Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show.” Follow him @DeanObeidallah@masto.ai. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Looks like Merriam-Webster got it wrong with its recent choice for 2022’s “word of the year.” Instead of picking the word “gaslighting,” it should’ve chosen “nepo babies” – at least based on the passionate debate that term has triggered in the past week.
What is a “nepo baby,” some of you are undoubtedly asking? “Nepo” is short for nepotism, and hence, a “nepo baby” refers to a child of famous parents who benefits from family connections in entertainment or other adjacent fields.
While nepotism in showbiz is hardly breaking news, a New York Magazine cover story this week declared 2022 the “Year of the Nepo Baby.” The magazine documented what appears to be an endless list of the offspring of famous parents, including “Stranger Things” co-star Maya Hawke, the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, Zoë Kravitz, daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet – and many more.
This article led to discussions about the privilege that comes with having connections in showbiz – and what that says about talent, and the supposedly meritocratic society we live in. Some have taken to defending “nepo babies,” while others slammed them for their privilege.
While plenty of celebrities have weighed in on their experiences, it was the response of actress Jamie Lee Curtis on Instagram Friday that summed up what it means to be a “nepo baby” – at least based on what I’ve seen working in the entertainment industry as a producer, a comedian and on the staff of “Saturday Night Live” for eight seasons.
Curtis first described herself in her post as the “OG Nepo Baby,” given she’s the daughter of Hollywood royalty Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis. The award-winning actress then candidly admitted that there were indeed benefits to being the daughter of two movie stars when she was first beginning her acting career at the age of 19, writing, “I don’t pretend there aren’t any” advantages to being “associated” with fame.
In an interview with the New Yorker in 2019, Curtis acknowledged her advantage when she was auditioning for a part in the film, “Halloween.” She said, “I’m never going to pretend that I just got that on my own, like I’m just a little girl from nowhere getting it. Clearly, I had a leg up.”
However, she then made it clear on Instagram that “[t]he current conversation about nepo babies is just designed to try to diminish and denigrate and hurt.” Curtis slammed the “snide remarks” that suggest that the “nepo kids” “somehow have no talent whatsoever” and are only there because of who their parents are.
Curtis is 100% right on both counts. No one can deny that if your parents are famous actors and you want to work in that field, they have the contacts and the clout to help. And, yes, there’s some truth to what Fran Leibowitz wrote in a 1997 issue of Vanity Fair about nepotism in the entertainment business, which was quoted in the New York Magazine article: “Getting in the door is pretty much the entire game.”
I’ve been involved in producing projects that involved casting actors, and you would be astounded at how many very talented, unknown actors are out there. To be blunt, given a situation where a producer has several very good actors to choose from for a visible role, they are more likely to lean toward casting the child of a famous parent because that may garner some press and buzz.
But from what I’ve seen, you still need to be very talented in your own right. For example, New York Magazine notes that two of three people who are currently creating digital shorts for “Saturday Night Live” are the sons of “SNL” producers. (Full disclosure: I worked with both of these two young people’s parents at “SNL.”) I can assure you that if these kids weren’t talented and could not deliver the funny, they would be gone regardless of who their dad is. That’s the cutthroat world of “SNL” and most TV comedy shows – especially late-night talk shows.
At “SNL”, I frequently worked alongside the children of very famous parents (I’m talking household names.) All of them – without exception – worked diligently at their jobs, perhaps understanding that if they slacked off, it would tarnish their family name or because they wanted to prove they earned the job on their own – or a combination of both.
But let’s be blunt: It’s not just an issue in showbiz. There are plenty of children who follow their parents’ footsteps in politics, business and the arts, among others. In every competitive industry out there, having parents who are successful in that field can give you a leg up. In fact, Eve Hewson, one of the “nepo babies” identified in the New York Magazine article as the daughter of the U2 frontman Bono, tweeted that the president of Vox Media, the magazine’s parent company, is herself a “nepo baby” given that her father had purchased the publication in 2004.
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I’m grateful for the parents I have, but like others, I wonder when discussing “nepo babies” how my life would’ve been different if my parents were famous actors or comedians. From what I’ve seen, there are both benefits – and burdens – that come with the territory. Although I must admit, if my parents were Bruce Springsteen and Meryl Streep – both born in my home state of New Jersey – I would have gleefully been their “nepo baby.”