By: Zara Rawoof
Growing up with shows like “Law & Order,” “NCIS,” and “Criminal Minds,” the job of an investigator always looked challenging. Dissecting someone’s life so closely and having to pull out the shocking clues through the tiniest pieces of evidence might have seemed like something you couldn’t do, but social media sleuths are proving that anyone can put their analytical skills to the test. Ranging from celebrity pregnancies to solving cold cases, the power that we hold at our fingertips through the internet has turned millions of users into detectives.
Tabloids and pop culture media have been around almost as long as the idea of celebrity has. These news sources never fail to break the most shocking Hollywood gossip. But more recently, everyday people are using online platforms to report on celebrity news just like tabloids, often peeling back the layers of posts and interviews further than the media. All it takes to go viral on TikTok is one interesting video to land on the “For You Page” of the right people, and overnight, one can gain thousands of followers. The issue seems to be keeping those viewers enticed. But when it comes to celebrity gossip, the possibility of creating boring content is nonexistent.
Tabloids have always been known to ruin many lives, but social media makes it even easier to access the personal lives of stars. Unfortunately, it allows for more harassment and invasions into these individuals who are essentially unknown, other than for the light that society paints them in. From the downfall of Britney to constantly using trashy publications as a way to promote eating disorders, there is definite toxicity that comes with any conversation regarding celebrity life. It’s no surprise that apps like TikTok have been used to create short videos concentrated with poisonous subliminal messages. But that should not discredit those working to spread pop culture news in a healthy way, only focusing on events that celebrities have consensually chosen to be public and without degrading belittling their subjects.
One of the pioneers of this wholesome media avenue is Estefania Pessoa, better known as @hellotefi on social media. Tefi is a host at Instyle Magazine who has built her presence online around celebrity news but slowly evolved into a big sister persona that led her to gain 1.3 million followers on TikTok and receive over 60 million likes. The people she talks about are the same characters that you’d see on the bodega racks, covering tabloids with unflattering pap shots accompanied by loud fonts. The difference is the TikToker’s level of respect toward her subjects. Pessoa understands the intrigue of celebrity influence, growing up in the same culture herself. In her teens, pop culture was an outlet that helped her relate the problems that came with growing up to some of her favorite singers, actresses, and tv stars.
“These people go through these horrible things. But in the end, they're always okay,” she told me.
Aware of toxic tabloids, Estefania strives to make her content healthier.
“[For example,] Princess Diana showed how hard it is to be with somebody that does not love you. But there was also another side of that story. It's a story about two people who loved each other, Charles and Camilla, that could not be together. But because they were not kind, we focus more on Princess Diana. She died as somebody that we all felt very close to. When Princess Diana died, she was made a tabloid queen. I'm trying to appreciate people that we admire while they're here too.”
Tefi plays a large part in how pop culture —what has been known as celebrity news, fads, and idle chatter — is becoming understood in a more meaningful light.
“Pop culture is so much more than talking about what happened with Nicole and DJ AM. It's what you wore 10 years ago. The way we communicate with each other is pop culture, the instant messenger jargon, and the inside jokes you and your best friend have; that’s all pop culture. The internet changed communication. We created a way to identify what generation we were in via digital communication. Pop culture is the way we communicate with one another. It's the way that we dress. It's how we feel and approach people, the way that, why, in 2010, were all of us dressing business casual at the club? It's the best friends that you had and the way that you celebrated friendships with friendship bracelets, that's all pop culture.”
Pessoa never fails to acknowledge the people who made the most popular parts of our lives interesting.
“When people think of pop, they think of NSYNC and Backstreet Boys. Pop culture is the fact that you went to that concert with your parents and you remember it. People just provided those memories for us, provided us an opportunity to make those memories. That’s what pop culture is.”
News cycles run shorter than ever before, and Tefi agrees.
“I think that social media is creating a space where we can talk about what's going on in the world at a much faster speed. That means controversies are over much faster, too.”
Pessoa thinks that just because the pace of life online has changed doesn’t make the content being created any less meaningful.
“You can find your communities. I'm making a video series about stan culture because it's really weird! There are these cult followings online that have been both good and bad. You have more access to your supporters. You also have access to people who are hyper-obsessed with you, almost replacing you, like people in Rihanna’s Navy or the Barbz with Nicki Minaj. They [the Barbz] talk to one another more than they talk to Nicki Minaj. These communities are constantly forming. The internet is both the storm and the lighthouse.”
Aware of how online communities work, Estefania is careful to keep the lines drawn on the types of videos she’ll allow herself to make.
“There are certain things I'm never going to make. At the end of the day, we're making content, and you're getting views from it. There are certain things that people — especially women — have endured, like domestic violence. People are like, ‘Talk about Johnny and Amber!’ Absolutely not. Because I know what you want to hear and I'm not going to do that for views. I know those videos would do well. But at what cost? I won’t prop someone up to make money out of it. When you're making content, it has to come from a place where it's really interesting. But also, morally, if you sleep at night, and you don’t know if it’s right, don't even bother. Amy Winehouse is another person I'm doing a series on soon, and she had no idea how beloved and talented she was. She spent her whole life questioning herself. Not even as her friend, but as a fan, you wish you could take her and be like, ‘You are vital to the culture!’ I think that this also comes from a place of mental health awareness. I'm trying to think about things [from] that perspective.”
Whether you watch her Ted Talk on what confidence is evolving into, or you scroll through her social media pages where she remains constantly transparent, Tefi is addicting. Her authenticity and kind energy flows through her veins, through the screen, and infiltrates you. She could be telling you about her recent botox journey, the newest updates on Tristan Thompson’s unfaithfulness, or expressing the importance of finding yourself worth. No matter what, Pessoa’s viewers feel a sense of genuine love and care that can usually only be felt in person. It’s as if each video of hers is a warm hug after a long day. This is why it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of Tefi, realizing only after you find yourself thirty videos in that you’ve somehow been consumed by such a loveable personality. So how does someone so genuine and so bright provide herself with the same TLC she gives others?
“I don't know. I'm still working on that right now. I'm 31, and I know who I am. I can feel when I need a break. But I truly love it so much, and trolls don't really get to me because I'm in my 30s, and that's just a different POV. I don't know what I would be like if I was 15 with TikTok. That’s scary to me. The internet is your friend as long as you maintain that relationship with it. As long as you know who you are and you know your values, the internet won't be detrimental because it easily could be something where your whole life could be online. And it's very easy to do right now. But when it comes to breaks, I think that's really when I'm just like, ‘Dude, I want to order Chinese food, and I want to watch an Amy Winehouse documentary or Britney’s Onyx Hotel Tour in Miami. It's my go-to for relaxing. It's also okay for people to miss you. You’re always vulnerable [online]. You're always on Instagram and Twitter anyway. Just talk to your friends, FaceTime a friend, eat some shitty food that feels good. Watch a movie, drink some water.”
Pessoa is just one example of a TikTok investigator, and her reasoning for creating the content that she does comes from her interest in the people she talks about. Because of the personalization of her work, there is bound to be an emotional investment in her work, which explains the cautionary approach she takes to ensure that the people and situations she talks about aren’t offending or imposing on anyone’s life. It also counts for the conversational feel through the screen. Creators like her are often personally enthralled by the news they report on, sharing the emotional rollercoasters of their reports with their viewers simultaneously. This connection between the messenger and the receiving party in the news has never been seen before. For example, before Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy was even announced, @nosyoneill on TikTok was analyzing the mogul’s nail art to prove that she had only been posting old photos two months before news had officially been broken. Her own shock and excitement led viewers to comment on their reactions, as well as other hints they’ve picked up that would strengthen the theory. News reports have been changed forever with the formats of these videos creating an interactive experience that helps celebrity investigations involve more people.
These commentators leave absolutely no part of an influencer’s life untouched. From nail colors, clothing choices, and especially past relationships, every part of a person is mulled over on TikTok. All it takes is finding the perfect subject, someone who is interesting enough to be worth all of the meticulous detective work. Some people may be one-hit wonders, with viral videos or pictures setting the internet aflame for all of one week before something more interesting comes along. But there are five people we can always rely on for entertainment. Basking in the light of the public eye since the early 2000s, the Kardashians and their history have provided a treasure trove of content to dig into. One of the main lifelines that give celeb investigators an abundance of content is the Kardashian family. To know the Kardashian last name is to know the empire that has taken over every aspect of pop culture. The media can’t get enough of the Kardashians, whether it be their photoshop mishaps, street style, or even down to the minute details of the posts they like and the items found in the back of their Instagram stories. Still, at this level of analysis, the information about reality stars remains surface level.
Unlike the tabloids, TikTok investigators deep dive into more than their posts. These commentators take fans into the inner workings of the symbolism and every intentional detail or connection found through the KarJenner lifestyle. @Kardashian_Kolloquium is arguably the most proficient account covering these examinations. Connecting Kardashian moments from ten years ago to their lives now or analyzing the meanings behind every costume, product, and outfit they put out, MJ Corey is the mastermind whose page is its own universe. In one video, she breaks down every time Kim dressed as Jasmine for Halloween beginning in 2009 and each interpretation of the character displayed. With these careful reports comes attention to detail. She isn’t afraid to call out the family in her work. While the Kardashians receive backlash for their politically incorrect tendencies all the time, Corey focuses on the family not only as salacious stars of the public eye but a brand that survives on all of the attention it receives. Her critiques can be extremely specific. When Kim dressed up for Halloween as the princess of R&B, Aaliyah, MJ did not hold back when admonishing the inconsistency with the middle sister’s other costumes. She let her viewers know that unlike her costumes as Marylin Monroe or Cher, Kim doesn’t have any real connection to the singer, and therefore, the costume was not a strong choice. It’s time momager Kris Jenner hires her. If you took out the Kardashian name from MJ’s videos, she could easily be mistaken for a historian, delving into the salacious pasts of an icon from another time. As if they were her social experiment, the creator uses the reality TV stars to relate back to theological concepts. A family is notoriously known for being talentless, ditzy airheads who fill up time on E! Network doing nothing, MJ manages to use such unrelatable people to demonstrate the most fundamentally human ideas. MJ’s page isn’t a source of revenue for her. She still has a full-time career and personal life completely separated from the content she creates. The nature of her videos isn’t at all casual conversation. These are quick snippets of intellectual dissections packed with background information and evidence to back up every claim. And to allow the Kardashians to take up so much of one’s time, there must be a pretty good reason.
“I have a genuine curiosity about the ideas that underpin the cultural force that they are,” MJ explains.
“I think I would find the media theory more complex, a little more confusing, and inaccessible if I didn't have a concrete prism to understand all of it through. There's a reclamation and a way of using the Kardashians to understand what's happening better.”
The concept of celebrity is multi-faceted and energetic, with so many different interpretations of a single idea. It makes sense that hyper-focusing on one group of people who represent so much of what it means to be a celebrity —the fame, the fortune, and the scandal — can make such chaos palatable.
“They are so consistent over the past decade culturally that they're more useful than the celebrity of the hour because you can track their provenance through time.”
For the TikToker, understanding the concepts of media theory has become a mission. Starting out as an Instagram page with her sister, MJ created memes and discussions online based on “satirizing academia,” she recalls.
“ At the time, it was memes that were kind of poking fun at the really wordy papers that you see in scholarship. And that was fun. But I found it wasn't enough to make just the memes. There are these themes that are resonant in the Kardashians. I really wanted to keep learning. It just became a conversation space.”
Although it was where she started, MJ can admit that Instagram’s formatting isn’t quite as interpersonal and equipped for discourse as TikTok manages to be. With the help of a Gen Zer who persuaded her that the video-based app would take her platform further, MJ branched out onto the social media platform during quarantine, like millions of others.
One of the most interesting parts of the Kardashian Kolloquium is the approach to a topic that can seem so surface level. Thanks to the copious amount of communication and media that pour into our phones, computers, and TVs, it’s no surprise that the new idea of “stans” — defined as an “overzealous fan” by Google — has taken over everything from TikTok to Twitter. But it isn’t just fans becoming emotionally attached to these untouchable influencers. Accounts dedicated to updating their followers on the latest celebrity news often forget the original mission statement of their work, blurring the lines between fact and their personal feelings, opening themselves up further than intended. This is why it’s so easy to come across videos and articles that describe the Kardashians doing the most mundane activities or receiving relentless news on their controversies from sources that have so obviously found themselves on the side of the family. Just as Kris Jenner intended, very few are resistant to the obsessive nature in regards to the Kardashians, whether you love or loathe their craft.
One of the most notable aspects about MJ to respect is her ability to nonchalantly detach herself from the infatuation of the Kardashians, creating boundaries as she uses the family for research purposes only.
“What matters most to me is that distance from personalizing with the Kardashians themselves. That’s what other people do, and it makes sense. It’s their function socially, to be related to. That's what they want. But the nature of critical discourse is neutrality, and I really try to maintain it.”
It’s not only the nature of the Kardashians themselves but how everyone else reacts to them.
“Here's the hard thing: when you're doing work about the Kardashians, and you're trying to make sure people see your work, you have to mirror their media cycle for people to give a damn. And I only got good at really mirroring them after a few years of running the account when I realized they move so fast. There's so much they flood you with you've got to be on as they go. No one's gonna care about something that happened two weeks ago. The conversation has passed. The opportunity to go deep is gone.”
As a self-proclaimed critical thinker, the style of the Kardashian Kolloquium creator’s work allows her followers to trust her content. Her feelings for the family don’t go beyond her explanations and understandings of the intertwining paths of their lives. When she started back in 2018, MJ admits that to her, reality TV was just “junk food for the brain.” It wasn’t until one of her roommates turned on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” that MJ realized the intricacies of the family. At the time, MJ was reading a plethora of theories recommended to her by her sister. From Lacan to Baudrillard Debord, her reading list began to seep into other media she was taking in.
“When I watched the movie ‘Scream,’ I knew there was something so resonant about how multi-layered and referential it is with ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians.’ So I learned about a bunch of papers written about ‘Scream’ and its postmodernity. Eventually, it all just became this web of connection. The more I learned, the more validated I felt in my intellectual curiosity because there was so much more to know about them. The Kardashians are this hub were so much spreads out from. I think there is nothing to be ashamed of about that kind of intellectual thirst and interest. It has empowered me more to learn this stuff. They make it fun to learn this stuff.”
Rather than deny herself the intrigue and social examination that can be dissected from the Kardashians, MJ tapped into her genuine interest in their inner workings. Even if they may not know it, it’s likely that a great part of the reason the Kardashians and other celebrities are so enticing is the analogy they can serve as. When cracking through the surface of celebrity culture, seeing the mechanics of human nature through these reality TV stars or social media influencers can subconsciously be what fascinates someone enough to follow up with pop culture news. People may see themselves through these extravagant stars or contrarily believe they are so untouchable that all one can do is watch in awe.
Regardless of the reason as to why we are so obsessed with celebrity gossip, there’s no denying the lift in our eyebrows as we hear about the newest scandals, often leading down a path of more research and almost always ending up on an Instagram scavenger hunt. There is a certain chase that comes with these mini investigations. Being able to track someone solely based on their own need to put out their whereabouts from the comfort of your couch and know there are no consequences to your cyber stalkings tiptoes the lines between being interested and becoming Joe Goldberg. Nevertheless, there is no doubting the data that can be collected through social media. Sometimes these hunts stem from a guilty pleasure of gossip, or if you’re like MJ, they’re a means to decipher and psychoanalyze a set of extraordinary human beings. No matter the reason as to why you’ve become an online investigator, the power of social media has brought an interesting new approach to what’s always been dismissed as mindless celebrity propaganda. As influencers are now being put under the microscope in a new way, a new kindness is offered to them. Posting your own content for the world to see has given everyone their own power in a sense, adding to the little investigations that always go on in celebrity news. In the midst of the frenzies caused by pop culture breaking news, it’s important to remember that the tools used to conduct research and deep dive into someone’s life can be the same ones to offer support as well.