The Rise and Fall of Chrissy Teigen, Twitter's Biggest (Unwitting) Troll

Twitter can make a star out of anybody, but the fall from grace can be just as swift

The Rise and Fall of Chrissy Teigen, Twitter's Biggest (Unwitting) Troll
Image:Emma McIntyre (Getty Images)

In the early 2010s, Chrissy Teigen was a model, best known for her food blog, Cravings, and for being “good” on Twitter. A 2014 Esquire profile of Teigen written by A.J. Jacobs now reads as a breathless acknowledgment of a woman’s ability to be both funny and conventionally attractive—the sort of writing that characterized so many profiles of women like Teigen in the early 2010s, when it was seemingly unthinkable that a woman could have more to her than her looks. Teigen’s draw then was her Twitter, which has always been candid, unfiltered, and lively—often to her benefit, but more recently, to her detriment. As Teigen gazes into the chasm of cancelation, it is clear that what made her a star in the first place—particularly her charm and her lack of a filter—are the root of her undoing.

As Constance Grady at Vox points out, Teigen’s rise on the platform was due in part to her relatability—the uncanny projection that even though she is famous, beautiful, and rich, she is still just one of us. Teigen’s popularity was the natural antidote to the traditional model of Hollywood starlet that presents as polished, tame, and armed with a purse full of press-friendly, neutral sound bites that revealed nothing. Even Teigen’s full-throated embrace of Twitter—a platform for peasants—was part of this shtick. While Jennifer Lawrence was tripping up the stairs at the 2013 Academy Awards, embodying what Anne Helen Peterson called the “cool girl,” Teigen was doing interviews with the lad mags like GQ and Esquire, firing off quips about her “little half-Asian butt” and becoming “teary-eyed” at the sight of a Wheat Thin. These quotes, and many others that Teigen has given to the press over the long course of her career, were merely dress rehearsals for her main stage performance on Twitter, which is where she carved a sizable niche for herself as a woman who is unafraid to pull back the curtain on celebrity.

What the lad mag interviews of the early 2010s were really picking up on was not Teigen’s relatability per se, but the fact that she was so willing to make herself accessible for the cis men who would otherwise be intimidated by someone so smokin’ hot. But by crafting her public persona as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue model who talks about eating American cheese and strategically overshares in interviews, she became an attainable fantasy: a woman who is beautiful and approachable, even if the latter is a performance.

At the beginning of Teigen’s Twitter career, her strategy seemed to be picking fights with public figures, firing off joke tweets and occasionally getting a response. For normal people who tend towards this sort of behavior online, getting a response from the person in question is an excellent way to acquire a little clout by association, a possible path to social media fame. The key difference is that Teigen is famous enough that when the public figures respond to her, it makes news. When Teigen offered unsolicited advice to Amanda Bynes’s fans in 2013, much to the displeasure of Bynes herself, Us Weekly picked up the beef and framed it as a “feud.” Teigen has participated in enough skirmishes—with public figures and random internet trolls alike—that Cosmopolitan was able to find 50 examples of her most searing rebukes, packaged with the 2010’s “yas, kween” mentality. Teigen built up her personal brand recognition by punching up, down, sideways—whatever got traction.

Donald Trump has long been the subject of Teigen’s scrutiny, coming for him time and time again over the course of the 2016 election and continuing her campaign once he was in office, resulting in the former president blocking her in 2017, after she tweeted “lol no one likes you”—a fact that hundreds of other people had been saying for years, but likely stung Trump coming from an extremely attractive woman famous in her own right. Coming for Trump was a popular national pastime before and during his administration, but some of Teigen’s earlier feuds haven’t aged as well.

In 2013, former Teen Mom star Farah Abraham made a sex tape with porn star James Deen (who was later accused of rape by his ex-girlfriend, Stoya), which brought a fair amount of online derision her way. Teigen, eager to join the party, tweeted, “Farrah Abraham now thinks she is pregnant from her sex tape. In other news you’re a whore and everyone hates you whoops not other news sorry.” When Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2011, Teigen pondered whether or not it was all right to “call a small child cocky” and said she was “forced to like Quevenzhané Wallis because she’s a child right.”

This sort of behavior on the platform was more normalized in the early 2010s, which isn’t an excuse for her behavior, so much as an explanation. Consider the case of Justine Sacco, the PR flack at IAC who tweeted in 2013, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”, and metaphorically closed the tab by getting on that flight and thinking nothing of it. When she landed some hours later, her name was trending on Twitter, kicking off a new era for the platform in which every day brings a new villain. Sacco waded into the waters of cancelation early and paid the price, but Teigen’s casual, immature cruelty was exempted because of her fame and her performance of authenticity. The “relatability” that Teigen’s projected over the course of her career has insulated her from much criticism. As a hot, famous woman pretending to be just one of the guys, her occasional bouts of outright cruelty came across as charming rather than actually offensive. Her relatability isn’t what saved her here, but her looks certainly did.

As social media evolved to be the most powerful tool in a celebrity’s playbook, it was necessary to adapt. The tone on Twitter moved away from vicious and swung back towards vulnerability, for everyone, including Teigen. Notably, Teigen spoke openly about her miscarriage on Twitter in October and was met with a tidal wave of both support and derision. Another attempt at vulnerability backfired spectacularly in February, when Teigen asked her followers to share with her the “most expensive thing” they’d eaten that “sucked” and clarified that her example was a $13,000 bottle of Cabernet recommended by a waiter to her and her husband, John Legend. This time around, the response was largely negative; it was clear that the veneer was wearing off. Teigen doubled down on her relatability song and dance in response to her fans turning on her, tweeting, a touch defensively, “hey, not everything I say on my twitter is going to be relatable to you because it is my life and my twitter and my stories. I see your tweets, I get your jokes, you are so funny, yes, you really nailed me.”

There’s also the Alison Roman incident of 2020, in which Roman spoke candidly about her feelings about Marie Kondo and Teigen in an interview, saying that the former’s decision to sell products is antithetical to her whole shtick, and that the latter’s cookbook, cookware, and food empire is not something she’d ever, ever, want to do. Roman was immediately met with backlash for taking down two Asian women and denigrating them for their success. Arguably, those involved in this entire conflagration were in the wrong save for Marie Kondo, who did not weigh in, but Teigen’s approach to this slight was to assume the role of the victim. Teigen tweeted that Roman’s words were a “bummer” and clarified that no, her empire is not a content farm because she does everything herself. Roman apologized to Teigen, who stepped away from Twitter for two days, and then came back to accept Roman’s apology, noting that she understands how Roman might be feeling because she was once in the same position: “the relatable’ snarky girl who didn’t care.”

But Teigen’s behavior in the past has resurfaced in a whole new era of discourse, where the very platform that made her is now part of her undoing. In March, Teigen publicly left Twitter, abandoning the platform that made her famous, only to return with the same amount of fanfare 23 days later, by choice, tweeting, “turns out it feels TERRIBLE to silence yourself and also no longer enjoy belly chuckles randomly throughout the day and also lose like 2000 friends at once lol.” Those “2000 friends” she cited would eventually turn on her just a month or so after her return, when all of her past behavior would come to bite her in the butt.

In May, Courtney Stodden—one of the media’s best-known collective punching bags of the past—came out as non-binary, in a wide-ranging interview with the Daily Beast. Stodden gained notoriety in 2011 when, at 16, they married 51-year-old Doug Hutchinson, in a union that was blessed by their parents and reviled by anyone with an opinion. The age difference piqued the media’s ire so much so that Dr. Drew performed an ultrasound of their breasts on television to prove that they were real, and, per Stodden, countless people told them to kill themselves on Twitter every day. One of those individuals was Teigen.

A number of celebrities were also quite cruel to you during that time. I saw a video you made recently where you called out Chrissy Teigen for the way she treated you.
She wouldn’t just publicly tweet about wanting me to take “a dirt nap” but would privately DM me and tell me to kill myself. Things like, “I can’t wait for you to die.” And not only her, but Joy Behar had a field day with calling me a “slut.” Courtney Love told me I was a “whore.” People came out of the woodwork to beat up on a kid because she was in a situation that she shouldn’t have been in. There were a lot of celebrities acting like playground bullies. Some of the worst treatment I got was from women, and we’re not going to get anywhere if we keep holding each other back.

The blowback against Teigen once this interview was published was swift. In an apology on Twitter, Teigen wrote, “Not a lot of people are lucky enough to be held accountable for all their past bullshit in front of the entire world. I’m mortified and sad at who I used to be. I was an insecure, attention-seeking troll.” She also stated that she’s attempted to reach out to Stodden to apologize personally, and that, as ever, she is working on “being better.” But all too often, public apologies are one thing, existing to smother problems and soothe the feelings of the one at blame—they’re often too little, too late. Her relatability performance worked quite well for years, until suddenly, it didn’t. Punching down on an abused teenager online for laughs is no longer cute, if only because the culture has evolved to the point where we now understand that our actions have consequences. Teigen’s undoing was always going to come at her own hand. Maybe she never got the memo.

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