It seemed that the celebrity sex tape had gone the way of the dodo or the Juicy Couture tracksuit—a relic of early-aughts paparazzi quarry—until recently, that is. In early September, a woman claimed she had a sex tape featuring Usher. And a little more than a week ago, it was revealed that Kevin Hart was being extorted by someone who allegedly possessed a tape of the comedian having sex with a woman (not his wife) in a Las Vegas hotel room.
Although scandals involving Rob Lowe (1988) and Pamela Anderson (1998) familiarized the genre, it wasn’t until the Kim Kardashian video in 2007 that the celebrity sex tape became a new model for stardom. It catapulted largely unknown figures to prominence, and in other cases reinvigorated careers. Such tapes became de rigueur for certain pillars of the thirty mile zone, like a small dog or Von Dutch hat.
The sex tape phenomenon developed at roughly the same time that reality television reached its natural culmination. While Punk’d, The Simple Life, The Surreal Life and other shows used reality TV to comment on the eccentricity of celebrity life, always filtered by a camera of some kind (paparazzi, TV crew), the sex tape was the genre’s parodic extreme, proving how ever-present the recording devices really were.
Now this way of looking at famous people was encroaching further and further into the intimate. For viewers, the tapes enhanced the voyeurism that they had come to expect. As Misha Kavka writes in her book Reality TV (2012), “however central reality TV is to the production of celebrity, it does not work alone. Modern celebrity formation is the collaborative product of multiple media forms and intersecting platforms . . . including the sex tape itself.”
By the time of Kavka’s book, celebrity sex tapes were played out. Echoing Kavka’s point, they no longer dominated news cycles on their own; they were now part of a multi-platform package. Only a year after the Kardashian scandal, Mariah Carey was coyly referencing that kind of intimate surveillance in the lyrics to her upbeat “Touch My Body”: “If there’s a camera up in here then it’s gon’ leave with me when I do/ If there’s a camera up in here then I best not catch this flick on YouTube.” In the next decade, the sex tape brought ever-diminishing returns. In 2014, Joan Rivers made a spoof tape with Ray J, co-star of the Kardashian video, for her reality show (see how that works).
Oh, how D-listers misunderstood the media rubric! Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta Star Mimi Faust made one (2014) and Teen Mom star Farrah Abraham made an actual porn video that was marketed as a sex tape (2013). Where before it had propelled such supposed ingenues out of the D-list to . . . somewhere near there, by the 2010s the oh-no-that-got-out-by-mistake, just-kidding-we-released-it tape was decidedly unsexy. It was a thing C- and D-listers did to stay relevant, which often backfired, reinforcing their lowly status, like appearing on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.
To be clear, extortion and revenge porn (the release of explicit content intended to be private by a jilted ex) are not the same as purposefully released videos, and should be called what they are: gross invasions of privacy, not to mention criminal acts. Despite this distinction, in 2017 sex tape scandals with A-list celebs like Hart suggest that the social-media-regulated celebrity world is not as tightly-controlled as it seems. Indeed, in a video he recently posted on his Instagram page, Hart apologized to his family and refused to pay for the tape, saying
I’m at a place in my life where I feel like I have a target on my back, and because of that I should make smart decisions. And recently I didn’t . . . I made a bad error in judgment, and I put myself in an environment where only bad things can happen—and they did.
The Hart extortion scandal comes on the heels of a more minor scandal involving the comic this summer, where paparazzi caught him in a car with a few women. In light of these instances, one has to wonder if by “smart decisions” he means not cheating at all, or failing to make the people in the hotel room sign a non-disclosure agreement.
In light of the Hart debacle, what’s the value of the sex tape in today’s celebrity-industrial complex? The celebrity sex tape has the appearance of being one of the last unmediated forms of content in the post-NDA, Instagram-regulated, screencap-documented entertainment world. Now celeb sex tape scandals are a kind of thermometer for the larger cultural feelings around a person or issue, particularly along gender lines. They merely reinforce a particular celebrity narrative, a private recording that cements a public image (Hart: once a cheater, always a cheater; Usher: not such a nice guy after all). As Anton Chekhov famously said, “You don’t put a sex tape in a drawer in Act One without it being retrieved and leaked to TMZ by Act Three.”
The term “sousveillance” (literally “watching from below”) was coined by Canadian inventor and researcher Steve Mann to describe a kind of recording made by participants to surveil those in power. In a world where anyone can become a meme or go viral, where more people than ever before are equipped to record anything on their smartphones and distribute it to the web, you have to wonder how the dynamic Mann described applies in a very different situation. Surely, a heavy term like sousveillance doesn’t fit the news items that appear on Perez Hilton and The Shade Room, but what about “celebveillance”? Hart’s allusion to the “target on his back” makes it clear that he understands his relationship to fame, opportunism, and an insidious kind of gaze.
In light of the Hart debacle, what’s the value of the sex tape in today’s celebrity-industrial complex?
The Hart scandal has also revealed the current economic realities of celebrity. There seems to be a sea change about tape/confessional material regarding economics. Before, there was a stigma around women exposing dalliances with famous men in the media (see Karrine Steffans). Today, “video vixens” and other tangential players in the entertainment industry have a smaller role and diminishing financial opportunities. It’s been reported that Montia Sabbag, the woman who appears in the Hart video, is employed as, alternately, a “traveling stripper” and a “model and actress.” Either way, she’s now been recast as a striver working her way up in the entertainment industry by any means necessary. On a recent episode of The Wendy Williams Show, the host commented on the Hart tape, saying “I’m not mad at the girl, because there’s not room at [college] for every girl. There’s some girls who gotta do [what they have to do].”
For her part, Sabbag claims she has nothing to do with the recording. But whoever made the recording wants to ascend another rung or two on the notoriety ladder, with the help of the $10 million they’re asking Hart for. That’s where celebveillance and the financial realities of the celebrity world merge: if anybody with a cell phone can shoot and distribute footage, there’s a financial incentive not only for women seeking the reflected fame the sex tape once promised, but also for extortionists, hackers, and those who leak revenge porn.
In one of his recent Netflix specials, Deep in the Heart of Texas, Dave Chappelle told a wild, multi-layered joke about being extorted for a sex tape. As the bit goes, Chappelle receives a tape in the mail of himself having sex with a woman before he was married. He masturbates while watching the tape and then calls the FBI about the extortion attempt. A few days later, he receives another tape in the mail. “That second tape was the worst shit I’d ever seen in my life. It was awful. Career-ending bad. It was a tape . . . of me . . . jerking off to the first tape.” Incredulous, Chappelle says, “I don’t even know how they’d get such a thing!” We never find out who made the second tape, or how it was even possible to record such a private moment. But that’s the point. That joke is a surreal play on the almost omniscient eye of recording devices in 2017 and the intersection of celebrity and financial exploitation. A few days ago, TMZ asked Chappelle to comment on the Hart scandal. He declined, giving a diplomatic answer about Hart’s great ability to engage with his audience. Before he walked away, he told the camera, “I still support him, I love him, and I’m gonna be watching him.” That line’s an unintentional coda to this whole saga. The last thing Hart probably wants right now is to be watched.