the new cult of celebrity offspring
Or, how celebrities' kids are becoming more famous than their parents.
Photography Columbine Goldsmith
In 2008, People magazine paid $14 million to publish the first photographs of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's twin babies, Knox and Vivienne. (Jolie and Pitt donated the record-breaking sum to an undisclosed charity.) Nine years later, in February 2017, a portrait of a beatific pregnant Beyoncé, with which she merely announced her forthcoming twin children, became the most liked Instagram photo of all time. The image amassed more than 7.8 million likes in under 24 hours. At the time of writing, Beyoncé and Jay Z's unborn children have received a total of 10,977,033 likes — which is more than the combined populations of New York City and Beyoncé's hometown of Houston.
If we live in an age of peak celebrity obsession — which we demonstrably do; see our current choice of president — it follows that the offspring of celebrity couples will be even more ferociously followed than their parents. They — the Smith kids, Lily-Rose Depp, Suri Cruise — are the recipients of not one but two sets of celebrity genes and of two fan bases (or more, in the case of high-profile dynasties like the Kardashians). And while royal progeny have been subject to acute public fascination for millennia, our current obsession with celebrities' children seems both uniquely intense and also inextricably linked to the growth of social media.
Why? For one thing, 90 percent of Instagram users are under 35. Which makes the platform's trending topics skew young. It's no coincidence that the most followed Instagramers are all in their 20s: Selena Gomez (24), Ariana Grande (23), and Taylor Swift (27). Kids who grew up with internet culture are also more adept at using it, which helps explain why Will Smith, who has starred in a canon of blockbuster movies, has just 937 thousand followers on Instagram, while his son Jaden — who has dabbled in acting and music seemingly without much interest mainstream success — has 6.1 million.
Image-based social media platforms have created a new form of paparazzi culture. Never before have images of celebrities been as easy to source and as freely available.
There is also a clear gap between celebrity kids who grew up pre-social media and the generation that came after it. Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith's oldest son, Trey, who was born in 1992, keeps a lower social media profile, with an Instagram following of 72.5 thousand than Willow (born in 2000) and Jaden (1998), who have turned themselves into Twitter savants.
Image-based social media platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and formerly Vine have also created, as Jenna Wortham has argued, a new form of paparazzi culture. Never before have images of celebrities been as easy to source and as freely available. Publications don't need to pay professional paparazzi thousands of dollars for images (they can find amateur snaps on Instagram) and celebrity-watchers don't have to pay $2 for a copy of People to see what Suri Cruise has been up to that week (updates effortlessly appear on their feeds).
Our desire to trawl for pictures of Blue Ivy, Apple Martin, or Maya Thurman-Hawke is both the cause and effect of this easy access that Instagram allows. Like the paparazzi before it, social media has created a new economy of supply and demand. And within this system, the most valued content is often the content that implies the most intimacy to public figures.
But are celebrities' children public figures? And to what extent does the public's right to know about them conflict with these young people's right to privacy? As Paris Jackson said during her in-depth interview with Rolling Stone in January, "The whole freedom-of-speech thing is great. But I don't think that our Founding Fathers predicted social media when they created all of these amendments and stuff."
Controlling their images through social media isn't necessarily an act of self-promotion for celebrity offspring, but more an attempt to control their life's circumstance.
The legal age of adulthood in the United States is 18 but the minimum age for opening an Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, or Tumblr account is 13, opening a five-year window in which teenagers (who are still legally children) are able to manage their own public profiles. In 1989, Drew Barrymore, the child-actor daughter of actor parents, chose to divorce her mother (who took her to Studio 54 instead of school) at the age of 14, becoming a legal adult. Today, celebrities' children are less subject to the control of their parents or publicists. Kids are free to create their own public-facing profiles legally through the internet.
Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis, first came into the public eye via social media. Before formally opting into media coverage by appearing on the red carpet at Chanel's Métiers d'Art show in 2015 at age 15, she had already been publicised by fan-made remixes of Vine videos filmed by her friends and by her own public Instagram account. As the child of two of the world's most beloved public figures, Depp didn't have much chance at privacy. Social media at least allows young people to shape their public identities somewhat on their own terms. "I'm very specific about what I put out on social media about myself," Depp told LOVE magazine in 2016, "But that's also why I like social media: because it feels like the only thing that I have to control my own image."
In many cases, famous kids of celebrity parents have consciously positioned themselves as public figures. But whereas celebrities who came up pre-social media were able to deliberately court or hide from the media, their offspring don't have that option — they were born into celebrity. Controlling their images through social media isn't necessarily an act of self-promotion, but more an attempt to control their life's circumstances. "I grew up with the media circus," Depp told i-D in 2015. "My parents were very calm about the photographers, the fans, and all that. But I understood right away that I hadn't done anything to deserve that attention. No matter what happens, it will be there."
In other cases, adult celebrities also choose to publicise their children to avoid more dangerous forms of news gathering. In 2014, Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard began the Twitter movement "No Kids Policy," urging magazines not to publish images of celebrities' children without the consent of their parents. When Bell and Shephard's daughter was born, two months before this Twitter campaign, her personal information was leaked to the tabloids, prompting the couple to preemptively publish her name and weight on Twitter themselves. Shephard explained in an op-ed for HuffPo that, often, celebrity announcements that look like bids for attention are actually attempts to safely control the spread of their private information.
The internet and the media have a tendency to frame celebrity children as "our" children, assuming a "pseudo-intimate relationship between the public and the celebrities" that borders on exploitation.
Historically, law courts have been unsympathetic to celebrities' pleas for privacy. When such cases come to court, they are usually submitted to a "balancing test," writes academic Seong Choul Hong in his 2015 paper Kids Sell: Celebrity Kids' Right to Privacy. The test weighs three factors: "(1) the social value of the facts; (2) the voluntary nature of notoriety; and (3) the substantial public interest." But as Hong argues, the rapid growth of social media has created unprecedented cases of invasion of privacy. It has also blurred the lines of "the voluntary nature of notoriety" and helped push public interest to levels far above "substantial." As Chong writes, the internet and the media have a tendency to frame celebrity children as "our" children, assuming a "pseudo-intimate relationship between the public and the celebrities" that borders on exploitation (see: the fandom that grew up around Suri Cruise thanks partly to her unauthorized "Burn Book"). But this impression of intimacy is also something celebrities themselves often cultivate.
Legally and ethically, this new social media arena is one big grey area when it comes to celebrities' kids. Is Beyoncé's inclusion of her daughter in a viral advert for her athleisure line Ivy Park a signal that she has consented to Blue Ivy's coverage in the media? When celebrities post pictures of their kids on their social media accounts (annexing them to their own lucrative public personas) do they relinquish the right to then also defend their kids' privacy? And what is the "social value" of information about Paris Jackson's life and her views on her father's death?
It's undoubtedly stressful for kids to grown up in the public eye. ("I would be much less stressed out without social media," Lily-Rose Depp told LOVE.) But perhaps it's also unfair to suggest that young people (especially teenagers) can't also be informed, savvy agents of their own image-making, and capable of using their difficult inheritance as a platform for good.
When Paris Jackson first broke her media silence in January, in that extensive Rolling Stone feature, she told the interviewer, after describing her life-threatening struggles with fame: "I was born with this platform. Am I gonna waste it and hide away? Or am I going to make it bigger and use it for more important things?"
She also recounted the moment when her father told her, "If you wanna be bigger than me, you can. If you don't want to be at all, you can. But I just want you to be happy." But her father couldn't have predicted the future power of social media. In 2017, Paris doesn't truly have the option of privacy her father offered her, all she can do is try to find her own happiness despite the rising tide of clicks and likes.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Columbine Goldsmith