When COVID-19 forced national shutdowns globally at the beginning of 2020, the idea of “we’re all in this together” was quickly embraced. Concert venues shuttered, production sets closed down, awards shows were postponed, events cancelled and movie theaters sat empty as the entertainment sector ground to a halt. Celebrities were stuck at home, just like us. Many of them used their extra time and money for massive philanthropic efforts, from at-home virtual events that revolutionized benefit concerts to direct donations into causes such as vaccine development.
But this sense of accessibility and unity proved to be short-lived, as it quickly became apparent that the way celebrities were experiencing the pandemic was anything but “just like us.” With expansive, safe homes, barely-interrupted income streams and the luxury of staying home instead of being essential workers, celebrities faced a backlash against their obvious privilege.
Yet despite the vast disparities between celebrities “stuck at home” and the average person, we all shared the collective trauma of the pandemic and the experience of exposing ourselves in a different way. COVID-19 has tested the fourth-wall tension between celebrity sheen and authenticity. And while social media has offered a highly produced look inside the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the intimate connection of a shared year inside and letting people into our homes and personal lives via Zoom, has created a new sense of transparency and vulnerability.
And there’s another kind of “new normal” at play-one where celebrities are demonstrating and expected to exhibit radical honesty about themselves in the public eye. The isolation of the pandemic seems to have pushed us all to reckon with ourselves. In the past year, celebrities have openly shared about their struggles with mental health, come out as transgender or nonbinary and disclosed HIV-positive status.
This campaign of radical honesty isn’t going away–but what will it mean for how celebrities activate philanthropically? For starters, without making meaningful, engaged commitments, celebrities risk appearing entitled or whiny. Moreover, celebrities will continue to be pushed for their positions on social justice issues. Not only has COVID-19 isolated us at home, it’s also been the backdrop for a surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise in AAPI hate crimes and two Pride Months.
It will take deep engagement with issues from entertainers to pass the authenticity test from followers. They’ll be expected to “open their purses” in support of key organizations. A popular next step is “passing the mic,”- going one step further than using one’s platform to share personal struggles, and instead uplifting the voices and work of on-the-ground activists. Many celebrities have had activists host a “take over” event on their social media platforms for the activists to share their stories and fans to learn how they can be involved. These human-driven, platform-sharing initiatives cut through the noise.
Celebrity philanthropy beyond COVID-19 will require being genuine, impactful and innovative. For all the very real personal struggles celebrities face, they also hold incredible power. The question is how they’ll wield it for good, translating their vulnerability, honesty and shared experiences into meaningful change.