Pandemic-era celebrities struggle to strike appropriate tone

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As the has forced populations worldwide indoors, many celebrities have harnessed their star power to try and raise spirits online, dubbing the illness a great unifier.

But expressions of have rung hollow for some social media users fatigued by content that's perhaps well-intentioned but backdropped by hot tubs, crackling fireplaces, or backyard pools.

The most recent eye rolls came after the announcement that some 200 celebrities and politicians -- including billionaire Oprah, superstar actress Julia Roberts and former US president George W. Bush -- would participate in a 24-hour long "Call to Unite" livestream event starting this Friday to encourage donating to COVID-19 relief efforts.

"If only they knew ppl with money," tweeted journalist Astead Herndon of the announcement.

And yet, we watch: more than 270 million people worldwide tuned in to a recent star-studded marathon special intended to celebrate essential workers that featured headliners The Rolling Stones and Taylor Swift performing from their homes.

Even for those loving to hate, the streamed sing-alongs and Instagram live soliloquys keep the internet rapt, perhaps temporarily alleviating the boredom of life indoors.

Whether messages of the rich and famous fascinate or leave a bad taste, that attention remains "says more about our culture than these actual celebrities," according to professor Cheryl Thompson of Toronto's Ryerson University.

"We might not want to admit it to ourselves," Thompson told AFP, but "we look to them, in some ways, to be our gauge for what we should think and feel."

'Out of touch'

The scholar of creative industries pointed to Tom Hanks' announcement in mid-March that he had contracted coronavirus, saying that news convinced many people the infection was serious.

Indeed, Jenna Anderson said the realities of coronavirus first hit her once Hanks -- whom she called a "national-treasure type" -- went public with his illness.

The 30-year-old previously living in Australia, where Hanks quarantined, is now isolating with her family in Houston.

But Anderson said while some content has been useful -- stars' descriptions of symptoms, for example -- "most of what sticks in my mind are negative experiences where celebrities do seem a bit out of touch."

The internet slammed talkshow personality Ellen DeGeneres when she joked self-quarantine in her glassy California mansion was like "being in jail."

Arnold Schwarzenegger critized spring-breakers from his jacuzzi, cigar in hand, while a coterie of stars led by Gal Gadot became a laughingstock after dropping an awkward cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," including Zoe Kravitz perched by her fireplace while others appeared to be meandering across their estates.

Many stars "seem to really try to keep in the forefront of people's minds in a way that seems unnecessary to me, based on what I assume about how much money they have and how successful they are," Anderson said.

Still, Thompson said "we've always had this sense that celebrities come and take us away from the hard times."

During World War II, for example, the US government called Hollywood stars to visit troops or promote war bond sales.

Many celebrities today have deployed their wealth, including entertainment mogul Rihanna's donation of medical equipment to New York state and $5 million to several relief organizations, or Beyonce's $6 million donation to nonprofits.

Country icon Dolly Parton meanwhile is financing Vanderbilt University research efforts for a vaccine.

Beyond the cash, entertainment can soothe -- and Thompson predicted the trauma of the current moment could fuel more intriguing art in years to come.

"The struggle has always brought with it amazing creative outputs," she said.

Until then there is plenty of celebrity content relying less on platitudes, and more on entertaining the masses by leaning into the absurd.

Britney Spears has been offering eyebrow-raising comic relief including an abrupt tale of the time she "burned down her gym" -- no one was harmed -- while "Mad Men" star January Jones has taken on the role of quarantine eccentric, offering a recipe for a "human stew" detox bath.

And "Jurassic Park" actor Sam Neill has been posting playful albeit slightly unhinged videos -- including a bit where he voices a garden gnome who schools listeners on self-isolation.

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