The first thing I want to tell Celeste Barber when her face pops up on Zoom for our marie claire interview is that Liv Healy, the character she plays in the upcoming Netflix comedy-drama Wellmania, is me. “No, seriously, I think you stalked me,” I cry. “Liv is a food writer and that’s my main gig. She’s loud and she looks like a normal woman. And she’s interviewed Miranda Kerr repeatedly. She is me.”
Barber, bless her, is kind enough to indulge me, and agrees with a laugh that Liv certainly does seem like me. But she’s had plenty of practice. Having women of my generation – late 30s and above – telling her that she really, really gets them is something that happens to the New South Wales-based comedian and actor every day.
You could see it in the audience at the final shows of her recent sell-out Fine, Thanks stand-up tour, which finished at the Sydney Opera House after blazing across 53 cities in the US, Europe and Canada. Her encore performance on home soil was filled with women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and up – mums, sisters, best friends, dressed in nice frocks and comfy sneakers – who roared with relief and release at the jokes that spoke directly to their lives: motherhood, sex, mental health and having a tummy that hangs over your jeans.
You can see it in the comments on her Instagram, where her fans regularly post things like, “You’re in Baltimore – we should have a wine!” or “God I love your sense of humour, it matches mine!” And you see it when fans comment on her famous #celestechallengeaccepted posts – the shots of herself aping the unrealistically perfect poses of models and celebrities. A woman who looks like me, in a pair of raggedy undies with a dinner plate covering up her boobs – who doesn’t relate?
This, perhaps even above her whip-quick wit, perfect dramatic comic timing and big, stage-filling, vaudevillian entertainment skills, is 40-year-old Barber’s superpower. She gets women, particularly generation-X women. She talks to them, not at them or over them or about them. “My audience – they are me,” Barber says. “They’re women of a certain age who are allies to everyone – sort of placeholders for their husbands, for their kids. To their families they’re everything but out in the world? They’re pretty invisible.”
If there’s one thing Barber isn’t, it’s invisible, and she’s inspiring a generation of women to follow suit. “I was never sexy and cool. I mean I’m super sexy and super cool now, but we just weren’t really allowed to be if it wasn’t our currency. If you weren’t like super-duper hot from birth then step aside. I found my audience and I think they’re kind of sick of stepping aside.” She sees it as a privilege to be able to give these women a moment to let go of their responsibilities and just laugh – whether it’s for a few seconds on Instagram or for a full season of television, as with Wellmania.
“I love that they they’re like, ‘I’m here to have a laugh, feel seen, lose my mind and then go back to my life,’” she says. “These women, they go through a lot. And I am really happy that I get to scream and cheer for them.”
Easy connection like this wasn’t always so straightforward for Barber. Growing up on the NSW North Coast, she was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 16, a relative rarity in the 1990s, especially for girls. It meant she found learning and concentrating and everything to do with school a real challenge.
“I was so embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to know,” she says. Performing was her solace. “I didn’t have many mates at school for a really long time. I’d just go to the drama room or I’d dance.” And in time, she says, she began to realise that being “loud and dramatic was kind of cool.”
More than nine million Instagram followers later, and those kids who thought Celeste Barber was the weirdo at school must be giving themselves a bit of guilty side-eye, because it turns out that being loud and dramatic is definitely cool. The Instagram “celebrity dupe” posts that shot Barber to worldwide fame – starting with the moment in 2015 when she parodied Kim Kardashian splayed improbably on a mound of dirt wearing nothing but a bra, briefs, fishnets and stilettos – are bombarded not only by fans but by celebrities who seem to delight in Barber’s “good sport” pillorying.
Sharon Stone leaves regular laughing emojis, while Gwyneth Paltrow writes simply “I can’t …” in which one can imagine the Oscar-winning star and goop mogul is speechless with mirth. I ask Barber if she’s proper friends with serious A-listers now. “Yeah, I am,” she quips with a snort that suggests she isn’t going to spill too many beans. “But in my mind, I think I’ve always been? Like in my mind, [popstar] Pink and I are total mates. We’re not – she’s not someone I know – but I think we are.” It’s quite possible she could become friends with Pink should their paths ever cross.
Barber says she doesn’t really get starstruck around famous people, with one exception. “Do you know the person I got most starstruck with?” she asks. “[Model] Jennifer Hawkins. I met her a hundred thousand years ago and made an absolute fool of myself. She went to shake my hand and I thought it was at a height where she probably wanted me to kiss it. And I went to kiss it and my friend who was with me was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And yeah … what was I doing?”
One celebrity who is unlikely to ever offer her hand for Barber to kiss is Emily Ratajkowski, with Barber revealing late last year that the model had blocked the comedian after Barber took a shot at her message of “don’t objectify me” combined with pictures of her flawless, naked derrière back in 2021. Barber shrugs it off. “Slow news day,” she says. But the exchange was notable because it was one of the rare moments when “the internet”, in its famously savage and unforgiving way, seemed to go on the attack with Barber. “I think … your ‘lighthearted’ jabs cross the line into an old- school anti-sex feminism and end up shaming women,” scolded one commentator. “Tried so hard to be a feminist you’ve circled back around into misogyny,” insisted another.
Barber finds all of it mildly irritating, but only mildly. “Cancelling” or being reprimanded by faceless strangers doesn’t worry her particularly. “I like running my mouth off. I do it a lot. I’m quick-witted – it’s one of my favourite things about me,” she says with unapologetic confidence. “I don’t like that I feel I can’t do that as much, and yeah I do feel like I censor myself sometimes.” She pauses. “But then other times I don’t give a fuck and I operate from a place of already being cancelled. I mean good luck to them. You can’t win. They hate what you do one day, then you’re the greatest thing in the world the next day.”
Wellmania, which hits Netflix in March, could be described as all the Celeste Barber goodies rolled into one package: relatability, heart, laughs and a character who has no interest in censoring anything that comes out of her mouth. Inspired by the novel of the same name by Australian writer Brigid Delaney and co-produced by Barber and writer Benjamin Law, it introduces us to Australian food writer Liv Healy, who is living a life of outrageous decadence in New York before a health crisis forces her to re-evaluate her life.
The show is objectively hilarious. Barber has the most extraordinary comic timing and is even funnier when she moves than when she’s a still image on Instagram. But more than that, it’s about relationships. “The heart of the show is family connection,” says Barber. The scenes with her best friend, Amy, played by JJ Fong, as well as her onscreen mum (Genevieve Mooy) and brother (Lachlan Buchanan), are poignant in their realness. Like so many of us, Liv instantly reverts to being a smart-arse teenager the moment she’s around her baby boomer mother.
Her friendship with Amy has the easy camaraderie of two women who’ve known each other since high school, but as the series progresses the security of that friendship is challenged. “I hope people watch it and laugh and fall in love with Liv – who is so exciting and dynamic and full-on and wrong,” says Barber.
Fong confirms that behind-the-scenes Barber is exactly how she is on every other platform where her fans encounter her. “We were doing this one scene that was quite a hard scene, and it was at the end of the day and we were all tired,” recalls Fong. It wasn’t coming together, lines were going awry and everyone seemed a bit over it. “She had a lot of dialogue and we had to walk down this corridor.
So there we were, walking, walking, and suddenly she stops. She turns. And looks at me. And says, ‘I think I just got my period.’” The two women cracked up. “It just broke us out of [the stress of the scene],” says Fong. “We just had so much fun.”
Like Liv, Barber has succumbed to health fads. After having open heart surgery at the age of 25 to fix a hole in her heart (“At the risk of sounding too dramatic, I nearly died – it was fucking ridiculous,” she told InStyle magazine in 2019), she decided to invest in a series of colonics, but skipped the part where she was meant to fast and cleanse beforehand. “It was the most painful thing in the world because I was – literally – full of shit,” she says. “It sucked.”
Today she sticks to less-invasive wellness activities: she gets up early and walks her dog when she’s at home, and on the road she does yoga to stretch out her body, and goes to hotel gyms consistently. “Sometimes I’ll just sit in the gym,” she deadpans. “But I go every day.”
Barber admits she still feels the pressure to look a certain way. “That body-shaming industry, it’s big and it’s strong,” she says. “I’m just a woman in the world and a child of consumerism. I might get some [cosmetic] work done some day, but people probably won’t even know. That being said, I do quite like the way I look. I’m happy with myself and looks have never been my currency.”
For the foreseeable future, the hotel gyms are off the table and Barber is looking forward to some time at home with her family – her two boys and Api Robin (known to all Barber fans as “hot husband”). Her boys watch her on TV or online but are completely unimpressed by their mum’s fame. “I say to them, ‘Hey! You ask your friends’ mums how cool I am!” she says.
Overall, that kid with the learning disabilities and no friends figures that things have come together pretty nicely. And if it all falls apart tomorrow? If somehow the fans find someone else they like more or the “cancelled” axe falls and this big, wild ride comes to an end? “I’ll just go and be regional manager of Witchery,” she says, laughing.
This story originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of marie claire Australia.
Wellmania is out on Netflix on March 29.
Photographer: George Santoni
Fashion Director: Naomi Smith
Makeup: Filomena Natoli
Hair: Brad Mullins
Manicure: Jocelyn Petroni
Prop Stylist: Kirsten Stanwix
Production: Robyn Fay-Perkins