being kim for an hour: the weird world of celebrity apps
Celebrity apps are the next frontier of fan culture, allowing users to play at being the Hollywood idols of the Twitter generation: Lindsay Lohan, Kim K and, soon, Katy Perry.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
Let's say you're a Kim Kardashian West fan. Maybe you're the type who buys Kardashian Kollection bandage dresses—or maybe you just watch Baby North videos pretend-ironically. Either way, your relationship with her is one-sided. As much as you think about, @mention, or physically stalk Kim, you're a voyeur, passively watching her from behind virtual glass.
Enter the celebrity app. Unlike the celebrity social media account, it's participatory, particularly in its most popular format: the game. In it, a star (Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan, Paula Deen) plays a fairy godmother guiding the user through quests—accumulate fans, find out whether a friend's boyfriend is cheating, bake a cheeseburger casserole. The cartoon quality hasn't stopped fans from obsessing. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has been downloaded 28 million times since it launched in June, making its developers at Glu Mobile $74 million richer from completely imaginary bags, shoes, and energy refills in 2014.
Play them for a while, and you'll realise celebrity games aren't so much faker than celebrity's reality TV shows, tabloid news stories, or their social media feeds. In Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, Kim is a 2-D Bratz doll who says things like, "You look great. Bible," while living in an LA where money literally falls from bushes. Yet her quests come with a tough realism: To move up from the E-list, you have to book sketchy modelling gigs, charm friends with "K-stars" (packages starts at $4.99 in the Starshop), and date people for exposure.
Other celebs scrambling into the app game include former Baywatch star David Hasselhoff (Hoff Zombie Beach) and Paris Hilton. We know this sounds pretty D-list, but soon Katy Perry will have one via Glu Mobile, too. Games are far from the only celebrity apps around, just the buzziest. Before them, there were apps that regurgitated tour dates (Madonna), apps that sent contacts greeting cards (Taylor Swift), and apps that decorated your pictures with joints (Snoop Dogg). Tom Hanks has a typewriter app. Samuel L. Jackson has a quote generator. Tyra Banks has an app that teaches you to "Smize"—smile with your eyes.
Apps with loftier aspirations also hinge on granting users agency. Björk's Biophilia, the first app to be acquired by a museum, lets you explore a galaxy whose stars are playable versions of songs. You never see Björk, but through a series of instrument-games, you make music as her, moving your finger across graphics that activate notes. It's the coolest thing I found while wasting an afternoon playing apps whilst researching this story, and is worth the $12.99. By comparison, that would get you 150 K-stars, or a cartoon Range Rover.
Paula Deen's Recipe Quest, a Candy Crush imitator with tiles of miniature pancakes and sticks of butter, proves that apps can also serve to makeover celebrity images. Along with a new "uncensored" lifestyle network, Recipe Quest is the latest attempt to present Deen as folksy and relatable, two years after she was booted off the Food Network for a history of racially insensitive comments. In the game, she's basically a benevolent kitchen elf, guiding you through trippy food graphics with sizurrp-slow y'alls. When you finish a level, her teeny cartoon body emits high-pitched laughs.
Within apps, a user's interaction with a celebrity is controlled. No tabloid writer gets to add an opinion, enemy PR reps don't get quotes, and weirdos can't spam the comments. The Price of Fame, Lindsay Lohan's app, tries to mine this potential for image control with snark. Your singular, empty goal is swiping upwards as quickly as possible to accumulate fans, something you can improve at only by 1. giving yourself carpal tunnel or 2. paying real money for perks such as leaking nude selfies and getting butt implants. Clearly, this is supposed to be funny, and we can guess why Lindsay signed on: self-parody makes her past train wrecks seem a little sunnier in retrospect. We're all laughing together!
Kim's app, meanwhile, pulls tongue-in-cheek off more successfully. It acknowledges that a user's main goal of social climbing to the A-list is shallow, but it's not so cynical as to make you want to quit. It also manages to deflect criticisms of Kim's image in subtle ways. The trickiest part of the game, maintaining a high enough energy level to complete the masochistic workload thrown at you, gradually opens you to the idea that being a celebrity in Hollywood is difficult. Maybe Kim works harder than we thought! How else did she manage to go from being a Paris Hilton hanger-on to the face of an app that made $74 million last year?
That's the thing about all the celebrity apps—they're fictional until they're not. Now, if Kim would only add the level where Alice*76 gets to design an app and earn 74 million K-Stars...
Text Alice Hines
Image Kim Kardashian: Hollywood