Big Business is Benefitting From Selena Gomez & Lady Gaga's Empathizing Instagram Fans: But Is That So Bad?

Selena Gomez, 2017
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Selena Gomez poses at the 3rd Annual InStyle Awards at the Getty Center on Oct. 23, 2017 in Los Angeles. 

In May of 2016, Kesha made one of her most upfront statements about her personal struggles via an Instagram shot of herself beachside, arms triumphant.

“I have been battling depression and an eating disorder for a while now," the caption began. Artists like Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga have come to use the site in a similar manner, opening up about both mental strain as well as physical ailments like lupus and fibromyalgia. This vulnerability showcases a new approach to celebrity, with stars more comfortable than ever revealing the darker moments in their lives and fans responding with a deeper connection and appreciation.

As the number of teens and young women suffering from anxiety and depression continues to increase, fanbases have responded strongly to female acts that speak about suffering from the same issues, though it's important to note very few male acts--beyond Justin Bieber and a handful of others--have been so open about mental health. 

“It’s Demi Lovato that I think of as the pioneer in this area. Her relationship with her fans, really as of the point that she became public about her mental health struggles, the basis of that fan community was the discussion about mental health and the discussion about eating disorders,” says Dr. Diane Pecknold, who is the chairperson of University of Louisville’s Women’s and Gender Studies department and frequently writes about gender in music. “I think it has had the effect of creating supportive communities among fans, so that it’s not just the relationship between the anonymous girl and the star. It creates a community of discussion around those issues which I think is really healthy and helpful.” Lovato has used her account to speak about eating disorders, bipolar disorder and sobriety.

While opting for Instagram as the vehicle for messages of self-reflection might be a logistical choice (Selena Gomez has 128 million followers on the site), the visual forward design allows stars to create a truly evocative message. “They’re showing pictures that not only depict their emotional state but that clearly depict a private moment and it’s really compelling. It grabs,” says Dr. Karen North, director of the Digital Social Media department at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “They’ve invited you in to their private moment and their private experience and you get to share it in a way that you can’t do with only words.”  

But if fans are being grabbed by Instagram's ability to supply a platform for empathy, companies and brands are feeding off of the star's innate popularity as well. Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga both recently inked lucrative multi-million dollar fashion endorsements, with Coach and Tiffany & Co. respectively, and branding experts say that openness is likely a factor of their appeal to brands.

“We’re looking for depth of relationships. Selena Gomez represents someone who is representing a much more real reflection of herself on Instagram and her followers are loving it because they’re made to feel less than great on Instagram by all the manicured lives that they’re exposed to. So they find it refreshing and so then they follow her more, which makes her even more appealing for a brand,” explains Ruth Bernstein, who founded the creative company YARD NYC which works with brands like Athleta, Gap and John Varvatos. “We can all feel the anxiety and insecurity that we’re feeling in this particular time in culture and when you see a celebrity using a platform to not only heal themselves but others it can feel refreshing. It can also be a reminder that not all our problems go away when we become rich and famous.”


I have always been honest about my physical and mental health struggles. Searching for years to get to the bottom of them. It is complicated and difficult to explain, and we are trying to figure it out. As I get stronger and when I feel ready, I will tell my story in more depth, and plan to take this on strongly so I can not only raise awareness, but expand research for others who suffer as I do, so I can help make a difference. I use the word "suffer" not for pity, or attention, and have been disappointed to see people online suggest that I'm being dramatic, making this up, or playing the victim to get out of touring. If you knew me, you would know this couldn't be further from the truth. I'm a fighter. I use the word suffer not only because trauma and chronic pain have changed my life, but because they are keeping me from living a normal life. They are also keeping me from what I love the most in the world: performing for my fans. I am looking forward to touring again soon, but I have to be with my doctors right now so I can be strong and perform for you all for the next 60 years or more. I love you so much.

A post shared by Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) on

But if Instagram can help artists and their followers find cathartic release, it can also be part of the problem for many. While it was the place that Selena Gomez first spoke about undergoing a kidney transplant as part of her treatment for lupus, she has also spoke at length about her ambivalence towards social media. “As soon as I became the most followed person on Instagram, I sort of freaked out. It had become so consuming to me. It’s what I woke up to and went to sleep to. I was an addict, and it felt like I was seeing things I didn’t want to see, like it was putting things in my head that I didn’t want to care about. I always end up feeling like shit when I look at Instagram,” she told Vogue this spring. Kesha has been upfront about abusive trolls on the platform, in a post calling out one who had criticized her body. “That excessive engagement with social media makes them feel bad about themselves and so it’s sort of paradoxical that that’s actually also the mechanism that they’re using to talk about their own struggles,” Dr. Pecknold explains.

While giving a voice to mental health issues is significant, what can really benefit young people are public figures talking about the steps they’ve taken to help heal themselves, says Dr. Robert R. Morris, a psychologist and the co-founder of Koko, a social network focused around mental health. “It’s one thing for someone to say, oh, I have depression or I’m struggling with an eating disorder but just knowing that others struggle with eating disorders is not going to cure your eating disorder,” he says. “I’m hopeful and would like to see more examples of celebrities not just showcasing awareness of the underlying problem but also talking a lot about the ways to treat it.”


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