Who Is MTV Cribs’ Celebrity Riches for in the COVID Era?
Yes, “MTV Cribs”—the show where famous stars flaunt their mansions—is returning on Aug. 11. But it has to contend with Instagram and new attitudes toward celeb wealth.
The early 2000s changed celebrity culture forever. At the turn of the millennium, reality TV gave the public the power to make anyone a celebrity. On shows like American Idol, this could be achieved almost overnight, while people like Paris Hilton proved that a “talent” (in the traditional sense) was no longer a requirement for fame. Suddenly, fans began yearning for more intimate connections with celebrities. And there is no show that sums up this era—where intimacy was beginning to trump talent—quite like MTV Cribs.
The premise of Cribs was simple: wealthy and famous people let MTV cameras into their homes to film a house tour. Fans could see what food celebrities had in their fridges, what their closets looked like, which thread-count sheets they slept on, and the bathtub they bathed in. The homes were often flashy: white marble everywhere, swimming pools, and eye-wateringly expensive cars in the drive-way were the norm. (Except 50 Cent, who got busted renting three Ferraris for show).
Picking up the baton from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Robin Leach’s show that chronicled the extravagant lifestyles of wealthy celebrities, Cribs enjoyed a successful run from 2000 to 2009. Some of the most memorable tours were Missy Elliott—featuring a custom-made Ferrari car-bed, with built-in flat-screen TV—and Mariah Carey sipping champagne in her NYC penthouse. Sharon Osbourne showing MTV around her family’s now-iconic mansion was the genesis of reality show The Osbournes, paving the way for the “celebreality” genre that came next.
Cribs producer Nina L. Diaz, now the president of content and chief creative officer at MTV Entertainment Group, originally brought the show to life. She said it was a response to how boring and stale music promotion had become, with strict rules on what reporters could ask and structured, time-limited interviews. The show worked because the house-tour format allowed producers to avoid “the entourage and all of the handlers” that are usually present during celebrity interviews. As journalist Bobby Finger observed, the magic of Cribs was that the show “was a sort of Trojan horse, something the celebrities invited inside to show off their bright and shiny things, not realizing they themselves were the brightest, shiniest things of all.”
Eventually the show lost its shine. After 2009, new episodes became less regular, apart from a special in 2011 and a Snapchat season in 2017. But now it’s fully back: a new season premiering Wednesday will feature an inside look at the homes of stars like Martha Stewart, Christian Siriano, Scott Disick, Snooki, Jason Oppenheim, Rick Ross, Kathy Griffin, JoJo Siwa, Big Sean, Marsai Martin, Tinashe, and more.
Cribs returning now offers a glimpse into our current attitudes towards fame and wealth. Its first run defined an era where obscene wealth dominated TV aimed at young people, from reality shows like My Super Sweet 16 and The Hills to dramas like Gossip Girl, 90210 and The OC. But then what happened?
Part of the reason Cribs disappeared at the start of the 2010s might be due to this becoming the era of the “relatable celebrity.” Responding to the increased demand for intimacy, there was a trend for celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence being characterized (or portraying themselves) as “just like us” in interviews and media appearances. The rise of the Kardashians—long before Kanye West and billion-dollar beauty brands appeared—was initially down to matriarch Kris Jenner shrewdly branding them as a “regular,” complicated American family at just the right time. Despite the fact that there was a definite authenticity to celebrities showing MTV round their homes themselves, like a guest they were wanting to make feel at home, Cribs fetishized the huge gulf between celebrities and their fans—making it fairly incompatible with an era of relatability.
It’s not surprising that the shift away from loud wealth worship, toward an adoration of celebrities who were supposedly “like us,” coincided with the aftermath of the Great Recession. To survive, reality shows had to adapt: the Real Housewives—a franchise which celebrated wealth and expensive real estate—filmed cast members losing their businesses, homes, and marriages as the economy tanked. Viewers watched formerly wealthy women crying as they were served with eviction notices—something that many Americans could relate to. But Cribs wasn’t about creating a shared experience between its subjects and audience.
An even bigger problem for Cribs was the rise of social media. From 2010 onwards, if celebrities wanted to share their homes, Instagram became the perfect platform to do so. “When it comes to celebrities, Instagram and social media has put them more in control of their image,” Alex Abad-Santos, senior culture reporter at Vox, tells The Daily Beast. “Shows like Cribs, where editors at MTV would be in charge of a celebrity’s image (in this case, their homes), were rendered obsolete. If you’re a celebrity, why put your image in the hands of someone else?”
House tours in the Instagram era—where celebrities might be using social media to score brand partnerships or sell their products—emphasized taste over the extravagant bling we often saw on Cribs. And on the occasions where house tours are seen off Instagram, it’s mostly on “high art” platforms like Architectural Digest’s Open Door and Vogue’s now-iconic 73 Questions series, which became the go-to place for celebrities like Dakota Johnson and Taylor Swift to flaunt their interior-designed homes. Abad-Santos thinks this has contributed to a shift in what fans perceive as “good” taste. “‘Normal people’ are now much more aware about homes and what ‘ideal’ homes should look like than they were in the past,” he says.
Now, as Cribs returns to our screens, our relationship with fame has changed once again. It’s been observed many times that the COVID pandemic ended the era of the “relatable celebrity.” Cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen wrote on this topic last year, describing how celebrities started being called out for “performative authenticity” just before COVID hit. Then a few days into the first shutdown, the infamous “Imagine” video fiasco—in which a squad of rich celebrities sang the John Lennon classic from their mansions, as ordinary people died or lost their jobs—was the final straw. This was followed by Kim Kardashian’s (not so) “humble” mid-pandemic 40th birthday bash on a private island. Famous people who had continued marketing themselves as “relatable” past this point, from Ellen DeGeneres to Chrissy Teigen, were soon perceived as oppressors and rejected. Writing on the end of celebrity relatability, Vice’s Emma Garland lamented how everything had gotten so heavy that the fun of fame had “lost its currency.” Now that COVID had made clear they aren’t “just like us,” she asked: “Can we go back to being fun again?”
As MTV revives Cribs, we might finally be getting there. The success of a reality show like Selling Sunset—which features “house porn” aplenty and stars who play up the fact that their lifestyles are nothing like ours—suggests that the proverbial pop-culture pendulum has swung. Suddenly, it feels like 2002 all over again. People have loved seeing the images of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (aka “Bennifer”) canoodling on various yachts. Nostalgic aughts reboots, from Gossip Girl and The Hills to the soon-to-be Samantha-less Sex and the City, are clearly having a moment too. Early 2000s phenomenon Paris Hilton’s new Netflix show, Cooking with Paris, has been a surprise hit, just like “Welcome to the OC, Bitches!”—a podcast where co-stars Rachel Bilson and Melinda Clarke re-watch and discuss the iconic aughts show.
Abads-Santos thinks all this nostalgia suggests that we might be reaching a middle ground with—rather than fully rejecting—the relatable celebrity. “I don’t know if I fully believe in the death of the ‘relatable celebrity’ as long as Instagram is around. I really think the platform was a game changer in terms of how we think about celebrities, and how we perceive their personal lives,” he says. “We love ‘Bennifer’ because, on some level, we relate to the idea of getting back with our ex. But we love the sort of ridiculousness and hyperbole when it’s happening on a Bennifer scale.”
Cribs 2.0 might not be a hit, seeing as we’re now used to seeing celebrities posting thirst-traps, brushing their teeth, and even beefing each other on Instagram. In an era where social media has shifted our ideas of taste, and we are more inclined to view celebrities and extravagant displays of wealth with suspicion, it might not seem as fun. (Particularly given that the new series is loosely tied to the pandemic, which wasn’t palatial or luxurious for most people). But the recent stanning of Rihanna becoming a post-pandemic billionaire shows that many fans are willing to overlook certain principles when it comes to celebrities they adore.
Perhaps millennials like me, who grew up watching Cribs, won’t be the audience that connect most with the show’s next era. It’s always been for young people who’ve yet to enter the world of work. To them, it gives a glimmer of hope that they might one day have a bed with a built-in flat-screen TV, or a dance-floor that transforms into a swimming pool. It’s very possible that Gen Z, who’ve grown up watching people become famous (and flaunt it) from their phones, won’t connect with a relic like Cribs. But the fantasy of being special enough to escape an adulthood of bills and mundanity is surely a universal part of youth—especially when it looks like fame is finally about to feel fun again.