“An evolution in online gossip”: has our obsession with ‘celeb spot’ accounts gone too far?

Millions of us follow celebrity gossip accounts on Instagram that specialise in everything from celeb spotting to celeb feuds. But, what’s behind our love of juicy celebrity tidbits and do we need to start thinking more deeply about how we receive it on our phones? Jess Thomson investigates. 

We have always loved to gossip about the rich and famous. But, in today’s world, celebrities have increasingly inserted themselves into our daily lives, transitioning from remote figures we’d see once a year in a Hollywood movie or two, to broadcasting themselves near constantly on social media.

I see stories from the influencers and celebrities I follow more frequently than I see some of my closest friends. So, of course, we develop some parasocial relationships with our favourites. And, naturally, we want to know more. But what is really fuelling our obsession with this instantaneous celebrity gossip and are there any ethical questions about the lengths we are willing to go to receive it?

There are now countless Instagram accounts with tens of millions of followers between them dedicated to tracking the movements of celebrities and influencers, as well as  YouTube channels, TikTok accounts and blogs. Some of these accounts specialise in ‘celeb spotting’, while others discuss rumours and fallouts between celebrities and take deep dives into the histories of various feuds.

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Many accounts rely on members of their following, some of which are in excess of a million people, to send in the time, date and location of celebrities they’ve seen and who they’ve been cosying up with, often accompanied with pictures or videos to prove their story. Suddenly a private lunch date is broadcast to anyone with an internet connection.

Of course, this sort of surveillance didn’t start online: tabloids and other print media outlets have been chasing celebs for decades, snapping pictures of them at the beach and publishing the photos under headlines like ‘50 Worst Beach Bodies Of The Year’. But many of these newer social media accounts are able to follow celebrities’ movements 24/7 and know about celebrity news long before the mainstream media has caught on.

Deuxmoi, one of a growing number of Instagram accounts whose followers send in celebrity sightings, is my version of the glossy gossip magazines I used to read as a teenager. I’ll admit, I recently trawled through Deuxmoi’s archives to see if my one true love Timothée Chalamet had been spotted in any of my London haunts. He hadn’t, but a girl can dream: and that dream is made achievable by the army of amateur iPhone paparazzi.

When approached by Stylist, Deuxmoi declined to comment on how they decide what celebrity news appears on its Instagram account.

"I see stories from the influencers and celebrities I follow more frequently than some of my closest friends."

Exposure in return for fame

Celebrities sit in a grey area of privacy: they have put themselves in the public eye, yet understandably some hate being constantly watched. But how much of their personal lives do they owe us in return for their stardom?

A showbusiness magazine reporter, who wished to remain anonymous, told Stylist about where they get their celeb gossip. “We get our stories from a combination of sources: both from the celeb’s mouth itself from the things they put out as Instagram content, and our list of trusted, verified long-term sources, which are our go-to for Hollywood types that don’t post too much online,” they said.

“We rarely take new tip-offs, because we want a good relationship with our sources, and they’re legalled,” they add. “Celebs themselves do sometimes leak their own stories; it’s an open secret that if a story comes from ‘a friend of’ a celebrity, it’s from the celeb themselves. We also try to have good relationships with the PRs of celebs, so we tend to give them a heads-up about stories coming out about them.”

The other side of the camera lens

While glossy gossip mags that are often touted as overstepping the mark when it comes to invading celebrity privacy have rules about what they publish and who they get their tips from, do these rules hold fast on social media?

DJ and model Jodie Weston told Stylist what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera lens. Weston rose into public awareness when she appeared on MTV’s Fired By Mum And Dad in 2015 and the first season of Rich Kids Go Skint in 2018. In person, people had mixed reactions when they recognised her, but online she became the subject of various Instagram memes.

“For a solid year after appearing on Rich Kids Go Skint I was relentlessly trolled online every single day,” she tells Stylist. “Even when I got attacked on my way to a DJ gig in 2019, I had several trolls saying I deserved it or what did I expect when I go out with barely any clothes on, even though it happened in freezing cold February and I was totally covered up.

“Of course, trolls often hide behind accounts with no profile picture and no pictures of themselves on the profile, and they criticise everything about you.”

The constant observation and bullying proved unbearable for Weston. She started to doubt every time she posted online or left the house in case someone found something negative to say about her.

“It made me second-guess everything I did,” she says. “I’d stare at my photos for a solid two hours making sure they were good enough to be posted to my Instagram, and that there wasn’t any mess hiding in the corner or there wasn’t a bad edit somewhere which would make it easy for people to troll me. It makes you a bit paranoid.”

The ethics of celeb gossip 

Social media has increased the degree to which we can see how people act, and we can begin to feel like they owe us their secrets. But, how far is too far when it comes to invading the lives of celebrities?

“The line between a private and personal life for Instagram stars is very fine, but in my opinion, they are the ones pushing through that divide,” says the anonymous showbusiness reporter. “I would question my morals if I were to overstep the mark for a professional who leaves their private life private. For those whose persona is to share everything, I don’t feel guilty: it’s their oxygen. We’re playing into their hands really; they crave the attention – it’s quid pro quo.”

For pop culture expert and podcast host Alexandra Nikolajev, who also explores celeb gossip on her Instagram account @lexniko, there is a strict code of ethics when dealing with the gossip landscape.

“I think we’ve seen an evolution of online gossip content, and ultimately, there’s a boundary of what you are comfortable to share,” she tells Stylist. “I think that the more popular that [celebrity Instagram accounts] get, the higher and higher that boundary will go.

“Even when I’ve been sent information about celebrities that are pregnant with photo evidence, I won’t touch it in terms of sharing it publicly, because it’s not something I’m comfortable speculating about […] I think there are certain things that are too far. There’s got to be a line there.”

"We’ve seen an evolution of online gossip content."

But, even when we know there are limits to how much we should demand of celebrities’ private lives, what causes us to hunt through accounts for juicy titbits of secret gossip?

The promise of celebrity ‘rub off’

Psychotherapist Andre Radmall believes we can be drawn to gossip because it makes us feel closer to what we perceive as celebrity success.

“In our culture, we equate celebrity with success. This is why we want to know everything about them and collect every detail in the hope that some of the gold will rub off,” he tells Stylist. “There is a suspicion that celebs must have got some kind of algorithm right to succeed. By going behind the scenes we hope to find the magic formula.”

Nikolajev agrees: “I think we have a fascination with these people and who we perceive them as publicly versus who they really are as people or in real life.

“Not only does it give us a sense of them as a real person, but it also equalizes us,” she adds. “I think it makes us feel better about the fact that we’re not celebrities, because those people who we idolise and put on a pedestal actually are not perfect.”

However, according to Radmall there can also be a seed of envy lurking within our fascination for celebrity. “There [can be] a horrible hope that we will see celebs fall from grace. It is easy to see celebs as invincible and ‘able to take it’ because they have fame and money,” he says.

Boundaries have apparently dissolved and social media images and clips of celebs behind the scenes have fuelled this impression. However, often these images are carefully curated and managed by sophisticated PR, so the reality is that we may be a lot less close to their real-life than it seems.”

While being snapped having lunch may not feel like a high price to pay in return for fame, it’s clear there’s a fine line when it comes to how much of a celebrity’s private life we feel we can have access to. And as long as our desire to get close to the celebrity ‘gold’ remains, there will always be a demand for fast, direct access to it. 

Perhaps, it’s time to take a closer look at the pictures that flash up on our phone screens

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Lead images: Gotham/Getty, Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty, Kevork Djansezian/Getty

All other images: Getty