What’s With Celebrities Pretending They Are “Just Like Us”?

Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
If you're considering picking up Anna Kendrick's memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody, which was released on November 15, and you are not one who loves precious self-deprecation, then let me save you some time: Don't do it. But if you truly must, at least skip the hardback and skim it on your Kindle to spare yourself the physical cover, which features the actress (clad in what could be described as "casual business casual" — she's wearing cutoff shorts and a blazer) posed like a Precious Moments figurine. In the grand scheme of celebrity books, Scrappy Little Nobody isn't especially memorable. Frankly, that's part of the problem. It's full of anecdotes from Kendrick's life, like any good celebrity memoir should be, including lesser-known facts like how the actress, at age 12, lost a Tony to Audra McDonald and has been a "bitter bitch" ever since. It's snarky-funny, and snappy, sort of like it was written on Twitter before being transcribed into long-form. All that is innocuous enough. The real issue that I had with Scrappy Little Nobody is that it seemed designed to court readers into believing that Kendrick could be the girl next door who also just happens to be famous. There's something about it, right down to the title, that is emblematic of the idea that celebs, unobserved, are actually "just like us," as Us Weekly has put it for so long. When, of course, they're not. Why does it trouble me, this insistence that — apart from the red carpet glamour and the wealth and, obviously, fame — certain stars are Average Joes and Janes while off duty (if, indeed, there is such a thing as an off-duty celeb)? I don't have a completely clarified answer to that. But I'll credit some of it to what I call my Goop Theorem, named for Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle brand. Bear with me a moment while I explain the fundamentals: Paltrow couldn't be less of an "average" woman. Born into Hollywood royalty, she's sort of like a genetically blessed alien who is allergic to anything that might seem even a touch pedestrian. We came to like her (or not) because of her roles on the big screen. But these days, Paltrow isn't courting Oscar nominations so much as public appeal through her cookbooks, website, and Instagram. These channels are all meant to sell us on a version of Gwyneth that is relatable — but more specifically, sellable. We're being marketed Gwyneth Paltrow™ under the guise of getting to know the real Gwyneth Paltrow.

With some stars, their 'authenticity' tips into annoying territory when it starts to seem as though they are putting on a performance of who they are, rather than just being themselves.

The commodification of the personal for professional gain isn't a new story, but it has been a fundamental tenet of the Digital Age, for celebs and everyone else with an agenda online. For the former, social media has done a bang-up job of replacing public relations representatives as an everyday way to communicate en masse with interested parties — just look at the Kardashians, pioneers of the #nofilter overshare, whatever the platform. But, like a lot of people, while I find the Kardashians obnoxious, I also appreciate the transparency of their approach: We know they're in it for the money, the acknowledgement, the fans. That makes their end goal of winning the fame game as an end unto itself less...irritating. At least we know where they stand. Furthermore, the Kardashians — though they have come a long way with what I'm guessing was a lot of media training over the last near-decade — never seem to be performing their personalities. It's possible (maybe inevitable) that we're being shown an outsize version of who they are, both on their show and across their various channels, but the fact is that, for the sisters especially, the point has always been to hook people in with who they actually are: all the ridiculous, annoying, endearing crap that keeps millions of people tuning in, week after week, year after year, Instagram scroll after Instagram scroll. Whereas, with some stars, their "authenticity" tips into annoying territory when it starts to seem as though they are putting on a performance of who they are, rather than just being themselves. Jennifer Lawrence, particularly, has fallen into that trap over the past several years. Part of that fault lies with the media (myself included) for seeing a pretty, not-exactly-rail-thin, quirky young blonde and casting her as a celebrity bestie; she is the "friend" who didn't feel guilty about eating an entire plate of french fries, whose good looks make goofy public behavior adorable.

There's a sense of Pollyanna-wide-eyed wonder to how she presents her own journey that rings impossibly false.

We have played up her oddball-ness in juxtaposition to her glamour, which means that somewhere along the way, focus turned away from the thing that made her famous — standout acting — and toward her personality itself. The media creation that is J Lawr isn't Jennifer Lawrence's brainchild: It's an aggregation of headlines and social media posts that position her as normal under the celebrity gilt. Still, sometimes it feels like she's starring in a one-woman show titled That's So J Lawr for our benefit, with the aim of collecting nebulous Likes. I think, ultimately, that's what gets under my skin: The falsity of a person parodying herself for the benefit of others. All of which brings me back to Scrappy Little Nobody, the very title of which seems to play into this concept of self-performance. There's something self-effacing about the approach of the book — the cutesy-ness of the cover, the actress' insistence throughout that she is a straight-laced super-square — that made me cringe. Because even though Kendrick does give a nod to the privileges that helped her get to where she is today, there's a sense of Pollyanna-wide-eyed wonder to how she presents her own journey that rings impossibly false. At 31, Kendrick has been climbing the rungs on the Hollywood ladder for more than 20 years — in some way, shape, or form. And yet, her memoir seems designed to appeal to people who want to see her as an average young woman who more or less stumbled into the limelight and was allowed to stick around. The truth, I suspect, is much more complicated — and maybe if more of that complexity makes it into her next book, should there be one, it will be something I'll actually enjoy reading. Scrappy Little Nobody, by Anna Kendrick, is available now.

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