“Brave? I wish I was that deep”
Celeste Barber has found fame on social media thanks to her parodies of celebrity selfies, but insists there’s no wider message – she just wants to create comedy
She may be adored by millions as the willing subject of hilariously awkward, whip-sharp photo parodies of vain celebrity selfies, but Celeste Barber would like her public to know she takes the task of making them laugh very, very seriously.
“I’m not a clown,” she tells Stellar. And her achievements are no fluke either. “It annoys me to be described as a mum of four from the [New South Wales] Central Coast who’s struck overnight success. I’ve trained as an actor, I’ve worked in TV for years, done stand-up. I’m a writer. I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about people thinking this is just my hobby.”
Barber is a self-confessed pop-culture fanatic, and it is a trait that has served her well. On her social-media feeds, she posts side-splittingly shameless photos and videos – funhouse mirror images of the painfully perfect ones the world’s biggest stars like to share, that nail the disconnect between celebrity life and Barber’s normal one. And yes, despite her incredible online reach (she has 2.4 million followers on Instagram), you can still consider Barber “normal”, since she has been paid for just five of the nearly 900 posts she has made.
This labour of love of laughs is remarkably simple: Barber sees a picture of a celebrity doing something ridiculous, then re-creates the photo. “But it’s a parody… I add something to it, a twist, or something really mundane.”
Her other half – she does not talk much about her family, who do sometimes appear in the shots, and only refers to him as “hot husband” during our interview – is usually behind the camera. Though they sometimes “workshop the funny” together, the most successful images are usually the easiest ones to orchestrate, requiring just a couple of tries to nab the shot.
The photos may be outlandish, but their origin story is not. “It started when my sister and I would text each other photos for a laugh,” Barber explains. “We would see some celebrity on social media saying, ‘ This is me, just dropping my kids off at school.’ Well, this is what I look like dropping my kids off at school.”
But what began as an inside joke has entered a whole different league. For the hundreds of thousand of words written about sexism, bodies, celebrity culture and our age of narcissism, Barber’s simple visual parodies seem to cut right through the rhetoric around those issues. Though she is pleased to make an impact, fan reactions don’t always sit so comfortably.
“It’s just me taking photos of myself, but because I don’t look like you should in those sort of photos, then people go,” – sharp intake of breath – “‘Ooh, brave! She’s being brrrrave.’ But, like… is that really brave?”
Asked if she intends to make a point about sexism or the obsession with visual culture, she pulls a face. “No. Never. Nah. Oh, god. I wish I was that deep.
“Sure, I am a feminist, and who gives a sh*t about what you look like? But I can get people laughing,” Barber continues. “That’s how I get my message across. Don’t ask me what my message is though, ’cause f*cked if I know.”
She remarks that her social-media audience sometimes reads too much into what she does. “People are obsessed with grabbing onto the idea that here’s someone who is not a beautiful, perfect model, and she’s not wearing much,” Barber says. “Or people write comments like, ‘Wow! I’m so happy there are other fat girls out there like me!’ And I just think, ‘Huh?’ I sometimes look through the comments and the ones that irk me the most are those that say, ‘Celeste looks so much better than that stupid model.’ No. No, that’s not the point! I’m like, ‘C’mon, how funny is my face?!’”
Barber’s wide audience includes dozens of celebrities, some of them the ones she has happily parodied. Ashton Kutcher, Cindy Crawford, Rosie Huntington-whiteley and Marion Cotillard are all fans. The Kardashians also re-post or share Barber’s parodies of them, and she reveals a number of models are now admitting to “taking my photos just for Celeste Barber”. She also gets requests to create personal images, most recently from Robbie Williams’s wife, Ayda Field.
Before she became a social-medial di star, Barber was best known as Bree Matthews in TV drama All Saints. “I always thought I was funny,” she says, “but I thought funny was silly and stupid – that being funny was just being a nuisance.” It was only when her co-star Mark Priestley convinced her otherwise that Barber decided to explore it further.
The two were clearly close and Barber’s voice falls to a hush as she struggles to share the memory. “When he told me that, I just rolled my eyes. But he persisted and said, ‘No, you need to get your head around that and just really do it.’” In August 2008, Priestley, suffering depression, took his own life at the age of 32.
It was a loss that would prove to spur Barber on. “That time was the worst,” she says. “I felt like we were just starting to do a lot together and really finding something, but then it stopped… I thought, well, all that just stops now. But it didn’t. Sometimes, if I was doubting what I was doing,di I’d ’d get a b beautifultif l message fromf Kate Mulvany [an actor and Priestley’s former girlfriend] and she’d say ‘Oh, Mark would love that!’”
Barber was the loud kid in class, often getting “kicked out for being annoying”. She was diagnosed with ADD as a teenager and recalls overhearing her mother speaking to doctors about their decision to put her on Ritalin. “I heard my mum say, ‘Fine, if it’s going to help her. But we don’t want Celeste to change. We want her to be exactly who she is.’”
Hearing this as an impressionable teenager helped Barber to be, what she terms, “unashamedly me”. She explains: “I’ve never really got anywhere on how I look… I’ve always worked on what’s going on inside, on who I am.”
Barber has her own impressionable teenagers now – two stepdaughters – and two young sons. Asked what they think of their famo famous mum, she recalls the time her elde eldest son, six, questioned her brazenness. ““‘Mum, isn’t that private?’ he asked. I’m like, ‘Turns out it’s not!’”
Her stepda stepdaughters, she says, are “OK with it. Aroun Around me they’re rolling their eyes and sayi saying ‘Urgh, no-one cares…’, but then whe when they bring their teenage friends aroun around and they freak out, they’re like ‘What?’ a and pretend to be all coy.”
This October,Octob Barber will appear in the ABC TV/N Tv/netflix comedy The Letdown, about the trialstri of being a new mother. Following se sell-out shows in Sydney, Barber will alsoa be touring her stand-up routine arou around Australia and Europe. She’s current currently writing a TV show and is in discuss discussions for a book as well.
While her face lights up most when she speaks ofo being a writer, her comedy career is wha what’s taking off. She recently won the Wh Whohaha award for the Funniest Lad Lady on Instagram, alongside other categorycatego winners including Amy Schumer an and Melissa Mccarthy.
Barber preferspre to see her role as that of entertainer,t tainer n not social commentator. She talks about times when there are negative comments about a model she’s parodied, and people call on her to say something. “I’m like, no. I’ve entertained you guys. It’s not my responsibility to join the conversation. Sure, I’m happy to have started a conversation, but really that’s not the point. The point is to be funny.”
But there’s truth in Barber’s work, too. At a time when almost anybody has the tools to create perfectly polished images, her pictures leap out for their authenticity. And she is adored by fans for being average.
Even so, Barber says she’s surprised whenever a follower interprets her posts beyond being a simple gag. “People can say what they like. I do what I like – I take inappropriate, unflattering photos of myself. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad. I’m just making people laugh.”