Sexuality and Agency in Pop Star Conspiracy Theories

Curator's Note

The first clip that you will see is of a testimony from reality television star, Tila Tequila, who in November 2012 started vlogging about her experience of sexual abuse, mind control, and a “deal with the devil,” initiated by corrupt forces in the entertainment industry. Interspersed with Tila’s “truth-vlogging” are videos made by YouTube users attempting to prove that pop star Britney Spears is a victim of abuse, mind-control, and child prostitution, and by conspiracy vlogger Mark Dice berating Rihanna for “Illuminati” affiliation.

These interpretations represent only a small subset of conspiracy theories about female pop stars. However, the interpretations of Britney Spears and Rihanna reflect the two major trends in pop star conspiracy theories, which seem to be polarized:

1. Theories that frame stars as victims of an evil, exploitive conspiracy. (Britney Spears, Tila Tequila)

2. Theories that denounce stars as evil benefactors and agents in the conspiracy. (Rihanna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga)

We can see the discourse about these stars' involvement with the Illuminati developing around topics similar to those covered by tabloids. Both conspiracy theorists and tabloids focus on the personal lives of these stars and practice a similar form of reporting, featuring drama, rumor, and speculation. In addition, both tabloids and conspiracy theories focus specifically on pop star's sexuality, often policing certain sexual behaviors.

Publicized drama about Britney Spears has focused more on her psychology since her highly-publicized head-shaving in 2007, which conspiracy theorists see as a cry for help from Britney to let the world know that she was being mind-controlled.

While conspiracy videos seem to respond to Britney Spear's more vulnerable moments in the public eye with empathy, they debase pop stars like Rihanna. I wonder what role these stars’ performance of sexuality in music videos and public persona plays in conspiracy readings. Is it because Britney Spears’ performs “innocence” and Rihanna performs “dominance”? Or is it more complicated? If the “Illuminati” represents media power, perhaps it’s because Britney is troubled by rumors, while Rihanna derives pleasure from negative media attention.

Tila Tequila’s vocality about her experiences is relatively unprecedented. At what point do we decide to dismiss her testimony? If an “Illuminati” exists, perhaps it’s power is to present itself as fiction. Or, if Tila Tequila is “making it up for attention," this marks an interesting turn in celebrity agency in the rumors and other dubious narratives that surround them.


Hi Meagan, Thank you for bringing our attention to the complex connections between gender, sexuality, and conspiracy theorizing. I also really appreciated the intersections you identify between mass culture and vernacular culture -- the "convergence culture" of mass-produced tabloids and user-generated YouTube videos.

Thanks Meaghan! I didn't know about Tila Tequila "truth v-logging". Then again, I haven't checked the Vigilant Citizen site in a while, which is my go-to site for all things Illuminati in pop culture. Your conclusion really identifies what's at stake: to dismiss her claims as self-marketing ploys fuels the notion that women who became celebrities through their sexual display cannot reveal power, but only play with it by revealing themselves. And the difference between victims and benefactors seems to be increasingly blurred in the figure of a postfeminist subject, whose empowerment is based on active submission to rigid codes of sexual display. These celebrities model this subjectivity, until someone like Tequila de-glams herself in the name of revelation.

Hey Meagan, thanks for sharing your insights on this -- Tila Tequila's vlogging was new to me as well, and, as Jack has already noted, your post sums up the questions it raises quite nicely. I wondered if you could elaborate a bit about the similarities between tabloid journalism and conspiracy theory that you note. I think that's a really interesting point you raise, and one which never really occurred to me before -- but tabloid journalism and conspiracy theory at times do seem to have a similar relationship to news, scandals and 'truth'. And a lot of the tabloid stuff about the romances & affairs of stars and starlets is counterfactual or speculative, and rather based on educated guesses than on journalistic investigations. As an aside: I find all of these 'Hollywood Illuminati' - theories really weird, and I think they represent a new inflection on the theme of conspiracy that is different from more traditional theories/narratives. Mostly because their focus on the public performances and failures of pop stars & their private lives is so different from older theories about mind control (like the ones about the flouridation of public water supplies, chemtrails, etc). In the latter, conspiracy theorists locate a sinister purpose behind otherwise unremarkable events, and these theories are all about making the invisible influence visible -- these 'Hollywood Illuminati'-narratives, on the other hand, are usually about very public figures & events, and about a conspiracy that is really pursuing a mind control agenda out in the open (one just needs to know where to look in order to see it) -- i.e. they are not really about 'hidden influence', but more about a critique of the media (albeit one that revels in the sexualized displays and excesses of the rich and famous as much as tabloids do).

A fascinating juxtaposition here. Although I would say that in contrast to absurdities about Illuminati, Britney Spears specifically *has* been exploited -- not through "mind control" but through actual legal control of her through a conservatorship, an extreme measure applied in a way that seemed highly unorthodox in 2008 and is simply unthinkable five years later. This legal wrangling was less public than the head-shaving, but conversations about Spears's "breakdown" may have made the move seem less strange -- and I wonder what role cultural commentators and audiences have in perpetuating these narratives about mental illness. Here's a recent Forbes article about the conservatorship: My sense is that Spears struggles with mental illness, but the conservatorship is about as much control as someone can have over another person's life and decision-making. In 2013 the measure does seem quite evil and exploitative.

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