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Why did celebrities fall out of love with the stretch limousine?

Limos were once a symbol of wealth and status, but today it’s rare to spot celebrities pulling up to red carpet events in these luxury cars

Ever since their invention in the 1920s, stretch limousines have been viewed as a glamorous symbol of wealth and status. By the 2000s, whether they were parading A-listers to red carpets, after parties, or just to Starbucks for a midday frappuccino fix (Juicy Couture tracksuit and chihuahua in-tow, of course), rattling around in a limo was the absolute apex of celebrity. However, 100 years after their invention, things have changed. A quick look at this year’s red carpet arrivals from the Cannes Film Festival to the BAFTAs to the BRITs tells us everything we need to know: blacked-out SUVs and sprinter vans are in, and the stretch limousine is out.

In the UK, it’s nearly impossible to hire a limousine from a legitimate luxury chauffeur company (as opposed to a party company), while according to the National Limousine Association, the stretch limo represents less than one per cent of luxury chauffeur services today in the US – down from ten per cent in 2013. But when and why did the love affair between celebrities and the stretch limo end?

Brandishing stretch limousines as “tacky”, Jason Couvillion is one of the co-founders of Bruvion Travel, a luxury travel management company based in LA. Since its establishment in 2001, Bruvion has provided ground transportation, private jet charters and high-end tours for names including Britney Spears, Robert Pattinson, Janet Jackson and Taylor Swift. “We’ve offered limousine services since the beginning, but it started to trickle off by 2010,” Couvillion says. “Most clients didn’t want them anymore – and many would even refuse to get in one.” 

According to Couvillion, his customers now prefer SUVs, brands such as Mercedes, Rolls Royce, Cadillac, and even electric cars when they’re travelling. “I think limos started to be seen as being overly excessive and wasteful. Our clients were aware of this perception, so they didn’t want to be seen getting out of them,” he explains. But environmental concerns, especially coming from the same people who charter ocean-polluting superyachts and fly their private jets for 20 minutes to skip traffic, aren’t the sole reason behind the limo’s decline.

Many of Bruvion’s clients are based in cities such as New York and LA, which aren’t the most convenient of locations for cars with over ten wheels to drive around. Another issue Couvillion flags is one of the reasons these cars became so popular in the first place: they draw attention. “A lot of the people that use our services are easily recognisable, so they try to keep as private as possible… It’s hard to not be noticed when you pull up somewhere in a giant stretch limo.” 

With over 15 years of experience analysing celebrity culture, Erin Meyers is a professor of communication at Oakland University. She believes that celebrities are actively trying to protect their privacy (and safety) now more than ever – which also includes when they’re getting from A to B. “SUVs – which are being pushed across the US car industry – offer them the chance to blend in with the rest of society,” Meyers says. “I also think these bigger cars can feel similar to an armoured vehicle, which feels safer for whoever’s in them and more intimidating for the people outside…  A limousine is not going to get someone through a line of paparazzi with the same sort of intimidation.”

From the likes of Gigi Hadid calling for tougher restrictions on paparazzi to fans of Drew Barrymore and Taylor Swift recently being arrested for stalking, Meyers believes that a heightened desire for privacy feeds into a culture shift of celebrities being “just like us”. “It’s the idea that the glamour of celebrity has been dialled down a little – take Gwyneth Paltrow and her normcore court outfits, for example,” she explains. “Of course, she was actually dressed in designer clothes [Prada and The Row, to be exact], but it was way more subtle. It’s part of them trying to show a relatable, ‘authentic’ side of their lives, especially post-COVID.”

While the very unrelatable facets of celebrity lifestyle – the designer wardrobes, the bursting property portfolios, the luxury travel – still very much exist, with the help of social media, celebrities can pick and choose when they want to exhibit this side of their lives, if at all. “These people are still making tonnes of money and living lavish lifestyles, but this super ostentatious consumption is becoming more and more frowned upon,” Meyers says, calling the stretch limo a “vestige of the past”. And although, for the most part, we’ve moved on from what Meyers calls “the ‘look at all of my stuff!’ era of the 2000s”, she points out that nowadays we’re looking for relatable qualities in our celebrities, a far cry from what the limousine stands for.

“These people are still making tonnes of money and living lavish lifestyles, but this super ostentatious consumption is becoming more and more frowned upon” – Erin Meyers

For example, while early episodes of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills show Kim and Kyle Richards fighting in the back of a limo, now they’ll fight from the comfort of their plush 4x4s (custom, obviously) instead. It’s become the norm to see candid paparazzi shots of pop stars, actors and influencers driving themselves around, and although the cars they’re driving may be top of the range, they’re still far more low-key than the showy displays of celebrities in the past. Case in point: the (very believable) rumour that Mike Tyson once tried to install a jacuzzi in his personal stretch limo in the 80s.

“We’ve seen the move in celebrity culture away from unattainable glamour to this elevated possibility of a lifestyle that we could be closer to achieving, that allegedly we could have, but we can’t quite have it at that same level as them,” Meyers explains. With the potential social media offers to make an everyday person famous, an increasing number of celebrities today once lived lifestyles not too dissimilar to our own. “They’re normal people, but they live these extravagant lifestyles that we aspire to, which feel more obtainable because they’re more ‘like us’ than an established star than say, Angelina Jolie.” 

Becoming a staple of gaudy reality TV shows such as My Super Sweet 16, paired with the growing possibility for just about anyone to access a limo – even as a novelty – has unsurprisingly turned celebrity clientele off. It’s a commodity cycle we see over and over again in fashion, beauty, tech and just about any form of luxury goods known as conspicuous consumption. Coined by American sociologist, economist and famed anti-capitalist Thorstein Veblen in 1899, the theory argues that the upper echelons of society flaunt ownership of their luxury goods and services in return for status and power, reminding the rest of us of our place in the class hierarchy. When applied alongside Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory, the disappearance of the stretch limo becomes even clearer. 

According to Rogers, high-earning individuals tend to fall into the ‘innovators’ or ‘early adopters’ category of our social system – they’re the most likely to embrace (and afford) new products and technologies. By the time the rest of us (which the framework categorises as the ‘early majority’, ‘late majority’ and finally the ‘laggards’) adopt these innovations, celebrities have already moved onto something else, so the exclusive quality of these products ceases to exist. By tarnishing the reputation of the limo with hens clutching penis straws and vomiting teenagers on their way to prom, we’ve eliminated the status and power once associated with them. Couvillion says that his clients are avoiding these gimmicky associations at all costs, and Meyers notes that, as expected, their view is trickling back down to us. “Celebrities are opinion leaders in that sense, we look to them to get an idea of what the best sort of lifestyle is,” she says.

But as the influence of the 00s continues to sweep across pop culture, could we see a return of stretch limos on our roads? Meyers doesn’t see the obsession with SUVs (and the anonymity they afford) ending anytime soon, while Couvillion is far more direct. “I certainly hope not,” he says. “I think at this point, the celebrity world has moved on from needing these cars altogether.”

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