Celebrity Backstage Personas on Twitter: Performance Art or Artifice?

On June 4, 2013, Justin Bieber made Twitter history by becoming the first person to accrue 40 million followers on Twitter.  Like or dislike Bieber’s brand, his milestone is actually the envy and goal of the celebrity Twitterverse, and due largely in part to his construction of his backstage persona on Twitter . By examining the Twitter accounts of high profile celebrities like Justin Bieber and Rihanna and low profile celebrities like Leah Headley and Amanda Bynes, common patterns can be discerned that give insight into how celebrities construct a consumable backstage persona that builds and maintains their fan base on Twitter.

Backstage Persona

One of the most widely used strategies used by celebrities on Twitter is the construction of the backstage persona. The front stage persona is the celebrity’s  public image, while the backstage persona is associated with the celebrity’s private life normally inaccessible to fans. The backstage persona is used as a technique to engage with fans by offering them a glimpse into a celebrity’s  private life. This backstage persona is a type of performance art or “performed intimacy” because celebrities are in effect performing a “backstage role” through tweets on Twitter (Marwick and Boyd, pp. 148-149). In my examination of the four celebrity Twitter accounts, I found two re-occurring patterns used by celebrities to construct a backstage persona: photos/videos  and Twitter rants.

Photos and Videos

The most widely used technique by celebrities is the posting of photos and videos through apps such as Instagram, Twitpic, WhoSay, Vine and Viddy. But it’s not just a matter of posting any video or image. To successfully “perform intimacy”  celebrities need to select photos that give a teasing peak into their private lives. The type of photos and videos used in performed intimacy are actual backstage depictions of the celebrity in his or her occupation, and depictions of the celebrity’s private world away from their performing medium.

For example, Bieber and Rihanna are both musicians currently on tour. Both create an intimacy with their fans by posting photos and videos of themselves backstage at their concerts.

Justin Bieber Rihanna backstage

Justin Bieber and Rihanna post video/photo on Twitter showing their backstage personas.

Lena Headey is an actress on the television series Game of Thrones, so she creates a backstage intimacy by posting photos of herself and her cast mates on set or at junkets. These backstage depictions tend to be humorous in nature, most likely because the celebrity wants to show a more personal and unprofessional side to their followers. These backstage depictions are effective because they offer a rare behind the scenes look at what goes on in the celebrity habitat.

Lena Heady posts behind the scenes with the Game of Thrones cast

Lena Heady posts behind the scenes with the Game of Thrones cast

While the photos and videos of the a celebrity’s private life vary, they consistently aim to project intimacy and exclusivity by showing a more personal side to the celebrity that is not normally seen in public life. For example, Justin Bieber has a tendency to post photos and videos of his family, often his mother and siblings.Lena Hadley also posts photos of her son, and quirky short videos of her playing with her son’s toys.

Justin Bieber and Lena Headey post photos and videos of their family on Twitter.

Justin Bieber and Lena Headey post photos and videos of their family on Twitter.

Both Amanda Bynes and Rihanna even post pictures of themselves in various states of undress, wearing lingerie, or in Rihanna’s case taking a bath. These photos with sexual overtones work to also reinforce Rihanna’s “bad girl” brand, but for Bynes it’s a ploy to attract attention and garner publicity since she is an out of work actress. Still, these intimate photos do engage fans’ interests and tend to be widely dispersed not only online but also across print and television outlets.

Amanda Bynes and Rihanna post intimate photos on Twitter.

Amanda Bynes and Rihanna post intimate photos on Twitter.

There is also more to celebrity performance art on Twitter than posting photos and videos. It’s not just simply a matter of embedding a link; celebrities also carefully craft the tweets containing the links to their photos and videos. The trend practiced by all four celebrities is to preface a link with content flirting: short, cryptic messages that are designed to puzzle and entice the audience to click on the link in order to figure out the hint.

Lena Headey and Rihanna use content flirting when tweeting photos and videos.

Lena Headey and Rihanna use content flirting when tweeting photos and videos.

The Twitter Rant

Another noticeable trend in the construction of the backstage persona is the Twitter rant. The Twitter rant is when a celebrity appears to go off script and use Twitter to broadcast complaints against other celebrities or the media. In comparison to other tweets, the rant is longer, more emotionally charged, filled with grammar and spelling errors, and sometimes incoherent. While the rant can be written across several consecutive tweets, many celebrities are now writing rants on images so they can break the 140 character limit on Twitter.

What makes the rant so compelling is that it’s a definite break from the standard PR response and is a instance when a celebrity appears to be totally uncensored. Typically, celebrities quickly delete or remove a Twitter rant after it has been posted, a mark of overreaction that is further evidence to fans that the celebrity is revealing a more uncensored, intimate self. However, more celebrities are choosing to leave their Twitter rants posted. For example, Justin Bieber had two rant instances this year while on tour overseas in Europe. At the time the media and the public were criticizing his tardiness to concert events. Instead of letting his PR Team handle the damage control, Bieber took to Twitter to voice his frustration and explain his side of the story.

Justin Bieber's Twitter rant in response to media criticism.

Justin Bieber’s Twitter rant in response to media criticism.

Amanda Bynes is one celebrity making use of the Twitter rant to increase her visibility and celebrity status. A former child actress, Bynes’ adult film career is stagnant; however, her recent behavior on Twitter has made her more popular than ever with a following of more than 1 million fans. Bynes was able to increase her fan base by “performing” on Twitter though photos and videos and Twitter rants. Her rants are not only notable for their unprofessionalism and vindictiveness, but also because she directly targets the media and other celebrities, and appears not to care about the consequences. Bynes’ Twitter rants consist of single tweets and also the long rant format.

Amanda Bynes posts a long Twitter rant to the media.

Amanda Bynes posts a long Twitter rant to the media.

amandabynes-twitter-ran2What is interesting is how Bynes’ Twitter rants have not only increased her fan base and given her free publicity, but have also resulted in offers from GQ magazine and Playboy. And while Bynes insists on Twitter that she is “not crazy” she enjoys retweeting the fan imitation photos of herself. As explained in Binder Full of Memes, a meme is an imitation  “often images, hyperlinks, videos, pictures” that relies on “social participation through sharing re-mixing, reposting, and user-generated content.” It appears that Bynes encourages the fan created memes that poke fun of her erratic self.

There is speculation that Bynes’ behavior is an elaborate hoax designed to increase her publicity and attract business offers. It’s true that Twitter rants  are “behavioral transgressions” used by celebrities to harness “notoriety and attention” (Marshall, p. 45). But bad behavior can also result in negative backlash that can be difficult to repair, as explained in Corporate Twitter Disasters. Whether Twitter rants are more damaging or profitable remain to be seen. Marwick and Boyd articulated it well: “At times, it becomes difficult to discern what is performance and what is ‘real”; this is precisely the kind of juxtaposition that fans love” (p. 151). And the social media savvy celebrities such as the four examined in this post appear to understand exactly how to use Twitter to construct a backstage persona that successfully juxtapositions the artificial with the real. But it is perhaps Oscar Wilde that sums up the celebrity backstage persona best: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”


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