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30 June 2023

The rise of Citizen Celebrity

A new breed of British influencer is rewriting the rules of celebrity.

By Clive Martin

The battle to keep “celebrity” synonymous with “talent” is one that Britain lost a long time ago. Anyone can be famous now, and mostly, that leads to absolute dross. Brooklyn Beckham making a rudimentary pasta dish on Vogue’s YouTube channel, the influencer KSI’s auto-tuned music career, or out-of-shape video-game streamers called “Boogie2988” and “WingsOfRedemption” hammering it out in the “crossover boxing” ring (a fight between the two was breathlessly described by TalkSport as “the heaviest boxing match to ever take place”).

But occasionally, the democratisation of celebrity can lead to strange and exhilarating content. Recently, a new kind of British star has emerged, one that smashes through the tedium of social media to create a new genre of entertainment that is surreal and pedestrian, egalitarian and grotesque in equal measure. This is the era of citizen showbiz, in which normal people can create potent media brands from their kitchens, front rooms and garden patios.

Empowered by algorithms and a public thirst for the bizarre, this new breed of influencer feeds along the sea-floor of our culture, yet crosses over into the wider imagination through their hilarious, unfiltered, proletarian output. It’s art brut with a deeply British sensibility; truly outsider content.

The standout figure of this phenomenon is Romford-born Thomas Skinner, 32, a former Apprentice candidate who has become a household name by eating outlandish breakfasts on social media; chowing down curries, steak pies, korean noodles and full Christmas dinners at 6am.

Due to his TV experience, Skinner was a quasi-celebrity before, but instead of taking the traditional route of appearances on Loose Women and cash-in book deals, Skinner has forged a thoroughly modern persona that reaches far beyond anything ITV could have given him. After pivoting to the big breakfasts in mid 2022, he now has more than 300,000 Instagram followers and around the same number on TikTok, achieving a level of fame that straddles internet cult and prime-time TV star.

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Skinner presents himself as the everyman extraordinaire, one of the last-remaining English eccentrics, an honest businessman and a purveyor of earthy common sense. (He even went so far as to take on Just Stop Oil representatives on GB News, handling himself quite well in the process.) Imagine Del Boy, PT Barnum, Razor Ruddock and Winston Churchill rolled into one – or a tragicomic, self-destructive, high-BMI version of the reality-TV celebrity Mark Wright. Skinner’s star has become so bright that he coached the England team on Soccer Aid and recently voiced the Elizabeth Line service announcements at stations between Brentwood and Stratford. In true celeb fashion, he has released a book and a single, but those establishment ventures feel incidental to his real fame, which exists on fast-moving and attention-centred online platforms.

[See also: When did young people decide they wanted their celebrities to be so boring?]

Then there’s Big John, 49, father of up-and-coming heavyweight boxer Johnny Fisher. Like Skinner, Big John’s trademark is eating. He consumes astonishingly large portions of Chinese food (we’re talking three different types of sweet and sour, kung po prawns, chips and what he calls “chow mean”) before revealing his immense frame and firing off his catchphrase “bosh” as he eats (confusingly, Skinner’s catchphrase is also “bosh”).

As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s a cultural form that is attracting thousands. A recent video of Big John doing little more than drinking a pint in Spain amassed more than 40,000 likes on Instagram. He has almost as many Instagram followers as the Labour Party, and has turned “bosh” into something of an empire, running separate Instagram accounts dedicated to his acolytes “the bosh army” and his pet dog, “the Boshweiler”.

Fisher is a one-man content agency, travelling the world on various freebies and promo commitments, enthusiastically spreading the gospel of bosh. Questions about his previous life remain largely unanswered, but it doesn’t matter. This dangerously overweight, middle-aged civilian from Essex has become a star overnight. His own son probably summed it up best when he said: “He’s not done anything talented, he’s just eaten Chinese and said ‘bosh’.” Skinner and Big John both hail from Essex, a county that has long been an incubator of unlikely stardom, with an endless supply of reality television showboaters and entrepreneurs.

Coming in behind, with 64,000 followers on Instagram, is Mohammad “Wakey Wines” Azar Nazir, the proprietor of a Wakefield off licence specialising in sinister-looking opaque bags of gummy bears and bottles of Prime energy drinks. Nazir’s trademark is not so much a catchphrase, but a routine: “What’s the best shop in Wakey… Wakey Wines… Bingo bingo, Gala Bingo,” he shouts at his beleaguered camera assistant, Abdul.

This nonsense little nursery rhyme inspires people to travel from miles around to appear on his channel; many are wannabe social media stars themselves. Some bring their families, as if it were a trip to Lapland, not Wakefield. It is a viral reimagining of the Macarena or Agadoo, endlessly repeated by a man who was once sentenced to eight years in prison for conspiring to supply class A drugs and possession of a controlled drug with intent to supply. Wakey Wines has become an inscrutable slice of British weirdness.

Liverpool’s “Queen of Scotty Road” is another favourite. A 50-something, wonderfully camp local “face” from one of the city’s less salubrious areas, he parades around town in full fake tan and barks Lily Savage-esque insults into the camera. Real name Philip Regan, he provides something like a missing link between Dale Winton and Yosser Hughes, and has gained 132,000 Instagram followers for his troubles.

Because I watch so much of this stuff on Instagram Reels (which resembles a less toxic version of TikTok), I am subjected to a number of up-and-comers and also-rans, such as Snowy Danger, a weathered tradesman with 96,000 followers, whose schtick is videoing himself drinking cider and putting the world to rights. His catchphrase? A peculiar mesh of the words, “Oh, go on then” and a wolf howl.

Danny Simpson, a self-proclaimed “gangster” with a serious attention addiction represents a nadir for the genre. Simpson became internet famous after claiming to have robbed notorious criminals (including the Irish Kinahan cartel), but instead of going into witness protection like any sensible person, he has launched a personal brand off the back of it, including T-shirts printed with his “You’ll do nuffink” mantra. He’s a terrifyingly prolific content provider, live-streaming himself in Mayfair night spots and posting gym selfies daily. Recently, in what must be one of the most unedifying pieces of video I’ve ever seen, I joined an Instagram Live with him and Skinner, doing little more than sunbathing and asking each other about where they’re going on holiday.

[See also: When did young people decide they wanted their celebrities to be so boring?]

Of course, citizen showbiz is not new: before it came many other  forms of amateur internet opportunist, including Viners, YouTubers, mukbangers, Fortnite-streamers and food athletes. But while the previous generation still had a professional, Americanised feel to their work, citizen showbiz is far stranger and more parochial. Its real spiritual cousin is the accidentally viral scenes of UK life that rack up huge numbers on social media accounts such as “No Context Brits”, the homes of indelible images like the two shirtless lads beating each other with a chair, or the man using a wheelie bin as a jacuzzi.

The real genius of citizen showbiz is how it meshes together a peculiar strand of British camp/noir – one associated with Butlins, Channel 5 shows and end-of-the-pier comedians – with the infinite scroll of social media sites. By combining old and new, it creates a powerful palette cleanser in the age of geeks-in-gaming-chairs and celebrities hawking wellness products and mindfulness retreats.There is, at the risk of falling into the worst BBC Four cliché, something quite punk about it all.

Citizen celebrities are using the medium to create unusual, memorable and strangely uplifting content. Citizen showbiz is democratic, ugly and crude, but endlessly fascinating and addictive. So much of what appears on social media feeds is designed to wash over the user: the model is one of passive content consumption. But those such as Skinner, Big John and Queen of Scotty Road present something loud, perplexing and honest; a kind of entertainment that’s difficult to ignore. These brash, unhealthy blokes have appeared as the new underdogs in a society that posits health and well-being above all.

One of the most notable aspects of this crowd is that they’re pretty much all men, all working in blue-collar jobs (even Skinner still sells mattresses at markets), often in fairly bad physical shape and blessed with no discernible talent or looks. Instead, they give us pure personality, the kind that taps into long-standing British archetypes; the pub comedian, the local shopkeeper with a bit of chat, the glutton, the wideboy, the market trader with the signature call, the legend in his own lunchtime. It’s as if stock sitcom characters have been brought forth into something resembling reality, the perfect convergence of pantomime, celebrity and lived experience.

If they become too famous, they lose what made them so likeable in the first place. However, they tend to ignore this risk and take up every brand deal on offer. Skinner is making videos with the energy drink brand Boost. Big John has been pushing Au Vodka, and even Snowy Danger has done some spon-con for Fox’s biscuits. All this overexposure leaves their fame feeling rather tenuous and short-sighted.

But who can blame them? The people who run these accounts are making money that their day jobs never could have earned them. And accusing any kind of influencer of “selling out” is faintly ridiculous.

Still, with this devil’s deal and a lack of tangible ability, there will always be an impermanence to what they do. Skinner’s output probably peaked when he posted himself eating the Christmas breakfast back in early December 2022. Since then his output has been a rapidly tiring mish-mash of catchphrases, recipe videos and celebrity selfies. He is hardly David Bowie – but he was never supposed to be.

Citizen showbiz, then, is a smash-and-grab raid on the nature of celebrity: make your name, print some T-shirts, release a single, then try to flog your persona until you’ve exhausted the last person who finds it amusing. These are short-shelf-life stars for a fickle, attention-driven digital economy.

Recent British history is loaded with household names who fell by the wayside (has anyone heard from Susan Boyle recently?). Perhaps the citizen celebs are just this generation’s equivalent of Howard from the Halifax ad, Bubble from Big Brother, Chico from The X Factor. However, the style and economic model of this type of content seems new, and I can’t escape the feeling that there is something quietly revolutionary about it. They represent the first real fightback against those who have turned the internet into a hateful place.

Instead of identikit, globalised, sickly bland consumerism, citizen showbiz is a place of pure democracy. You don’t need a camera-friendly physique or a toxic ideology, you just have to be a legend. And what could be a better message than that?

[See also: QUIZ! Which class are these celebrities, according to the British public?]

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