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Is Celebrity Culture on its Way Out?

In December of 2023, the Pleasance Theatre in London debuted the comedy musical “Gwyneth Goes Skiing,” a campy, two-person production starring comic duo Joseph Martin and Linus Karp.
In December of 2023, the Pleasance Theatre in London debuted the comedy musical “Gwyneth Goes Skiing,” a campy, two-person production starring comic duo Joseph Martin and Linus Karp. By Xinyi (Christine) Zhang
By Julia N. Do, Contributing Writer

In December of 2023, the Pleasance Theatre in London debuted the comedy musical “Gwyneth Goes Skiing,” a campy, two-person production starring comic duo Joseph Martin and Linus Karp. The pair play Terry Sanderson and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Sanderson v. Paltrow trial from the spring of 2023.

Terry Sanderson, a retired optometrist, originally sued Paltrow, best known for her roles in “Shakespeare in Love,” “Sliding Doors,” and “Iron Man,” for $3.1 million in damages in 2019. Sanderson alleged that Paltrow had collided with him while skiing in Utah at the Deer Valley Resort in 2016, leading to lasting bodily harm. Paltrow’s legal team countersued for a total of one dollar, plus legal fees.

After determining in Mar. 2023 that it was actually Sanderson at fault in the collision, the court acquitted Paltrow, who walked away with her victorious one dollar.

Surprisingly, Karp and Martin’s winter production was far from the only one that year to cover the harrowing case. Discovery+ produced the documentary “Gwyneth vs. Terry: The Ski Crash Trial,” a one-hour drama available on HBO’s streaming service Max.

The comedic affair may bring to mind the 2022 civil lawsuit Depp v. Heard, a case not only streamed live on TV and YouTube, but also inspiring two docu-series: Netflix’s “Depp v. Heard” and Discovery+’s “Johnny vs. Amber: The U.S. Trial.”

In recent years, the notion of celebrity status has exceeded traditional domains of athletics, showbiz, and the arts. Paltrow, who gained critical acclaim in the titular role of 1996’s “Emma,” is better known today as the CEO and founder of Goop, a wellness brand that went viral in 2018. Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS, Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty, and Jaden Smith’s JUST Water all serve as examples of the celebrity-turned-entrepreneur arc, ensuring cushy retirements from onstage or onscreen careers via their guaranteed customers — their fanbase.

Historically, celebrities ranged from political figures to musicians to actors. In 1966, The Beatles’ John Lennon was quoted by the London Evening Standard, controversially saying, “We’re more popular than Jesus now.”

Nearly six decades later, it is truly troubling to see how much celebrity culture has since permeated social culture. While Sanderson v. Paltrow was a laughable trial at best — ridiculous enough to merit Broadway-level satire — the sensationalization of Depp v. Heard led to real-life implications of increased misogynistic attitudes and treatment toward Heard and future victims of domestic violence.

In an era coined the “Information Age,” it is far too easy to learn and share the personal information of celebrities with one another — be that positive or negative. Americans have been obsessed with the tabloid genre of celebrities’ misbehavior, because, let’s face it, scandal is far more tantalizing than praise. Fans seem to want to witness an idol falling from their pedestal because it reminds them that the famous are no less human than the everyday person. In the 2000s, this yielded particularly depressing outcomes for Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsey Lohan, and later, Vanessa Hudgens, Miley Cyrus, and Demi Lovato.

It seems we’ve finally grown tired of it. “Gwyneth Goes Skiing” is but one symptom of the collective fatigue with celebrity sensationalization. From Ice Spice to Olivia Rodrigo, the online phrase ‘industry plant,’ originating in 2016, reflects audiences’ disconcertment with the unprecedented speed in which 21st-century performers gain worldwide celebrity status. Celebrities are rising faster than ever before and circulating fans’ feeds faster than ever before.

Modern celebrity worship has almost always gone hand-in-hand with celebrity disparagement. Marilyn Monroe was a victim of slut-shaming. Elvis Presley was the paradigm of hedonism. While jokes regarding Taylor Swift’s relationships have certainly tired out, the 14-time Grammy-winner is currently being flamed for the gaudy promotion of her back-to-back album releases and excessive usage of her private jet.

From Swift’s annual 8300-ton carbon emissions and 13-minute city-to-city flights to Paltrow’s marketing of pseudo-scientific health products, popular criticism has evolved from at first a thirst to make pariahs out of icons to a genuine concern for the pernicious influence of celebrity culture on our collective judgment-making.

“Industry plant,” “sell out,” and “publicity stunt” are perhaps the darkest labels to mar a star’s career; to be labeled disingenuous is to risk commercial blacklisting. Merriam-Webster’s 2023 Word of the Year, after all, was “authentic.” To accuse Sanderson of exploiting Paltrow’s celebrity wealth was to assert that the actor was a person, still, under all her money — that she was only battling to clear her name, not to profit from a settlement.

However, in the age of information and social media, attention is exchangeable for real-life dollars. The more we pay attention, the more these stars get paid. And frankly, famous people, we’re broke.

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