Australian comic Celeste Barber shot to fame by re-creating celebrity shots on Instagram – now the fashion set are getting in on the joke. She speaks to Phoebe McDowell about fat rolls and feminism.
Celeste Barber is most comfortable when she’s half-naked, lampooning pictures of impossibly good-looking A-listers doing ridiculous things. There’s little she won’t try. Whether standing bikini- clad in a handcart, pretending to be Emily Ratajkowski on a Segway, or attempting a Lady Gaga yoga pose on a surf board (only to topple off, legs flying), she has become the antidote to the manicured Instagrammers who regularly saturate our feeds.
It all began in 2015, when Barber staged her own version of the infamous picture of Kim Kardashian reclining on a hill of rocks, wearing only stockings, underwear and ankle boots. After uploading the pictures side-by-side as a joke, Barber went from 8000 to 50,000 Instagram followers almost overnight. Fast-forward three years, and she has 5.1 million followers, a fashion fan in designer Tom Ford and now a book as well to show for it.
Barber, 36, says that fame was always the plan. “I wasn’t just messing around and seeing where my Instagram would go,” she explains. “I knew there was something in it.” Since the Kim K tableau, Barber has parodied everyone from Rita Ora (“She really doesn’t wear many clothes – good on her”) to Cara Delevingne (“Now she’s a bloody good sport”). Crucially, celebs go wild for it. Miranda Kerr is a fan, and even the usually po-faced Goop reposted Barber’s spin on its magazine cover shoot of a topless Gwyneth Paltrow slathered in clay, or, in Barber’s case, mud from her garden. Cindy Crawford also direct-messaged her to say she’d “killed it” when she re-enacted the super’s sexed-up drinking of a can of Pepsi, while Kris Jenner reposted another of Barber’s pictures of Kim, with the caption, “This girl cracks me up! LOL!” Barber has even considered taking off the current First Lady, Melania Trump, but casually says: “The pictures are just so stoic and boring.”
Even so, it came as something of a shock when Tom Ford called to say he wanted to work with Barber on a project for his show at New York Fashion Week in September. “I was, like, ‘Are you flying me over purely to stage the world’s biggest catfight? Are all the people I’ve done photos of just going to run at me?’” But the fashion crowd love to get in on the joke (see Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson strutting down the catwalk in Valentino’s autumn/winter 2015 collection ahead of the release of Zoolander 2). Barber’s appearance at Ford’s party was the talking point of NYFW, where the two of them parodied one of his own beauty campaigns (with lots of lipstick, lots of snogging) in a short lm that debuted on huge screens. (“Like liquid sunshine” is how Barber describes kissing Tom Ford.) The two are now, in her own deadpan words, “Best friends forever”.
Barber is part of a new social media trend that spears celebrity culture and the lunacy of the super- curated accounts. She aims to cut through the crap. “Fashion is art and I enjoy the spectacle, but we’re struggling to differentiate [on social media],” she says. “So when we’re constantly being fed unattainable things passed o as the norm, I just want to shout ‘Stop!’” Her point being that not everyone is doing sun salutations on a Balinese beach every morning – the majority of us are eating Weet-Bix in an old T-shirt.
Barber has also inadvertently become a poster girl for body positivity, which she sees as a constructive coincidence. In her own words, she has “a perfect size-14 physique”. In one photo, next to a model posing in profile, she has numbered her own fat rolls with a pen. In another, she has matched the model Alexis Ren’s perky-tit- emblazoned T-shirt by drawing navel- grazing boobs of her own. “I make myself look as bad as possible. My body, well, that’s my body. Deal with it.”
In her book Challenge Accepted! Barber recounts childhood memories in New South Wales and heading off to drama school aged 17, only to find she loathed Shakespeare and loved slapstick. She was plugging away at stand-up comedy and TV shows, such as Home and Away, for a good decade before finding Insta fame. Her husband, a tree surgeon, makes occasional appearances on her Instagram (as #HotHusband). She has unofficially adopted his two daughters, Kyah, 17, and Sahra, 15, and the couple have two sons, Lou, 7, and Buddy, 4.
The only question that arises when scrolling through Barber’s feed: is poking fun at other women, well, sisterly? Barber absolutely identifies as a feminist, and says she isn’t judging any of her – often half-naked – subjects. “It’s their prerogative,” she says. But she doesn’t buy into any notion of the sisterhood: “Just because someone has a uterus doesn’t mean I have to like and/or support them. We don’t ask men to do the same, do we?”
There are women she does look up to, however: Amy Schumer, Dawn French (“It’s always a ‘holy shit!’ moment when she likes my tweets”) and Reese Witherspoon.
Having just finished a successful US tour, Barber’s now looking ahead to a comedy TV series and podcasts. So how will she continue to skewer celebrity culture now she’s one herself? Barber’s not so convinced about the label yet. “Nah, that’s some next-level Inception shit,” she retorts. She only wants to keep making people laugh, while proving that social media is as risky as it is robust. Go forth and follow.
This article appeared in this month's February issue of Marie Claire. On sale now.