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The Barry Keoghan backlash is an inevitable side effect of modern fame

Saltburnout: Barry Keoghan is everywhere right now, to an extent that is beginning to spark a backlash (Getty/iStock)
Saltburnout: Barry Keoghan is everywhere right now, to an extent that is beginning to spark a backlash (Getty/iStock)

In the world of Hollywood, the first sign of overexposure is when other celebrities start being asked questions about you. Why, for example, does presumed Best Actress winner and all-round superstar Emma Stone keep being asked about Taylor Swift? Why did Martin Scorsese have to constantly talk about superheroes? And why is Barry Keoghan’s penis a hot topic of conversation on red carpets?

The Irish actor’s junk was the surprise cameo player of Emerald Fennell’s grab-bag of posh naughtiness Saltburn, like the phallic equivalent of when Tom Cruise popped up in Tropic Thunder. It also made people collectively lose their minds, which is surely the only explanation as to why Andrew Scott, an actor who as far as I can tell has no real connection to Keoghan, was asked for his thoughts on the star’s wang on the Bafta red carpet last week. “There was a lot of talk about prosthetics,” claimed BBC reporter Colin Paterson. “How well do you know him?” Scott scuttled away, mortified.

Keoghan couldn’t help being the centre of attention in that instance, but days later he brought it on himself: first when he was photographed for W Magazine in pearls and latex gloves and posing with a Tesco bag-for-life. Then, within 24 hours, Vanity Fair published a video of Keoghan dancing around nude again for their annual Hollywood issue. “Look he’s a talented guy but he really needs to just act normal for a couple months,” read a viral tweet that summed up the collectively weary sigh that followed. One newspaper has similarly dubbed him “2024’s most exhausting celebrity”.

It’s not Keoghan’s fault that he’s popular. It’s not his fault that neither the media nor the public know how to engage with male sexuality on film without sounding completely insane, either. It’s also not his fault that outrage and discourse has trailed Saltburn ever since the public locked eyes on it. But the faint whiff of backlash that’s cropped up around the actor this week feels familiar, and speaks to the fickle nature of modern fame.

When we think of celebrity overexposure, we tend to think about women – and the likes of Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence have undoubtedly had it worse when it comes to unfair backlash over the years. But famous men can attest to falling victim to it, too.

Anyone who was alive to experience the boom and bust of Jude Law in the mid-Noughties will recognise the pattern. A star is born. Hollywood casts them over and over in rapid succession. The tabloids become intrigued by their personal life. The sheer volume of content related to said star causes the public to turn. “Who is Jude Law?” joked Chris Rock from the stage at the 2005 Oscars. “Why is he in every movie I have seen the last four years?” Law later admitted he was hurt by the gag. It also clearly had an effect: Law somewhat retreated in the immediate aftermath, avoiding major studio films for years.

Other male stars who’ve fallen into this trap include Ben Affleck and Tom Hiddleston. The former responded to his early Noughties, Jennifer Lopez-assisted overexposure by stepping back from movie stardom and reinventing himself as a director. The latter has largely dropped off the fame radar – and most likely by choice – since he spent an extremely well-photographed summer on the arm of Taylor Swift in 2016.

Keoghan is an interesting case study in that his budding overexposure isn’t related to his personal life. He’s reportedly dating pop star Sabrina Carpenter, but she’s not famous enough to truly maximise their joint tabloid-bothering. Instead he draws attention for being quite visibly chaotic – funny and oddball, a filter-less character actor propelled to leading man status.

It’s more noticeable because the bumper crop of fledgling twentysomething male superstars he’s a part of – think Paul Mescal, Austin Butler, Harris Dickinson, Jacob Elordi or Charles Melton – are all comparatively ambiguous. All have real chops and are incredibly charismatic on screen, but strike unknowable notes off-camera. It seems almost by design, managers and publicists having learnt their lessons from a decade of trying to make the likes of Taylor Kitsch, Scott Eastwood or Noah Centineo happen: work with auteurs instead of wearing a cape and cowl, do select press instead of speaking to absolutely anyone with a dictaphone.

Keoghan is sitting somewhere in the middle. He’s working with auteurs – he has an Andrea Arnold film in the pipeline – but is also playing The Joker in The Batman. He’s happy to be naked on film, but also happy to pose in his underpants for the dating app Bumble. He indulges in pouty, serious, Chalamet-esque red carpet gender play, but also fully embraces the silliness of sex, celebrity and the attention economy. Elordi recently got into a physical altercation with a shock jock who made a joke about the sexier stuff in Saltburn. Keoghan’s buttocks is more or less the internet’s collective screensaver by this point. It’s undoubtedly a more fun approach to fame, but let’s just say that the largely mercurial Elordi won’t have to worry about potential backlash any time soon like Keoghan does.

If our relationship to the super-famous was a bit less toxic, stars like Keoghan wouldn’t have to be warned about the risks of becoming too visible. But he’s also too interesting an actor – and too valuable to a largely anodyne pop culture landscape – to burn out so rapidly. I say this with a heavy heart, but: he ought to take a holiday. And maybe keep his trousers on for a bit.