IN 2014, an online and mainstream media frenzy circulated about the meaning of Miley Cyrus. What does it mean when she twerks with Robin Thicke at the VMAs, or what can we construe from a former Disney child star, now twenty years old, appearing nude in her video for the song “Wrecking Ball”? Or how should we interpret Lily Allen weighing in to the debate about how popular music demands salacious and provocative images in her salacious—and, for some, racist—commentary song and video “Hard Out Here”? In 2015, this morphed into the equally provocative scandal where private and exposing images pulled from mobile phones of stars like Jennifer Lawrence virally moved through the Internet. At the opposite extreme, the last few years have produced occasionally heated debate among fans and anti-fans of Justin Bieber that perhaps we have seen too much of the singer, too much of his antics and attempts to make the private and public collide on Instagram. All of these examples identify the ultimate debate about the new visibility and the breakdown of public and private in the contemporary moment. Even our stars appear to be hacked for wider and open viewing of their habits and proclivities.
All of these absolutely pale in comparison to a remarkably present practice online: celebrity fakes. Website after website, one can find images of the most famous in some of the most hard-core pornographic poses. One of these sites, Celebrity Fake, constructs a complete archive of thousands upon thousands of celebrities organized by name and country of fame. Miley Cyrus, along with other Disney alumni, such as Selena Gomez, is remarkably prominent and linked to the most popular on the site’s home page, but the sheer number is unbelievable. Miley alone is found in 432 of these fake pornographic poses. No one is spared, and very few are sacred: there are 182 images of Princess Diana, 36 of fifty-something film actress Annette Bening, and 195 of the tennis star Maria Sharapova. No country is overlooked, from Albania to Zimbabwe. In listings for Australia, stars Cate Blanchett is reformed in 124 poses, Julia Gillard in 6, Kylie Minogue in 524, Libby Trickett in 3, and so on for more than 150 famous Australian women. This website is far from alone. A Google search under the phrase “celebrity fake porn” returns 37.3 million sites; using the term “celebrity porn” generates 170 million sites; and “celebrity porn sites” produces a list of 60.5 million links.
This phenomenon of celebrity fake porn is hard to fathom and at the very least intriguing to analyze. First of all, one would expect that the circulation of false images of very famous people would generate a torrent of lawsuits. After all, these famed individuals have spent years constructing their public personas and built fortunes related to their public identities, and one would think these same individuals would be outraged sufficiently to generate suits and litigation. For decades, scandal and celebrity magazines have been pursued by celebrities with some success. Impersonation is generally prosecuted by stars, and these images are putting their faces on other women’s bodies, thereby producing a form of impersonation. Recent examples when stars have prosecuted impersonators include
Tom Waits successfully suing Opel, a GM-owned car manufacturer, for using a sound-alike gravelly voice to accompany its television commercials
Lindsay Lohan unsuccessfully suing E-Trade, a financial services company, for a baby called “Lindsay” in their 2010 Super Bowl–released commercial who was called a “milkaholic”
now deceased Robin Williams pursuing the prosecution of a man impersonating him for financial gain at events in Texas
Even in Australia in 2015, Greens Senator and politician Sarah Hanson-Young is advanced with some success in suing Zoo magazine for publishing a photoshopped lingerie-clad image of her in a rather bizarre, tasteless, and obviously humorous campaign to find the hottest asylum seeker.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to find any lawsuits against fake celebrity porn sites. One of the key reasons around this might be the awkward position celebrities inhabit in the public world. In most legal jurisdictions, such as the United States, although not in all, it is permissible to parody or satirize a public individual, and this allows the use of an identity in this way. Famous impersonators, such as Rich Little, were seen as entertainers. Will Ferrell’s brilliant 2009 parody of George W. Bush interviewing himself is certainly worth protecting from litigation. What this means is that celebrities operate with slightly different rules in terms of the privacy of their identities—to a degree, their personas are in the public domain. In some ways, they can protect what might be called “personality rights” from exploitation at the hands of corporations and nefarious individuals. Making litigation difficult are two other factors. First, an image is generally owned by the photographer or his agency, and it is at least partially up to these parties to initiate legal action; thus celebrities may not be the starting point for lawsuits. Second, perhaps it is simply embarrassing for celebrities to draw attention to celebrity fake porn—after all, it is their faces that have been used, and to draw further scrutiny might be seen as further sullying reputations and images. From a legal standpoint, the websites make it very clear that the images are fake, making advancing a defamation case more difficult and even opening American First Amendment defenses to failure. The end result for the celebrity is an inordinate focus on what she would not want people to associate with herself.
As this legal inertia continues, there is no question that the universe of celebrity fake porn is expanding. One of the elements of this online phenomenon is that it is partially driven by user-generated content. Many YouTube videos guide individuals on how to use Photoshop to make “celebrity fakes,” as DazTutorials does, shading images to blend them together seamlessly. Other YouTube videos provide point-by-point instruction in how Photoshop can be used to remove clothing from an electronic image. This uploading of Photoshop production techniques of celebrity fakes by “amateurs” is encouraged by the key sites; moreover, these sites also encourage users to “request” new celebrity subjects to be made into celebrity fakes. It is also important to realize that celebrity fake porn is a potential major entry point into online pornography and serves to link many pornography sites as users move through images. In other words, celebrity fakes do what celebrities do at red-carpet events: they attract attention, and that attention is valuable for both the website and those linked to that website, merely replicating the way the online advertising and promotional economy operates.
This brings us to the last two key questions: what is the particular fascination with celebrity fake porn, and why now? Although there have been precursors to this celebrity pornography, with magazines such as Celebrity Skins or nude profiles of very famous celebrities appearing as far back as Marilyn Monroe in magazines such as Playboy, Vanessa Williams in Penthouse, or Paris Hilton more recently in FHM, the nature and dimensions of this phenomenon are quite different. As with most pornography, the fabricated graphic images presented are generally of women, with much less than 5 percent of all the images those of male public personalities. The target users—given that the images of famous men predominantly resemble gay male pornography—appear to be male. It is also different than the regular and tired phenomenon of what used to be called the “sex tapes” immortalized by Rob Lowe many years ago and expanded through the activities of drawing attention to what would be described as scandalous and sometimes illegal activity. This practice has been expanded and utilized to maintain the attention of the celebrity press by icons such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian (see Maplesden 2015). To a degree, Miley Cyrus’s efforts at defining herself as an adult and not a child through her videos, her twerking, and her provocative comments are at least part of this same construction of scandal and attention seeking that is ever present in contemporary entertainment culture.
Celebrity fake porn is in some ways much more mundane and ordinary. It is clearly a play in the world of private and public. It allows its audience to take what is part of the public world and migrate it into a private world. This migration is more than the tawdry use of pornography for sexual pleasure. It represents a form of possession of a public figure, a fantasy belief in the capacity of complete revelation and exposure of the public personality. This is its tonic for the user. The images themselves are very often obscene and degrading in their graphic bodily detail, and this identifies a further form of possession and ownership that is heightened because of the fame and value of the personality.
For the celebrity, because porn still represents something hidden and perhaps undiscussed publicly, celebrity fakes remain an underworld. Online culture, in its capacity to distribute and its encouragement of user generation, works very differently at producing an alternative form of public culture, a culture that presents new challenges to protecting one’s image. Celebrity fake porn is at an interesting intersection of private and public, manipulation and attraction, which makes it of particular interest in an era when greater exposure of all of us online has become more and more normal. With 40 million images posted daily on a site such as Instagram, the celebrity fakes phenomenon is another example of the quite dramatic change in public and private culture that online culture has fostered. Celebrities are getting used to this world of image and potential manipulation more quickly than the rest of us; at least for the moment, celebrities en masse are ignoring these violations of the self.