THOUGHT EXPERIMENT Kylie Jenner’s coronavirus photo shoot is a reminder stars are more like us than we think

By Sage Young

As the pandemic changes our relationship with celebrity, we can only hope that it changes our relationship with ourselves, too.

Once upon a time, makeup application was the centerpiece of my morning routine — a calming, 20-minute ritual that prepared me for the day. Since quarantine began, that ritual has been shortened to the point that a swipe of concealer and mascara is reserved for truly special occasions, like a Zoom meeting or picking up a Thai order. Wearing makeup has always been something I did for me, but this period of self-isolation has reacquainted me with my naked face, as uneven and imperfect as it is.

And that’s not a bad thing. Pop culture, and especially celebrity culture, has warped our version of what “natural beauty” looks like, even if we can easily tell the difference between a bare face and a full one. Recently, photos of an unmade-up Kylie Jenner surfaced online, causing quite a stir. Makeup and extension-free, the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” star and beauty businesswoman was almost unrecognizable.

While we all know, in theory, that the painstakingly crafted Instagram photo shoots and physics-defying Met Gala ensembles the Kardashians are known for require a tremendous amount of time, not to mention whole teams of stylists and makeup artists, it helps to be reminded. (It’s also worth noting that the Kardashian family’s “ideal” self included a much darker skin tone than her natural complexion — but that’s a separate essay better coming from a woman of color.)

Stuck at home without their glam squads, some stars are showing us their fresh faces, unplucked brows and awkwardly grown out bangs. And with those snaps and videos comes some actual — if superficial — solidarity. Nobody actually “wakes up like this.” Not even Beyoncé.

For many women, breaking a lifelong cycle of grooming and upkeep is terrifying. Missing one nail appointment wasn’t cause for concern, but what if your next professional haircut is still months away? What if the boxing gym doesn’t reopen? What about waxing and teeth whitening and the sales clerk at Sephora who helps you find your foundation shade? Who are we without these rituals that make us feel good about ourselves?

It’s disorienting, in a society that revolves around physical beauty, to not have access to these things. But when I open Instagram, I see Julia Roberts’ makeup-free selfies, Tia Mowry’s silver-streaked afro, Cara Delevingne’s messy (and not artfully messy — actually messy) bun, and it’s strangely comforting. Granted, they’re beautiful people — celebrity isn’t all smoke and mirrors — but these vanity-lite images are a reminder that, in most places, the pageant has been temporarily suspended. The curve has been reset. Paint your nails at home if you like; color your hair from a box if that makes you feel more in control. But the primary goal is just to make it through.

It remains to be seen whether the pandemic and quarantine will have an impact on these standards long-term. My prediction is that we see a resurgence of the kind of “natural,” earthy beauty that was big in the ‘70s. After all, we don’t know when it will be safe to step back into the salon, especially in hot zones like New York. DIY grooming has become the height of aesthetic self-care, and will probably stay that way for a while.

In this context, celebrities could actually help lead the way. Sadly, not everyone seems up to it. Lest you think that the country’s first family of reality TV has or will ever fundamentally change, a few days after she was snapped bare-faced, Kylie Jenner was photographed in what sure seems like an orchestrated paparazzi photoshoot. Clad in high-waisted jeans and a white crop top — with her matching face mask, thank you very much — Jenner is blown-out and camera-ready, urgently trying to convince her public that this is the real her.

She looks great. But the fact that Jenner thought such damage control was necessary is depressing. It’s like watching a noblewoman in revolutionary France load her arms with gold-plated heirlooms while her palace is being raided by peasants.

Even if I had the means to look like Jenner in those second “candid” photos, I wouldn’t do it. At least, not right now. Because who cares? How sad is it that while the world crumbles around us literal billionaires like Jenner are expending that much time and energy putting the mask (and not the PPE kind) back into place?

Much has been written about how the the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gap between celebrities and regular people, countering any notion that wealthy stars are “just like us!” It’s maddening to be solicited for donations by people who could support whole institutions with their own private funds. The only positive thing to come out of Gal Gadot and her peers’ ham-fisted attempt at uniting the world by warbling out “Imagine” was the schadenfreude.

Celebrities, like it or not, have a lot of influence, even now. When they sing John Lennon en masse, we watch — even as we mock. It would have a huge impact if stars could use this time to embrace a new, more realistic normal. Some, like Jenner, would prefer it if we paid no attention to the woman behind the curtain. But as the pandemic changes our relationship with celebrity, we can only hope that it changes our relationship with ourselves, too. After all, that’s who we’re stuck with.


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