Paparazzi Photos Have Never Been More Boring — but I Can't Get Enough
I'll take snaps of a PDA-filled grocery trip over one more Instagram Live any day.
Since being quarantined became our new way of life in mid-March thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, I have seen approximately 97 photos of Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas out together on walks. The new couple seems to step out at least once a day to put their affection for one another right where we all can see it – in tabloids.
While most of us that aren't essential workers sit on our couches trying to remember to brush our teeth, these two very famous people are frolicking about without, it seems, a care in the world. They are not the only ones, of course. Everyone's love-to-hate-them PDA-obsessed couple Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello have also been taking slow walks (like, really slow walks) while toting empty coffee cups that some people thought looked like props for the paparazzi that follow them. They wear gym clothes that are arguably ill-advised (walking in bell bottoms and flats is a recipe for a ruined hem), and they are not doing anything of note. Yet, here I am, flipping through the Instagram slideshow and even going so far as to DM the images to my friends.
The thing is, there isn't anything particularly interesting about these images of a couple walking down a sunny sidewalk on a random sunny day. Right now, famous people that are normally surrounded by glitz and glam look no different than the rest of us. In some cases, they're unrecognizable with sunglasses, hats, and masks — their only identifier being the trail of paparazzi hunting them down. (Unlike Ben and Ana, we assume some of these celebrities don't necessarily want to be seen — but that's another story.) So why am I even more interested in clicking on images of celebrities simply existing than ever before?
While I don’t love to admit it, I’ve always cared about celebrity photos, at least slightly. You better believe when Mary Kate Olsen steps outside to smoke a cigarette in an all black outfit, I’m looking for the pics. Outside of the occasional peruse for outfit inspiration, however, I've never before sought out celebrity culture in this way. But there's something normal, comforting even, about my quarantine ritual of looking at celebrity pics, and the idea that celebrities are still posing for the paparazzi, and the paparazzi are still snapping away, each contributing their part to the Hollywood ecosystem. Now that the world is in chaos, that normalcy is something I can hold on to.
When Cara Delevigne and Ashley Benson walked into a grocery store wearing matching facemasks, I found myself zooming in on Delevigne's overworn shorts to see what material they were made of, and laughing about how it was cute that she and her girlfriend were matching. Norman Reedus and Diane Kruger are two celebs whose paparazzi photos have never particularly tickled me, and yet, you better bet I clicked through that entire 16 slide photo gallery. When Shia LaBeouf debuted a pair of tights last week, I looked through every Twitter thread discussing the outfit at length.
Licensed Psychologist Marni Amsellem, Ph.D., likens this obsession to our love of distractions like cat videos or silly TikToks. "We crave routine; we crave the expected. So when things are thrown off, we seek out experiences that feel familiar," she tells InStyle in a phone interview. "So that might translate into what we read online, especially when it's not directly related to what's going on [with the coronavirus] — it's something that feels like the same old thing that was happening before. There is comfort in the idea that things are going on that feel familiar."
Outside of comfort, which is undoubtedly part of the equation, the simple fact that we are seeing celebrities in an entirely new light is also fascinating. (Celebs are, actually, a little bit like us?) At the moment, they are just humans left to their own devices — no glam squads or stylists are prepping their looks for the day, no drivers are chauffering them here and there. They have to grocery shop on their own because delivery services are spread thin and their assistants are likely isolating with family. They need to walk their dogs themselves – some inexplicably using this opportunity to bike while holding canines. Even if they're staged, the paparazzi images feel more genuine than staged Instagram photos.
Pop culture expert Trey Taylor has a theory about what seems like an uptick in the number of paparazzi pics out there right now. "I've been following stan accounts for a while, but for many celebs in the last few weeks, the paparazzi images have really ramped up," he said in a phone interview. He compared the current influx of cute celeb outing photos to what he called the “Elliot Mintz era” — a reference to Paris Hilton’s former publicist, who, in 2006, was reportedly responsible for the infamous paparazzi image of Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears in a car together. In other words, it's about orchestrating the perfect moment.
He continues, "Right now, it seems celebrities have two ways to create and sustain a narrative if they want to. One is to do self-directed photoshoots and videos which can backfire,” he said, possibly referring to Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” video that received backlash from both celebrities and fans alike for being a tone deaf play for attention, “and the other can be through paparazzi images. With the latter, you see what you see and that's all you can devour. There aren't a lot of negative things you can say about two people walking down the street."
When it comes to social media videos, it can be frustrating to see celebrities proclaim themselves as "equal" when they are in a significantly better position than most people in the world. Some journalists have even surmised that celebrity culture is reaching a breaking point due to the pandemic. New York Times reporter Amanda Hess put it bluntly: “One of the ironies of this moment is that though we feel less like stars than ever, they seem to feel more like us — or at least, what they think it must feel like to be us,” she wrote. “[Ellen] DeGeneres is going ‘stir-crazy’ from having to stay inside her enormous home; Katy Perry has lost track of the days she’s spent inside her enormous home.” While famous people are, of course, a part of the narrative (they are certainly not immune to the virus), most have a luxury that the vast majority of us could never even imagine: Wealth.
Not only are there people isolating in small homes without even the luxury of going into a yard, some are dealing with unstable or even unsafe situations. Moreover, and it feels like it shouldn’t have to be said, people (even some celebrities) are sick and dying. So fine, I’ll take your dance parties and Q&As, but no, I don’t care to hear you complain about missing your friends when the selfie of you in your big house, or in your Birkin-filled closet, pops up on my feed.
Even if this unprecedented time represents a death rattle for a certain type of celebrity social media interaction we once knew, the paparazzi images represent something different. Clicking through images of Kendall Jenner riding around in a purple Corvette next to Harry Styles on a motorcycle is fun and performative in a way that replaces irritation with, at worst, an eye roll. Sure, it's a bit weird, and it feels like a convenient way for celebrities to remind us all they are still here, but I'm OK with clicking through one hundred photos of this bizarre moment if it means a few seconds of reprieve.
The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.