From Their Living Room to Yours: The Breakout Internet Stars of the Covid-19 Era

1 year ago 72
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Quarantine has given birth to an endless number of social media pariahs (Alison Roman, Lana Del Rey and J.K. Rowling, to name a few), but this strange, strife-filled time has also brought forth a new kind of Internet celebrity: the breakout star just helping the rest of us cope, whether through music, humor, or just plain sage advice. At a time when millions of people were largely stuck at home and crying out for levity, they're making art and magic on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, gaining devoted new legions of followers along the way. Meet the actors, thinkers and master lip-synchers who are bringing joy, light and levity when people need it most.

Mary Neely

It began in the early days of quarantining alone at her L.A. apartment, with the commercial actress rifling through her vast wig and vintage collection and coming in costume to FaceTimes with friends. But after weeks of isolation, Neely—a self-proclaimed "nerdy perfectionist" who has appeared in Pepcid and Tide spots—felt a deeper urge to entertain. She turned to the musical theater soundtracks she was raised on for catharsis: "There's some quote that's like, 'The feelings are so big that you have to sing,'" Neely told Vogue.

In March, she tweeted the first of what would become a series of two-minute capsule videos in which she lip-synchs both sides of legendary Broadway love duets, starting with "A Heart Full of Love," from Les Miserables. Inhabiting both the male and female roles, was "playing off the joke, like, 'Wow, I am really single through this," Neely said, "but I can be in love with myself."

Soon thousands of new fans were in virtual-love with Neely, as her videos grew grander and more elaborate, encompassing classics like Grease (filmed in her apartment complex's parking lot with a blonde wig left over from a Dolly Parton Halloween costume) and Phantom of the Opera to modern hits Spring Awakening, Wicked, and Neely's self-proclaimed "magnum opus," "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast, in which she plays more than a dozen characters, including a baker and a pig. Neely went from 800 Twitter followers to, as of this week, 30,000; Lin-Manuel Miranda chimed in to praise her Hamilton mini-production as art.

After years of toiling in Hollywood, "it's been very interesting to have it all happen during such an isolating time," Neely said. "All these people are looking at my work and being really nice to me, and then I'm looking around my house and being like, 'Oh, there's no one to talk to. I can't go out to a bar and celebrate with my friends. There was a period of time where I was like, 'What if I'm imagining all of this? Have I been quarantined so long that I'm just creating this fantasy in my head?'"

Neely said that newfound personal success during a pandemic made her feel guilty at first, but she "retrained her brain" to focus on the positive, including her mission to spread joy, and, after people began Venmoing her (including funds for more male wigs), raising $25,000 for Broadway Cares. Now she's preparing to debut a new short film, Ramona and the Jimmys, fielding requests from Netflix showrunners and dreaming of directing her first feature. The script is already written: "It's a musical about a young girl who uses musical theater as an escape."

Sarah Cooper

There's nothing funny about President Trump's fumbling of the coronavirus pandemic, but there is something wildly funny about comedian Sarah Cooper making fun of Trump on TikTok at a time when his incompetency is on full display.

Take the time the president suggested at one of his nightly briefings that people mainline disinfectant as a means of fighting COVID-19. Cut to: Cooper pantomiming Trump's outrageous words and setting them to visuals of her own on TikTok, including holding a spray bottle of Mrs. Meyer's Lemon Verbena surface cleaner flush up against her arm veins. In Cooper's apartment, without the official setting of the White House behind them, Trump's ramblings finally looked as absurd as they are.

That video made Cooper a sensation with more than 1 million Twitter followers and landed her on Ellen ("You make me so happy," Degeneres said), MSNBC and the subject of a New York Times profile. Meanwhile, she continued to illuminate the ridiculousness of the president's medical advice. In a perfectly lip-synched TikTok of Trump claiming to take hydroxycholoroquine, Cooper played both the president, and a masked medical professional shaking her head in abject horror.

Seeing the Jamaican-born Cooper satirize a president who relentlessly targets women—and especially women of color—feels like extra-sweet satisfaction. "I'm a black woman, I'm an immigrant, and the stuff he gets away with saying, I could never get away with saying," Cooper told Degeneres, "unless I could lip-synch him."

Leslie Jordan

Before the pandemic, Jordan was the character actor best known for his high-pitched Southern drawl and his recurring role as Karen's nemesis, Beverly Leslie, on Will & Grace. But during quarantine, Leslie has become the man whose Instagram videos were arguably the most-DMed from friend to friend for capturing all the despair and dark humor of the moment. "Well, shit. What are y'all doing?" asks Jordan in one, his face, in selfie mode, smooshed against a pillow. "This is awful. It's still March. How many days are in March?"

Quarantining at an AirBnB down the street from his 94-year-old mother in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., Jordan gained almost 4 million Instagram followers in a little over a month, becoming "America's best coronavirus Instagram celebrity," according to NBC, who pointed out that the lack of production value or TikTok choreography in Jordan's videos is what makes them so endearing. The close-up confessionals, lauded by James Corden, Anderson Cooper and The View, have a breezy gay-uncle vibe.

"Honey, I conquered Netflix. I watched 'em all. I watched the one about the tigers. I watched the one about the boy who tortured kittens. I watched the one about the nun who was murdered in 1969. There's nothing left for me to watch," Jordan cracks in another video. "But I'm not about to turn on the news. They will make you think it's the end of the world."

Told by a friend that he'd gone viral, Jordan said on E!: "No, honey, I'm fine. I'm here at mamma's. ... I don't have that virus."

Cleo Wade

The Instagram poet, author, TedTalkerand so-called "millennial Oprah" was already breathing new life into the self-help space, but when a long-overdue racial reckoning began rippling across the country, Wade's words became even more urgent. After the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, one of Wade's passages swept Instagram, and was cited in political speeches and open letters to white friends: "The world will say to you, 'We need to end racism.' Start by healing it in your own family. The world will say to you, 'How do we speak to bias and bigotry?' Start by having the first conversation at your own kitchen table." Her book, Where to Begin, is being held up anew as necessary anti-racist reading.

Wade has canvassed for Stacey Abrams and Hillary Clinton and had a Times Square billboard that read, "Vote the change you want to see in the world," but she is less partisan and more an advocate for "leading with love" and what she calls "radical empathy:" "What would it look like if you treated every single person in the world as if they were your best friend?" she told the Today show last year. After getting her start Instagramming photos of poems in her notebook, Wade continues to connect with fans (including Katy Perry and Reese Witherspoon) online, recently setting up an inbox for people who simply want to vent via email ("ineedtovent@cleowade.com"). At a time of strife and hurt, Wade is the self-help guru meeting the moment with much-needed optimism. As she writes in another poem: "We are the builders who are building a world that has never been built before."

Mandy Patinkin

These days, even Inigo Montoya is stuck at home with his family. But leave it to national treasure Patinkin to turn quarantine into quiz show gold, tweeting videos of his son grilling him and his wife, Kathryn Grody, on pop culture over dinner (including plenty of matzo). The couple is lovably uncool—"just the mensch that he is," noted a fan. Neither can complete the lyrics to Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," or Beyoncé "Single Ladies" ("If you like it, you shoulda put a hat on it?" Patinkin guesses)—and that's the beauty of it! Patinkin cannot floss, either, but Grody makes a valiant effort, which is easily worth the video's 1.6 million views.

In an industry where marriage seems to be but a construct, the Grody-Patinkins' 40-year-union is a marvel, and they play off each other like a comedic duo. "Why is dog's man's best friend?" Patinkin wonders in one video. "Because dogs cannot give any critical feedback," Grody replies. Cue fans' cries to be adopted by the couple—and for ever more Patinkin content. "I would like them to make a whole TV show," another fan tweeted.

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