It’s fair to say that Charlotte Church was unhappy with the result of the UK’s latest general election. After the Conservative party unexpectedly won an overall majority, Church not only reiterated her dislike for the Tories on Twitter, but attended an anti-austerity protest in Cardiff. This attracted a lot of attention, and by June 20th Church was not only participating in The People’s Assembly anti-austerity protest in London, but giving a speech to the thousands of protestors in parliament square.
Church was not the only celebrity to address the crowd, but her speech did attract the most attention. This may be partly because Russell Brand did not want to give interviews that day, but may also be because Brand is now an established and expected presence at such events, whilst Church is a fresher face. Her speech attracted much online coverage, and she was interviewed for BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and SKY News.
Church would have known that her role in the protest would attract criticism; before the event had even finished she had discussed accusations of hypocrisy, and the difficulties artists face in talking about politics, with Channel 4 News. Church’s mum even wore a T-Shirt stating ‘prosecco socialist’, referencing her comeback that she was ‘more of a prosecco girl’ to the leader of the Welsh Conservatives who dismissed her as a champagne socialist. Church had previously been criticised for not ‘voluntarily’ paying a higher rate of tax, after she stated that she would be happy to pay 70% tax in order to contribute to properly funded public services and an end to austerity.
Church’s speech, however, brought a new wave of criticism, much of this using misogynistic language, and new accusations of hypocrisy. Looking at celebrity involvement in progressive campaigns, a clear pattern emerges. Evidence of alleged hypocrisy is quickly found and (re)posted by right-wing bloggers or journalists, and this is then used by others to criticise the celebrity’s political statements and suggest that they should not be participating in political movements. Following Church’s statement that she would pay 70% tax to support public services, a Conservative councillor uploaded a video to YouTube of Church appearing on Have I Got News For You 12 years ago (aged just 17), complaining that she pays too much tax. Guido Fawkes then embedded this in a post accusing Church of being on a ‘mission to be reborn as a poundshop Russell Brand’.
Following the protest Fawkes accused Church of further hypocrisy, publishing a quote from the website of the accountancy firm used by her companies which stated that ‘lowering and deferring tax is, of course, a key aim’. This new allegation was used by many of Church’s Twitter critics. This is now a familiar pattern; the speed with which Russell Brand (following a housing protest) was declared a hypocrite for the tax affairs of his landlord, or Martin Freeman a champagne socialist because of his son’s private education (following his Labour party political broadcast) is impressive. But Church was faced with not only trying to refute these accusations of hypocrisy, but also calling out the sexism of many of her critics.
All of the narrow minded trolls, I'm bored now. I hope you can try and work out the Stockholm Syndrome stuff you have going on.—
Charlotte Church (@charlottechurch) June 21, 2015
Can a celebrity be an ‘authentic’ activist?
These accusations of hypocrisy are founded on a perceived inconsistency between the person’s political statements, or the political aims of any movements, groups or parties they are associated with, and other aspects of their life. This fits with recent academic debates over what authenticity is, which conclude that authenticity is a performance. Rather than about ‘being yourself’, to be perceived authentic a person must present themselves consistently across the different areas of their life, and the different platforms they use to communicate.
Clearly, this perceived authenticity is difficult to achieve, but there are three key reasons it may be even more difficult, perhaps even impossible, for a celebrity who becomes involved in left-wing political activism. Cries of ‘hypocrite’ often come from the tension between the celebrity’s elevated wealth and status and their desire to speak on behalf of those who do not have these privileges, but there are other barriers to authenticity. If someone has been famous for a number of years, it is almost inevitable that some aspect of their mediated life can be found and used as evidence of inconsistency, and therefore inauthenticity. Charlotte Church became known as a singer at the age of 11, we should not be surprised that her opinions have changed over the past 18 years.
The celebrity/activist is also likely to have their fingers in several pies, which creates more opportunities for inconsistency. Those who wish to ‘expose’ the celebrity as inauthentic can search for tensions between the celebrity’s commercial activities and their political statements. Even in cases where these allegations of hypocrisy are tenuous, such as Russell Brand being held accountable for the actions of his landlord, the celebrity is then drawn into time-consuming arguments with critics.
If consistency is the key to being perceived as authentic, and authenticity is the key to being taken seriously, the celebrity-activist is likely to find that their fame opens doors, but that there is a crowd of critics armed with Google and Twitter waiting on the other side. Church’s case demonstrates that for women, their authenticity as an activist will often be debated in misogynistic terms. Of course a celebrity’s political actions or statements, and their intentions, should not go unscrutinised. However, these petty disputes over minor inconsistencies in a celebrity’s mediated life hold the celebrity to a standard of ‘authenticity’ which is unattainable, and distract from the political issues up for debate in the process.
 See the following: Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012). AuthenticTM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture
Alice Marwick (2013). Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age
Alice Marwick and danah boyd (2011). To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter. Convergence 17 (2).
Sarah Thomas (2014) ‘Celebrity in the “Twitterverse”: history, authenticity and the multiplicity of stardom. Situating the “newness” of Twitter’, Celebrity Studies 5 (3).