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The End of Celebrity As We Know It

In 2016, mega-famous A-listers like Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian receded from view while the president-elect showed how a mid-tier celebrity can seize power in the attention economy

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The last great gossip event of the Kardashian Era was gifted to us on July 17, 2016. It was a mythical combination of forces: Kanye West, one of the great quote machines of the 21st century; Taylor Swift, his disingenuous foil; a longstanding American feud about what’s worse — being a dick or being fake. Enter Kim Kardashian West, a former Paris Hilton acolyte turned business magnate, fashion icon, and wife of Kanye, with two major advantages: popularity and an advanced understanding of how to keep it. The actual fight was silly in retrospect, just some he-said-she-said about whether Taylor Swift signed off on a lyric using her name. But the reveal spoke to what many thought was the bigger myth: Taylor Swift was lying, and someone could finally prove it.

Where were you when Kim dropped the Taylor Tapes? I was on my couch, frantically trying to re-download Snapchat while searching for the live Keeping Up With the Kardashians broadcast on E! It was an all-platform attack, which was the point. Almost no one in the internet boom years has understood the relationship between media saturation and financial gain better than the Kardashians. (There’s one exception, but we’ll come back to him.) And no one has done it with more flair; there was a genuine joy in realizing how well Kim had plotted this particular takedown: reigniting the “Famous” feud in GQ, timing the tapes’ release to — wait for it — National Snake Day. Media relations is an art, and we were watching a master at work.

The Taylor Tapes were undeniably the biggest tabloid event of 2016, featuring A-list celebrities, video evidence, and the kind of juicy but mostly harmless celebrity antics that have fueled the industry since tabloids were first printed. It is true, as the gossip maven Elaine Lui told The Ringer earlier this year, that “celebrity gossip is a conversation about who we are … culturally and socially. It reflects back to us what our values are, what our standards and boundaries are.” And it is also important to understand that celebrity gossip is a currency, a way for recognizable people to control their image and their net worth, socially and monetarily. But sometimes, at its best and our worst, gossip is also just an excuse to watch someone super famous get roasted.

We can admit that and still feel bad about what happened next. It has not been an easy few months for any of the figures involved. Taylor Swift, bruised from her public scolding, made good on a promise and essentially excluded herself from the celebrity narrative. She ended her brief and suspicious relationship with Tom Hiddleston; skipped her biannual album release; declined to participate in the 2016 election in any meaningful way (though that might have been self-preservation rather than a bruised ego); and more or less disappeared from the celebrity consciousness. For someone who has made a career out of being the “wronged” party — at the VMAs, in her relationships with John Mayer and Jake Gyllenhaal, by country and rock music critics alike — 2016 was a monumental reversal of the story that Taylor Swift has been selling (literally, in her break-up albums and on her Girl Squad tours). There is business on the line here.

And that is the least consequential outcome. Just before Thanksgiving, Kanye West was hospitalized, reportedly for mental health concerns, and is now experiencing a precipitous fall from grace because of his alliance with Donald Trump. And Kim Kardashian West, one of the most visible celebrities of the decade, has temporarily — and understandably — quit public life after being robbed at gunpoint in Paris this October. She has opted out of the social media postings that made her rich and famous; she has not made a public comment or official appearance in 79 days. There are near-constant rumors about a Kimye split. The vulnerability of Kim’s seemingly insurmountable position has been exposed.

“I think she’ll be back,” says GQ’s Caity Weaver, who wrote the magazine’s definitive Kim Kardashian cover story. “And I don’t think they’ll divorce. Her business will change — she’ll probably be less prone to travel. But there hasn’t been enough radio silence to suggest that the Kardashians are done.” When I spoke to Lui, the voice behind Lainey Gossip, in December, she agreed. “I actually don’t think Kim has peaked. When she comes back, it is going to be a bigger fame monster than we’ve ever seen.” And Taylor Swift, as both point out, has enough fans and sponsorships to ride out the bad press. (“People like Taylor Swift don’t need to bounce back,” Lui adds.) Kanye’s route back to acceptance is less clear, but then he’s emerged from scandal a dozen times before.

To remain relevant, all three will have to find a way back into the spotlight. “Even 10 years ago, there was the idea that celebrities were bigger celebrities if they walled themselves off, if they kept themselves private and there was mystery about them,” says Bonnie Fuller, the president and editor-in-chief of HollywoodLife.com, and former editor-in-chief of Us Weekly who famously invented the tagline “Stars — They’re just like us!” “But fans today don’t want mystery. They want to know it all.”

In the meantime, there is a void where Kim and Kanye and Taylor once stood, and no other peers can credibly fill it. It’s a paradox: There are more famous people than ever — and here we are, at the end of 2016, with almost all our true celebrities in retreat. Where did they go?

Celebrity is cyclical, both individually and by generation. The people faltering today will make a triumphant return tomorrow. The old stars will fade out and the new generation will take over Us Weekly. That’s already happening — it’s always happening — though there is something about this cycle that feels different. Less predictable, and harder to follow and parse as a result.

The void we’re talking about here is monolithic — it concerns celebrities with 90 million Instagram followers instead of 9 million. The people on the cover of Vanity Fair and GQ and Us Weekly, the ones with fashion labels and soft drink endorsements. The people who make money just by getting out of bed. “Beyoncé, George Clooney, Angelina, the main brand,” as Lindsey Weber, the cohost of celebrity podcast Who? Weekly, puts it. “You know the name, your mom knows what they do, your aunt knows, your grandma knows.” (Weber is an authority on the distinction, since her podcast follows the people your mom doesn’t know — the “whos” as in “who is that?”)

A lot of “main brands” renounced the throne, intentionally or otherwise, in 2016. The Kardashians ceded their stranglehold on the media. “Kendall and Kylie are filling the void right now, but they can’t fill it to the same extent,” says Weaver. “Kim is really the sun around which all the other parts revolve.”

Justin Bieber, the once-great hope for the future of male pop stars, cancelled his meet-and-greets, quit Instagram, and started giving his best music away to other people. Selena Gomez — his ex-girlfriend, a former Disney star turned pop idol, and the most-followed person on Instagram — quit posting for months, took a break to manage her own health issues, and resurfaced only to give her version of a “this world is bullshit” speech at the American Music Awards. (Good for her, by the way.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the last of the internationally renowned (and intensely, purposefully private) movie star couples, announced an acrimonious split and retreated further into their compounds. (A formal end to a long-gone Hollywood era, but still.) Even the relatable A-list stars took a backseat. Rihanna released Anti, her best but least accessible album to date, and dumped Drake, denying us a replacement for the Kimyes and Brangelinas of the world. (And avoiding the extra exposure that goes with being a power couple.) Jennifer Lawrence — the “only megawatt movie star who has emerged in the last 10 years,” according to Lui — entered her backlash phase.

And then Beyoncé gave us — and Jay Z, and Rachel Roy — Lemonade. It is a testament to the powers of Beyoncé that she could create such a seismic event — both in terms of the art and the unconfirmed gossip — without giving a single interview to promote it. (Beyoncé does not answer direct questions, as you will recall.)

Only Beyoncé could get away with this. “Beyoncé meets the exception to every rule for me,” says Lui. “I don’t know if there’s anyone who can follow her playbook and become as successful as she is.” Which is to say, not everyone (and really no one) can fully retreat from public life and stay as relevant. To quit or fade out, as so many peak celebrities did this year, is to invite defeat.

So the next generation of A-listers might not be the people we expect. “I know we talk disparagingly about lesser celebrities — the ‘whos’ — doing shameless things,” says Weber. “But actually, the whos are often more successful, monetarily, and eventually in their fame, because at a certain point, if you opt out of all it, you’re inaccessible. You’re Brad Pitt post-split, starring in Allied. No one cares about that.”

We are living in a time when the stars of HGTV’s Flip or Flop are feasible People magazine cover stars. (No shots to HGTV, which is a visionary television network, or to Christina El Moussa, who seems to have moved on from her husband’s gun/nanny situation with a new relationship.) Flip or Flop regularly attracts 3 million viewers, which is more than the number of people who saw Will Smith’s most recent movie or bought Lady Gaga’s album. And it’s a classic tabloid story: power couple, infidelity, the family empire at stake.

‘Flip or Flop’ stars Tarek and Christina El Moussa (Getty Images)
‘Flip or Flop’ stars Tarek and Christina El Moussa (Getty Images)

Great gossip, different model. If you are looking for a career change right now, you could do worse than midlevel celebrity; the market has never been more open. “There’s more content — there are more TV shows, there’s more music,” Weber observes. “Anyone can do anything on the internet now. So now we have all these people that just exist because we have a democratic platform where anyone can do something that makes them notable.”

Notable is different than straight-up famous, as Weber’s podcast regularly points out. “All of media is siloed. We’re all talking about filter bubbles, paying attention to things that you like and not paying attention to things that you don’t like. Celebrity is just another example of that — where if you only look in this direction, and you see only these people, they’re famous to you.”

In other words, it’s the segmentation of culture, which we’ve experienced in music and TV and politics and media and everywhere else. The celebrities who frequently show up on my Twitter feed — Blac Chyna, Meghan Markle, and Martha Stewart — may not show up on yours, and vice versa. You may decide that Kourtney’s is the only Kardashian app you subscribe to, or that Chrissy Teigen is the true lifestyle guru for you. It is a more personalized approach, and, in a welcome change, one that encourages more diversity across pop culture. It also means that athletes and food celebrities and social media stars are more likely to break through. And since these are people who actually want your attention — who seek it out regularly with posts on Snapchat and Instagram and YouTube — the experience is often more rewarding. “Fans today feel closer to the celebrities they care about when the celebrities are very active in sharing on social media,” Fuller observes. “They like them, and they like to see them a lot.”

But celebrity, by its very definition, is still a numbers game; the more people who recognize you, the more famous you are. “It’s weird, because the fans of YouTube stars like Cameron Dallas number in the millions, so you think it’s so big,” says Lui. “It’s also very specific. It’s both big and specific at the same time.”

The 5 million subscribers who follow Dallas on YouTube are objectively a lot of people — enough to get him a Netflix show and a Teen Vogue cover. “But poll 10 people, and Brad Pitt is still gonna be more popular right now than Cameron Dallas, even though Cameron Dallas has more followers on YouTube. So that’s why he’s still trying to break into old media,” Lui says. “The ultimate goal is still to be famous on old media.”

It is possible to make the transition from fan favorite to mass-market icon: Kim Kardashian did it. Her sisters did too. Her possible sister-in-law, if last weekend’s Instagram “hack” is any indication, is on her way. Chrissy Teigen’s name came up often in my conversations, because she seems poised to cross over. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, with his wrestling base, his “Sexiest Man Alive” cover, his HBO show, and his multiple box office hits, is already there. And the prevalence of niche celebrity will never totally overtake the name-brand variety. “I think both trends will continue” says Fuller. “People will have their individual people that they fangirl over and then there will be celebrities who come along who are more global interest.” To put it in more specific terms: “Just because there isn’t a Brangelina right now doesn’t mean there’s not going to be one again.”

But how to get there is still a little bit of a mystery. “More likely they’re going to be TV stars,” suggests Fuller, “because TV just amplifies their stardom. Or music stars. I think they have to cross over to multiple mediums.” (Not mentioned: movie stars.)

The celebrity endorsement chain is another approach, suggests Weaver. “The best way might be to convince an adult who is currently famous that you are a prodigy” — think Chance the Rapper, Gigi and Bella Hadid, the Weeknd — “[then] to do work for them in secret, and then to come out with your own stuff.” Weber suggests that it is all attention economy at this point — but “in the right way. People like when celebrities speak for themselves. It’s seen as relatability now.”

Lui, for her part, still believes in star power. “As lame as this answer is, I don’t think [someone like] Ariana Grande has it. Millions of people would yell at you because she does have millions of fans, but I just don’t think she’s on that level.”

The level Lui is referring to is rare, but it still exists. “As much as Taylor Swift annoys all of us, I don’t think that we who watch pop culture can deny she has a special quality.” Which is just to say that despite the constant hustling and self-promotion, true celebrity isn’t transactional, or even random. It is an exceptional sort of person who makes it to the top.

There is a darkest timeline to exceptional, mass-market, “everyone knows them” celebrity, and it is possible we are living through it. “I actually think that Donald Trump and his election have been the biggest celebrity story of the year,” Fuller points out. “I say that because first, he had a history of being in a celebrity world with Celebrity Apprentice, but he’s acted throughout the campaign like a reality star. And he took up space in the celebrity world that normally would be filled with your more typical celebrities.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

And here we are. Entire industries are being invented to help explain the Donald Trump phenomenon, but there is no denying that without the help of his pre-politics fame — without the reality shows, and the magazine covers, and the SNL appearances, and the general endorsement of an industry that turns recognition into respect — Trump would never have been elected president. Trump is, for better or worse, immensely talented at personal branding: the tweeting, the total availability, the placement of his name on literally any available surface. He is, without question, a midlevel celebrity who made the transition; he is also a star, if not necessarily the traditional kind.

The celebrity press is already giving way. People gave Trump a flattering human-interest cover story — “President Trump: His life, his family, and his astonishing journey to the White House” the coverline read — not 10 days after the election. Us Weekly soon followed with “Melania’s Private World.” Vogue, which broke with its nonpartisan tradition to endorse Hillary Clinton in its November issue, is already running that back with public statements about covering the First Family; feared editor-in-chief Anna Wintour has reportedly already met with Donald Trump. “I think he’s going to continue taking up space that would normally kind of be reserved for time spent reading about celebrity news,” predicts Fuller. “I think the definition of celebrity will continue to broaden.”

There is the possibility, or the hope, that Trump’s critics will wind up with a platform, too. “There could also be a whole group of celebrities who have raised their profiles because they’re so outspoken against what’s going on,” Fuller suggests. She points out that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both had a cult of celebrity around them, too — that it’s just how politics and media and fame work these days. Possibly how they’ve always worked.

It is enough to make you renounce the enterprise, or at least to think more closely about how we choose the people we pay attention to. To cancel your People or Us Weekly or Vogue subscription and prioritize your personal interests. To question the relationship between celebrity and value; to stop valuing it all together. To embrace the A-list void; to ignore the nonsense. To get serious.

But opting out, as 2016 has demonstrated in a variety of ways, means ceding the ground to the people who will keep talking. The most famous person always wins. The Kardashians taught us that.