The Depp / Heard case shows that Americans have an uncanny ability to go absolutely gaga over any kind of celebrity trial. We obsess over trials for murder (Phil Specter), sexual assault (Chris Brown, Bill Cosby) and nonviolent crimes (Martha Stewart, Winona Ryder, Lil ‘Kim), but we also get caught in the tractor beams of civil suits (Britney Spears , Kesha, FKA twigs). No matter how mind-bendingly dull, a star-studded trial will captivate Americans.
“Celebrities suck the air out of the room, ”says true crime expert Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita and Scoundrel. “Trials are tedious, repetitive, dehumanising and boring most of the time, but throw in a celebrity or two and it becomes a circus that threatens to eat everyone in its path. ”
Most recently, a handful of trials have hypnotised many Americans and held the rest of us hostage. First, we followed a pair of high-profile fraud trials, Anna Delvey / Anna Sorokin in 2019 and Elizabeth Holmes in 2021, and then we saw the trials dramatised in prestige mini-series. While Holmes was arguably famous before her trial, Delvey used her trial as a vehicle to amass more fame, parlaying her court attire Insta account and sought-after star status into a sweet Netflix deal that allowed her to pay off her debts. All Holmes got out of her trial was a husband and a baby.
Delvey and Holmes were convicted in criminal trials, but they were largely exonerated in public court. Blac Chyna, who recently sued several members of the Kardashian family for defamation, and Amber Heard, who was on the receiving end of Depp’s defamation lawsuit, lost in both the court and in the public eye, especially on social media, where users routinely hurled misogynist slurs at both women.
Blonde and charismatic, Delvey and Holmes juked capitalism to receive “good for her ”yassification vibes. They, however, were not pitted against powerhouse celebrities whose fans were dedicated to turning them into villains. Koul observes that the “Black Chyna / Kardashian case is about race and Blackness and media saturation… Delvey and Holmes are more about our fascination with white women who dare to be ruthless capitalists, to their own detriment (eventually). ”
Fraudsters, grifters, and conmen – or women – hold a special appeal for us law-abiding citizens. Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsessionsee a parallel between grifting and social media. “We’re all incentivised to lie on social media. If not lie outright, then at least to present ourselves in a flattering and coherent way, even if that’s not at all what our actual lives feel like on the inside. ” She adds: “Unlike murder, fraud is a troublingly relatable crime. We all lie, and we all get lied to. ”
Lying and social media sit at the heart of the UK’s recent obsession, Wagatha Christie, the three-year-long civil suit quagmire between football wives Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney. Displaying a Dickensian drawn-out complexity, the tennis match of defamation lawsuits between Vardy and Rooney is tabloid fare, creating a dizzyingly circularity because they began with questions of whether Vardy might have leaked photos from Rooney’s Finsta account to The Sun. To an American’s eyes, these women resemble Stepford WAGs created for the purposes of seducing athletes and making reality shows, both of which they’ve done.
Reality television feels crucial in understanding the gravitational pull of celebrity crime. While television shows about real people living their lives arguably dates back to the mid-1940s, the structured reality format we know and love hit its stride in the early 1990s, about the same time that American courts opened up the courtroom to cameras; Court TV launched in 1991, and MTV’s The Real World started a year later.
But reality TV – and its flabby relationship between fact and fiction – isn’t the only template for celebrity trials. Monroe sees a correlation between sports and televised trials, noting that “with the advent of Court TV and 24-hour cable channels, it became possible to watch court proceedings almost like sports – you could just have a trial on in the background all day. ” People picked #TeamDepp or #TeamAmber on Twitter, treating the trial like a football stand.
Weinman, however, views the phenomenon differently. “Trials are treated like soap operas – in the case of OJ, its popularity literally displaced the soaps for months on end. ” Weinman argues that “storytelling alternatives via social media ”give people “spectacle and bombast with the added level of feeling like they are extra-invested in it ”. Access to social media combined with proximity to celebrity dirt has the potential to make armchair experts of us all.