The Allure of the Baby Celebrity
Chasing the high of seeing our faves become famous right in front of our eyes might be this generation's favorite pastime.
If celebrities are America’s gods, it’s the early days, before they are fully anointed, that I live for. It’s a liminal space of fame, the moment after bursting onto the scene but before becoming an untouchable icon. In this period, we glimpse a normal person reacting normally to the completely abnormal circumstances of celebrity. Think Timothée Chalamet practically falling out of every chair he sat in during his press junket for Call Me by Your Name. Like his body is just that shocked to be thrust into the limelight.
There have always been fans—search "Rolling Stones" or "Elvis" or "Mozart" (idk) and you'll find proof of it. But what we're seeing today is a double-culture around celebrity. There is the work itself (the song, the movie, i.e. the artistic object) and then there is the digital frenzy surrounding the art. Let’s call it Culture 1 and Culture 2. Traditionally, adoration draws the demarcating line between “them” (the famous) and “us” (the fans). But the celebration of the come-up has become an equalizer, with a new generation of baby celebrity dependent on the fanbase as the cultural kingmakers. The establishment of fame is suddenly a collective effort. The artist puts out work and the world responds (or doesn’t).
The double-culture is at work with Megan Thee Stallion, whose notoriety has only grown since “Hot Girl Summer” took off like wildfire this past month, not only as a song but as a self-descriptor across social media. On the seeming opposite end of the celebrity spectrum you have artsy soft boy, Timothée C., and, basic soft boy, Noah Centineo. Both saw the consolidation of a fanbase eager to “protect them at all costs” across social media. Noah played in a deluge of Netflix rom-coms, but he was also the Internet’s 2018 boyfriend, posting a seemingly never-ending stream of puppy-dog eyed selfies. Timothée broke out with Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, which then inspired an art Instagram account and endless peach allusions. (Praise be, we’ve seen a resurgence in Culture 2 around Timmy C., with the Little Women trailer inspiring a Twitter campaign for his windswept hair to get an Oscar.)
Lines between art (Culture 1) and fanbase (Culture 2) blur even more when looking at the collaborative enterprise that is Lil Nas X’s rise to fame. In a snowball effect, Lil Nas X managed to inspire enough fandom to harness Culture 2 as an amorphous microphone. Combined with his own true-blue talent, the movement around “Old Town Road” took the Justin Bieber/Shawn Mendes/YouTube model and raised it a trillion gigabytes of digital space. To be a fan of Lil Nas X is also to be a participant in his rise to the mainstream, popular consciousness. His lyrics are fitting (take my horse to the old town road / ride ‘til I can’t no more), telling the tale of one man’s scrappy hustle to fame, but as a depiction of Lil Nas X’s own journey, they are incomplete. Far from a lone wolf-cowboy (cowboy, though, he certainly is!!), where would Lil Nas X be without the groundswell of social sharing, Tik Toks, and meme creation that transcended mere “fanbase” to become a cultural moment in and of itself?
To say famous people traditionally lose their unfiltered candor is not a value judgment. It’s to be expected. A natural progression. The face closes off, the media training kicks in, and the genuine human being is carefully tucked away (at least, from the public eye). The baby celebrity grows up. But in a new world of double-culture, where fan, fame, and influence (this is a charged word, yeesh) are intimately linked, the question remains, how long can the blissful state of fan/celebrity alliance last? After fame is securely established, when are we no longer “in it together?”
Like any relationship fueled by obsession, there’s an inherent toxicity, which always holds the potential for combustion and disaster. Anyone watching Nicki Minaj go Live on Instagram with Megan Thee Stallion, could see the distinction between the grown up and the baby celebrity. When Megan called on Nicki to “tell these people to quit playing with us,” you could see Nicki reining herself in. Hell, she literally said, “I just be having to [zips her lips] stay quiet.” Adding the distinction, “From you it’s fine, but from me, child, I can’t say nothing. I’m not allowed to say shit.” The implicit message being, you haven’t been burned yet. Then again, Nicki’s first album dropped in 2007, and her rise to fame pre-dated the true boom of social media—pre-double-culture. She embodies a more traditional model of celebrity, a figurehead for a fandom, but ultimately, untouchable.
To be fair, who wouldn’t be guarded, understanding that every word and action is subject to scrutiny? Yet what we see more and more is an expectation for access. Does that mean the unfiltered state of the baby celebrity lingers longer? At the risk of implicitly pitting Nicki Minaj and Cardi B against each other—again—Cardi B is a true benchmark in 21st century celebrity personas, capitalizing on her unfiltered candor to rip the paradigm of untouchable celebrity to shreds. She is one of the first (if not the first) in the new era of baby celebrities whose Instagram posts were integral to the power she wields.
As Cardi’s fame grew and “Bodak Yellow” moved up the charts, her responses were themselves prolific. In one video, she spoke words that I will cherish forever: “I know we’re all God’s children, but I think I’m his favorite.” Imagine, feeling so strongly life was going your way that you believed God picked you as the favorite child. Here was unbridled exuberance at the wave of fame about to hit. This was an open-armed embrace of celebrity and the exposure—as an asset, not a risk—it has to offer.
To this day, Cardi has not lost her voice to the Hollywood filtration system. She gets on Instagram to speak frankly about politics and the performers she thinks the world should get behind. By contrast, Timothée C. has all but gone dark on Instagram and has already lost the awestruck, open-mouthed glee on his face when he appears on red carpets or in just about any situation where he’s bombarded by fans. What we see at play here is a choice (unclear if it’s made by the baby celebs or their “team”) about what sort of celebrity the newly famous person is going to be—god-among-us or distant idol. For Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion, it’s really too soon to tell which they’ll fall under. Look more closely at the two modes of celebrity, and you see how each is shaped by specific industry expectations and opportunities across race and class. This is not to say distant idol is solely a white model of celebrity (hello, Beyoncé!), and god-among-us the model for everyone else. There are too many variables at play in the rise and establishment of fame for the distinction to be so literally black and white. It is, however, clear that one model relies on a more traditional culture hierarchy (which is shored up by a predominantly white power structure of studio/label, casting/record deal, management, and PR), while the other leans more heavily on the fandom to generate buzz and influence.
For the time being at least, Culture 2 of fan fanaticism, “stans,” and all the rest, continues to party on, regardless of the baby celeb’s chosen adult celeb persona. But whether a god-among-us or a distant idol, inevitably there is a loss of natural human response to the circumstances of fame. This accompanies a loss of luster to the baby (once this phase sets in, adolescent) celebrity. Signs of fallibility are a siren call. And to see the veneer of untouchability settle over those anointed, marks a loss. Gone is the endearing authenticity that comes with uncertainty during the early days (the laughing, stuttering, deer-in-the-headlights charm). The joy of the baby celebrity is ultimately not about access—regardless of how much a fan participates in Culture 2, this should not be mistaken for ownership over someone—so much as it is a voyeuristic desire to be a part of the process. In those first years of someone’s rise, there’s a thrilling moment of intimacy, in a cultural room of billions, when every viewer, every listener, every potential fan matters, because they have the power to contribute to, to create, the wave.