Celebrities and ostentatious wealth lose their appeal in coronavirus crisis

David Geffen has set a high bar for pandemic tone-deafness. The US billionaire posted pictures of his 454-foot yacht, the Rising Sun, on Instagram in late March with the caption: “Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus. Hope everyone is staying safe.” 

The reaction was swift and probably not what he hoped for — the columnist Meghan McCain tweeted that Mr Geffen could help his country or “just stay on your f-king yacht Instagramming”. Shortly afterwards the post was deleted.

Mr Geffen is not alone. In the court of public opinion, many of the rich and famous are not having a good pandemic. Celebrities, used to being treated as objects of fascination and veneration, are being ridiculed — and stars ranging from Madonna to the actress Vanessa Hudgens have been accused of posting insensitive corona-content. 

The well-meaning have come under fire too. Kate Winslet (who starred in the eerily prescient 2011 pandemic film Contagion) has attracted snark for her coronavirus public safety film. Commentators asked if she had advice for the shipwrecked too (she also starred in Titanic). 

Even those who say little and give a lot have come under fire. The Duke of Westminster’s recent £12.5m donation to the NHS sparked questions about his family’s tax arrangements, pointing out that this gift was a tiny fraction of the wealth he inherited.

It has become common to say that the post-virus world will be very different and part of this will be a new social contract between the rich and the poor. But is this really true? Or will it be a return to Learjets as usual, the moment lockdown is lifted?

Corona-criticism of the wealthy falls into several categories. One is a lack of empathy and spoilt brat-boredom. This is exemplified by wedding photographer Dalton Smiley’s recent spoof video where an imaginary celebrity complains of being stuck in a mansion that is “only 20,000 square feet” and whines that his ice-rink has melted “and we can’t get anyone out here to fix it”.

Kate Winslet star of Contagion in a video about Covid-19
Actress Kate Winslet posted a video about how to wash your hands

The second is more serious. In countries such as the UK and US, many wealthy people went to self-isolate in their second homes. In doing so, they risked spreading infection to small rural or seaside communities and straining modest local healthcare resources.

The third kind of criticism may have the longest lasting effect though. This is simply that the rich and famous no longer interest us. In lockdown, a kind of weary ennui has gathered around fame-and-money culture — and this extends from celebrities such as Kim Kardashian to CEO-lebrities such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon. The outsized egos and ostentatious displays of wealth that were once so captivating now feel weirdly pointless and even irrelevant.

Instead, we have found new icons, ranging from doctors and nurses to postal workers and supermarket delivery drivers. We can’t get enough of the people who are bravely keeping the world running or working hard to save lives. The fascination we once felt for stars and billionaires transfers easily to the exhausted staff of hospital intensive care units.

Members of the public take part in a national "clap for carers" to show thanks for the work of Britain's National Health Service (NHS) workers and frontline medical staff around the country as they battle with the novel coronavirus pandemic, on a balcony opposite Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London on April 23, 2020. (Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP) (Photo by NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images)
Londoners “clap for our carers”, a weekly show of public support for UK heathcare workers © Getty Images

OK, so that’s fame, and fame is fickle, but what about attitudes to wealth? Here, we are probably seeing a longer trend of rising disenchantment, which started with the 2008 financial crisis and lies behind the success of Donald Trump, the property-developer president. 

Attitudes to the wealthy are strange though. Americans have reliably told pollsters for a quarter of a century that the rich should pay more tax, which suggests the public hold concerns about inequality. But when it comes to elections, raising taxes is a turn-off. Many people may like the idea of Bernie Sanders’ economic policies in the abstract, but recoil when faced with the reality.

So do these changes really matter? The answer is they do, if they represent a recalibration of values. Bankers were cast as the arch-villains of the last crisis, and they’re still with us and still paid handsomely. But when I meet bankers nowadays, they are often apologetic about what they do. They make a real effort and they want to be liked. At the beginning of the pandemic some even joked that it was nice to see a crisis that they were not being blamed for. 

Crises often accelerate changes that were already under way. As economist Thomas Piketty notes, there has been a tendency, especially under turbocharged Anglo-American capitalism, to view people further down the pecking order as “dumb and undeserving”. But this crisis has changed this. Now, along with being less in thrall to wealth, we are recognising that those who earn comparatively little are hard working, essential and even courageous.

This recalibration could change society in ways large and small. Perhaps it will mean more of today’s 16-year-olds aspire to become doctors rather than superyacht owners. Perhaps we’ll see a generation that reveres scientists and researchers. Perhaps we’ll pay some of our newly acknowledged essential workers a little better. 

I am optimistic. A celebrity-fixated friend recently said to me: “I never thought I’d find an interview with an epidemiologist more interesting than Revenge Body with Khloé Kardashian, but here we are.” As they say, every revolution starts with a single act of defiance. 

Follow Rhymer on Twitter @rhymerrigby

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