How celebrities botched 2020

From Kim’s private island to everything Ellen DeGeneres, the rich and famous proved we weren’t really all in it together.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
28 December 2020, 9:00am

It might have been the spring sunshine filtering through smudgeless floor-to-ceiling windows or the fluorescence of an iPhone X front flash that eradicated those few final, stubborn fine lines. Many of them were makeup-free, limbs clad in grey polyester — stripped of the professionally-applied glamour that usually separates celebrities from us. Still, their ever-camera ready complexions translated so well to the tiny screen. They even hit the first note with impeccable pitch, springing into the upper registers with ease to deliver a perfectly imperfect rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Performing the chart-topper seemed to come naturally to them — they’re famous entertainers, after all.

“This is probably the most unintentionally condescending video I've ever seen,” reads a YouTube comment on the clip, released March 19, 2020

If Gal Godot had good intentions in forming a celebrity choir, they were obscured by a complete absence of actionable empathy. While so many across the globe flirted with financial destitution or grieved dead friends or family when Covid-19 reached the US, in Jimmy Fallon and Natalie Portman’s cameos, lush vegetation served as backdrop (likely private trails, given the national park lockdown in California) and others nestled comfortably into the pebble-grain leather seats of expensive cars or posed next to Apple iMacs. Yet, somehow, accompanying the a cappella rendition was no fundraising link for the less fortunate. Instead, Hollywood wanted us to “Imagine'' that they’re just like us. 

Unfortunately, few boast an imagination that robust. 

Vice president of publicity and image marketing at a major record label, Jessica Lawson* immediately points to the “Imagine” video as perhaps the most misguided of celebrity missteps in 2020. She can’t help but recall the iron-clad contracts of MGM’s Hollywood wherein “galvanizing” an in-need nation was included in signees responsibilities. As such, images of Hollywood actresses raising morale in Vietnam or gathering scrap metal for the troops during WWII, were prevalent. “Obviously,” Jessica says, “that shit has gone out the window.”

“It was the sheer number of celebrities [involved in “Imagine”] and the speed with which it was released when so much remained uncertain,” pop culture podcast host and columnist Evan Ross Katz tells i-D. “They weren't raising money or even at a minimum, awareness. They were simply imploring us to ‘Imagine,’ which… no thanks.”

The snafu was one of many made by the hyper-privileged this year. There’s nothing quite like the two-fold devastation of a health and financial crisis, coupled with some of the largest racial justice protests in history and perhaps the most important election year in decades, to throw the futility — or callousness — of celebrities into harsh relief. Those who found themselves in the firing line for the latter were often lucky enough to be only clipped by backlash. Railing against extended stay-at-home orders in March, in Los Angeles and across the country, Vanessa Hudgens reasoned that it’s “inevitable” people will die as a result of the pandemic, and went on to host the 2020 MTV Movie Awards. Lea Michele, all but labeled a racist tyrant by various former cast members of color from the hit show, Glee, offered an apology via Instagram written on the Notes app. Her six million-strong following have lately been treated to several pictures with former Glee co-star, Jonathan Groff. Probably a coincidence. 

But it was the Goliath-esque toppling of entertainment magnate Ellen DeGeneres that truly mesmerized the industry. It began with Ellen jokingly likening quarantine in her million dollar mansion to “jail.” It continued with comedian Kevin Porter’s tweet thread calling for accounts of real-life run-ins with the talk show host — whom he declared “one of the meanest people alive” — with over 300 people sharing stories over two days that revealed extreme arrogance or intentionally cruel behavior. It ended with reports of Ellen crew members enduring a 14-day communication blackout at the beginning of quarantine and weeks without pay, while Ellen hired a separate, non-union crew to continue filming the show from her home. 

“I was hooked on the whole Ellen DeGeneres saga,” shares entertainment editor Robert Quick. “From comparing quarantine in her mansion to being in prison, to the numerous mistreatment allegations from her staff on her talk show. I'd heard rumors for years that she's not the nicest person, but to see it all come to light so spectacularly was unexpected.”

While listing memorable examples of celebrity insensitivity this year, Jessica stipulates: “Literally everything Ellen did in 2020.”

“It is a fine line to walk with being relatable,” Jessica continues. “Ellen tried to compare being at home to prison, yet, while yes we were all at home, most of us do not have a private beach, screening room, luxury vehicle… and true prisoners were deeply at risk for Covid-19.”

Last week, two separate reports emerged regarding the Ellen show. The first, a Buzzfeed expose detailing lost celebrity bookings and sponsors — likely a consequence of the 38 percent ratings plummet this fall — forcing producers to recycle clips from past seasons. The following day, it was revealed Ellen herself had contracted Covid-19. 

Returning for an 18th season of Ellen in September, Ellen delivered a carefully-crafted apology claiming “responsibility” for allegations of sexual harassment, racism and toxic practices on set. While it may not have been enough to inspire audiences to fully forgive or forget, it was likely one of the better ones presented by 2020’s bigger offenders. There’s a reason Ellen’s offering would have been so considered. Strategic communications expert, Ben Brickman*, identifies the blundered apology as pivotal in escalating a one-off gaffe into a full-blown crisis. 

“Thanks to social media, fans expect a direct line of communication from their favorite stars and can tell within a second if what is being said was PR’d and legal-reviewed to death,” Ben claims. “Nobody has time for empty apologies, we can all see through that. Admit you were wrong and actually do better.”

For Robert, even a heartfelt apology in the case of Ellen or Lea Michele, is not enough. “Close the Notes app and open your purse,” he instructs. “Apologies are nice but they too often read as a tone-deaf effort to absolve oneself rather than a proper acknowledgment of a screw-up. Apologies without action are a waste of everyone’s time.” 

Although, even apologizing with loosened purse strings isn’t always simple. There are multiple steps before a publicity rep will advise a star to make a statement. The first is understanding the general consensus of both media and public, then, if there are accusations involved, work out if what is being said is true. Occasionally, Ben says, clients will even lie to their teams, which means a publicist might take a statement from their client to the media only to later discover it's entirely false. 

But Ben’s worst nightmare in a client crisis is when said star takes to social media to address allegations without first allowing their team to weigh in. “Emotions will get the best of anybody and if you aren’t consulting your team for feedback chances are you’re just going to dig yourself into a deeper hole.”

Publicists, image marketers and managers really “earned their checks” this year, Jessica adds. “Being a publicist sucks sometimes,” she says. “You often have to slap wrists and rain on the parade and think 10 steps ahead — it is exhausting, really.”

For that reason, Jessica explains that most agencies have adopted a standard course-of-action to mitigate critique before it begins. If you’ve noticed disclaimers beginning to infiltrate Instagram captions or YouTube videos (often clarifying the photos or footage had been shot pre-Covid), that’s intentional. It seemed like a foolproof plan to avoid any negative response, that is until Kim Kardashian.  

Between the pandemic and impending election, Kim announced on her reality show that celebrating her 40th birthday this year just “didn’t feel right.” It was the perfect set-up for a televised surprise party thrown by her sisters, for which organizers installed a rapid testing station for guests prior to entry. The decision was a prime example of battle-picking in the court of public opinion: risk appearing flagrantly irresponsible amidst a pandemic, or flaunt the immense privilege associated with setting up a private coronavirus testing site, when millions of Americans still lack access to being tested at all. They picked the latter — but it didn’t end there.

In direct contradiction to her KUWTK interviews, Kim then booked a 600-seat plane for her “inner circle” to a private island in French Polynesia where they could “pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time.” This was all articulated in an Instagram caption accompanying her birthday content, wherein she deployed the exact disclaimer system that had served so many of peers well. After describing the group’s itinerary (kayaking, whale-swimming, movies on the beach), she spoke of  humility and blessings. She even clarified each attendee had quarantined for two weeks prior. 

Almost immediately, the memes percolated. The unfathomably opulent lifestyle that had made her one of the world’s most-watched women now disgusted those same leagues of fans. The Covid-19 caution and references to privilege did little to quell the overall message, which was undeniably tone-deaf. Kim Kardashian, the proven business genius remarkably adept at predicting her disciples’ desires, read the room with the literacy of a first grader. And we loved it. 

“Right now we are in an unprecedented time where many people are either unemployed or working from home and due to that, more content is consumed and the views are immediate,” Jessica explains. Celebrity snafus are great content fodder – when people have nothing to look forward to, famous people behaving badly becomes our new sport.”

So what of remorse, and real consequence? They don’t really exist, Evan says. “I think our culture's obsessed with celebrity and rewarding bad behavior with amplified discourse. Bhad Bhabie's ascent makes it difficult for celebrities to grasp any sense of remorse.”

While publicists Ben and Jessica believe nothing less than strategically-placed press truly benefits the talent (Jessica references Tara Reid and Lindsay Lohan’s car crash-inspired careers), Evan and Rob both believe all publicity really is good publicity. Evan cites Tonya Harding walking the I, Tonya premiere red carpet — redeemed by Hollywood in the form of a critically-acclaimed biopic starring an A-list actress. Top of mind for Rob is Kate Moss’ tabloid-splashed cocaine bender in 2005, and her release from Chanel and H&M contracts shortly thereafter. Yet Kate’s yearly earnings doubled in the years following. 

“Publicity as a social currency is objective: hate-click is gonna generate just as much revenue as a like-click,” Rob says. “Ultimately, celebrities will continue to enjoy the fruits of their labor whether or not the public cares. Don't forget, they have access to private islands.”

Evan agrees. “Anyone and everyone is granted a retribution arc so long as they play their cards right,” he adds. “Memories are fickle and redemption arcs are canonical.”

Even so, talent and their teams still hand-wring over cancel culture and its power. Although, if Vanessa Hudgens can bounce back within a matter of months, and the total consequences of Lea Michele’s mistreatment of Black coworkers was a suspended partnership with a meal kit brand, what power does it have, really? Where was cancel culture when Kendall Jenner and Rita Ora had birthday blowouts while in lockdown (note: Jenner had a 100-guest soiree)? Or when TikTok stars partied in their mansions with hundreds of friends to the point the LAPD caught on? Perhaps we’re afraid to firmly hold the rich and famous to the kind of high standard we ourselves wouldn’t reach with access to their resources. While the days feel longer than ever, our collective memory for broken rules or bad behavior is only growing shorter. 

“I think people tend to conflate ‘cancel culture’ with people in positions of power being removed from their positions after abusing that power,” Robert says. “Now that everyone is so online public figures aren’t able to get away with as much, but there’s a difference between genuine misconduct and an ignorant tweet. If we ‘cancel’ someone, we eliminate the opportunity for accountability.”

“Cancel culture isn't real, it's just Hot Topics fodder for The View,” laughs Evan. 

So, who in entertainment under these extenuating circumstances, got public relations right this year? Mostly Black women, of course. Solange only wore Black designers and worked with an all-Black crew for her Harper’s Bazaar cover shoot. Megan Thee Stallion, after co-starring in the song of the year, was shot in the foot and penned a brilliant op-ed in The New York Times addressing the incident. According to Evan, Real Housewives of Atlanta star, Porsha Williams, “Educated herself, amplified the voices of others, stood on the frontlines.”

Jessica suspects Gal Godot’s “heart was in the right place,” when she recruited a myriad of famous friends to cover the John Lennon classic. She even feels sorry for her. 

Perhaps we got it all wrong. Maybe, instead of convincing us we’re just like them, the uber-influential really wanted to imagine they’re just like us. In lockdown the stars were finally freed from their demanding schedules of press commitments, international travel and arduous shoots. Swathing their faultless visages in mandated masks, hell, they could be anyone. We know their private hiking trails, 600-seat jets and Malibu mansions make that impossible, but they may as well play pretend. They’re famous entertainers, after all. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of certain individuals.

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