post cover

The Gossip Reading Club – Issue Thirteen: Chrissy Teigen and John Legend Become Vanity Fair’s First Couple

"At home with the first family we deserve": The Teigen-Legend brand reaches its zenith.

logo

Kayleigh Donaldson

Sep 24 2021

15 min read

0

Welcome to another issue of the Gossip Reading Club. I must admit that this isn’t the issue I intended for release this week, but following on from covering TIFF and a bunch of other stuff going on in my life, I simply didn’t have time to dedicate to the topic I wanted to cover for Issue 13. That will come at a later date. I’m also working on a collaborative issue with a good friend and colleague of mine, so stay tuned for that! I’m eager for suggestions for future topics from you, dear readers. If you have a particular profile or celebrity you’d love to see dissected within the pages of the Gossip Reading Club, please let me know, either in the comments, over Twitter (@Ceilidhann) or via email at hello@kayleighdonaldson.com. For now, let’s look into a celebrity couple who I’m sure a lot of you are probably kind of sick of. Sorry!

Vanity Fair. "John Legend and Chrissy Teigen on Love, Childhood Traumas, and the “Sh--ty Human Being” in the White House." October 28, 2019. Karen Valby.


Image via Vanity Fair.

Writing about Chrissy Teigen at this moment in time is certainly an interesting prospect. In June, the model/presenter/cookbook author/social media maven issued yet another public apology after she faced immense criticism for years’ worth of bullying and threatening tweets. None of these tweets were secret. They’d been the stuff of internet scrutiny for many years, especially as Teigen’s star rose to A-List heights. Yet there was an undeniable sense of change in the air when Courtney Stodden admitted in an interview that they had received a barrage of death threats and misogynistic harassment from Teigen, including several direct messages. Teigen apologized then claimed she’d reached out to Stodden personally. Stodden said that didn’t happen. Then, after a brief period of silence, Teigen took to Medium to write a longer apology that, for my money, was pretty ineffective thanks to her insistent focus on her own emotions over those of the people she hurt. I wrote about this in length for Pajiba so I won’t babble on here too much, but there’s one line in the piece that sticks with me.

"I have so much love to give if you are open and willing to accept it."

This moment echoed one of her earlier apology tweets where she talked about how much she wanted to be loved. It's a detail that's been stuck in my mind for weeks now, and I kept coming back to it while reading this issue's subject, a glowing Vanity Fair article that offered the most rose-tinted view of Teigen as a person, a brand, and a representation of the current era of always-online living.


Image via Vanity Fair.

Teigen and her husband of six years (at the time of this piece's publication) graced the cover of the December 2019 issue of Vanity Fair, with their two adorable children by their sides. Everyone looks wonderful. Legend is adoringly kissing Teigen's cheek. The subheader declares that the pair are "the first family we deserve!" The Legend household is contrasted with the then-current first family, the Trumps, with whom Teigen has engaged in some semi-regular Twitter trolling. Their story is “one of love and defiance in the age of Trump”, according to the cover, which is certainly a lofty narrative to craft about anyone, much less a celebrity couple. “Is it because they’re in love,” the opening line asks, “that Trump can’t stand them?” It’s obviously a fun idea to posit, but the idea that making Trump mad was ever a difficult endeavour is somewhat misguided. There’s an entire generation of Twitter personalities who managed to force themselves into the spotlight over the past five or so years by just tweeting insults at Donny. What made Teigen so worthy of notice? Was it that Trump attacked her specifically? Once again, it wasn’t a unique thing. For Vanity Fair, it seems to be a combination of her pre-existing celebrity, her very public love for her husband, and her sheer volume of tweeting.

Teigen isn’t the first celebrity to make emotional overshare a big part of their public image. It’s been a while, however, since we’ve seen someone at her level of fame turn it into such a major step upward for her career. "Teigen has become a social media icon precisely because she can be frank about her struggle with anxiety and her need for approval, while also dunking on the president and MAGA nation," the piece says, with Teigen adding, "I don’t care about pissing off a bunch of bigots." Yeah, a lot of this profile plays very differently mere months after it dropped.

I'm speaking mostly about Teigen here, which may give the impression that the profile is her time to shine. Really, this is an equally balanced piece on both wife and husband, although Legend himself admits that he is often happy to play second fiddle to Teigen. In a moment of pure humblebragging, he shares a story of attending an event for the Obama Foundation and joking with Barack himself "about how much our wives are loved more than we are now." It's not that the piece downplays Legend's work or achievements independent of his marriage -- dude is an EGOT winner, after all -- but the true crux of Vanity Fair's narrative is one of a union. They're one another's biggest cheerleaders, and their stories are ones of overcoming the odds. Legend's difficult upbringing, including his mother's depression and drug troubles, are discussed, as is his political activism. Teigen, the daughter of a white American man and a Thai immigrant woman, shares her mother's own experiences with depression following a return to Thailand and the death of her own mother. The pair met when she appeared in one of his music videos and, as Legend himself admits, things got serious very quickly. She scoured gossip blogs for every tidbit on his past relationships and claims that Legend paid women to be his beards. He liked that she made him laugh.

One quote comes from a friend of Teigen’s, the journalist-slash-Twitter over-user Yashar Ali (another detail that feels VERY weird with hindsight, and notice how he hasn’t returned to social media since he was profiled.) "What makes them the perfect couple,” he says. “Is their lack of interest in appearing to be perfect." I’m not sure I agree with that. Teigen perfected the image of the charming mess on Twitter, oversharing with her millions of followers on things like video games she was playing or weird things her kids said. I don’t think that’s the same thing as disinterest in perfection. Really, it may be the complete opposite. It’s the same thing you see with every family influencer who talks about the chaos of their lives while still ensuring that every word is well thought out and every image is filtered to the teeth. Perfection isn’t exactly the name of the game here, but relatability is. Teigen was always excellent at curating the right balance of polish and messiness that rings far truer to the outside world than red carpets and nannies.


Image via Instagram.

I have an admittedly semi-baked theory that Teigen’s cancellation signals the last gasp of the 21st century Cool Girl. The trope of the above-it-all, one-of-the-guys, not-like-the-other-girls badass bitch babe has existed in some form for decades. The current iteration, however, reached an especially potent zenith thanks to Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel Gone Girl, which summarized the phenomenon in a way that made many women sit up and cheer:

"Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl. Men actually think this girl exists."

The fact that this rant against the Cool Girl is delivered by a literal sociopath almost seemed beside the point for many readers. The point was that Flynn, via Amazing Amy, verbalized a kind of patriarchal bind that we’re all familiar with on some level. She also conveyed the strange self-loathing sensation of this kind of femininity, regardless of its intent or possible use as a defensive mode against patriarchal hypocrisies. I keenly remember an oddly spiteful Jezebel article that took aim at gorgeous female celebrities who talked up their geek credentials on talk shows, with the implication that doing so was a way to pander to men. Jennifer Lawrence faced a lot of backlash for being a supposed Cool Girl because of her image as a pizza-loving klutz with no verbal filter in a crowd of PR polish. It didn’t take long for the very thing that made her so wildly popular to curdle and become fuel for public pushback.

For me, Teigen has always occupied similar territory to Lawrence in that they made public brands of their particular kind of oh-so-cool feminine force that was still conventionally pretty but with an edge of the unruly. Teigen may have been a model but it was her Twitter account, with its no-holds-barred style, that truly made her a star, and she spun that social media savvy into brand deals and an endless kind of media presence. Elle Magazine even mused in 2015 that "Teigen is sort of the Jennifer Lawrence of the modeling world." Both women, while also Cool Girl types, weren’t aiming themselves at majority male audiences (compare them to, say, Olivia Munn, who established herself via the frat-bro excess of Attack of the Show.) Lawrence, by comparison, has stridently avoided Twitter. She also went away for a good long while, stepping back from the spotlight and avoiding press attention, to the point where her wedding and recent pregnancy news barely made a blip on the gossip radar. 


Couldn

Teigen does not go away. She makes big declarations about how she’s leaving social media, all of which becomes literal headline news, then she returns mere weeks later to begin the cycle anew. It’s a vicious cycle of media codependency, parasocial bliss, and good old-fashioned Twitter cruelty. Remember, it was Teigen’s tweeting that made her such a beloved figure. It’s partly why Vanity Fair did this profile. I highly doubt the magazine would have offered her and Legend the cover story had she only used the site to share recipes and artfully posed photographs of her family as we typically expect from modern celebrities on social media. How many articles have you read over the years that were some variations of “Chrissy Teigen claps back on Twitter like an absolute Queen”? Would she have landed gigs like hosting Lip-Sync Battle if she weren’t imbued with that “anything could happen” sensibility suggested by her social media?

Relatability is kind of a curse in modern celebrity. It’s an impossible ideal to replicate, one with constantly moving goalposts. It’s also the current default mode for the rich and famous. The general public has little to no tolerance for the diamond-drenched divas of old, those impeccable characters who never once tried to pretend they were Just Like Us. The closest we have to that mould now is the flex culture of influencer spheres, such as Jeffree Star’s obscene closet tour of his designer collection, or YouTubers showing off their Malibu mansions that look as sturdy as cardboard. Even the Kardashians try to play up the image of themselves as just a regular ol’ family with a private jet and pandemic-eta island getaways. It’s not hard to see why such figures would prove repellent in the era of massive wealth disparities and the tackiness of Trump. But the relatable idea seems predestined to backfire. For Teigen, it was a hard image to keep up while admitting to accidentally spending $13k on a bottle of wine. And then, of course, there were the tweets.

I’ve seen people wonder how Teigen managed to maintain that relatable and loveable image for so long given that her Twitter trolling was hardly a secret. As I mentioned above, it was partly what made her so popular in her early years of modelling. Really, being a cruel troll picking on the targets of the day was an ideal way to be popular in the early 2010s. As Constance Grady wrote for Vox, "what Teigen said on Twitter about and to those people was genuinely horrible, and it is clear that she targeted them because pop culture had given her permission to do so. Even outlets like Jezebel, “a supposedly feminist website,” were mocking Stodden in 2012." Making jokes about how Lindsay Lohan was an inebriated trainwreck on the verge of death were wildly common. In the early 2010s, Stodden was blamed for the actions of the older man they married. They were slut-shamed and made an acceptable target everywhere, from E! News and The Soup to bloggers like Perez Hilton to talk-show monologues. Teigen jumped on the bandwagon because everyone did. She just had more power and a louder platform. To quote Grady once more:

"The attributes on display in the tweets that have led to Teigen’s downfall appear to be some of the same attributes that made Teigen so widely beloved for so long: her lack of filter, her love of roasting people widely agreed at the time to be terrible. What’s changed is that now, it’s clear that the way she wielded them was fundamentally misdirected."

I don’t say this to excuse Teigen’s harassment: rather, it’s a potent reminder of the commodification of public abuse and how much further we have to go on this front. It’s not as though social media has clamped down on this horrid cycle. There’s a reason we all fear being Twitter’s “villain of the day.” This is even something Teigen seemed to fear in the Vanity Fair profile. She admits to turning down a talk show gig because "It was just too much attention and focus on me [...] It’s so scary to me—to have the world turn on you and hate you.'" The dreaded cancel culture question is raised but both Teigen and Legend are remarkably level-headed on a topic that now seems to be deployed as some sort of journalistic gotcha. Legend offers a succinct point: "Does what this person bring to culture outweigh the negatives they’ve done?" Teigen then adds that "it’s not like the entertainment industry is some God-given right." How does that work when it comes to Teigen’s current predicament? One detail neither brings up is that, for those with all the money and platforms and privilege, the threat of cancellation is already a far less frightening prospect than your average Twitter user trying to survive amid a bombardment of bigoted hatred. 

I’m not sure if Teigen will ever return to her highest peaks of fame and public adoration, but I question those who think her career is 100% over. She has the resources to rebuild her image, perhaps something that allows for more distance between herself and her audience. If I were her harried publicist, I would suggest she stay off Twitter, no exceptions. Stick to Instagram but keep the comments locked (a recommendation I would give to every celebrity, frankly), and worry less about pleasing everyone. Then again, that does seem to be her biggest goal.

I wrote my first draft of this piece a while back, and since then, Teigen has stayed relatively low-key. I say that with some heavy air quotes because it’s not as though she’s out of the spotlight altogether or keeping mum about things. She talks about being ‘cancelled’ a lot on Instagram. She just announced a documentary project her production company is working on for HBO Max about the weight loss scammer Gwen Shamblin Lara. Her cookware line is getting write-ups in People, which now includes slippers and robes. There are still lots of glamorous images of her glitzy life and her adorable family, plus food selfies and semi-chaotic fun. Her 35.3 million followers are thoroughly engaged. She's still the topic of many creepy Daily Mail clickbait headlines although there don't seem to be quite as many 'relatable queen clapback' stories. I wouldn’t say things have returned to ‘business as usual’ but it’s still business.


Of course I had to end it with this gif!

Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments below, or feel free to hit me up on Twitter at @Ceilidhann for a chat about books, gossip, and my panting efforts to return to regular exercise. If you like this newsletter, please share it online and recommend it to everyone who you think would enjoy some vintage gossip analysis. If you have any feedback or recommendations for future issues, please get in touch through email at hello@kayleighdonaldson.com.

You can find my work on Pajiba.com as well as sites like SYFY, IGN, Uproxx, Slashfilm, RogerEbert.com, and many other places. This past fortnight, I covered some smaller films at TIFF. I also reviewed The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Everybody's Talking About Jamie.

The Gossip Reading Club is free to read and shall remain so. However, if you would like to donate a couple of dollars towards its upkeep, you can do so on my Ko-Fi page. It takes a lot of work to put these together and now I have to pay for the newsletter service (and write this stuff on a laptop that has crashed twice during the posting of this dang issue.) Thanks so much to everyone who has been so generous in recent weeks. I seriously appreciate it!

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter

gossip
celebrity
pop culture