Pin It

What our celebrity house tour obsession says about us

As our living conditions worsen, our appetite for peering into the homes of the mega-rich only grows stronger

I am obsessed with Emma Chamberlain’s house. The living room is genuinely inviting, all soft fabrics and curved edges and warm colours; there’s a tasteful landscape painting by her father on the wall; light pours in from all angles; there are plants everywhere; there’s a pool; there’s a basketball court. It’s exactly the kind of place I would want to live in if I too were worth $12 million.

We’ve been voyeuristically peering into the homes of the rich and famous for decades now. Our first taste of the genre came in the form of MTV Cribs, which premiered in September 2000 – long before the likes of Khloe Kardashian were inviting us into their pantries via Instagram stories. “We were told that no one would ever entertain the idea of letting us into their homes,” show creator Nina L Diaz told EW in 2020. But audiences loved peeking behind the curtain at the unabashed maximalism of it all: the living room jacuzzis, the infinity pools, the walk-in wardrobes brimming with thousands of pairs of shoes. By 2005, Cribs had featured tours of the homes of well over 150 celebrities.

Then came the reality TV boom in the mid 2000s – The Hills, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives – followed by the advent of iPhones and social media, which in turn granted us truly unparalleled access to the private lives of the rich and famous. But in spite of this eroding the mystique that used to accompany celebrity, our appetite for peering into the homes of the mega-rich isn’t showing any signs of abating.

If anything, it’s growing more fervent: short-form videos like Vogue’s 73 Questions and Architectural Digest’s Open Door consistently rack up millions of views, Selling Sunset remains one of Netflix’s most popular shows, and Cribs even made a comeback last year. But what’s behind this fascination with celebrity homes – especially in an era where increasingly few people can afford to own a house of their own?

“I usually watch celeb house tours for pleasure, and inspiration and to admire the creativity of the teams that make them possible,” says 21-year-old Aditya, a fan of watching this kind of content. She cites Chamberlain’s and Dakota Johnson’s as two of her favourite celebrity homes, adding that they left her “wishing [she] had a house just like theirs.” Ella, 23, is another fan. “I used to love MTV Cribs,” she says. “The shit they had was just ridiculous – like cinema rooms and stuff.”

Dr Jessica Martin, a sociologist at the University of Leeds, explains that our parasocial relationships with high-profile figures often feed into this hunger for personal, domestic content from celebrities. “We have always been invested in the illusion of intimacy with celebrity figures and under regimes of neoliberal entrepreneurialism, the domestic space has become a central part of many celebrity brand identities,” she explains.

She explains that seeing celeb homes can often give rise to conflicting emotions, which keeps us coming back for more. “We definitely see some schadenfreude in responses to luxury homes perceived as decorated in bad taste – some of the discourses around Gigi Hadid’s New York apartment, for example,” she says. “But equally, for stars who are already positioned paradoxically as ‘ordinary’ celebrities – like Emma Chamberlain, who became famous through social media – fans can often feel invested in and even responsible for their success and want to share in the joy of the celebrities new found luxury lifestyle.”

But why are we particularly piqued by this type of content at this precise moment in time? Part of the reason, Dr Martin says, is that COVID-19 lockdowns intensified our interest in the domestic spaces of the elite. “Homes became the spaces from which many people worked, and for public figures this often meant giving interviews from their homes which were intensely scrutinised and enjoyed,” she says. This chimes with Ella: “I used to love watching house tours in lockdown,” she says. “I was just depressed at home in Manchester, trying to deal with lockdowns and isolation periods, so I used to watch them for entertainment and inspiration.”

Our interest in the lives of the rich has also been growing in tandem with soaring living costs. Anyone born after 1990 entered the workforce following the 2008 crash, at the point when a traditional, comfortable adult life began to appear like a far-flung dream; meanwhile, for those born closer to the millenium, the economic aftereffects of the pandemic continue to push the possibility of housing and financial security even further out of reach. Since the pandemic, no-fault evictions have soared by 41 per cent, and recent research from Zoopla found that rents were rising at the fastest pace in 13 years, making housing precarity the norm for swathes of young people.

The ‘celebrity lifestyle’ genre is very much a product of the zeitgeist: as the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, we grow ever more interested in seeing how the other half lives. “As the housing crisis intensifies, home ownership is becoming increasingly unlikely for more and more young people, so the escapism of witnessing someone with an unlimited budget for renovation and interior design can be alluring,” Dr Martin says.

After all, I’m not obsessed with Emma Chamberlain’s house just because I like her sage-green kitchen cabinets. I’m also obsessed because she was born in 2001 (making her three years younger than me) and she owns a house – and not just any house, but a huge, sprawling house. It’s like witnessing a real-life miracle. For a few minutes, I can suspend my disbelief and buy into the myth of meritocracy – turning my nose up at her ugly tiger blanket, lusting after her assortment of vintage rugs, as if I will ever be able to afford to make these sorts of choices. It’s pure fantasy.

“I would love to own a home of my own one day and I have always loved the idea of interior designing my own house from scratch,” Aditya continues. “But it's not easy at all, especially when your budget isn’t anywhere near the size of that of celebrities or influencers. And with soaring global real estate prices, the possibility of a complete possession of a house anytime in the near future is next to non-existent for me.” Ella feels similarly. “I’m never going to have a house like these,” she says.

This is, ultimately, why the appeal of celebrity house tours remains enduring. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the prospect of owning a ten-bedroom home – or even a modest one-bed – becomes increasingly far removed from our reality, making us ever-hungrier for this type of content. As Ella says: “I can’t even imagine what I would do with all that money when it comes to buying or decorating or designing a house. I just like to dream about it.”