Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Celebrity Apparatus

Goloborodko walking into the inaugural ceremony. Still from Servant of the People.
Examining the impact of his fictional celebrity persona on recent global events, Kelly McGee explores how Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presidency brings new considerations to the forefront of celebrity and media studies.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on the war in Ukraine.]

Volodymyr Zelenskyy knows the power of celebrity.1This essay uses the transliterated spelling of President Zelenskyy’s name as he prefers. A comedic actor, entertainer, and television star prior to becoming President of Ukraine in 2019 with over seventy percent of the vote, he is now the world’s most respected head of state as a wartime leader.2Time reporter Simon Shuster, who has had remarkable access to Zelenskyy even before he was elected, cleverly quipped that his bid to run for president was like Julia Louis-Dreyfus announcing that she would run for president during the second season of Veep. Zelenskyy, who also holds a law degree, performed his dress rehearsal as fictional Ukrainian president Vasilii Petrovich Goloborod’ko in the television series, Servant of the People (Sluga narodu (Ukr.)), (Sluga naroda, (Rus.)), which ran for three seasons (2015–19) and for which he named his political party.3This essay uses the spelling, “Goloborod’ko,” since the language of the series is primarily Russian. Zelenskyy’s production company, Kvartal-95, produced the series, which as of 2016 had gained over 20 million viewers in Ukraine, but was not as popular in the United States when it aired on Netflix from 2017–21. Due to demand for the series to return after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Netflix began streaming Servant again in March 2022.

As Goloborod’ko, Zelenskyy plays a high school history teacher whose students covertly film his profane (and hilarious) rant about corruption in the country. When the video goes viral, Goloborod’ko’s popularity skyrockets. Soon after, the presidential entourage shows up while he is sitting on the toilet—in the Soviet-era apartment he shares with his parents and teenage niece, no less—to inform a shocked Goloborod’ko that he won the election in a landslide victory.

Goloborod’ko as he is interrupted by the presidential entourage. Still from Servant of the People.

The extraordinary circumstances surrounding Zelenskyy’s persona as a celebrity politician—that is, him playing the real-life role of his own fictional character—bring new considerations to the forefront of celebrity studies, namely, the power that fictional celebrities have on the trajectory of global events. Celebrity theory tends to overwhelmingly favor the tenets of the Hollywood system, and discussions about political celebrities often focus on Western governments and vested democracies since conditions for celebrity personality-building usually thrive within free-market systems. John Street describes the relationship between politics and celebrity in terms of two categories. First, there is the “traditional politician who emerges from a background in show business or who uses the techniques of popular culture to seek (and acquire) elected office.” Ronald Reagan or, more recently, Donald Trump are both examples of this model in the West. Second is the celebrity “who seeks to influence the exercise of political power by way of their fame and status.”4Street’s framework was originally adapted from West and Orman’s five-part model in Celebrity Politics. Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher’s massive $35 million fundraiser for Ukraine, which was followed by a personal call from Zelenskyy, is worth noting here.

Street’s binary framework limits the study of celebrity in the former Soviet and post-Soviet spaces, and certainly in contemporary Ukraine, especially as Zelenskyy’s persona demands a reassessment of the intersection between celebrity studies and politics. He is relevant to the field of celebrity studies not only because he is an actor-turned-president, but also because his fictional role informs his real-life celebrity narrative. A close analysis of Goloborod’ko’s inauguration in the series opens possibilities to discuss the ways that the fictional presidency on television informs the power of Zelenskyy’s celebrity in world affairs. Zelenskyy breaks the established boundaries of the celebrity politician through his gift for oration, bringing his everyman character and personal implications into the real-life role.

Zelenskyy’s talent for oration has set a precedent for his celebrity image as president, and his speeches have tugged at the world’s heartstrings. Despite this well-deserved acclaim internationally, his popularity in Ukraine was in deep crisis prior to February 24th, when he dismissed panic at the warnings of a Russian invasion. Polls from fall 2021 indicate that Zelenskyy’s approval rating was just under 25 percent. Controversial decisions and circumstances, including those surrounding the dismissal and replacement of officials, the administration’s weak justification of Zelenskyy’s off-shore business holdings, and his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, did not provide solace to many who were already perplexed—and frustrated—by the choice of appointees to Zelenskyy’s new team, many of whom hailed from his inner circle. His close childhood friend and Kvartal-95 executive, Ivan Bakanov, was named chief of the Security Service, just as numerous politically inexperienced Kvartal-95 writers and producers were slated in other government positions. Without diminishing Zelenskyy’s bravery for remaining in Kyiv in the initial days after the invasion, it seems fair to note that packing the administration with entertainment afficionados arouses curiosity about his public image and his declamations. Zelenskyy’s now famous retort, “I need ammunition, not a lift,” was effective, in part, because it hooks us like a Hollywood tagline.

Zelenskyy, nevertheless, devotes significant time to his own speech writing, even during his recent—and numerous—urgent addresses to various governments, organizations, and conversations with heads of state. When he addressed the joint session of US Congress on March 16, for example, the speech quickly drew comparisons to Winston Churchill’s appeal after the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Public speaking, it follows, plays a main part in Servant with respect to performance and content, and holds a central role in the way Goloborod’ko governs.

The importance of oratorial eloquence unfolds through a comedy of errors in the third episode of season [X], as Goloborod’ko’s prime minister and advisors prepare him for the inaugural ceremony. During rehearsal, Goloborod’ko makes several attempts to practice a pre-written speech, but he is consistently and comedically interrupted during his vocal exercises: his range is wrong, his cadence is off, he speaks too quickly or too slowly, he struggles with tongue twisters. His advisor prompts him to stuff nuts in his cheeks, a comedic allusion to the Greek orator Demosthenes, who famously placed pebbles in his mouth to correct a speech impediment. Much to the audience’s entertainment, Goloborod’ko soon realizes that the text is plagiarized from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. His prime minister remarks that “No one here will notice, and Lincoln’s homeland will praise it,” noting that Goloborod’ko will have to request financial aid from the US. Goloborod’ko then asks why he cannot use his own words. The prime minister insists that Goloborod’ko trust him and that slip-ups can lead to errors such as “Bushisms,” poking fun at the verbal gymnastics of former President George W. Bush when he veered off script.

Goloborodko practices his inaugural speech. Still from Servant of the People.

Further adding to the absurdity of the episode, and ultimately centering the corruption embedded in the political system, Lincoln’s ghost later appears to Goloborod’ko while he is rehearsing in his bedroom. Goloborod’ko assures the Lincoln apparition that he had not planned on stealing the speech. In turn, Lincoln jokingly says, “Why would you?”, noting his perfectly good viral performance uploaded to YouTube. Lincoln insists that he and Goloborod’ko have much in common, that Lincoln himself came from a humble family and didn’t believe in his powers but managed to abolish slavery. He continues by telling Goloborod’ko that he, too, could free his people, perhaps the most prescient line of the series considering the recent Russian invasion. When Goloborod’ko responds that his country does not have slavery, the Lincoln ghost asks if the Ukrainians who are working to support the elite and their lifestyles are not, in fact, enslaved themselves. Goloborod’ko then asks what he should do. Lincoln’s pivotal reply defines Goloborod’ko’s—and later Zelenskyy’s—narrative: “Be yourself, Mr. President.”

In his work on celebrity and media power, Nick Couldry discusses how the language of media texts confirms the division between celebrity and the ordinary person. He writes that, “the media/ordinary distinction implies a difference in kind between worlds: between the ‘world’ of the media (everything involved in it: stories, studios, work practices) and the ‘world’ of ‘ordinary life.’” While certainly the case that Zelenskyy embraces being an “ordinary” Ukrainian citizen during this pivotal time, he has also dissolved the boundary between the worlds of his fictional tenure and his actual presidential term, rejecting the elite while embracing the popular.

Later in the episode, after arriving by taxi rather than presidential motorcade, Goloborod’ko skirts his entrance on the red carpet and sneaks behind the crowds to reach the podium. He opens his folder and realizes he cannot give the address he practiced. He, instead, improvises using his own words: “I do know one thing. One should act in a way that doesn’t evoke shame when looking into children’s eyes, nor their parents’. This is what I promise you, the people of Ukraine.”

The real Zelenskyy has certainly upheld Goloborod’ko’s promise. To the astonishment of much of the world, Zelenskyy posted a video of himself in the streets of Kyiv in the initial days after the February invasion. Despite that he and his family had come terrifyingly close to being captured by Russian forces, the president harnessed social media platforms to address the people of Ukraine—and the world—from the imperiled capital.

By drawing on his own fictional presidential character and eschewing the elite through his everyman persona, Zelenskyy understands the importance of celebrity power for political aims. His emergence also reminds celebrity studies scholars that it is time to expand the framework within which we think about the celebrity politician. Zelenskyy underscores the ways that the juncture between television, popular culture, and the construction of the celebrity persona plays a central role in the way the global public relates to politics as the world watches him—and roots for him—to save his country.

Notes[+]

McGee, Kelly. "Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Celebrity Apparatus." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2022)
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