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Illustration by Getty/Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Unraveling the artifice of Hollywood

There are surprising reasons why celebrities fake relationships and lifestyles. There may also be consequences for those who believe them

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Take a quick glance at any tabloid and you’ll likely spot Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson on the cover. They’re Hollywood’s hot new couple and they (and their 13-year age gap) have the gossip community abuzz, fresh off Kardashian’s messy marriage with rapper Kanye West.

But some are skeptical the Kardashian-Davidson relationship is genuine. 

“When you’re Kim Kardashian, you hitch your wagon to anyone making headlines, and Pete Davidson’s inexplicable allure with many beautiful and famous women (for example, Ariana Grande and Kate Beckinsale) has been making headlines for years,” one prominent publicist told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to speak openly. Meanwhile, Kardashian’s ex has also claimed Kardashian’s new relationship was for show, adding to speculation that the pairing is the latest in a long history of faked Hollywood romances.

Real or not, the public relationship has brought the couple a lot of attention. And while some might wonder whether the truth about a dishy relationship really matters, celebrities and experts warn of the social costs that come with blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. From publicists pitching half-truths to writers printing them and impressionable fans taking cues from Hollywood idols to the celebrities themselves, America remains trapped in Tinseltown’s fake news industrial complex.

“Believing everything Hollywood is selling, especially when the film cameras aren’t rolling, can negatively impact a person’s psychological well-being,” Andrew Selepak, a social media professor at the University of Florida, tells me over the phone. Far from only negatively impacting their fans and followers, Selepak explains, the celebrities and influencers are harmed by their own artifice, and that some of them may not have much choice in the matter.

When recently I spoke with actor Terry Crews during an interview for Newsweek, he reflected on the impact of living a double life. “For the longest time, there were two Terry’s,” Crews said. There was his authentic self and “the one I projected to everyone else.” In his new memoir, “Tough,” Crews details just how far Hollywood executives go when pushing actors to say and do what’s good for business. Crews describes the fallout of not conforming to the wishes of one talent agency’s CEO when he and his wife became “treated like pariahs” and feeling “abandoned in Hollywood.”  

While some might wonder whether the truth about a dishy relationship really matters, celebrities and experts warn of the social costs that come with blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

Crews isn’t alone. I’ve interviewed a number of celebrities over the years and have had off-the-record discussions about the pressures the industry places on them to publicly portray something other than their authentic selves. Some even feel  “silenced” and unable to be open about their politics or beliefs. After one interview, the publicist of a prominent celebrity told me their client, “would love to speak out against certain media outlets and a corrupt political system, but (they) know it would mean the end of (film) roles if (they) did.” 

Even still, many actors have spoken out.

Singer Donny Osmond, for example, once said in an interview that his publicist advised him to fake a drug scandal to boost his “street cred.” He said no. And actress Jennifer Lawrence has discussed the dangerous “people pleasing” nature of working in Hollywood, while other celebrities like Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lopez, Ben Stiller and even Dame Helen Mirren have admitted to feeling pressured to do things that made them uncomfortable, including showing nudity when they didn’t want to

In his memoir “Yearbook,” actor Seth Rogan details how the former CEO of Sony asked him to outright lie to reporters about who was behind changing a pivotal scene in a film he was promoting. Rogan wrote that he hated what he was asked to do, “but the chairman of the studio releasing your movie is a hard dude to say no to, so I said yes.” Actor Shia LaBeouf said he didn’t feel honest promoting the fourth (and worst-reviewed) “Indiana Jones” film, but legendary film director Steven Spielberg told him, “there’s a time to be a human being and have an opinion, and there’s a time to sell cars.”

As disappointing as those instances are, they pale in comparison to an industry rife with corruption, sexism, misogyny and sexual harassment. But the roots of Hollywood’s dangerous culture of power and correction date back to the industry’s origins.

Emily Carman, an associate professor of film and media studies at Chapman University and the author of “Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System,” explained that historically, many Hollywood couples have had to publicly sustain relationships that were “completely orchestrated by the studios they were contracted with.” As one example, she pointed to when MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer didn’t approve of the man MGM actress Jeanette MacDonald “was actually in love with.” So Mayer pushed her to marry Gene Raymond instead because he thought it would be better for her career.

“Theirs was not a happy marriage,” Carman said.  

And theirs was one of many unhappy, coerced relationships. The number of forced or faked marriage arrangements and on-the-side relationships became so excessive that in 1939, American film magazine Photoplay ran the cover story, “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives;” exposing scores of celebrities in fake showmances at the behest of studios, including Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Carole Lombard and Charlie Chaplin. 

The roots of Hollywood’s dangerous culture of power and correction date back to the industry’s origins.

At other times, studios threatened to withhold roles, income and opportunities. Through 1968, studio heads even used the 1934 Motion Picture Production Code to keep certain celebrity behaviors or even their sexuality out of the public eye. Because legendary actor Spencer Tracy had long been billed as an upstanding Catholic, for instance, Carman said he was “never allowed to discuss his alcoholism,” and, “was never permitted to divorce his wife” even though he was secretly in a decades-long extramarital relationship with actress Katharine Hepburn.

Vincent Brook, a retired UCLA lecturer in media studies, noted that studio executives frequently monitored and controlled public images of all their stars, “though (their) measures didn’t prevent the stars from continuing to act out off-screen.” Homosexuality, for example, was considered “a curse for any celebrity’s career,” Brook said, and was strictly forbidden — forcing leading gay men such as Rock Hudson or Montgomery Clift to pretend to be in straight relationships whenever they were in the public eye.  

Of course, historically and today many celebrities have publicly faked relationships and lifestyles seemingly without any coercion from Hollywood executives at all. They’ve simply realized what’s good for business.

“Even when they aren’t filming, celebrities today know their box office results are tied directly to people’s perceptions of them, so they work hard to control those perceptions,” Carman said. Selepak explained that some celebrities may also do so simply because they love and need attention. “Everyone on social media wants ‘likes’ and ‘comments,’” he said, “but celebrities want them even more and monitor how many people watch their stories or comment on their posts as the ultimate barometer of how well-liked they are.” 

And celebs know that shocking and over-the-top behaviors and lifestyles get the most attention of all. “Lady Gaga and other famous celebs who came up on social media understand that their real lives aren’t going to attract enough attention to make them famous,” explained Tina Tessina, a psychotherapist in Southern California and the author of “The 10 Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make Before 40”; “so she used outrageous outfits like a fresh meat dress to ‘get eyeballs’ on her posts.” Tessina said she did this until she had a large enough audience that she could start reeling such behaviors in. 

Celebs know that shocking and over-the-top behaviors and lifestyles get the most attention of all.

Other celebrities pretend simply because they lack confidence. “One major reason people misrepresent themselves online is insecurity,” offered Naomi Torres-Mackie, head of research at the Mental Health Coalition. “If you think about it,” she said, “it’s terrifying to fully show yourself to others — in doing that, you risk rejection.” She added that pretending to be something different makes rejection “psychologically easier” to take because one can “rationalize that it was only a portrayal of yourself, not your true self that was rejected.”

There are also practical reasons why celebrities might portray a false relationship or pretend to still be in a marriage that’s over. “Many celebrity couples choose to delay public disclosure of separation and divorce for all the reasons other couples might choose to do so: it gives them time to work on their marriage; it protects their family, reputation, career and it protects their brand,” explained Kathy Feeley, an associate dean at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Redlands. 

Regardless of one’s reasons for misleading fans, experts warn of the psychological toll celebrities’ fake lifestyle portrayals can have on the people who follow them. Selepak said that over time some followers of celebrities can become, “disconnected from reality” as they start to think of the lifestyle they see portrayed as attainable in their own lives. “They have no idea how much work it takes to even portray that lifestyle, much less live it,” he said. He noted the “teams” of dietitians, publicists, personal shoppers, stylists, personal trainers, photoshoppers and planners that go into making such lifestyles appear so appealing. “The problem with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ or trying to emulate the rich and famous is that you simply can’t,” he said.  

“To attempt to live someone else’s lifestyle means you’re not happy or satisfied with your own,” advised Tessina. “Trying to be someone else just underlines that dissatisfaction and leads to feeling like an imposter in your own life.” Indeed, a 2021 study found that social media consumers experienced a deflated self-esteem when engaging in comparisons online, a point echoed by Torres-Mackie: “Authenticity is important for mental well-being,” she said, “and if you’re living according to someone else’s image or goals, then you are disconnected from your own.” Selepak noted, “a strong correlation” between depression among people who spend a lot of their time comparing their lives to others online. “There’s a measurable negative impact on a person’s psychological well-being,” he said.

“If you’re living according to someone else’s image or goals, then you are disconnected from your own.” — Naomi Torres-Mackie

Vanessa Bohns, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University and the author of “You Have More Influence Than You Think,” cited research suggesting that “comparing our social lives with the lives of exceptionally social people can make us feel like our own social lives are inadequate.” Bohns also explained how celebrities and influencers often construct, “social norms in society,” setting standards of what it means to be social in a variety of circumstances, regardless of how unrealistic such standards are. “We think of the glamorous parties and elaborate dinners posted by influencers on social media, and our social lives appear to pale in comparison,” she said. 

With such consequences in mind, it becomes prudent to maintain a proper perspective and remember that much of what one sees from celebrities across social media and beyond is neither real nor attainable. “You need to keep in mind that everything on social media is a sort of advertising,” counseled Tessina. “The vast majority of it is dressed up in its Sunday best, a glimpse of the highlights of people’s lives, not their everyday appearance and activities.” She recommends looking inward for “what you’re really unhappy with” in one’s own life and improving from there. “Gratitude is a great antidote for ‘keeping up with the Kardashians,’” she added.  

Torres-Mackie recommends doing a “gut check” regarding which celebrity social media accounts one follows and asking “if they make you feel energized and inspired, or drained and inferior? If you’re left feeling worse after viewing an account, then unfollow it,” she advised. “True happiness comes from connection, belonging and meaning in life,” she added.

“It’s fine to like celebrities and normal to want to follow what they’re up to,” Selepak offered, “we’ve had a celebrity obsession going all the way back to ancient Greece and ancient Rome.” But he said such obsessions should always be limited and grounded in the reality that the person presented is often not the real them. “Don’t try to emulate or be better than any celebrity you see on social media,” he added. “The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.”