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BFF Stories: Let’s Talk About Busy Philipps

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | October 12, 2017 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | October 12, 2017 |

Instagram is good for celebrities. Unlike Twitter, which has a greater potential for social media faux pas and the inescapable scourge of unrestrained hate speech running amok on its site, Instagram gives its users better control of their experience and an obviously more visual means to explore it. You can post something and choose not to say a word if you so wish: The photos do the talking. That has immense appeal to any major star who just wants to plug their latest project and give their public image a well-filtered boost while out on the promotional trail. You don’t need to interact with anyone, you can use it to release statements without having to meddle with publicists, and it offers the most direct and visual way for your audiences to appreciate you. It’s easy to tell when a celebrity isn’t running their own Twitter page; with Instagram, there’s always that more intimate edge because their image is key to the experience. It’s a way to be personal without revealing anything about yourself.

Usually, that makes for pretty boring social media. Does anyone really care about Jeremy Renner’s Instagram, for instance? Elizabeth Olsen admitted she signed up to Instagram in part for the lucrative branding opportunities, and it shows in her samey, uninspiring content. If you like those actors, you’ll find something to enjoy on their pages, but overall, they’re just like everybody else’s: Polished and ready to share but not especially revealing. Then again, they don’t need to be revealing because that could get messy very quickly. It takes a near impossible balance of charm, nerve and utter shamelessness to reveal all on social media and turn that into your most bankable attribute without it becoming obnoxious or unnerving.

Enter Busy Philipps.

There are few celebrities of any level of fame that have managed to harness the power of Instagram to its pure, unfiltered and potentially chaotic limits quite like the former star of Cougar Town and Dawson’s Creek. Not only does she frequently post charming, unpretentious images of herself, her family and her BFF Michelle Williams, where her real talent lies is in the platform’s stories option. While it’s essentially a Snapchat rip-off, it’s one with its own aesthetic appeal - less goofy filters, more text options - and one that has the opportunity for intriguing new methods of storytelling. Imagine vlogging with a time-limit and more word vomit. It’s something Philipps has made all her own, to the point where even the New Yorker have profiled her as the breakout star of the platform’s Stories. It may seem like a minor achievement, but it’s one that’s turned a talented but sinfully underrated comedic actress into the unlikely face of the realities of celebrity as a business in the social media age.

While her official name is Elizabeth Jean Philipps, she’s been known as Busy since her earliest months, a nickname given to her because she was an active child. Her breakout role came in the form of the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks, a one season wonder that found its fanbase many years later, partly due to the sheer level of star power in its mighty cast. In a Judd Apatow show that featured James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Lizzy Caplan and Linda Cardellini, Philipps was in good company, although she later admitted to having a mutual hatred of Franco, who shoved her to the ground during one scene (the pair have since reconciled). After that show’s cancellation, she joined the cast of Dawson’s Creek in its final two seasons, playing Audrey, a college friend of Joey.

Philipps was also open about the experience of working on the show being less than wonderful, noting in a Vulture interview, ‘It was a word-perfect show, which I’d never had any experience with. And it was really shocking for me. I felt really hemmed in… I also felt — which is something that I talk about in therapy all the time, because I always feel disrespected — but they left my character Audrey out of the series finale and my feelings were really hurt. On top of everything else, I felt like I had done 44 episodes of the show, and then they didn’t even want me in the series finale? I just felt like no one particularly cared about me. And in fact, I remember at one point somebody referencing us as “talking props.” As an actor, not the best feeling!’

The show was where she met her real-life best friend for the first time, Michelle Williams. The pair have been inseparable since then, and while Philipps’s career has been a solid mix of supporting and guest roles in film and TV, for many in the celeb world, her defining part has been as the dream BFF. While the phenomenally talented multiple Oscar nominee Williams avoids the press and stays off social media, Busy is the vivacious extrovert who sticks by her side and always knows the best angle for a selfie. Williams gushed to People that Busy was the love of her life, and their mutual adoration is evident in every photo. She’s equal parts big sister, confidante, style guide and bodyguard, and their presence together on the red carpet is always a joy. Hollywood is not a business that fosters great friendships. How do you find your companions in an industry where backstabbing is encouraged and any two women in the same room immediately inspires whispers of catfights and jealousy? The red carpet is a place for spouses and maybe your mum (or your publicist if you must). Bringing your best friend, holding their hand and posing together is a real rarity, but seeing Busy and Michelle do it makes you want to see it more.

As her name suggests, Busy has kept very active in the industry over the past 15 years, with the arguable peak being Cougar Town, a very funny show with a godawful title that allowed Philipps to show off the hilarious range of her comedic talents. As Laurie, she gets to be the brash and no-filter life of the party, stealing scenes left and right. Like many projects she was involved with, Cougar Town never really broke out of its cult mode into mainstream success, particularly after ABC cancelled the show and it was later picked up by TBS, but by this point, Philipps was becoming the kind of personality that inspired fervent devotion in the pockets of fandom lucky enough to stumble upon her work. Critics loved her too, even in the less discerning projects (White Chicks, anyone?) Philipps’s comedic prowess lies somewhere between Mae West and Anna Faris. She’s a proper broad with the laugh to match, and a willingness to go where the joke needs it. Why have a filter when getting the good reaction is far more rewarding?

Perhaps that’s what makes Philipps such a delightful and worthwhile social media presence. She has an understanding of the dualities of her life - famous but not that famous; living a Hollywood life but not one that’s completely unattainable; working regularly but solidly B-List - that makes the stories she tells on Twitter and Instagram so captivating.

Busy’s Instagram stories can go on for days, playing out like the most modern of soap operas - Dynasty by way of I Love Lucy, with just a dash of the Real Housewives franchise for good measure. She talks about everything, from running around with her kids on their epic Disney cruise family holiday (her husband is writer-director Marc Silverstein and the pair have two daughters with the wonderful names of Birdie and Cricket.) to a fascinating rant about possibly being nearly killed in an Uber car. These are fleeting stories, told off the cuff and deleted into the void 24 hours later, so the spontaneity of them brings a surprising addictive quality. I don’t care about anyone else’s Instagram Stories but I always watch Busy’s. She has a mind working at a mile a minute and social media is the most creatively satisfying means to get that energy across. It’s screwball for the modern age, and for a moment, you get to experience that potent BFF vibe that Michelle Williams gets all the time. It’s performance, obviously, but in a medium that invites the personal. Instagram is storytelling by Philipps’s hand, and her life is the stage.

Sometimes, being no-filter means revealing the disappointments. While writing this piece, I watched Busy’s latest Stories, which included her Saturday morning yoga session. The first two clips showed her sweating and panting as she followed the instructions, half smiling and half wincing as she perspired heavily. Those were followed up with a photograph and an admission that sometimes, this was all she had. After two sweet and funny moments showing the unglamorous reality of Hollywood life, you’re hit with the realization that, even for those with name recognition and the supposed dream life, this is a brutal industry.

One of Busy’s most candid Instagram moments came when she found out that the comedy pilot she starred in with Casey Wilson had not been picked up by NBC, despite being one of the most lauded of the season. She felt no qualms about letting out all her emotions on the decision, from anger to tears, and admitting the difficulties of being a working actress who’s faced frequent rejection for close to 20 years. Classic Hollywood narratives rely on a happy ending, and the implication that everything stays happy after the credits role: A star is born and she never has to worry about anything again. Busy isn’t alone in her willingness to expose the constant fears of money, work and possible irrelevance, but she is the one who’s told it in real time to a generation for whom 15 minutes of fame is an everyday possibility.

She’s also at the forefront of exposing another oft-ignored reality of fame in the online age - the financial benefits. Sponsored content is par for the course for anyone of marginal name recognition, particularly on Instagram. You can hardly swipe up without being bombarded by blonde bevvies on the beach drinking detox tea or wearing waist trainers. For major stars, the profits can be eye-watering, with someone like Kim Kardashian able to charge up to $500,000 per ad campaign on the site. In terms of mid-level fame people, the kind with sizeable fanbases but nothing earth-shattering, social media advertising can be a safety net, and Busy has been remarkably open about how she makes her money. Earlier this year, she admitted that she made more money doing partnerships with brands and sponsored content than from her acting work. She is selective about the brands she works with and everything she chooses fits neatly with the kind of life and marketing you’d expect from Busy, but it’s rare to see any celebrity air out their business to the public and discuss what that really means. Audiences would probably assume that someone like Busy Philipps, a well-liked and talented actress with good connections and undeniable hustle, would be swimming in job offers, but she’d be the first person to tell you that’s not how this all works. This is the way things go, so why hide that?

Being good at social media is hard enough, what with the constant moving goalposts and endless Nazis in your way, but being good at it while committing to a brand of honesty and emotional openness is a minefield for anyone, much less someone whose job involves projecting an appealing public image. Nowadays, she has more work in the pipeline and is a fill-in guest host for Kelly Ripa’s daytime talk show, another ideal outlet for her talents. Still, the genius is in the Stories, although if you find Instagram too daunting to check out, don’t worry: Busy has an essay collection coming out soon as well. Busy Philipps is a great on-screen presence, one who should be getting better acting gigs to reflect that, but the way she has taken something as innocuous as Instagram and turned it into the perfect platform for herself and what she has to sell is a fascinating case study in celebrity of the modern age. It’s not that she makes it seem effortless: Really, she shows it to be exhausting, and that’s where the power lies.

Just a sad Minnie on the last night of the cruise. #ipaidforthis #disneycruise

A post shared by Busy Philipps (@busyphilipps) on

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.