Since the term “nepo baby” — referring to stars whose parents are part of the entertainment industry — first exploded on social media last year, and particularly since Vulture published a cover story in December detailing the myriad actors, directors, musicians and more who’ve benefited from family connections, numerous celebrity spawn have found themselves in the crosshairs of outrage.
Some of these A-listers have argued that it’s unfair to hold a person’s birth against them — O’Shea Jackson Jr. (son of Ice Cube) encouraged famous progeny to “not let anyone get it in your head that you should feel bad” for your background — while others have lashed out at critics for noting their uniquely privileged backgrounds.
Model Lottie Moss (Kate’s sister) tweeted that she was “so sick of people blaming nepotism for why they aren’t rich and famous,” while Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) claimed that the nepotism conversation is “just designed to try to diminish and denigrate and hurt” those who’ve benefited from it. Then there’s Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono, who claimed that the Vulture team behind the “nepo baby” piece was “jealous” and called out the editor-in-chief for her own familial privilege.
The defensive attitudes are counterproductive, only lending more attention to the subject and the resulting criticism for the ignorance and entitlement on display. But one self-described “nepo baby” has finally cracked the code of how to defuse these attacks: by owning the title, not shying away from it.
In an interview with Wired at the end of December, actress Allison Williams — daughter of former NBC News and MSNBC anchor Brian Williams and TV producer Jane Gillan Stoddard — acknowledged her highly privileged background without any hemming or hawing. “There’s no conversation about my career without talking about the ways in which I have been fortunate,” the 34-year-old Williams said, adding, “If you trust your own skill, I think it becomes very simple to acknowledge.”
She noted that early in her career, she “was definitely concerned with making sure people understood I was a hard worker, as if somehow that would absolve me of the privilege.” When she realized that wasn’t something that could be absolved, she just accepted the reality and continued proving her value outside of her last name.
Then, in an interview Thursday with Vulture itself, Williams followed up by stating: “All that people are looking for is an acknowledgement that it’s not a level playing field. It’s just unfair. Period, end of the story, and no one’s really working that hard to make it fair. To not acknowledge that me getting started as an actress versus someone with zero connections isn’t the same — it’s ludicrous.”
After all, it’s hard to imagine that Judd Apatow would have cast her in HBO’s “Girls,” skyrocketing her to stardom, without the help of her industry connections.
And before her “Girls” breakthrough, Williams held summer jobs as a production assistant on the set of “Prairie Home Companion” and as Tina Fey’s assistant’s assistant. “It doesn’t take anything away from the work that I’ve done,” said the star of the buzzy horror movie “M3GAN,” out Friday. “It just means that it’s not as fun to root for me.”
The problem with those who do deny this reality is that it’s not only self-deception, but a harmful distortion for everyone else out there. Singer Lily Allen (daughter of actor Keith Allen and producer Alison Owen) — who tweeted in response to the Vulture story that she feels that nepo babies actually deserve our sympathy due to being starved of “stability” and “love” in childhood” because of their parents’ supposed narcissism — said the bigger threat of nepotism comes from law firms, banks and in politics “if we’re talking about real world consequences and robbing people of opportunity.”
There is, of course, nepotism present in those fields, too. But to overlook the consequences it has in an industry as influential as Hollywood, in particular — i.e. shutting out countless talented newcomers who might have more talent than a “nepo baby” but lack a famous name or face and thus are denied opportunities — would be a major mistake.
That damage is compounded when it’s denied, because it becomes even harder to root out. Yet that’s what lurks behind the comments made by Kate Hudson (daughter of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell) dismissing the issue entirely. “I don’t care where you come from, or what your relationship to the business is — if you work hard and you kill it, it doesn’t matter,” Hudson told The Independent. Her sentiment may be well-intentioned, but it’s not true; in Hollywood (as in many other industries), where you come from matters enormously.
An aspiring actor with a celebrity parent — or in Hudson’s case, two — often has automatic access to agents, auditions and career advice, their connections opening doors for them that remain stubbornly shut for millions of others. And while, yes, those ins don’t necessarily guarantee a long, successful career, it’s a whole lot easier to convince a studio to cast you in the first place when you have a recognizable face or name, or even just a place in the room.
Stars who have benefited from nepotism don’t need to be ashamed of it or view the word as an insult meant to detract from their success. Plenty of “nepo babies” have used their familial connections to launch impressive and highly acclaimed careers, from Curtis to Laura Dern to Tracee Ellis Ross. Over the years, their work has become far more notable than their names, allowing audiences to discover their individual talents while not forgetting the privileged ways they got their starts. No one is arguing that these stars, or most other “nepo babies,” haven’t earned their acclaim. But it’s impossible to contend with their successful careers without also noting how much of an advantage they had when first entering Hollywood.
More “nepo babies” could take a page out of Williams’ book and recognize this duality. Anyone who comes from a privileged background has advantages denied to others, and by implying otherwise or going on defense, many famous children are making themselves look thin-skinned at best, and ignorant and elitist at worst. Hollywood isn’t an equal playing field, and any “nepo baby” who pretends like it is is not only ignoring reality, but doing a disservice to their own reputation.