‘Celebrities are seen when they want to be’: TikTok’s celebrity analysts deconstruct the fame machine

TikTokers are adding new perspectives to the ordinary person’s relationship with celebrity. This isn’t your mother’s celebrity news and gossip. There is a whole cottage industry of social media creators who are next-gen gossip pundits. 

This is deep analysis, not only of celebrities but the institution of celebrity. They’re taking a look at how celebrities and their brands have shifted in the aftermath of the voyeuristic paparazzi era. 

A century after the dawn of the modern tabloid, the beat morphed into chaos. Crowds of paparazzi would essentially stalk celebrities, chase their cars, and post up outside of their houses. Publications would pay $5,000 to $15,000 for exclusive photos of celebrities, leading to an early-aughts peak of tabloid and paparazzi wild behavior. One example of this? In 2005, Lindsay Lohan crashed her car while being followed by a pack of paparazzo. 

A few months ago, a video featuring the cast of Spider-Man: No Way Home went viral. Twitter users commented on the difference in reactions from Zendaya, Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland, and Tobey Maguire, all of whom came up during different eras of tabloid culture. In the video, the three most recent Spider-Man stars smile and wave at the paparazzi, while Maguire appears disgusted. One user pointed out that when the first Spider-Man movie came out in 2002, it skyrocketed the career of a then-unknown Maguire, and he, unfortunately, became one of many victims of the toxic, obsessive culture of paparazzi during that time.  

It’s commonly agreed upon that the way paparazzi treated celebrities in that era was not only wrong but also unethical. The price for fame was the complete relinquishing of one’s private life. Celebrities like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan were the epitome of that kind of mistreatment, but nearly all celebrities had to deal with it. The one thing this era established is the idea that celebrity gossip and tabloid drama is something that has to be fought for. To learn anything about a celebrity’s life, the paparazzi had to violate all decorum and norms of privacy. 

With celebrities having their own social media accounts, they can control their own narrative. Ten years ago, a pregnancy photo of Rihanna would have run a magazine seven figures at least, and the deal probably would have included exclusive rights. Now, Rihanna controls not only when we find out about her pregnancy, but how (and in true Rihanna fashion, she does it in the most iconic of ways). Plus, she still sold the photos, expertly utilizing both new and traditional forms of media to announce her pregnancy. In the age of the TikTok celebrity analysts, moves like Rihanna’s don’t go unnoticed. These creators, each with hundreds of thousands of followers act as a go-between of sorts, interpreting the actions of celebrities for the average layperson to understand why celebrities do what they do. Their experience ranges, some of them having no formalized education in media literacy or communications, but their immense knowledge and interest in pop culture makes them a trusted source for their audience. 

Of course, as with everything else, the introduction of social media completely changed the game when it came to celebrities, their private lives, and the relationship we have with them. Gone were the days when grown men needed to follow individual celebrities with massive cameras, or where legacy media publications held a monopoly on breaking celebrity news. With “tea channels” and niche subcultures on YouTube and Instagram, no matter the degree of celebrity, from A-list star to pseudo-celebrity influencers, if fans or the public want to find out something about them, they can. 

America’s First Reality TV Family, the Kardashians, are a great example of celebrities with obsessive control over their public images. First with their reality television show, and then with their relationship to paparazzi and the careful way they use social media, the Kardashians have always been highly visible. TikToker Maia Wade, known as maiachondrialmembrane, regularly posts content that analyzes the drama and behavior of the Kardashians, with the caveat that everything she says “is a lie” (presumably to avoid getting sued). One of her most popular videos, which has 17 million views, theorizes why Kylie Jenner decided to have a baby with Travis Scott. In short, Wade says Kylie had a baby with Scott, rather than her long-term ex Tyga, because “[the Kardashians] really began to understand the ‘power’ of a power couple.” She says Kim set the blueprint with an upgrade from Kris Humphries to Kanye West, and Kylie followed her big sister’s lead.  

https://www.tiktok.com/@maiachondrialmembrane/video/7018744768440061189/

Now, no one can know for sure the exact reasons why the Kardashians/Jenners do what they do, but Wade’s overarching hypothesis is that there are a few things that the Kardashians do that aren’t intentional. This is a belief shared by MJ Corey, also known as kardashian_kolloquium on TikTok, who purports to “DeKonstruct the Kardashians in pursuit of media literacy (and sometimes fun).” 

Corey, a writer and content creator, says that most people would be surprised to find out how manufactured celebrity is, especially in the social media age. And the Kardashians are not just celebrities. They represent the transition from social media influencer to traditional celebrity. 

“They are the poster children for the multimedia industry. … People like to minimize that with a certain type of dismissiveness, but it’s how our world is now,” Corey tells the Daily Dot. Rather than having to build connections and relationships with media moguls in order to influence their image, celebrities are able to communicate directly to their consumers, us the fans. 

With all this being said, the Kardashians are not your typical celebrity. But the Kardashians’ obvious attempts at publicity have kicked the door open to the idea that it’s not just the Kardashians. Is it possible that all celebrities engage in these machinations? 

According to Emily Rose, the person behind itsbecomeawholething, the answer is yes. This account takes deep dives not only on the Kardashians but on all celebrities. Rose believes that “celebrities are seen when they want to be and never when they don’t.” She uses this adage for her analysis behind “PR couples,” celebrity couples that are more for publicity than love.  

@itsbecomeawholething

Reply to @tarrrrrrrrrrrrra Who shall I cover next my sweet honey babes? Lmk k? #harrystylesvideos #oliviawilde #oliviawildeharrystyles #prcouples

♬ original sound – Emily Rose

Meanwhile, Shannon McNamara, known as fluentlyforward on TikTok goes a step further, in exploring celebrity “blind items” on her page. Blind items are anonymously reported stories on the internet that usually omit the names of the people they are referring to until a later date. For example, in this TikTok, McNamara reviews blind items about actor Dev Patel, including ones that allege that his ex-girlfriend, Freida Pinto, cheated on him while they were together. McNamara goes through these blind items and gives a name to them, pointing out which celebrities they are allegedly about or who she thinks they are about. Also included in her videos are analyses of some of the more toxic elements of Hollywood and celebrity, as well as trends in fashion and plastic surgery. 

Has this evolution of celebrity coverage changed our relationship to celebrity? In some ways. Rather than taking a backseat and consuming whatever multimillion-dollar media corporations produced, there’s almost this vigilante element to celebrity gossip. And the added element of in-depth analysis into things like PR couples and social media posts has led more people to question the authenticity of every single move that a celebrity makes, if not the institution itself. This new era of celebrity gossip has shifted the power away from corporations and into the hands of individual content creators who are pioneering conversations that we’ve never had about the modern celebrity. 

One more thing to consider? The lawsuits and policy changes that curbed the height of the paparazzi fiasco in the early aughts are likely to come up again, even with smaller creators not backed by media corporations. And as with misinformation and hate on the internet, there are questions as to the responsibility of the platforms that house these creators. Earlier in the year, Cardi B won a lawsuit against blogger Tasha K over her allegations that the rapper, among other things, was a prostitute, had sexually transmitted infections, and used drugs. The jury in the case found Tasha K liable for defamation and invasion of privacy, and the blogger was ordered to pay nearly $4 million to Cardi B. As Kristin Corry writes for Vice, “If it’s unlikely that platforms like YouTube or Instagram will be held accountable for its content, people who can afford to sue will sue. Or gossip channels will shrivel up, like the proliferation of flashy commentators and tabloids that preceded them.”

While a transition away from hoards of grown men chasing around celebrities is a welcome update, as evidenced by Tasha K, there are other things to worry about when it comes to the modern tabloid era we are currently living. Although creators like the ones discussed above are clear in stating their content is analysis and just their opinion (as opposed to Tasha K, who often presented rumors as fact) Tasha K’s case brought up considerations that TikTok analysts need to be conscious of. And on top of that, it was evidence that we as viewers should perhaps take these creators with a grain of salt as well.  

“My dad actually sent me the news about [the Tasha K lawsuit] and said ‘be careful,’” Corey says. “I think there has to be integrity in all of it as much as possible, but also if a celebrity doesn’t like what you’re saying, they can come for you.” 

Corey believes the Tasha K case will change the landscape, setting up more David versus Goliath cases of celebrities “coming for” creators in the future. As evidence of this, recently Doja Cat called out YouTuber Lorry Hill making a video alleging Doja Cat got plastic surgery. In the video, Doja says “You’re welcome. You’re welcome for the clout. … It’s not good clout. But it’s clout. It’s what you asked for. It’s what you get when you make lies up about people.” This hints at some of the dangers that come when creators make videos about celebrities. Whether or not you agree that Hill should be making videos accusing celebrities of getting plastic surgery, there is something to be said about a pop star raging about a medium-sized content creator to her Instagram audience of 20.4 million.

Corey anticipates that cases like these will continue to bring up more conversations around power and who has it. While creators have almost 100% editorial independence, they also are vulnerable to harassment and bullying campaigns with virtually no infrastructure to protect themselves. So, when celebrities turn their attention toward these creators, it can hurt their livelihoods and even be dangerous for them. 

However, it can’t be understated that celebrity analysis is here to stay, and that’s good. Celebrities make money off our interest. So it’s only fair play that creators are able to benefit from the institution of celebrity as well. And not to be cliché, but we live in a society. So even if we think that the behavior of celebrities has nothing to do with us, it does. It influences how we see ourselves, our own relationships, and in some cases, probably more than we will ever know, celebrity has its hands in some of the major levers of power and abuse. To have a focused analytical view of the institution of celebrity is actually a good thing. And even if it isn’t, it’s still so entertaining to watch.