Celebrity fakes – where porn meets a sense of possession

Stars such as Paris Hilton are appropriated by those creating celebrity fake porn. Paul Buck/EPA

You may or may not have heard about the online practice of celebrity fakes. Website after website, one can find images of the most famous in some of the most hardcore pornographic poses. One of those sites, Celebrity Fake, constructs a complete archive of thousands of celebrities organised by name and country of fame. So what’s going on here, and why aren’t we seeing any law suits?

Miley Cyrus, along with other Disney alumni such as Selena Gomez are remarkably prominent and are linked to the most popular on the site’s home page; but the sheer number is unbelievable. Cyrus is found in 432 of these fake pornographic poses.

No-one is spared and very few are sacred: there are 182 images of Princess Diana, 36 of 50-something film actress Annette Benning, 195 of the tennis star Maria Sharapova.

In listings for Australia, Cate Blanchett is reformed in 124 poses; Julia Gillard, six; Kylie Minogue, 524; Libby Trickett, three, and so on for more than 150 famous Australian women.

Googling the phrase “celebrity fake porn” returns 37.3 million sites; “celebrity porn” generates 170 million; and “celebrity porn sites”, 60.5 million.

The phenomenon is hard to fathom and intriguing to analyse. First of all, one would expect that the circulation of false images of very famous people would generate a torrent of lawsuits.

Famed individuals have spent years constructing their public personas and built fortunes related to their public identities so one might think those same individuals would be outraged sufficiently to generate suits and litigation. For decades, scandal and celebrity magazines have been pursued by celebrities with some success.

Impersonation is generally prosecuted by stars and these images are putting their face on someone else’s body and thereby producing a form of impersonation. Recent examples where stars have prosecuted impersonators include

  • Tom Waits successfully suing Opel – a GM-owned car manufacturer, for using a sound-alike gravelly voice to accompany their television commercials

  • Lindsay Lohan unsuccessfully suing E-Trade, a financial services company, for a baby called “Lindsay” in their 2010 Superbowl-released commercial who was called a “milkaholic”

  • Robin Williams pursuing the prosecution of man impersonating him for financial gain at events in Texas.

In Australia, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is advancing with some success in suing Zoo magazine for publishing a photoshopped lingerie-clad image of her in a rather bizarre, tasteless and obviously humorous campaign to find the hottest asylum seeker.

Litigation

But it’s difficult to find any lawsuits against fake celebrity porn sites. One of the key reasons might be the awkward position celebrities inhabit in the public world. In most legal jurisdictions (though not all), it is permissible to parody or satirise a public individual and this allows the use of an identity in this way.

The famous impersonators such as Rich Little – “The Man of a Thousand Voices” – were seen as entertainers. The brilliant 2009 brilliant parody of George W Bush interviewing himself by Will Ferrell (below) is certainly worth protecting from litigation. Celebrities operate with slightly different rules in terms of the privacy of their identity – to a degree their personas are in the public domain.

Two other factors make litigation difficult:

1) images are generally owned by the photographer or the agency and it is at least partially up to those people to be initiating legal action and thus celebrities may not be the starting point for any lawsuit.

2) perhaps it is just embarrassing for celebrities to draw attention to celebrity fake porn – after all it is their face that has been used and to draw further scrutiny might be seen as further sullying reputations and images.

From a legal standpoint, the websites make it very clear that the images are fake and this makes advancing a defamation case more difficult and even makes American first amendment defences possible to fail.

In this way, it is different to an emerging online issue generating legislation and legal action – revenge porn, which is much easier to establish its defaming qualities because of its claim to truth in the images distributed.

The end-result for the celebrity would be an inordinate refocus on what they would not – presumably – want people to associate with them.

A growth industry

As this legal inertia continues, there is no question the universe of celebrity fake porn is expanding, partially driven by user-generated content.

There are many YouTube videos guiding individuals to use Photoshop to make celebrity fakes. Other YouTube videos provide point-by-point instructions in how Photoshop can be used to remove clothing from an electronic image.

Kylie Minogue. Jens Kalaene/EPA

This uploading of Photoshop production techniques of celebrity fakes by “amateurs” is encouraged by the key sites; moreover, these sites also encourage users to “request” new celebrity subjects to be made into celebrity fakes.

It’s important to note that celebrity fake porn is potentially major entry point into online pornography and serves to link many pornography sites as users move through images. In other words, celebrity fakes do what celebrities do at red-carpet events: they attract attention and that attention is valuable for both the website and those linked to that website.

In that sense, they merely replicate the way the online advertising and promotional economy operates.

Why now?

That brings us to the last two key questions: what is the particular fascination with celebrity fake porn and why now?

Although there have been precursors to celebrity pornography with magazines such as Celebrity Skins or nude profiles of very famous celebrities appearing as far back as Marilyn Monroe in Playboy, Vanessa Williams in Penthouse or Paris Hilton more recently in FHM, the nature and dimensions of celebrity fakes are quite different.

As with most pornography, the fabricated graphic images presented are generally of women, with less than 5% of all the images being of male public personalities. The target audience – given the images of famous men predominantly resemble gay male pornography – appears to be male.

It is also different to the regular and tired phenomenon of what used to be called the “sex tapes”, immortalised by Rob Lowe in 1988 when a videotape was leaked of him having sex with two women, and expanded through the activities of drawing attention to what would be described as scandalous and sometimes illegal activity.

Miley Cyrus. Jason Szenes/EPA

This practice has been expanded and utilised to maintain the attention of the celebrity press by icons such as Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. To a degree, Miley Cyrus’ efforts at defining herself as an adult and not a child through her videos, her twerking, and her provocative comments are at least part of this same construction of scandal and attention-seeking that is ever-present in contemporary entertainment culture.

Celebrity fake porn is in some ways much more mundane and ordinary. It is clearly a play in the world of private and public. What it allows its audience to do is to move what is part of the public world and migrate it into a private world. This migration is more than the tawdry use of pornography for sexual pleasure.

It represents a form of possession of a public figure, a fantasy belief in the capacity of complete revelation and exposure of the public personality. This is its tonic for the user.

The images themselves are very often obscene and degrading in their graphic bodily detail and this identifies a further form of possession and ownership that is heightened because of the fame and value of the personality.

Because porn still represents something hidden and perhaps undiscussed publicly, celebrity fakes remain an underworld. But online culture in its capacity to distribute and its encouragement of user generation, produces a different form of public culture, a culture that presents new challenges to protecting one’s image.

Note: The author would like to thank Professor Andrew Kenyon for his insights into the legal implications for public figures.

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