Selfies, influencers and a Twitter president: the decade of the social media celebrity

From Gyneth Paltrow to Trump, todays starrings speak directly to their fans. But are they genuinely controlling their message?

I have a friend, Adam, who is an autograph seller- a niche profession, and one that is getting more niche by the day. When we gratify for breakfast last month he was looking despondent.

” Everyone takes selfies these days ,” he said sadly, picking at his scrambled eggs.” It’s never autographs any more. They just want photos of themselves with celebrities .”

Anyone who has attended a red carpet event or watched one on Tv, knows that selfies have securely supplanted autographs, with fans careening desperately towards celebrities with outstretched phones instead of pens and paper. Celebrities have adapted accordingly. In 2017, a video of Liam Payne ran viral that depicted him miserably working his way down a line of selfie-takers, his smile lasting as long as it took for each fan to press click.

A photo of oneself with, say, Tom Cruise, feels more personal than a mere scribbled signature, which he could have given anyone( and could have been signed by anyone ). But the real reason selfies have abruptly rendered autographs as obsolete as landline telephones is because of social media. Instagram is constructed for photos , not autographs, and what’s the point of having your photo taken with Payne if you don’t then immediately post it and watch the ” OMG !” s and” NO Way !!!!” s come flooding in? If you stand next to a celebrity and your friends don’t like the photo, did it ever happen? Do you even exist?

Instagram launched in 2010, four years after Twitter, six years after Facebook. Although social media was originally pitched as a way for people to keep in touch with their friends, it quickly also became a way for people to feel greater proximity to celebrities, and to flaunt this closeness to others. Facebook, with characteristic hamfistedness, attempted to monetise this in 2013, when it announced it was trialling a feature that would allow users to pay to contact celebrities for a sliding scale of fees: 71 p for Jeremy Hunt, PS10. 68 for Tom Daley. But there was no need for people to spend money for the privilege, because celebrities had already proven extremely keen to bend down low and share their lives with the peasants. When Demi Moore appeared on David Letterman in 2010, she was already so addicted to Twitter she continued to tweet while live on air to millions. (” This stinks ,” Letterman griped .)

The appeal of social media for a celebrity is obvious, in that it allows them to talk to the public without those awful middlemen: journalists. The past decade is littered with examples of why celebrities( and their publicists) now prefer social media( which they can control) to giving interviews( which they cannot .) It’s unlikely that Michael Douglas would have tweeted that his throat cancer was caused by cunnilingus, as he told the Guardian’s Xan Brooks in 2013( and for which he later publicly apologised to his wife, Catherine Zeta Jones ). It’s even less likely that Liam Neeson would have made an Instagram story about the time he went out hoping to kill a” black bastard” after a friend was raped, as he said in an interview this year. Why risk such disasters when, instead, you can just take a flattering photo, slap a filter on it and post it to your already adoring followers? Mega celebrities with a hyper-online fanbase- Justin Bieber, Beyonce, Frank Ocean- can now go for years without giving an interview and their careers are helped rather than harmed for it.

Instagram is an airbrushing app, one that lets people touch up their photos, specifically, and their own lives, generally, by determining what they choose to post.( When Jennifer Aniston ultimately joined social media last month, and momentarily broke the internet, she naturally chose Instagram over the bearpit of Twitter .) Some are more honest about this than others: after he married Kim Kardashian- the celebrity who more than any other has made a virtue out of artifice- Kanye West proudly told reporters in 2014 that the two of them expended four days of their honeymoon in Florence playing with the filters on the wedding photo, that they eventually posted on Instagram,” because the flowers were off-colour and stuff like that “.

Frank Ocean: a mega celebrity with a hyper-online fanbase. Photograph: Rex/ Shutterstock

You wonder what they’d do with all that time if the internet didn’t exist- remedy cancer, perhaps? Musician John Legend and his wife Chrissy Teigen have established a new kind of fame for themselves with their regular social media posts: with Teigen complaining about Donald Trump on Twitter; both of them posting photos of their perfect household on Instagram. Teigen is considered more “real” than her friend Kardashian because she is funny and doesn’t take money to advertise dodgy weight-loss supplements. But their photos are as idealised and managed as any Hello! shoot. The reason Teigen- a heretofore relatively little known model- has over 26 million adherents on Instagram is because she hits that social media sweet place, which is to be( to use two of the more grating buzzwords of the decade) aspirational and authentic.

At the beginning of this decade, it was the aspirational side of the equation that was deemed more important- leading to the rise of a new kind of celebrity: the influencers. This bewilder group of people indicate their lives are so perfect that, by showing us photos of how they eat, dress, mother, travel, decorate, exert, put on makeup and even remedy themselves of illness, they will influence us to do the same. For the successful, the money was suddenly limitless, as brands realised that the public trusted influencers more than adverts, and so threw money at them to endorse their products; Kylie Jenner, a makeup influencer, currently makes$ 1m per sponsored post. This was always a delicate bubble and it finally began to burst last year, when the Advertising Standards Authority decreed that influencers need to spell it out when they’re being paid to promote something. Writing ” ADVERT ” beneath that perfect photo of you chugging some Smart Water next to a waterfall doesn’t really boost one’s authenticity.

Even more problematic were the Fyre Festival debacle and the fall of YouTube superstars such as Logan Paul and PewDiePie, scandals that eroded the relationship between online celebrities and their followers. It turns out influencers weren’t more trustworthy than adverts; in fact, in the unregulated world of the web, they were markedly less so.

An older demographic has sneered at influencers, as they did with the previous decade’s reality Tv stars, indicating they are not ” real” celebrities. This is an absurd complaint, in recognition of the fact that some influencers have more adherents than traditional movie stars do. Yet influencers atomise audiences in a way traditional celebrities don’t: even if you have never bought Vogue, you’ll know who Cindy Crawford is; unless you follow Chiara Ferragni on social media you will likely have no idea who she is- and yet the style influencer has four times as many adherents as Crawford.

Ironically, the rise of the influencer began with a very old-school celebrity, one who is frequently accused of being the personification of the worst kind of elitist privilege: Gwyneth Paltrow. When Paltrow launched her wellness website, Goop, in 2008, few would have predicted it would reshape both Paltrow’s career and cultural notions of what constitutes an aspirational lifestyle. Paltrow helped usher out the 2000 s trend for bling and Cristal, swapping them for yoga clothes and gluten-free kale crisps, stimulating discreet asceticism the ultimate -Alister look. Which is more authentic is debatable, but the biggest swap Paltrow stimulated was personal: “shes gone” from being an Academy Award-winning actor to online influencer. And, in recognition of the fact that her company is now estimated to be worth $ 250 m, she probably stimulated the more lucrative choice.

Happily , not everyone uses social media to hawk fantasy images of themselves. Occasional glimpses of reality peek through, to everyone’s delight, and by “reality” I entail “feuds”. We’ve had Katy Perry and Taylor Swift’s long-running snarky subtweets aimed at one another. There were Kim Cattrall’s explicit swipes at Sarah Jessica Parker on Instagram. After her brother died, she wrote:” I don’t need your love or support at this tragic time @ sarahjessicaparker. Let me make this VERY clear.( If I haven’t already .) You are not my family. You are not my friend. So I’m writing to tell you one last time to stop exploiting our tragedy in order to restore your’ nice girl’ persona .” Most recently, Coleen Rooney accused” Rebekah Vardy’s account” of selling tales about her to the tabloids. One can only feel deep stabs of regret that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford died before either had access to an iPhone.

As much as young celebrities tout the importance of authenticity, those who come across as most genuine tend to be the older ones- perhaps because they are less internet savvy, or, more likely, have fewer media directors. Bette Midler and, in particular, Cher have really come into their own on Twitter, gleefully sharing their often emoji-heavy supposes on Trump and politics in general. (” What do you think of Boris Johnson ?” one tweeter asked Cher.” F-ing idiot who lied to the British ppl ,” the goddess replied, rightly .) And while Instagram may be best known for hyper-stylised photos of, say, Beyonce holding her newborn twins, the most purely enjoyable celebrity accounts belong to Glenn Close- she posts candid videos of herself and her puppies, always liked by Michael Douglas- and Diane Keaton, who posts decidedly unstylised photos of herself.” YES, I AM WEARING[ TROUSERS] UNDER A SKIRT” is a typical all-caps caption. Ever wanted to know what Annie Hall would be like online? Now you know.

Sarah Jessica Parker, target of Instagram swipes from fellow Sex And The City star Kim Cattrall. Photograph: Reuters

Of course, the downside to being able to reach one’s public immediately is that the public can reach back. Stars from Stephen Fry to Nicki Minaj have publicly left social media sites after the audience proved a little less admiring than they hoped. “Stan”- or obsessive fan- culture has blossomed. Sometimes this has been to the celebrity’s benefit: Lady Gaga’s fan squad, the Little Monsters, amped up her Oscar campaign for A Star Is Born. But if stans feel they have been let down by the object of their preoccupation, they will viciously bully the( usually female) star, as Katy Perry and Demi Lovato have experienced. As a outcome, many celebrities have turned off the comments on their accounts, so we can hear them but they can’t hear us. So much for getting closer.

And yet, for all the fascination social media currently exerts, the celebrity narratives that will have the most enduring impact did not start there. There had been rumors about Harvey Weinstein for years, but he was ultimately undone by good old-fashioned investigative reporting, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the New York Times, and Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker. Michael Jackson, R Kelly, Woody Allen, Max Clifford, Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer became pariahs( in Jackson’s case, posthumously) when their accusers spoke to journalists. Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself to the world , not on social media, but on the covering of Vanity Fair. When Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex, the artist formerly known as Meghan Markle, spoke out against the “campaigns” against her, they directed their rage towards the print media( and the Mail on Sunday in particular ). Ironically, this could be seen as instead reassuring to the newspaper industry: sure, our sales are falling, but for a certain kind of celebrity, publish is still what matters.

Nonetheless, this decade has, in a very profound way, been shaped by the social media celebrity. Donald Trump did not emerge from the online world; he came to prominence through the traditional format of TV. But he has taken advantage of the route Twitter prioritises personality over expertise: it doesn’t really matter what you say, as long as you say it in a way that captures the most attention; and the public has grown accustomed to this kind of communication. In the early part of the decade, Trump devoted himself a Twitter makeover; it was a platform where he could move from being the embodiment of obnoxious Manhattan privilege( bragging in interviews that he wouldn’t rent an apartment to anyone on welfare ), to the say-it-like-it-is kinda guy, the one who tweets about the dangers of vaccination. When he ran for the presidency, Trump maintained this persona, and many people assumed that’s all it was- a persona- and one he would fell once in office. Well, we all know how that turned out.

Now he, and in this country, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, treat their offices as if they were a form of social media: they rely on the web to build a dedicated following, and complain about journalists who venture anything but adoring coverage. They disdain traditional interviews, preferring instead to put out their messages via Facebook or Twitter, metaphorically turning off the comments, staying comfortably inside their respective bubbles. Social media was never supposed to reflect the real world, but the real world is increasingly being bent to reflect social media. And it’s not only autograph vendors who will suffer for that.

* If you would like a comment on this piece to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in publish, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for publishing ).

Read more:

‘ Get shredded in six weeks !’ The problem with extreme male body transformations

Mens Health magazine has transformed many men and its own fortunes by featuring extreme muscle makeovers. But does changing shape fast have a dark side?

In 2004, Men’s Health journalist Dan Rookwood strolled into his editor’s office in a funk. The topless beefcakes who appeared on their covers were unrealistic, he had decided. No one actually looked like that- not least the staff of what was then the UK’s third-biggest-selling men’s publication. His editor smiled. He felt specific features coming on.

Just over a year later, a smirking Rookwood appeared on the March 2006 cover of Men’s Health. His biceps were huge, his six-pack extraordinarily well defined.” From fat to flat !” read the cover line, alongside a picture of a mournful-looking Rookwood, pre-transformation, his belly soft and rounded. It became the biggest-selling Men’s Health issue of all time.

The transformation genre of men’s publication encompas tales was born. Since then, they have become the bread and butter( or steamed spinach and chicken breast) of these publications. Pick up a copy of Men’s Health every six months or so and you will see a topless staffer grinning for the camera, next to the words” Get shredded in six weeks !” or” From scrawny to brawny !”

In difficult times for print publishing, Men’s Health and its challengers hit upon a monetisable formula. In different regions of the country, podgy dads and harried office workers dreamed of having the perfect physique. Makeover transformations promised the body they longed for- typically within eight to 12 weeks.

‘ I’d binge a lot, wholly overeat, then starve myself out of remorse’ … Aziz Sikdar, who became fixated on bulking up after gaining weight at university. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

A cottage industry whirred into action. You can join the Men’s Health Transform Club or purchase a copy of the Men’s Fitness 12 Week Body Plan. The message is clear: trench the carbs, start deadlifting and you too can upgrade your father bod to the crisply defined torso of a Hollywood hunk.

But get shredded takes serious graft.” It’s quite a drastic lifestyle change ,” says former Men’s Health journalist( and January 2017 covering star) Tom Ward. The hardest part was giving up his favourite sugary foods.” I’ve got a real sweet tooth and I feed ice-cream all the time, so towards the end I was Googling videos of people stimulating cakes and dreaming of what I’d feed .”

” It’s 80% about nutrition ,” agrees his former colleague Mark Sansom, who objective the challenge with 48 cm( 19 in) biceps. Feeing four portions of microwaved fish a day took its toll.” You’d be forcing it down. It wasn’t enjoyable .” Avoiding alcohol- the nemesis of defined torsos everywhere- was difficult, too.” You realise how much British life is arranged around liquor ,” says Jon Lipsey, the Men’s Fitness cover star for May 2018.

” I wanted to prove to the readers that the cover-up lines we preach at Men’s Health are possible ,” Sansom says.” We’re normal guys .” But how normal? All were given personal trainers and Ward’s editor allowed him time off work to train.

Play Video

Steroids, syringes and stigma: the quest for the perfect male six-pack – video

Cover model transformations are not snake oil- they do work, you are a staff journalist at a magazine with access to high-end trainers, a sympathetic boss and the time to spend hours meal-prepping protein-based snacks.

While the Men’s Health encompas body may be attainable, most people are not able to maintain the necessary lifestyle once these new challenges is over.” For me, the diet was not sustainable long term, whereas the training has been ,” says Rookwood. He is conflicted about his role in creating the genre of cover-up transformation stories.” It was just a bit of fun ,” Rookwood says.” Something to tell the grandkids ;, maybe frame in the downstairs loo someday .”

The Men’s Health squad did more than shift magazines: they ushered in a protein-blasted physical esthetic. In this new paradigm of masculine excellence, anyone can achieve physical perfection if they put in the hours. It is an aspirational narrative, accompanied by a specific jargon. Men are hench, wammo or tonk. A good swolder never forgets leg day.

Bodybuilder Aziz Shavershian, AKA Zyzz, died aged 22; he had been taking clenbuterol.

Our physical ideals change according to the times in which we live. The 80 s masculine ideal was typified by action heros such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, while scrawny, beer-drinking lads dominated the 90 s.” The idealised body image is highly muscular right now ,” says Dr Stuart Murray, a psychologist who specialises in muscle dysmorphia in men. What distinguishes this ideal from that of the 80 s is a preoccupation with maintaining a single-digit body-fat percentage to better display one’s muscularity.

Whereas the vest-wearing action superstars of the 80 s required physical strength to hoik themselves into lift shafts and avert terrorism, today’s uber-tonk males wear their six-packs like beautiful, pointless feathers: this is a cosmetic muscularity, rather than a functional one. Its most prominent brand ambassadors are, of course, the preening and tensing humen of Love Island, who are effectively one giant regional gym constructed flesh.

The emergence of this physical ideal is linked to the death of lad culture.” Publications are reflectors of society ,” says Simon Das, a lecturer in journalism at London College of Communication.” Publication such as Nuts and Zoo were out of kilter with the new generation of men coming through .” As the chaps mags were counted out, health-focused publishings absorbed their audiences, with Men’s Health overtaking FHM’s marketings in 2009. Men’s Health remains the biggest paid-for publication in the men’s lifestyle sector, with a circulation of 175,683 at the end of 2017.

Men’s publications reflect and reinforce the culture zeitgeist. Young humen today are interested in” wellbeing and fitness and looking good”, Das says.” So this is reflected in the editorial interests of publications oriented at guys .”

Men’s publications alone did not give rise to this new ideal; there were other factors. Gymgoing became democratised, with chains such as PureGym( which opened in 2009) and Fitness4Less( founded in 2010) bringing affordable membership to the masses. The pursuit of fitness accrued social capital, with streaming sites such as YouTube stimulating celebrities of personal trainer Joe Wicks and fitness guru The Hodgetwins. Some argue that the financial crisis created the gym bro: as traditional roads to success were eroded, humen fell back on their bodies as a means of feeling valuable to society. Concurrently, young person stopped drinking as much.

You may think: what is the damage in counting reps on a chest press? But the masculine frame we fetishise today can be as pernicious as the uber-thin supermodels we typically denounce for perpetuating unrealistic body ideals.

‘ It’s quite a drastic lifestyle change’ … the results of Tom Ward’s regime for Men’s Health. Photo: Tom Ward

Aziz Sikdar, 29, became unhappy with his body after gaining weight at university. He turned to YouTube channels including Athlean-X and Yo Elliott, as well as Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness.” I’d look at YouTube channels and publications so much that bodies of that type seemed the norm to me and I felt like I was lacking .”

Sikdar tried a few cover-story schemes.” Generally, they weren’t very effective. While their diet tips were helpful, I didn’t get much from the workouts themselves ,” he says.” They’d recommend something a few months and then, a couple of months later, tell you the complete opposite .”

Rapidly, Sikdar developed an “unhealthy” relationship with food.” I always had to know the breakdown of what I was eating ,” he says.” I’d binge a lot, wholly overeat, then starve myself out of guilt .” Once, he feed at McDonald’s eight days in a five-day period.

Because nutrition is essential to achieving the cosmetic muscularity that is in vogue, those predisposed to disordered eating can adopt worrying behaviours.” Diet is imperative to get the sort of results these men are working towards ,” says Sam Thomas of the charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too.” That can become a focus in itself and spiraling .” Even men who appear in prime health can be in the grip of a devastating illness linked to their desire to achieve a more muscular goal.

As eating disorder services tend to be designed for women, male sufferers can be overlooked. Merely one in 10 patients who seek help for eating disorders are humen, despite the fact that humen are as likely as women to suffer. Clinicians are trained to look for emaciation, despite the fact that many sufferers are not underweight, particularly if they are packing on muscle at the gym.” Another complication is that these guys are coming from gyms where there is a’ no pain , no gain’ ethos, which means they’re socialised into thinking it’s OK to forgo important parts of their lives in the service of this muscularity ,” says Murray.” They don’t see it as a problem .”

” My mental state became a complete mess ,” says Sikdar.” The gym and my body seemed to be one place I had some control and was succeeding .”

Murray says that humen work out to elevate their standing among other humen , not females.” A compliment from a man is worth more than a compliment from a woman, because males have more credibility in confirming other males .”

After a month spent learning muay thai in Thailand, Tom Usher, 30, felt himself change.” I wasn’t scared of anyone ,” he muses.” When you look chung physically, “youre feeling” chung- and that confidence translates into how you act around women, but also humen. It plays to some kind of physical superiority thing that men like to have over other humen, regardless of whether they know about it consciously or not .”

Although Murray does not believe the media causes eating disorders, he says it creates the powerful social comparings that Usher and Sikdar experienced.” Exposure to these images dedicates positive connotations of what it means to be highly muscular for males ,” he says.” This almost always induces a profound body dissatisfaction that results in compensatory efforts to try and increase one’s muscularity .” Individuals can end up in a dangerous cycle of overexercising and restricted eating.

‘ I feel good about myself sitting on the beach now with my puppy, even if I’m a bit fat’ … Tom Ward. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Why is it that we condemn women’s magazines for including weight-loss tips-off, but men’s publications escape our censure? Both say: you are not OK as you are. You should change. Both perpetuate body ideals that, despite what they may claim, are not practicably achievable by everyone.

” There’s no defined manual that every man can use to get the same results ,” says Thomas.” Not every man can get the desired outcome within six weeks. You can do the same workout as other men and you won’t get the same result .” Some may feel cheated and go to extreme lengths to get the result they were “promised”. These measures can be harmless: protein bars or creatine shakes. But not always.

As it is very difficult to have an abnormally pumped, low-body-fat physique without chemical assist, experts link today’s cosmetic muscularity to substance abuse.

” I was definitely seduced by steroids ,” says Sikdar. He is not alone. Steroid abuse is on the rise, with an estimated 1 million users in the UK. In 2015, reality starring Spencer Matthews admitted to a secret steroid craving fuelled by ” vanity “. Matthews is one of the lucky ones: many do not survive steroid addiction. Dean Wharmby, a bodybuilder from Rochdale, succumbed of liver cancer induced by his misuse of anabolic steroids in 2015. Cult Australian bodybuilder Aziz Shavershian, known as Zyzz, was the poster boy for a muscularity-oriented lifestyle, posting his workouts online to thousands of followers. In 2011, he died in a sauna in Thailand at the age of 22. After his death, it emerged that Shavershian had been taking clenbuterol, which can induce cardiac arrhythmia.

What stimulates men succumb pursuing a cosmetic goal?” Being big was what everyone knew Dean for ,” Wharmby’s partner Charlotte Rigby said after his death.

Murray says:” You generate this wonderful physique and get lots of compliments and then the fear of not maintaining this physique becomes powerful. It becomes your primary identity. That leads to some of the extreme lengths these guys go to .”

Of course , not everyone who tries to get shredded becomes unhealthy. Most will get in shape for a while, then slip back. Gym memberships run unused. Magazine subscriptions expire. Perhaps it will not all be for nothing: they will eat more healthily or exercise more often.

After his encompas shoot, Ward went on holiday with his girlfriend. It was nice being on the beach and not feeling self-conscious about his body. But life get in the way of training. He is unaffected by the loss of his former physique.” I feel good about myself sitting on the beach now with my puppy, even if I’m a bit fat .”

Sansom has put on a” fair bit of weight” since his encompas shoot. Like Ward, he is relaxed about it. Browsing WH Smith recently, Sansom was confronted by his former glory: Men’s Health had reused his body on the cover of a transformation handbook.” I seemed down and guessed: I’ve kind of let myself go ,” he chuckles.” But I’m only two or three months away from getting back into good nick .”

Read more: