant factor throughout the world, pretty much everything is for sale. Society values the notion of money. We all have to grab a piece or two of it or get left behind and discarded like an unwanted toy.

We look at Jay Z and P. Diddy’s annual billionaire brunches and dream of being part of their group. Despite Amazon’s unethical way of treating its staff or the fact that they evade tax, people like Jeff Bezos are still admired. When you speak out against all this, people tell you to stop being lazy and ‘poor’ and work harder to be rich like them. How do you break out of that cycle and not become another commodity to be experimented on by those who have free reign to our thoughts, attitudes and behaviours? They constantly pull at the strings while we dance to their tune.

In a way, COVID-19 has changed many people’s perceptions regarding issues such as celebrity culture and the privilege of the wealthy. One example is the news story of various celebrities singing to John Lennon’s Imagine. The song talks about ‘imagine no possessions, yet the celebrities singing about it are surrounded by luxury. The ridiculousness of the situation is hard to believe. Was it satire?

The backlash that came out of this was probably not what they expected, rather something to be applauded for and given praise. This again highlights how far removed they are from reality and their lack of self-awareness.

Another example is Ellen Degeneres tone-deaf comment about self-quarantine equating to being in prison:

“One thing that I’ve learned from being in quarantine is that people — this is like being in jail, is what it is,” she said. “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days and everyone in here is gay.”- Quote via Insider.

How can someone compare self-isolation to being in prison when they are worth more than $330 million, own multiple homes, have access to various luxuries and also reportedly don’t pay their staff? A large percentage of inmates have fallen victims to the virus due to inadequate sanitation and being unable to follow social distancing rules.

While celebrities and the elite are telling everyone to stay inside– often in a condescending manner and saying that we’re all in this together, the general population is living in small, overcrowded homes, dealing with mounting bills, food shortages, unemployment, homelessness and even domestic abuse. Behind the scenes, celebrities are receiving things that most people cannot such as Covid-19 testing kits.

For so long, celebrities and social media personalities have counted on our obliviousness and blinded admiration in getting away with their problematic behaviours. However, more people are realising that many of these same celebrities and elites idolised and protected always look out for their own before feigning concern to their fans and manipulating minds.

If there is one big thing 2020 has unveiled is the alarming truth about celebrity culture and society’s quest for total capitalism. A concept treasured by the West, the outdated views on the economy’s state of affairs is costing lives and pushing society into a strange mode of existence.

The clock is ticking.

You can find more of Emi’s work here and here