Why Eat the Rich When You Can Consume The Celebrity? GUEST POST by Maud Woolf (Thirteen Ways to Kill Lulabelle Rock)
Today, we’re thrilled to welcome back Maud Woolf to the Hive!
The release date of her debut novel, Thirteen Ways to Kill Lulabelle Rock is edging closer, so Maud has written a piece exploring the material drive behind celebrity. Before we hand you over to Maud, let’s hear a little more about her upcoming novel:
Set in a world of the near future, the celebrity elite have access to a technology that allows them to make perfect copies of themselves, known as Portraits. These Portraits exist to fulfil all the various duties that come as the price of fame.
Our protagonist is the thirteenth copy made of the actress known as Lulabelle Rock. Her purpose is very simple: to track down and eliminate her predecessors.
While initially easy, her task is made difficult by the labyrinthine confusion of Bubble City and the unfortunate stirrings of a developing conscience. When she makes the mistake of falling in love with one of her targets, the would-be assassin faces the ultimate question; when you don’t want to kill yourself, what’s the alternative?
Thirteen Ways to Kill Lulabelle Rock is due for release 9th January 2024 from Angry Robot. You can order your copy on Bookshop.org
Why Eat the Rich When You Can Consume The Celebrity?
by Maud Woolf
When I started writing my novel I wanted to examine the idea of the celebrity as a product; prepared and packaged and sold on every shelf. The lengths people will go to in order to feel close to their icons has always been fascinating to me. When I say that I don’t just mean getting too involved in Taylor Swift’s love life or using exclusively celebrity brand makeup. I’m talking about Britney Spears’ used gum being sold for thousands at auction. John Lennon’s tooth. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s breath. At a certain point it goes beyond admiration or emulation to a pure and overwhelming desire to consume.
(Sometimes in the most literal sense. In the early 2000s a variety of articles were published about a company called BiteLabs who claimed that they were able to create salami grown in a lab from celebrity tissue samples. This is almost certainly a scam or fake but if anyone wants to write the book I’ll be reading.)
Classic sci-fi dystopias often feature a ruling class, immune to the horrors the rest of the world are faced with. It feels strange to talk about dehumanization and exploitation when it comes to people who are so inherently powerful. They aren’t disposable but in a way, that’s precisely where the horror comes in; with so much money riding on one human being continuing to exist, what lengths would people go to to keep the golden goose laying eggs? What happens when a person becomes a product?
In my novel ‘Thirteen Ways to Kill Lulabelle Rock’, celebrities commission ‘Portraits’, perfect copies designed to carry out the various functions required of a high profile figure. These Portraits walk the streets wearing couture; conduct tabloid affairs; run social media accounts; perform dangerous stunts on set. Above all though they exist to feed the public’s insatiable need for more. The concept stemmed from a simple model of supply and demand. When an individual becomes a business then at some point that business starts franchising.
I’m not the first person to play around with the idea of celebrity clones. In Michael Bay’s 2005 sci- fi action movie, The Island, the rich and famous grow exact copies of themselves to use for spare parts. Because it’s Michael Bay, the ethical questions raised by the movie pretty quickly get forgotten in favor of helicopters and car chases, but the core creepiness of the film can be distilled in the way the clones are repeatedly referred to as ‘insurance policies’.
Rewatching it now it’s hard not to see parallels to the current war in Hollywood over the use of digital scanning. This process, where an interactive 3D model of an actor is created is sometimes referred to as creating digital doubles or virtual doppelgangers. The insurance policy is no longer for the celebrity themselves but for the people making money off of them. In a million dollar industry what a relief to no longer have to rely on a fallible human being. They don’t have to be present; they don’t even have to be alive.
This was an idea explored in the Black Mirror episode ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’. Miley Cyrus plays Ashley O, a singer so exploited by the industry that even after she slips into a medical coma, they use a digital copy of her to keep pumping out hits and performances. The individual artist is used up and thrown away with everything marketable about them given to a perfect, undemanding and effectively immortal puppet. The episode also featured mass produced dolls all programmed to be an exact copy of Ashley’s personality. These were widely distributed so every fan could feel like they owned a little bit of the idol they worshiped.
This episode came out in 2019. Now in 2023, Meta has announced a new AI chatbot that looks and sounds exactly like Kendall Jenner. The chatbot is only one of a number of various ‘celebrity faces’ due to be rolled out, including Snoop Dog, Mr Beast and Paris Hilton. These chatbot’s main selling feature is that they’re a friend you can talk to, one that is constantly accessible at all times. With this the longing to be close to a celebrity is finally satisfied- they’re quite literally in your pocket.
It’s worth saying that the reaction to this hasn’t been particularly positive with a lot of fans being understandably creeped out. Part of this is fear that the technology has come so far so quickly but I think there’s an element of the curtain being drawn back as well. With these AI ‘friends’ we aren’t interacting with anything real. It looks like Kendall, sounds like Kendall but whatever person we think we’re talking to, simply isn’t there. In a way it breaks the illusion of parasocial interaction. You’re confronted with the fact that there is a barrier we are never going to cross.
At the moment with social media we have never had more access to the lives of the rich and famous. We’ve looked into their houses, we’ve seen their leaked nudes, we see them talking to us constantly through livestreams and timelines. Despite all this, the fact remains; we don’t know these people and they don’t know us. We might as well be in love with a shadow on the cave wall.
In my own novel, the craze for creating copies is actually starting to die down when the story starts. By the time Lulabelle creates her thirteenth clone, the tide has turned and now people are starting to crave exclusivity. Wherever my protagonist goes she is met by disappointment or disinterest when people learn that she is not ‘the real deal’.
The relationship between the fan and the celebrity is a complicated one. Desire, obsession, love, admiration, resentment and dependence; there’s a lot tied up in there. Putting all of that aside, I think we need to be more conscious of the people who create and manage that dynamic. Who stands to benefit? Who’s making the money? If we’re consuming, then who’s setting the menu and laying out the plates?
Maud Woolf is a one-time bookseller at Forbidden Planet. She was a student on the Glasgow University Creative Writing course and graduated with an MLit with distinction. She has had a number of short stories published in online magazines but this is her debut novel. She lives in Glasgow.