Lea Michele: Grieving Publicly

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In 2009, a groundbreaking musical television drama premiered on FOX and quickly captured the attention of millions. This new show, “Glee”, attracted many viewers and sparked the formation of a very passionate audience. It was, for all intents and purposes, a phenomenon. At the center of this phenomenon was the star of the show, Lea Michele. Michele, a petite brunette Broadway actress with a large voice, rose to star status practically overnight. Over the next few years, “Glee” gained a ton of momentum, pushing Lea Michele to the top of the Hollywood food chain. She has been on the cover of almost every major magazine, performed at the Super Bowl, and even met President Obama.

Everything came to a crashing halt this past summer, however, when Lea’s co-star and real life lover Cory Monteith was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room. It was widely known that the actor had previously suffered from a drug addiction, and soon it became clear that this was the cause of his death. Once again Lea was at the center of a media circus, but this time for the wrong reasons. Of course people lose their loved ones to this kind of tragedy all the time, but Lea was – and still is – in a particularly interesting position because of her status as a public figure. Glee is an extraordinarily popular show, and Lea is arguably the most recognizable cast member, so when Monteith was reported dead all eyes were on Lea. For months now, fans have been following her every (public) move and watching her grieving process unfold in front of millions of people. I would like to take a closer look at Lea Michele’s social media presence, particularly with Twitter, and examine how she has been handling such a delicate situation on such a public forum.

In my opinion, celebrities’ social media profiles are essentially just another branch of their personal “brand”.  These public figures have been assigned, or self-assigned, a particular narrative and identity that they must perform publicly. Sarah Banet-Weiser describes this process of self-branding as “a practice deployed by individuals to communicate personal values, ideas, and beliefs using strategies and logic from commercial brand culture”. Individuals, she argues, are marketing themselves in the same way that companies try to market their products. This is even more prevalent for celebrities, whose careers in part depend on their public personas. Social media sites like Twitter are excellent for self-branding because they can reach a lot of people, and because it feels more authentic than when they are smiling for the paparazzi or giving interviews.

In the case of Lea Michele’s Twitter page, it is very much aligned with another, larger brand: “Glee”. The latter has positioned itself as a social media-friendly show, and it has a large presence on Twitter. As a result, cast members like Lea are very active on the site and use it to interact not only with each other but also with thousands of “gleeks” from around the world. This is just a surface association, though. If you were to go back and look at Lea’s tweets throughout the past few years, you would see that there is a strategic effort to represent herself the same way “Glee” has represented her. Glee has hailed itself as the go-to show for upbeat, relatable stories about “underdogs” finding their inner beauty and strength. As a result, Lea Michele has also been painted as someone who exudes confidence and optimism, and this is definitely reflected in her Twitter activity. The actress’ tweets largely consist of updates regarding the show, as well as bubbly “good morning/evening/night” salutations, and inspirational messages, all of which are in line with the messages being promoted and perpetuated on her show.

As Zizi Papacharissi points out, these performances of the self are only done for the viewing and consumption of others. Twitter users, she argues, employ theatrical tactics and rely on “practiced” behaviors to create a consistent and authentic narrative about themselves that they can share with the rest of the world. In Lea’s situation, because of her association with a popular television show and her star status, this narrative has to be even more carefully constructed. This became especially important in the past few months since July 14th, when Lea’s boyfriend and co-star was found dead of an apparent drug overdose. In the weeks following his death, many people were curious about how Lea would respond to the news publicly. The entire world was waiting to watch her grieve.

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As I’m sure many people had suspected, Lea’s social media activity in the wake of such a tragedy did not stray from her usual communication style. On July 29, only a couple weeks after Cory Monteith’s death, Lea posted a short but sweet thank you message to her fans, along with a picture of she and him in front of a sunset. As Marwick and boyd said, celebrity is a “practice”, and Twitter is merely another platform on which celebrities can self-represent and put their personal “brand” on display. Lea Michele’s Twitter profile is an extension of her celebrity image, and her image is one of positivity. Even when she experienced what was no doubt a terrible loss, her performance on twitter remained consistent with her brand.

-Madeline

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