A game of “20 questions” with Sarah Silverman. An hourlong dog walk with Adam Scott. A mural painted in your house by Lena Dunham. These are just some of the quirky experiences being auctioned on eBay in support of crewmembers affected by the current Hollywood strikes. There’s plenty more conventional memorabilia up for grabs, too: signed scripts and posters; props. But it’s the bespoke one-on-one experiences that have understandably grabbed the headlines. It’s a tantalising prospect – a famous person simply strolling off the screen and into your life, like Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo. But is it healthy? I’m not so sure.
Let me be clear: this eBay auction is a fundamentally good thing, in aid of a good and necessary cause. These kinds of paid-for one-to-ones are almost always organised in aid of good causes, of course – typically charities. And there is a difference between going bowling with a fan to raise 10 grand for Unicef and hawking your face on the celebrity message platform Cameo for personal profit. The buyer gets to meet their hero. The celebrity gets to generate a large sum of money for charity without spending any of their own. The charity gets the dosh. Everybody wins. But that doesn’t stop these “celebrity auctions” being deeply, pathologically weird.
The phenomenon testifies to the creepingly unnatural dynamic that exists now between fans and their idols. Fuelled in part by the dizzy and deceptive intimacy of social media, the gap between celebrities and the hoi polloi has never been tighter or more blurred. “Parasocial relationships”, as they are now called, are nothing new. Mass media is built upon the idea of one-way engagement. There isn’t much psychological difference in fans commenting adoringly at their favourite TikTok stars and the handwritten fan mail that would roll in for Elvis by the cartload. But traditional media afforded ordinary people a level of detachment that now no longer exists. Elvis was, for most people, an abstract idea. Unknowable and unreachable. Nowadays, we see celebrities discuss their lives – offer up, sometimes, their innermost thoughts – on the internet. Of course people think they’re entitled to reciprocation.
Also thrown into the mix is the sense of ownership, the kind of strange, unearned possessiveness that some people have over favoured celebrities. This is particularly prevalent within the world of “Stan” culture. (For the uninformed, “Stan culture” takes its name from an Eminem track about an obsessive fan, and generally refers to the ardent, mass championing of a pop cultural figure on social media.) But it’s also exacerbated, when we’re talking about celebrity auctions, by the involvement of money. Having Natasha Lyonne come over to your house to help with a crossword would be perfectly normal – if only you weren’t paying thousands of dollars for the interaction. It’s a paradox. Turning normal, everyday interactions into a paid-for service only serves to dehumanise and deify people who are already confronted with soul-gnawing dehumanisation at most every public turn.
The very concept of the “celebrity meet-up auction” was satirised brilliantly in the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, when Seinfeld co-creator Larry David agrees to meet a wealthy bidder for lunch to raise money for treating “Groat’s Syndrome”. At the meal, he infuriates his admirer by refusing to wait for both their plates to arrive before eating, and their meet-up descends into angry bickering. The man ultimately recants his donation. The joke here, in part, is that Larry David refuses to code-switch, refuses to play the part of the glad-handing celebrity. Instead of “going for lunch” with this man and performing the service of the obliging writer, he really goes for lunch with him, and behaves like his usual abrasive self. That’s not what people want. So what exactly are they getting from the whole charade?
Don’t get me wrong: everyone has their heroes. If you’re sufficiently wealthy, then the idea of paying a wad of cash for an afternoon with your favourite B-lister probably just sounds like a more stimulating alternative to a luxury spa weekend, or a diamond necklace. But it’s not normal. It’s not how humans are meant to interact. The fact that these auctions still exist goes to show that we are all caught in the gravitational pull of celebrity culture: it seems there’s no amount of money in the world that can dislodge people from its orbit.