By Andrea Mohler
Plastered on the cover of every magazine, we see a thin, happy, (and generally white) female celebrity. She’s seen laughing about the secrets to a successful sex life after having kids, the details of all the latest celebrity gossip, and, of course, her exclusive inside scoop on her favorite recipes to stay in shape. Countless people will purchase this magazine and flip through the pages, devouring the cheap content set before them; they will come across her weight loss secrets and some will find themselves drawn into that article and sucked downward into the void of celebrity influence. That celebrity will never know or care about the influence she has on the people who read the article and consume that content, but celebrity influence on food media and people’s relationships with food is not an uncommon, or new, phenomenon. Celebrity influence in food-centered media has claimed a massive stake in popular consumption of foods whether it be through cooking shows, fad diets, brand endorsements, or cookbooks. We should ask ourselves what influence should celebrities—who have access to their amassed wealth, sponsorships and brand deals, platforms for their content, high-end ingredients, personal trainers, nutritionists, and chefs—have on the diet of the masses? Should they have any stake in the types of foods we consume and how we consume them?
One celebrity family who has profited off of this influence is the Kardashians. In the past, each of the Kardashian daughters has made millions of dollars profiting from the promotion of productions such as flat-tummy tea and sugar bear hair gummies. More recently, they’ve also ventured into other lucrative means of food-center media, such as Kylie Jenner’s show Cooking With Kylie; here, Jenner can be seen cooking her favorite recipes for her audience in an attempt to pass off the image of her being a low maintenance and down to earth celebrity . . . all while standing in the kitchen of a multi-million dollar mansion and sporting thousands of dollars worth of Cartier bracelets on her wrists. Jenner’s ingredients are all organic and named brand, despite the very “basic” recipe she is trying to replicate. All of this, of course, is fostered on the subscription-based platform of her app where she charges her audience to view this content. While most of this may seem innocent, the concept of the show and the way the recipes are prepared imply a classist perspective of what is “normal” in the kitchen.
Kylie Jenner isn’t the only celebrity guilty of perpetuating unattainable cooking and eating standards to her audience. Gweneth Paltrow has been called out by the media on several occasions for promoting expensive and outlandish beauty and health practices that have been reflected in her ventures into food media as well. One instance of this is shown in the marketing and controversial content of her cookbook, It’s All Good (2013). The book is filled with healthy but expensive recipes that further support the idea that healthy eating is only possible for high-income individuals. In a 2013 review of the book posted by the New York Times, Jennifer Mascia noted that the book was an “elitist farm-to-table guide sprinkled with duck eggs and $25-a-jar Manuka honey” (Mascia). She later cites a calculation from Yahoo!Shine, which claims that the diet would cost $300 a day, a figure obviously out of reach for the vast majority of Americans (Mascia). This shows how unsustainable Paltrow’s lifestyle diet is for the large majority of Americans, and specifically omits low-income families from the conversation involving healthy meals meant for her consumer audience.
Celebrities do not only impact the realm of food media through a classist lens, but also through the lens of racist and cultrual stereotypes. One example of this is within Len and Ainsley’s Big Food Adventure. This show revolves around an old, white, British man, Len Goodman, being introduced to cultural food by the Black celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott. While the show may appear to be innocently set around the idea of exposing a close-minded palette to new flavors and foods as well as cultures, it also inadvertently perpetuates the old racist stereotype of the “eager to serve Black servant,” a stereotype also perpetuated by brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s. Within the introduction of the show Len Goodman states: “I’ve traveled the world, but never had the courage to experience new cuisine. I’ve always stuck to what I know” (Goodman). This is immediately followed by a clip of him sitting in front of a plate of chicken feet, grimacing, and pushing the plate away while saying: “Ah, no.” While some might argue that it’s an innocent show meant to celebrate the foods and practices of other cultures, the show implicitly perpetuates the idea that non-Ango-European cultures are a sampling platter for white consumption. Indeed, Len and Ainsley’s Big Food Adventure portrays an old white man reacting to the foods of cultures that differ from his own and judging them to be inferior.
Another example of celebrity influence in food media is in an entirely different genre and, at first blush, seems to have little to do with cooking and food. The show is Down to Earth With Zac Efron, which centers around exploring different cultures and investigating their solutions to current global climate issues. Within the episode covering Costa Rica, Efron specifically focuses on expatriates—people who live abroad for an extended period of time—within Costa Rica, and does little to support or show the native culture of the country which is referred to as a “haven” for these expats. Early in the episode, we are exposed to the community members of an expat settlement who walk Zac Efron through the facilities of the settlement as they explain their “connection to the land.” As they walk, they come across a cacao tree on the settlement and the expat states that “You never forget your first,” before cutting a cacao seed down from the tree. This action is followed by the expat saying: “Cacao beans are supposedly ‘sacred’ in the culture,” disregarding that it’s not his culture in which they’re sacred. In stating this, the expat is claiming a connection to a culture which he has no right to through the foods he is choosing to harvest on his farm. Later in the episode, the expat goes on to say that “When I was 21, I came on vacation with my parents to Costa Rica and I watched a group [of] indigenous children on a playground get sprayed with a banana crop duster. And these beautiful children, you know their ancestors had been treating the land like an extension of their body for thousands of years, and then to even witness that was like ‘ERRRRR’—
an emergency brake on my life.” While the settlement gives back through implemented improvements to the banana plants that were causing harm to the native Costa Ricans, it could also be argued that Efron irresponsibly gives a platform to the group of white settlers who believe they are entitled to lay claim to a culture that truly belongs to none of them.
Celebrities have a massive impact on the general population’s opinions and the relationship between food and culture. Celebrities who claim a stake in the genre of food media can create biases towards certain cultural practices and foods which shapes the way we perceive them. Moving forward as a society, we can only hope that celebrities will learn the weight that their actions hold and choose to partake in more responsible use of media to foster a diverse, inclusive space which welcomes people of all classes and cultures.
Mascia, Jennifer. “Healthy Eating on Just $300 a Day.” The New York Times, 07 April 2013,
from https://bittman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/healthy-eating-on-just-300-a-day/. Accessed October 11, 2020.
Lowin, Rebekah. “Food Safety Experts Are Not Pleased with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Cookbooks.” Food & Wine.
24 May 2017.
https://www.foodandwine.com/news/gwyneth-paltrows-cookbooks-could-give-you-food-poisoning-study-says. Accessed October 11, 2020.
“Costa Rica.” Down to Earth with Zac Efron. Netflix. 10 July, 2020.
The Karczma. “Len and Ainsley’s Big Food Adventure. The Karczma Birmin Gham.” Youtube.
Uploaded by The Karczma, 14 August 2019.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GphtMCqlgIg&ab_channel=TheKarczma. Accessed 11 October 2020.