Australian actress and social media star Celeste Barber is having something of a moment — actually, another moment.
Barber has enjoyed a steady career in Australian TV and comedy for years, but she first exploded into global consciousness in 2015 when she created the Instagram hashtag #CelesteChallengeAccepted, which she used to parody glossy posts of models and celebrities, swapping the pouts and scantily clad poses of the Kardashian-Jenners with more human recreations hilariously starring herself. This instantly relatable critique of social media’s supposedly aspirational — but brutally unrealistic — beauty standards struct a major chord on the platform. Over the intervening years, as Barber has kept posting (she later added video parodies, too), her Instagram following has grown to 9.5 million — more than many of the celebs she initially skewered.
In the wake of her social media success, Barber continued working in Australian television, with well-received supporting roles on shows like How Not to Behave (2015) and The Letdown (2016-2019). But she’s only recently attained the kind of star power on TV that matches the reach and recognition of her online persona. In the past month, Barber released her first hit series on Netflix, Wellmania, as well as her first standup special, Celeste Barber: Fine, Thanks, the latter filmed over two sold-out nights at Sydney Opera House last year.
In Wellmania, Barber stars as Liv Healey, an acclaimed food blogger who faces a major health scare after returning home to Australia to celebrate her best friend’s birthday. After decades of gleefully self-destructive living, Liv is forced by circumstance to follow a more healthful path, so in an effort to get back on track, she plunges headlong into the wellness industry with an openness to trying anything. Loosely based on a bestselling non-fiction book about the wellness industry by Australian writer Brigid Delaney, Wellmania, the show, initially seems teed up for characteristic Barber-esque satire: A takedown of all of the unrealistic images, expectations and exaggerations the world of wellness places on women. Instead, the show grows into a surprisingly affecting dramedy about success, balance and finding one’s own way in the world.
The show has connected with a broad audience on Netflix. It landed in the streamer’s Top 10 list for most watched English-language series for the first two weeks after its release on March 29, and it remains in the Top 10 in Australia and several other countries.
The Hollywood Reporter recently connected with Barber over Zoom to discuss the creation of Wellmania and this second wave of global success she’s experiencing.
What appealed to you about Welllmania‘s lead character Liv and made you want to make this show?
Well, Bridget Delaney’s book, which I absolutely love, is her take on the wellness industry, as both a memoir and an investigation. She did like 15 years of diving into different aspects of that world. It’s hilarious and really interesting. We ended up using the book more like a springboard into the show. Like Bridget, we were interested in going into the wellness world through the eyes of curiosity, without judgment. It’s quite easy to judge that world, the multibillion dollar industry that is “wellness.” But we didn’t want to do that, so we created this character of Liv. She’s a really successful journalist, but her life is also a total mess — and then she’s forced to plunge into the world of wellness. We knew we couldn’t just have it be like, one episode she gets a colonic, next episode she goes for a detox, and so on. We needed to make dramatic television out of this world, and that comes from grounded-ness and connectivity between the character and her friends and family members, who are essential to her whole journey. So, we used some of the ideas of the book as a springboard, but then we built it all around this wonderful, loud, hectic, human cyclone of a human being that is Liv. A lot of development work went into it.
What was it like playing Liv?
She was so exciting to play, because she’s the type of person that just will throw everything at a wall and whatever sticks — bang! — she goes with it. She’s just so present in every moment. We thought that was an excellent playground for this sort of storytelling, allowing us to explore the funny side of the wellness world, but also to take a realer look at what happens to people who have treated their bodies like an amusement park for decades and then all of a sudden, they’ve really got to stop. Suddenly, you’ve got to dig deep and maybe look at things that serve you outside of just partying and doing the impulsive things you’re used to doing. Where does real wellness come from? So, it was so fun to play all of those crazy sides of her, and to go to all of the depths that the writers opened up for me. The character was just so yummy.
In what ways would you say you relate to Liv as a person, and in what ways would you say you are different from her?
I would say that I’m a lot more cautious than Liv. I quite like to run my mouth every now and then, don’t get me wrong. But she is a lot. I don’t really love this word, but she’s braver than I am. She doesn’t really think about consequences or how things might affect other people or situations. She’s not very good at reading a room. Liv just goes in with whatever energy she’s got and it doesn’t really matter what’s going on around her. I’m quite different from that. I’m very good at reading a room and I’m a lot more empathetic than Liv. But I loved playing her because she is just so ballsy at all times. I’m somewhat reserved.
That’s somewhat surprising to hear from a comedian whose Netflix special just launched featuring sold-out shows at Sydney Opera House.
(Laughs) Well, that was a heavily curated show.
One thing I appreciated about the character, which you sort of just touched on, is how she’s often sort of a shitty friend and sibling, yet she remains palpably likable as our protagonist. Male characters on TV are often entitled to being an antihero in this way — the rouge-ish asshole who is still the hero — but there’s been less of that with female characters, although the self-sabotaging millennial woman has become something of a new archetype. I also liked how she’s a woman of around 40 years old, but I don’t think the topic of having or not having kids is ever even mentioned.
Well, yeah, I think you’re right. A lot of those characteristics are usually reserved for male roles. I think the reason it works is because people are ready to see it. I have been inundated with messages since the show came out, of women saying, “Liv is me.” I went for a walk the other night and a woman who was on a run stopped when she saw me, and she goes, “I’m running right now, because I just watched your show and I thought I should do some exercise. I’ve gotta take better care of myself!” Just because we haven’t seen these kinds of characters for so long doesn’t mean that they, or we, don’t exist in the real world. So I think that’s a reason why it kind of cuts through as well.
In some of the scenes, especially between Liv and her mom, when I was reading the script, I was like, “Ooph, that’s not a very nice thing to say. That’s not amazing.” But again, thanks to the show’s very clever writing, as the character develops, you can see that there’s trauma in there. Liv didn’t wake up and choose to be an asshole; you can see that there’s stuff going on underneath. And it just makes for such a complex, interesting character. A lot of the time, with women characters of this type, they’re usually reserved for the best friend. You know, the protagonist has more or less got their shit together and is going through their life in a more conventional way, but then they’ve got this crazy friend like Liv by their side. So, we shifted it to ask, “What if that crazy friend is the lead?” Because that’s what I want to see — I’m interested in the roughness around the edges of being human.
Do you think that roughness is part of what has helped people connect with Liv so strongly? I ask because your comedy has such warmth and joviality to it, with lots of bawdy physical comedy. But there are also moments of real pathos and existential realness. In your special, you talk about the harrowing experience of going off anti-depressants during the pandemic. That combo can be so powerful for viewers who deal with some darkness in their own lives, because they can recognize the hard parts of themselves in someone they admire and delight in. In Wellmania and your standup, is balancing the light and the heavy something you thought about consciously, or does it just come instinctively?
I think a bit of both, but it comes more naturally for me than not. When I’m writing my standup or anything else, I usually find that something that’s really funny to me has some darkness to it. I’ll also take a bit of toilet humor if it’s a big easy laugh — I mean, Brilliant! I don’t mind that at all. But, overall, I get a lot of satisfaction and I’m very entertained by bits that have that balance you mentioned. If something is really funny, there has to be a reason to it — and especially if it’s standup, the reason is usually that it has some pathos to it, as you say. With my standup, it’s really all about my own stories, so it comes pretty naturally. But I like comedy that’s nuanced and has all of those layers. That’s just where I sit most comfortably.
As you mentioned earlier, the show seems to progress towards a deeper and deeper understanding of what wellness really is. It becomes much more than skincare and detoxes, or even getting the right blood pressure and cholesterol numbers from your physician. Did the process of creating this show show affect the way you think about wellness?
Well, reading Bridget’s book did, because it’s such an interesting exploration into that world. The wellness industry might not be eclipsing organized religion just yet, but in the same way that people would go to church on a Sunday to get their community and nurture their beliefs, the wellness industry is kind of doing a bit of that as well for people nowadays. People are seeking answers and community.
I think making the show did change how I think about wellness, because I was physically away from my family for the majority of the shoot. So, I realized that wellness looks different for everyone — and balance has become a big part of wellness for me. Doing all of the scenes between Liv and her mum and her brother, it shined a light on that kind of connection and how important it is to me. I don’t really drink much green juice and I probably don’t drink enough water. But I know my wellness has always been about what’s within, not superficially how I look on the outside. I’ve got ADHD and I was diagnosed with that when I was 16, and I’ve been on and off medication for decades now. I also get anxiety. So, I understand what I need to do to keep all of that in check. I will say, though, having gone through the process of developing the show and getting everything up and running, and then shooting it, I learned that I have to make a conscious effort to put my wellness first. And doing that doesn’t come easily to me. I realized that if you don’t prioritize it, it goes away — and then you don’t end up in a very good place. I guess that’s another way of saying that I learned that I need to put boundaries around important things and maintain balance, which then keeps me sane.
I’ve heard that having a lot of women involved in all aspects of the production of Wellmania was something that you really pushed for.
Absolutely. It was always really important to me to have women at the front. First and foremost, it’s a woman’s story. We’re telling a story about a woman in the world. So, I want that story to be surrounded by women. I want that understanding that women have. That just made absolute sense to me. And it made sense to my co-creators and executive producers — it was never something I had to push hard for. When we were hiring for a role, I’d just say, “Send me all the women — because the first list I got was five men. They seem great, but where are the ladies at?” Our two directors, Erin White and Helena Brooks were both women, and we stacked the writers’ room with as many women as possible too. All aspects of inclusivity. I like to try to stack my sets with girls and gay guys. Geriatrics too — I like people that have real life experience. Girls, gay guys and geriatrics. That’s my thing.
I guess you’re pretty accustomed to a huge amount of exposure thanks to your Instagram following, but what’s the reception to Wellmania been like for you?
Oh, my gosh, it’s been unbelievable. We were number seven, globally, for two weeks on Netflix. We’re a pretty little Australian show and we’re up against these massive productions. The fact that we’re trending globally just blows my mind. I’m so proud of the show and everyone involved. And I love — love! — my audience. My peeps who follow me and have supported me for however long. The fact that they’re now enjoying what I first and foremost have always wanted to be — which is an actor and comedian, not just an Instagram person — is so fulfilling and fantastic. I’m getting inundated with messages from people asking about season two, from places like America to Lithuania. It’s just incredible.
I know there’s nothing official about Wellmania getting a second season yet, but if it happens, where would you like Liv’s story to go?
Let’s start the rumor that the show has been picked up for another season, so that it has to happen.
I am happy to help.
What I hope for Liv is that she never calms down. That’s something all of the creators and I are aligned on. We never want this to be a story where she works through her issues and everything ends up being okay — like, she finds a man and finally starts to quiet down and fit in. I don’t want that for her. I’m excited to see what the writers come up with — how she could still boldly be herself. How she can be so loud, different and out there — while also not slowly killing herself. I’m interested to see where she could go. I know there’s just so much more for her.
And how about for you? Where do you want to go from here?
I’m just gonna lie down flat on the ground for a while. No, I want to keep the momentum going. But you know, going back to what we were saying before about wellness and boundaries, to some extent you just have to take it as it comes. But I’ve always been a hustler. I’ve got shows that I really want to develop here at home in Australia. And I’m really ready for a movie! I’m so ready to star in Jumanji 7, or whatever it is (laughs). Let’s go! I’m ready to have a go at a big one. So, I’m just gonna keep pushing and taking what comes, while also really starting to devise my own stuff.