Perhaps nothing has altered the public’s relationship with celebrities more than social media. In an age when an actress’ Starbucks order is as transparent as her political persuasions, it’s a tool that both allows her to broadcast a message as much as it is a vehicle toward perceived intimacy among her fans.
And this is a topic with which, during the past six years, Kerry Washington has become intimately familiar.
Her entry into social, she said, was a lot like her entry into fashion. She noticed actors being considered for roles because of their well-received presence on red carpets, so she committed to learning about fashion, and in the process, made it a passion. Similarly, she observed social media working in a similar way to broadcast a message, whether it’s as an ambassador for Movado or for her role in “For Colored Girls.”
Thus, she enlisted strategist Allison Peters — who followers will know as “kw’s krew” to walk her through it. And since, she’s become a bit of a phenom, with almost 3.8 million Twitter followers, 4 million likes on her Facebook page and 2.4 million on Instagram.
She’s spoken at length about the role of social media with InStyle editorial director Ariel Foxman after her March 2015 cover photo elicited an immediate, polarizing reaction. So when he reached out to her about what she’d most like to discuss in a panel at South by Southwest, she remembered those conversations.
“And I wouldn’t have wanted to talk about this with anyone but her,” Foxman said. If it wasn’t for social media, he said, he wouldn’t have been able to see, or address, reader reactions; they wouldn’t have been able to talk to Washington about it; and, a packed audience at the Austin convention center wouldn’t have been able to hear her talk about it. (Worth noting: On the Sunday morning after last night’s after parties and one less hour due to Daylight Savings, there was standing-room only.)
During the hourlong talk, Washington — wearing a black Dolce & Gabbana dress and Louis Vuitton shoes — was candid, funny, authentic and emotional, an effect that followers will recognize. She answered at length the questions that modern-day inquiring minds are inclined to know about the new rules of being famous in the digital age.
First, does she write her own tweets? In a word, yes. “I tweet my own stuff, but some stuff is by ‘kw’s krew,’ but everything is approved by me,” she said. “Nothing goes up that doesn’t have my approval.” Plus, she said, she authentically shares her diverse interest, and said she doesn’t have the energy to maintain a false identity.
“I’m just as interested in what just walked at Paris Fashion Week as I am in Hillary [Clinton],” she said, “so I have a lot of interests.”
One thing she doesn’t do is read reviews, good or bad, so that is something that her team will share on her behalf.
Does she read the comments? Here, she paused. “It’s a tricky balance,” she said. “For the most part, I stay away from comments, but Twitter is a conversation, so I do occasionally engage with the things that people say.” (She also said she’ll first gauge how vulnerable she feels — and how close she is to a therapy session. One gets the sense that this is more truth than joke, although it generated laughs from the crowd.)
“Comments are not about me,” she said. “When someone comments, they are revealing something about themselves. If you don’t like something I do, that’s you sharing with me who you are.”
Later, she became passionate when she shared some details from some violent and shocking posts.
Still, while some bold-faced names love to hate the intrusion and access that digital virility provides, Washington credited social media for its far-reaching benefits and opportunities. For one, she is firmly confident that “Scandal” wouldn’t have booked a second season without the cast’s dedicated Thursday night tweeting; this is thanks, in part, to her suggestion that Shonda Rhimes encourage her costars to do so. (After all, she shared, that’s the only reason Oprah tuned in.)
And there’s that business with her manicures. After an unfavorable purple color drew disapproval on Instagram (she apparently did see the comments, this time) next week’s mani proved otherwise. And now, Washington said, she has that to thank for her relationship with OPI.
She also praised mediums such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and now Periscope for her ability to contribute to national conversations, to immediately get a pulse on public sentiment, and to share messages that might ultimately move the needle.
“It puts the power in the hands of the individual,” she said. “ Everyone can be a celebrity or a critic, everyone can write an op-ed. It’s the great democratizer.”
She also might have a little fun with it.
She recently shared a photo of her friend’s child holding her WWD cover, knowing that fans would demand that she share images of her own child. But, alas, that’s where Washington draws the line. Social media star or not, she won’t indulge fans with her personal life.