Reality TV, for all of its scripting and all of its pre-produced plots, offered us access to a world of fame and wealth, a world where we could finally see the greener grass on the other side. One prime example is the hit television show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Before season 1 of KUWTK, most of us barely knew who the family was, except for their father’s involvement in the popular lawsuit against OJ Simpson. But after just one season of KUWTK, the world was hooked. The family gained mass success, and today they are one of the wealthiest families in the world, valued at $2 billion dollars. Ironically, the show actually had terrible ratings, scoring a sad 2.8/10 on IMDB. But regardless of the show’s substance or quality, it’s been renewed for 20 seasons, and it is one of the most widely known reality TV shows in the world. And all the family had to give up to get this popularity, was their privacy. This brave trade-off, this commitment to fame and celebrity even at the cost of your secrets and your personal life, ushered in a new culture of celebrity, and a massive reconfiguration of privacy.
Remember a time before the Kardashians? Before influencers and social media and self-promotion? Back then, BK (Before Kardashians), everything was different. Our idols were authors, political leaders, rock stars and Hollywood movie stars. They were untouchable, mysterious creatures who existed on different planes than us. We didn’t know anything about their lives, all we knew was determined by their TV personas and some brief snippets here and there stolen by the paparazzi. But today, celebrities exist in and for the public domain. We know everything about them, and we insist on their candidacy in exchange for our loyalty. We come back to people like Kim Kardashian time and again because our culture is obsessed with following the lives of the rich and famous. We want all of the juicy details, all the time. It can be as irrelevant as what you eat for breakfast, or as personal as your divorce – whatever the case, we have to know. Watching others live their lives has become our main form of entertainment.
Naturally, this has affected how stars are born. If you’d like to earn the attention of the public, all you need to do is tell all. Publicise your life online, video every moment, and there are bound to be loyal viewers and followers. This formula for fame has extended so far that now everyday civilians have invested in their internet personas for the purpose of achieving celebrity status. Every other influencer on social media has managed to get by using just their vlogging equipment, face and bedroom to build a brand for themself. According to TheSmallBusiness Blog, there are 37 million influencers on Instagram in 2023. These people are famous not because they appeared in blockbusters, but because they knew how to use the internet to reach an audience, and they’re willing to broadcast their personal lives. And they really must not be underestimated – because they’re responsible for leading market trends, driving advertising campaigns and inspiring massive culture shifts. But even with so much power and so much influence over us, I really have to wonder if they feel that it’s worth the trade.
In today’s world, and the age of the internet and reality TV, the price of fame is privacy. But this only makes me wonder about the dangers of entertainment media. From an American perspective, we can easily find examples of the dangerous demands of public media in the lives of stars like Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes and Britney Spears. Each of them was a child actress, and each of them experienced severe mental health issues as a result of constant exposure to the public, eventually struggling with depression and substance abuse. And the entirety of their struggles became public scandals, public displays up for debate and consideration by strangers. I can only imagine how painful it is to have your dirty laundry aired to the world. In South Africa, we can find similar examples for celebrities such as Sonia Booth and Matthew Booth, AKA and his late fiance Anele Tembe.
When Sonia Booth found evidence of her husband cheating on her, she broadcasted it all over Twitter and Instagram using hashtags and slogan lines. Her fans even went further, adding gun power to the volatile situation by sending photographs of him spotted with another woman. The situation was sensationalised and publicised endlessly. And while I can relate to her anger, I agree with Matthew Booth when he said, “It is with utmost sadness and a disappointment that my wife Sonia Booth resorted to airing these unfounded allegations on all public platforms with an intention to tarnish my name without discussing them with me, and without considering the damage that these allegations will cause, especially to our minor children who are in the middle of their final exams and to the Mthombeni-Moller family”. In the vent that mistakes were made, allegations were incorrect, this public display could be extremely damaging to those involved. And from the children’s perspective, it must be difficult to see your parent’s divorce happening online, with the world free to comment on your unique situation.
Similarly, I can assume that in situations of life and death, it must be taxing to see your suffering in the headlines. When Anele Tembe, AKA’s late fiance, fell to her death, the world erupted into accusations about suicide, domestic abuse and possible murder. While I have no opinion on the status of the investigation, I do feel sympathy for a family who has had to mourn their child’s death in public, while being disturbed by the media and hounded by fans and online trolls. When life is good and your brand is right, giving the world access to your life is just a chance for good publicity. But when statuses turn and problems arise, the same fans who loved to watch you succeed will love to watch you fail. Maybe it’s about voyeurism (taking pleasure in seeing other people fail) or maybe it’s a genuine sense of entitlement to the lives of celebrities; either way, I truly believe that we all need to be a bit more careful about how much we demand from public figures. Because beyond entertainment, they’re people too.