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It was a scene right out of a movie—specifically, a dark comedy about an out-of-touch celebrity in the midst of a pandemic. I’m talking about the gathering of a social media pitchfork mob after billionaire record producer David Geffen posted a photo of his quarantine confines: a sprawling superyacht estimated at some $590 million. “Sunset, last night…isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus,” he wrote. “I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.”
It didn’t take long for Geffen’s post to earn him a spot on Twitter’s trending list, the algorithmic result of the thousands of responses expressing both outrage and ridicule. Presumably surprised by how poorly his missive had been received, Geffen went into digital hiding, quietly setting his account to private before deleting it.
If there was ever a fourth wall dividing celebrities and the rest of us on social media, the coronavirus quarantine has broken it at least temporarily, providing an unvarnished—or at least slightly less mediated—glimpse into the lives of the rich, famous, and bored. Celebrities, left to their own devices, are speaking freely, and the result has been a decidedly mixed bag.
As with Geffen, some celebrities have unwittingly revealed themselves to be gloriously, almost parodically oblivious. Vanessa Hudgens took to Instagram to let fans know that coronavirus deaths are “terrible” but also “like, inevitable?” Jennifer Lopez, quarantined with celebrity paramour and reported presidential adviser Alex Rodriguez, posted an Instagram video of her son riding his hoverboard around the vast, immaculately manicured grounds of her mansion.
Evangeline Lilly said she won’t self-quarantine because “some people value freedom over their lives,” a decision suggesting she hasn’t fully thought through the impact on the lives of others, including her kids and immunocompromised, cancer-stricken father. And Arnold Schwarzenegger offered cautionary words about the importance of social distancing in an off-the-cuff PSA that might have carried a bit more gravitas had he not been pulling on a cigar and sitting in a bubbling jacuzzi.
But a number of celebrities have made seemingly sincere and heartfelt efforts to provide solace. Via Instagram, Lizzo played the flute and offered a “meditation and mantra to promote healing,” Chris Martin and John Legend gave intimate concerts, and the Dropkick Murphys—unable to play their annual St. Patrick’s Day concert in Boston for the first time since 1996—gave a free live performance.
But others have made woeful miscalculations. There was the schlock heard round the world from Gal Gadot and a chorus of her celebrity friends with their treacly rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” What was surely meant as a unifying moment came off as vacuous self-indulgence from celebs attempting to readjust the spotlight the coronavirus had stolen from them. The scene was made more cringeworthy by Gadot’s musing that she was “feeling a bit philosophical” after a few days of being trapped in her mansion. “This virus has affected the entire world. Everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from. We’re all in this together.” As she soaked in a bathtub full of rose-petal-strewn water, Madonna expressed a similar sentiment. “What’s wonderful” about Covid-19, the pop star said, “is that it’s made us all equal in many ways.”
That’s a nice thought. Unfortunately, it’s not true. The backlash to this star-studded navel-gazing has come as the coronavirus brings into stark relief the inequities in our health care system. Our headlines now include daily announcements from celebrities—Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Idris Elba, and multiple players on NBA teams—about their Covid-19 status. In the meantime, the rest of us await news of when we’ll even have access to those tests.
Wealthy politicians like Rand Paul, the first US senator to test positive for the virus, have also figured into the rich-versus-the-rest-of-us divide. He repeatedly noted he was asymptomatic when tested, while others who were visibly sick have been refused testing, with sometimes fatal results. A recent Reuters report documented this disparity. “At least 100 executives and other New Yorkers of means had easy access to testing,” it stated. “These people paid a $5,000-a-year membership fee for a medical concierge service in New York City.” The New York Times noted that stars are “used to receiving preferential treatment at Los Angeles medical centers” and that “many A-listers use LifeSpan, a private practice.” Another firm, Private Health Management, has six-month plans available to those who can afford the $80,000 price. These services are far out of reach for most of us, especially the 100 million Americans who cannot work from home because they hold jobs in manufacturing, service, delivery, and the gig economy.
What’s been refreshing amid the high visibility of the chasm between the haves and have-nots is those celebs who have spoken directly to this disparity. Britney Spears, who—let’s be real—none of us took for a Marx-Engels Reader type, shared an Instagram message from Brooklyn artist Mimi Zhu calling for wealth redistribution, complete with a three rose emoji sign-off. (Three days earlier, Spears invited fans struggling with finances to “DM me and I will help you out.”) Fran Drescher retweeted a call for a general strike, adding, “Capitalism has become another word for Ruling Class Elite! When profit is at the expence [sic] of all things of true value, we gotta problem.”
And then there was Cardi B, who chastised fellow celebrities who “have the luxury to pay $30-$40,000…to get tested and get treated” and demanded that the government pay for testing because the current pandemic could have been “prevented when they found out about this.” The rapper lamented, “The general public—people that work regular jobs, people that get regular paychecks, the middle class, the poor…they’re not getting treated like…celebrities.”
Judging from the responses, it was a pitch-perfect pronouncement. Particularly in a moment when many celebrities keep getting this, literally and figuratively, off-key.