Celeste Barber channels Kate Moss as photographed by Mario Sorrenti in 1992 for a Calvin Klein Obsession campaign. Swimsuit, Matteau
"I love fashion shoots. I find them so fun,” Celeste Barber says from the makeup chair as she’s transformed for this BAZAAR portfolio in which she recreates iconic fashion images, including Kate Moss’s “Obsession for Men” campaign and Jean-Paul Goude’s portrait of Grace Jones. “Tina Fey talks about that in her book. She says that if you ever get a chance to be in a photoshoot, do it. There’s food, wind machines, hair and makeup, everyone is lovely, you look your best. As someone who isn’t a model, it’s not my natural habitat, but I love it!”
Barber’s story is a feel-good one: A relatively unknown Australian actor and comedian begins to post photographs of herself on Instagram, gently poking fun at the often risible world of posturing models and celebrities. Funny and irreverent, she quickly gains legions of fans; five years later, she has 6.7 million followers, has starred on magazine covers, and toured her one-woman show in theatres across the US, Europe and Australia, culminating in a sold-out show at Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall last year.
The genius of her humour, and the reason it has resonated with so many women in particular, is that Barber is not mocking any individual per se, but challenging the dominant view that only the thin and the insanely beautiful are worthy of our gaze. She speaks our collective truth and we love her for it. We know she’s genuine, that she’s on our side. Which is precisely why, when Barber began posting amid Australia’s horrific bush fires, terrified as she watched flames heading towards her mother-in-law’s home in Eden on the New South Wales coast and asking for donations to help with the disaster, the world responded in a heartbeat. Her initial target was AU$30,000 (about S$28,000). Within four days, she had raised AU$33 million, which then swelled to AU$50 million—turning it into the largest single fundraiser in the history of Facebook. A staggering 1.2 million people from 75 countries donated—equivalent, almost, to the population of Adelaide. Unlike disingenuous politicians, Barber is the real deal and she is now, indisputably, Australia’s sweetheart. Comments on social media simply call her “Legend”; street artist Matt Te Paea painted a mural of her on Melbourne’s famous Hosier Lane with the caption “Thank you Celeste”.
Channeling Grace Jones as photographed by Jean-Paul Goude for the cover of her 1985 album Island Life. Bikini, Matteau
Barber’s global success grew from her very first parody Instagram post on 19 January 2015: A photograph of herself split-screened with a picture-perfect model in activewear, awkwardly attempting to recreate the model’s pose, hashtagged #challengeaccepted. “My sister and I used to send photos of this ridiculous stuff to each other—it’s all so easy to make fun of. But I think I knew what I was doing was funny,” Barber says. “The first caption said, ‘I’m starting something.’” She began to post regularly, good-naturedly tagging the models and celebrities she was parodying. It was never about belittling them, but about drawing attention to the ludicrous perfection social media projects. “It’s a comment on the culture,” she explains. “I’m simply saying stuff people are feeling about social media, and calling out the bulls*** and double standards. No one looks worse in those photos than I do! I’m saying, don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
Her following took off almost instantly; ironically, she found a receptive audience in the very industry she pokes fun at. “People like me aren’t supposed to be seen in that fancy [fashion] world, but I’ve been embraced by the industry in an overwhelming way, which is kind of crazy,” she says. “But I’m still the only girl at the party who eats.”
Barber channels Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford as photographed by Peter Lindbergh in 1989. Jacket; trousers, Rebecca Vallance. Bikini top, Matteau
Barber’s fame increased exponentially when designer Tom Ford made contact and featured her in a series of brilliant videos that showcased her comedic ability. The cleverness of her parodies lies partly in the fact that her posts are far more than just random mugging. “A post is like doing a show,” she says. “It’s not just a photo of me, there’s a lot that goes into it. It’s a three-pronged attack: The image, the words, the videos—it’s like a little skit.” Barber is adept at physical comedy: funny dances, awkward moves. “I’m a very physical person anyway, so it marries well with my Instagram and the idea of women’s physicality,” she says. “It isn’t social media for me; this is all original content. I do it because I enjoy it and I think, ‘Oh, this will be good.’ But it’s still exciting every time those numbers click over.”
Immense traction on social media did not see Barber cashing in on lucrative endorsements for slimming tea or tooth whiteners. Rather, it opened up opportunities for new projects. “That was always the goal, to use Instagram as a platform to work more. I’m not an influencer,” she insists. “I have no interest in being in that world. I use it as a platform to show my comedy.”
She also has strong views about being used as a poster girl for body positivity. “I’ve noticed I get asked in most interviews about my body and the body positivity movement. You’re not asking Bella Hadid that. You’re asking me, you’re asking Ashley Graham, you’re asking Lizzo. That has to stop. Thin, pretty models have never had to have a conversation about their bodies because society assumes that’s how all women should look. Instead, they’re asked about their personal endeavours. But for someone a bit bigger, it’s always the first thing asked about: Your body. It’s exhausting. It has to be the same conversation for everyone. Don’t ask me about how I look. How I look is the least interesting thing about me.”
Through her packed-out stage shows, Barber has come to know her audience up close. “Comedy is mainly a man’s business, even to this day, so it’s nice to have my audience [be] 90 percent women, having a laugh and relating to what I’m saying. I’m a big believer in the fact that how we look doesn’t make up who we are and I’m definitely feeling more political as I go on,” she says.
Barber is currently busy with various still-under-wraps film and television projects, including a series she is writing, slated for US release, in which she will star. She spoke at the Australian Fashion Summit and exclusively strutted down the BAZAAR runway at the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF). “I’m really excited to be doing VAMFF,” she says. “I watched Ashley Graham absolutely slay last year and I’m a big fan of hers. To me, she’s the epitome of a little less conversation, a little more action, and I think that’s what the fashion industry needs—get on with being diverse, get on with being inclusive. And I’m excited that VAMFF is doing this by including me.
“I’m acting, writing, creating, producing my own stuff,” she continues happily. “I’ve always had a get-on-with-it mentality, in case it will all be over in a minute. But a bit of fear keeps you hungry and busy. I’ve done the hard work to get here. I’m an overnight success that was 17 years in the making.”
A post is like doing a show. It’s not just a photo of me, there’s a lot that goes into it. It’s a three-pronged attack: The image, the words, the videos—it’s like a little skit.
Barber channels Stephanie Seymour as photographed by Richard Avedon in 1995. Dress, Ginger & Smart. Hat, Sylvy Earl. Earring, Kailis. Shoes, Charles & Keith
Makeup: Filomena Natoli/ Vivien’s Creative Hair: Brad Mullins/ Vivien’s Creative
Photographed by Georges Antoni. Styled by Nicole Bonython-Hines