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How to be a better celebrity in the time of coronavirus

As stars peddle fake news and make ill-judged music videos, we ponder what famous people on social media can do to comfort and cheer up people

Shah Rukh Khan’s video keeps it light and conversational
Shah Rukh Khan’s video keeps it light and conversational

On 23 March, the day after the nationwide people’s curfew called by the prime minister, Amitabh Bachchan tweeted to his 40.5 million followers. The tweet has since been deleted but the gist was the same erroneous information that had been doing the rounds on WhatsApp: that clapping and conch vibrations would “reduce/destroy virus potency".

At another time, it would be easier to dismiss this as the vague ramblings of a 77-year-old. But this is clearly a moment in our history when simple information, disseminated properly, could save countless lives. Bachchan’s words reach millions of people, many of whom are only too happy to believe a 14-hour curfew might have solved their problems, as we saw when large crowds poured on to the streets to celebrate its end. So it’s not just disappointing that the actor used his platform to play up beliefs instead of scientific fact, it’s downright dangerous.

Compare this to the video Shah Rukh Khan posted on Twitter on 22 March. For 5 minutes, the actor discusses the virus, its symptoms, the myths surrounding it and how to protect yourself. But the video is also charming because Khan keeps it light and conversational and intersperses instructions with clips from his films (“sardi khaansi na malaria hua", of course, but also the Baazigar mask). It’s the best kind of celebrity PSA, relaxed enough to draw the viewer in, clear enough to be useful. Telugu stars N. T. Rama Rao Jr and Ram Charan recorded a simple, clear, instructional message. Kartik Aaryan did his bit too, with a video of him miming washing his hands, and another where he modified his rant from Pyaar Ka Punchnama to heckle viewers into social distancing.

In the time of coronavirus, what do we look for from famous people on social media? To be a source of useful information, as Khan and Aaryan were, or a calming voice, like actor Tom Hanks was when he tested positive for the virus in Australia. But sometimes all that’s needed is a little comfort and cheer. It’s just nice rather than strictly useful to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in his home, feeding carrots to his pony and donkey and talking about observing quarantine.

Gal Gadot posted a video on Instagram with several celebrities singing ‘Imagine’
Gal Gadot posted a video on Instagram with several celebrities singing ‘Imagine’

The problem arises when celebrities treat cheering up the public as some kind of saintly mission. On 19 March, Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot posted a video on Instagram with a bunch of famous faces,―including Mark Ruffalo, Natalie Portman, Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell,―each singing a line from John Lennon’s Imagine. It’s excruciating to watch, not only because everyone’s in a different key but also because they look so self-satisfied, like they have done us a huge favour. The intention may have been to say, look, we are all in the same boat. But seeing one famous face after another reminds us that they aren’t like us: For one, they can get tested for Covid-19 much quicker than any ordinary citizen.

Max Brooks speaks to his father, Mel Brooks, through a glass door
Max Brooks speaks to his father, Mel Brooks, through a glass door

In place of grand gestures, this might be the time for celebrities to reach out in smaller, more genuine ways. Author Max Brooks spoke to his father, comedy legend Mel Brooks, through a glass door to emphasize the need for social distancing. Actor and winemaker Sam Neill, whose Twitter feed is a delightful mix of geese, pigs, wine and occasional movie talk, has been posting short videos, reading aloud the Ogden Nash poem No Doctor’s Today, Thank You, or strumming a ukulele and singing, with charming self-deprecation, Randy Newman’s Dayton, Ohio 1903. Richard E. Grant, in bed in his pyjamas, cracks himself up reciting the “finest wines available to humanity" line from his breakthrough film, Withnail And I. Coldplay’s Chris Martin live-streamed an intimate set,―though if you are looking for a house concert, we would recommend Keith Urban’s half-hour solo gig because it has a dancing Nicole Kidman.

If you are a creator and can be useful to your fans, that’s great. Point them to a movie, book or piece of music that will help them get through the boredom and loneliness. Show them a workout routine, share a recipe. Just don’t endanger lives or gather your rich friends to sing off-key. It’s easy if you try.

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