Suri’s Burn Book and the Good Business of Celebrity Children
It’s been a year since the Tumblr page Suri’s Burn Book was updated. I think of that site often, usually when I’m writing another celebrity piece or browsing the internet to waste some time. Often, I find myself on People Magazine’s frequently updated site, where you can find out about the minute details of so many C-Listers’ lives. Their site has an entire section dedicated to celebrity babies and the rich and famous parents of the world. As of the writing of this post, the major headlines were dedicated to Kylie Jenner’s daughter, Aaron Paul’s new arrival, and a baby shower thrown for Robin Thicke and his 23-year-old girlfriend’s first child together. Do you want to see adorable photos of Armie Hammer’s son’s birthday party? How about a chat with musician Scott Stapp’s wife as she details her struggle to get back in shape after the birth of their third child? Were you dying to know where Christina Aguilera got those sunglasses and coat for her daughter, Summer Rain? Don’t worry, People has it all. They’ve even got a somewhat ironic news story on Anna Paquin detailing why she keeps her children out of the press.
I think of Suri’s Burn Book a lot because it seems so prescient now, with the hindsight of time. The satirical celeb-fashion blog, wherein writer Allie Hagan took on the persona of Suri Cruise and offered Joan Rivers-style commentary on her child contemporaries, was mean but no meaner than the culture it mocked.
The blog began at a time where celebrity children had started to become a juggernaut industry for the gossip world and its adjacent spheres. Suri Cruise’s birth and the seeming secrecy surrounding it had inspired frenzied headlines before her unveiling on the cover of Vanity Fair. Posh and Becks had a trio of sons, the Pinkett-Smith kids were starting their own careers, and Britney Spears became a mother as her life seemed to take a dark turn. And then, of course, there was the birth of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, followed by the exclusive deal with People to reveal her to the world. That deal remains the 3rd most expensive celebrity photograph of all time.
Suddenly, it seemed like we all knew the names of these kids and saw them as regularly in the tabloids as their parents. Magazines started following the fashion choices of toddlers, offering eager parents the juice on where to buy those adorable floral dresses for their own tykes. Of the twenty most expensive celebrity photographs ever purchased, 15 are either pictures of new-born babies, children following adoption or paternity cases, or photos of that all-important baby bump (People bought 9 of them). None of this happens without an enthusiastic audience to consume, and to this day, the business of celebrity children remains one with both impressive financial boons and PR-friendly boosts. The burn book saw it all happening and knew how ridiculous it was. What made sense about offering fashion tips to an actor’s three-year-old kid? Not much, but then again, it seemed equally nonsensical for magazines to slavishly report on such matters.
Suri’s Burn Book had its own sprawling mythos. Suri, as imagined by Hagan, was the queen bee of her generation, the style icon who was totally above it all, but agreed to mingle with the regular plebs every now and then. She had her favorites — she always envied princesses and admired Malia Obama — but had her favorite targets - the Affleck daughters were just too commonly dressed for her liking. As ridiculous as it sounds, it was a characterisation that made sense for Suri. Here was this child that the media obsessed over, one whose origins were shrouded in the most bizarre speculation, and a girl who seemed destined for big things. Her dad is the ultimate Hollywood star, her mother the bright young ingenue, and their religion an insidious cult that teaches parents to treat their kids like miniature adults. Whenever Suri appeared in public wearing baby heels and carrying handbags worth more than your second-hand car, it lined up with both the Burn Book and our own preconceptions about the weird world of the Cruise-Holmes household. We project so much onto celebrities, so it shouldn’t be that surprising when we do the same to their offspring.
The economy of celebrity children is one that relies on parents who are willing to offer something to meet the demands. Their aims can be somewhat altruistic, like giving the millions from a People cover reveal to charity, but it would be naïve to pretend that’s always why it happens. Whether or not you have a ‘right reason’ for selling pics of your newborn to a tabloid, the glowing press it can create is undeniable.
Parenthood is a curious whitewash for celebrities. It can wipe clean a dirty slate and open up vast new worlds of opportunities and revenue: Think of Jessica Alba starting The Honest Company, then having her kids help her promote it as part of her ‘earth mommy businesswoman’ persona. Few things make celebrities more ‘relatable’ than parenthood. Solid gold prams or not, maybe they are ‘just like us’.
There are limits to how much certain celebrities can truly shield their private lives from the press, but there’s a difference between taking a stand against invasive paparazzi and putting your kid on the cover of Vanity Fair. Suri was a cover girl before she could talk, and that was a deliberate choice made by her parents that had an impact on what we talk about when we talk about the Cruise-Holmes clan.
The issue with the blog was the obviously short shelf life of its objective, and the precariously fine line between satirical takedowns of the celebrity baby economy and just being kind of mean about kids. It’s a near-impossible tightrope to tread, and Hagan didn’t always pull it off. Justifying something like this is its own problem. Even if the parents are deliberately putting their kids out there and doing the exclusive covers or interviews or making them little models for their work, being a part of that machine, satirical or not, is its own conundrum.
Nowadays, the economy is still firmly in place, but now it has free reign over social media too. Celebrities can control the images they send out of their kids and create good narratives while limiting what is and isn’t seen. Jeremy Renner can show snaps of himself being a good dad with his daughter, but make sure her face is never seen. Kim Kardashian seems ready to start her kids’ careers for them via her Instagram posts. Neil Patrick Harris has the perfect platform to showcase his twins’ impeccable fancy dress. Money isn’t changing hands here, but the business remains. There is demand. Here is the supply. That doesn’t even take into consideration the entire concern-trolling part of the internet, who dissect every decision a parent makes, famous or not, to make some sort of example of them. The economy there is forever booming.
All of this is pretty avoidable. Think about it - Matt Damon remains one of the biggest stars on the planet, but can you name any of his four children? Evan Rachel Wood and Jamie Bell have a son together but never revealed his name to the press. Kerry Washington is a true TV megastar, who managed to keep such tight control over her two pregnancies that photographs of her kids are as rare as gold. There are always choices to be made, especially when you’re that rich and famous. The job of star studies and gossip analysis is to understand those choices.
Nowadays, the blog is all but dead, but the business of celebrities and their offspring remains unavoidable. Perhaps it’s only fair that the site go dormant. After all, when was the last time you saw Suri Cruise in public? One of the most famous offspring in Hollywood is now close to being a private citizen, shown in public only when her mother shares an Instagram snap or two.
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