The critical reaction to Brooklyn Beckham’s book of photography shows that while being a child of celebrity parents can open doors, it can also lead to unrealistic expectations, says Carolyn Moore.
His privileged upbringing aside, you’d have to feel for Brooklyn Beckham. The 18-year-old son of David and Victoria had a rude awakening recently when critics derided his debut photography book, What I See, as ‘terrible’ and ‘hilarious’.
Dubbed a ‘craparazzi’ by The Sun, he weathered a social media storm. Twitter users shared some of his less technically proficient images and claimed the budding photographer’s work had only been published because of the bankability of the Beckham name. When Burberry hired him to shoot a campaign last year, a similar backlash ensued. Professional photographers called it “a devaluation of their skills and training.” “Sheer nepotism!” they cried, and they were right, but Beckham is just the latest in a long line of celebrity offspring to be given a foot up because of who their parents are. What we often don’t acknowledge though, is how harshly their efforts are judged for the very same reason.
The Guardian may have dismissed his Burberry campaign as having “zero artistic distinction”; but since when does the Guardian critique the artistic merit of fragrance ads? The unofficial anointers of ‘Next Gen’ British celebrity, Burberry have always populated their ads with famous children, capitalising on the extra bang for their marketing buck a famous surname guarantees. Inviting one behind the camera (with his millions of Instagram followers in tow) was a logical progression.
Though it won’t have left Mario Testino quaking in his boots, Beckham certainly didn’t embarrass himself with the campaign; and criticism of What I See feels equally misdirected. An Instagram feed on paper, the book is a perfect encapsulation of celebrity and social media, cannily marketed at the Insta-generation.
It reveals Brooklyn has an eye, albeit one that still needs cultivating. Was he ready for this opportunity? No, but he shows promise. If his publishers, Penguin Random House, looked at his work and just saw dollar signs, perhaps it should have fallen to his image-savvy parents to temporarily apply the breaks. But impartiality is not the strong suit of celebrities where their progeny are concerned. When Posh and Becks look at Brooklyn’s work, they probably see the next Lord Snowdon.
Instead it was left to critics to burst young Beckham’s bubble. Though the book was clearly intended for a young adult audience, art critics weighed in nonetheless. Ask any photographer who’s published a photobook how difficult it is to garner that level of attention, and you realise their objectivity should be questioned too.
One photo — an elephant in silhouette, with the observation: ‘Elephants in Kenya. So hard to photograph but incredible to see.’ — drew particular ire, leading Twitter users to share their own elephant photos, like hecklers in an art gallery grumbling, “My four-year-old could do that.”
Publicly, Brooklyn has spoken of his passion for photography; of internships, and learning his craft. By pushing his work into the public eye too soon, his book deal may end up being something of a poisoned chalice. It should have been taken at face value, but even-handedness is seldom afforded to children of celebrities, who seem damned if they do and damned if they don’t try to forge their own path in the world.
Randy Spelling can relate. Like his sister, Tori, Randy began his acting career on his father, Aaron Spelling’s Beverly Hills 90210. Recalling his TV debut aged 13, he says: “I had eight lines. I actually despised it; there was so much waiting around.” When he decided to pursue acting, bigger roles on two more Spelling productions followed. “There were nepotism comments,” he acknowledges. “They didn’t hurt, because it was true. I went into the family business and was given some opportunities by my family — not unlike someone going into the restaurant business because their family owns a restaurant, or interning at a law firm because their father is a lawyer.
“Nepotism is scrutinised more in Hollywood. It weighed on me heavily. I’d be so nervous at auditions because I knew they were judging me twice as hard as the next person. The only way ahead I saw was acting, so I pursued it. I had a fair amount of success by most people’s standards, but… something felt missing.” To find that missing something, Randy had to turn his back on Hollywood. He’s now a successful life coach, and author of Unlimiting You: Step Out of Your Past and Into Your Purpose. Drawing on his own experience, he “helps people redefine their definitions of success”.
“It’s freeing,” he says. “Especially when you’ve had a definition that wasn’t working for you for so long.” This, he believes, is what drives those born into fame to doggedly pursue it for themselves.
“Whether you come from a celebrity family or not, many people define what is or is not possible by the world around them,” he explains. “When people glamourise a lifestyle or position of power, it’s hard not to yearn for that yourself.”
And for celebrities, it may be just as hard not to yearn for that for their kids. Though their child’s potential for failure is magnified, the lure of cementing their own legacy by creating a dynasty seems impossible to resist. To safeguard Sir and Rumi’s future branding opportunities, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have already trademarked the names of their newborn twins, and this year, their 5-year-old daughter Blue Ivy — who raps on Jay-Z’s new album — has been confidently stepping out of the shadow of her famous folks.
In Hollywood too, stars have been pulling their offspring into the spotlight for generations. Many of today’s most successful actors logged their first minutes of screen time in productions fronted by famous relatives, but for every Angelina Jolie, there’s a Rumer Willis. While some leap off that platform and soar to new heights, many more fall flat on their faces – perhaps most notoriously Sofia Coppola.
She’s since found success in the family business as a director, but at 19, Coppola’s father cast her in The Godfather: Part III, and she gave what’s been described as ‘the most universally reviled performance in American cinema’. She shouldered both the weight of that criticism, and the film’s disappointing box office performance, for years.
“I didn’t realise how much pressure I’d be under – people want to see Francis’ daughter fall on her face,” Sofia said at the time. And the adults in her life weren’t unaware of this either. “People tell me I’m permitting a form of child abuse,” Sofia’s mother confessed to Vogue during filming. “That she isn’t ready, she isn’t trained, and she’ll be fodder for bad reviews that could scar her for years.” But neither common sense nor objectivity prevailed.
Reality TV is the latest platform on which heirs to celebrity can establish themselves, or be humiliated trying. For some, like the Kardashians, it’s been the route to fame; for others, like Callum Best, it’s the final resting place for a credible career.
And incredibly, for Donald Trump — perhaps the ultimate product of nepotism — it’s paved a path to the White House, where he surrounds himself with a first family who wield an unprecedented level of power. Once her father’s right-hand woman on The Apprentice, Ivanka Trump recently took his seat at the G20 summit, leading critics to ask if “an unelected, unqualified New York socialite” was “the best person to represent American national interests”. A sinister nadir of nepotism gone wild, it brings the backlash over Brooklyn Beckham’s photography career somewhat into perspective.
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