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22 December 2022

Defensiveness doesn’t suit Nepo Babies

Nepotism is often forgiven when people admit their privilege.

By Marc Burrows

Nepotism is having a moment. Obviously you could argue that nepotism is always having a moment – people have never shied away from giving their loved ones a helping boost up the ladder of life. But a New York magazine front cover charting the rise of the “Nepo Baby” (an eternity aflame awaits whoever came up with that hellish abbreviation) has sent the subject to the top of the trends. The piece investigates the merry-go-round of stars on Hollywood’s fast-track, apparently riding on Mummy and Daddy’s influence. From Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) to Lily-Rose Depp (daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis) to Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) to Harley Quinn Smith (daughter of Kevin), the super-famous have installed a new generation to carry their torches.

The nepo babies themselves are not happy. Lottie Moss, younger half sister of modelling royalty Kate, tweeted that she was “so sick of people blaming nepotism for why they aren’t rich and famous”, before admitting that, yes, privilege can help, but ultimately “life’s not fair”. (Confusingly, she also thinks that “if you put your mind to something you can accomplish anything”.) Lily Allen, daughter of Keith, never one to shy away from an argument, weighed in with a more nuanced take, saying that she was “more than happy to disclose what a privileged upbringing I’ve had and how that has created so many opportunities for me” but did feel that “nepo babies are being scapegoated”. 

You can see why the stars are a bit narked – we’re essentially telling them that they don’t deserve their success. But then nepotism is immensely frustrating when you spot it. It confirms a view which often prevails, that the only way into creative success is via “who you know”.

It feels unfair to discount actual ability, though. Many of the nepo babies called out in the New York piece have proven themselves solidly talented. Maya Hawke is one of the best things about Stranger Things and is making genuinely interesting music on the side. Billie Lourd, a nepo baby squared as the granddaughter of Debbie Reynolds and daughter of Carrie Fisher, has made a career out of playing eye-catching, soulful oddballs. You can only get so far on goodwill. Besides, would we really expect the children of charismatic and talented stars not to have inherited some of that charisma and talent?

Perhaps ultimately, as the writer Jason Okundaye points out, it’s about grace under fire. We’re often prepared to forgive a nepo baby if they stay humble and admit their privilege. That can’t be easy. For many the weight is heavy (imagine being Sean Lennon or Dhani Harrison, fine musicians forever trapped under the shadow of their Beatle fathers), and if you complain about it then you’ll be torn to shreds. It doesn’t seem wholly fair.

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But then, for those looking on while lesser talents get a boost up the ladder, it’s difficult not to feel bitter. Life, as Kate Moss’s sister told us, is not fair.

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[See also: The psychology of why we celebrate Christmas]

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