The aughts were a weird and wonderful time for celebrity gossip. Social media was in its infancy, Sidekicks were the height of technology, and court enforced alcohol monitoring bracelets were de rigueur. Names like Paris, Lindsay, Nicole, and Mischa were regularly splashed across tabloids, while Kim Kardashian was still just a lowly closet organizer. Britney shaved her head and beat a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. Ben Affleck wasn’t publicly out as a total creep.
In honor of those halcyon years, the THNK 1994 Museum (aka the people who brought you those crowd-funded Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Tanya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan-themed exhibitions) are staging an art show based on Nicole Richie’s 2007 Memorial Day BBQ, which will run from July 28th through September 10th. Co-curated by comedians Matt Harkins and Viviana Olen and beloved 2000s celebrity scholar Pop Culture Died in 2009, the show features art by Laura Collins, Derek Covington Smith, MaVa, and more.
If, for whatever reason, you’ve forgotten the ins and outs of tabloid minutia from ten years ago, allow me to set the stage for this most infamous of BBQs. The year is 2007. Nicole Richie, ever the humorist, sends an email to an unknown list of friends and fellow celebrities containing the following statement: “Let’s glorify this day in your sluttiest tops and your tightest pair of Tsubi jeans, even though we have no clue what Memorial Day really means!! There will be a scale at the front door. No girls over 100 pounds allowed in. Start starving yourself now. See you all then!!!”
Looking back, it’s hard to believe people didn’t get that it was a joke, especially considering the then-constant stream of speculation surrounding Richie’s weight and the possibility of an eating disorder. But when the email was leaked to tabloids, people chose to take the statement at face value and rumors that Richie was hosting a party with an actual weight limit began to circulate. To make matters worse, Mischa Barton was then hospitalized during the event, for what her publicist at the time deemed a “bad reaction to medication.”
“There were a lot of party girls there,” explains Matt, the creator of Pop Culture Died. “So we’ll have a lot of stuff having to do with that [at the exhibition]. But it will also have scandals from the entire decade, like Winona Ryder shoplifting.”
Conceptualized as “an imaginary summit” of the tabloid stars of yesteryear, “Nicole Richie’s Memorial Day BBQ” will also function as something like a support group for people who desperately miss the seedy glamour and unapologetic rambunctiousness of the last era in which celebrities couldn’t control every aspect of their image and seemingly didn’t much care to.
“That’s why I came up with [Pop Culture Died] to begin with, because the celebrity culture we have today different and so much more boring,” Matt says. “There’s not that mystery anymore. [Before social media] you had to watch MTV Cribs, you had to read the magazines, the ‘Stars: They’re Just Like Us’ section. Now you know you know they’re just like us because you see it all the time … People miss how unpredictable and crazy it used to be. Every day there was a scandal, whether it was Hasselhoff drunkenly eating a hamburger or Kate Moss dangling from a window.”
As with all of THNK 1994’s projects, the exhibition is also noteworthy for its lighthearted, populist approach to art. You don’t need an MFA to get it, you just need to have opened up an Us Weekly at some point in the past 20 years. This approach has earned Olen and Harkins significant buzz both in the art world and beyond, proving that there’s a real appetite for art that isn’t so self-serious. And perhaps that is the real takeaway: Just as swiftly as technology and social media ruined the fun of celebrity culture, they injected a much-needed sense of humor into fine art.
And if you’re hoping for a celebrity sighting of the non-fictional kind, well, Paris Hilton did tweet about the exhibition. And then subsequently delete it. But, hey, you never know.