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When Going Off Message Is the Message

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On her press tour for the new adaptation of “Mean Girls,” Reneé Rapp has called out the owner of a bus touring company owner by name, described herself as “ageist” against millennial women, praised Megan Thee Stallion’s butt and used an interview as an opportunity to shoot her shot with Rachel McAdams, the original Regina George, whose shoes Ms. Rapp stepped into for her latest role. She also said that she might not want Ms. McAdams to see the new take on the character and suggested that she was weary of the franchise.

“I’m tired of wearing pink,” Ms. Rapp told an interviewer. “I’ve had it, I’m good on it. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

“She’s not staying within the established safe boundaries of what’s the right thing to say, and that’s why her fans are identifying with her and gravitating to her — it’s very refreshing,” said Bill McGowan, founder and chief executive of Clarity Media Group, who conducted the Kardashians’ first media training session. “I mean, think about it — in some ways unhinged has become the new authentic.”

In the world of celebrity today, lawlessness and “unhinged” personalities reign supreme. Ms. Rapp is carving out her stardom in the mold of Julia Fox or even the disgraced politician George Santos, who both appear to be hyper-aware of their own presentation as well as willfully shambolic, treating press appearances as opportunities to go off-script. The more shocking, the better.

It’s a departure from what fans have come to expect from their favorite stars, many of whom have been coached to delicately dodge difficult questions and stick to positive messaging about their films and projects. In a meta move, Ms. Rapp appeared in an “S.N.L.” sketch last week that included a quip about her being sentenced to “40 hours of court-ordered media training.”

But among her supporters, “keep Reneé Rapp away from media training” has become a common refrain. So-called media training was once an industry secret. “23 years ago, we were the ones whispering off in the sides, telling stars what to say,” Mr. McGowan said. Today, however, an increasingly media literate generation may see it as antagonistic to star power, dulling a celebrity’s personality.

Now, stars who appear fundamentally untrained, who disrupt the norms of press appearances, and who leave their interviewer and co-stars shocked, as Ms. Rapp has done, may reap their own kinds of rewards, experts say: internet virality, or an ‘it girl’ moment.

Nya Étienne, 22, a digital strategist and journalist, said that Ms. Rapp’s delivery may appeal in particular to members of Gen Z, who have come to form deeper attachments to celebrities in an increasingly atomized world.

“These are people who spend hours online meticulously studying clips of celebrities, and when they see them acting like ‘real people,’ they feel a little bit less alone,” she said, adding: “These online communities thrive off shared cultural moments and understandings.”

Still, some argue that even this “stars, they’re just like us” relatability can be manufactured, especially through an evolving school of media training.

“Back in the day, it was all about taking three key messages, grinding them into some kind of indistinguishable, bland pulp that nobody could possibly remember,” Mr. McGowan said. He said media training had shifted its focus, preaching memorability over safe messaging. “Media training should be about creating memorable, provocative, interesting things to say and stories to tell,” he said.

Before the practice transformed the industry, stars like Parker Posey and Norm Macdonald were early pioneers of a certain unpredictable style of interview, drawing laughter from audiences with their eccentric, out-of-pocket anecdotes and casual disregard for the interview format. In the 2010s, it was a style of media performance that became closely associated with white female millennials like Lena Dunham and Jennifer Lawrence, both of whom earned reputations for being quirky and offbeat (though sometimes it backfired).

“The idea of media training is existentially repulsive to me,” Ms. Dunam said to the singer Lorde in an interview with Dazed in 2015. “I would rather step in my own vomit 800 times and track it all over the world and get in trouble than sit in an office and have someone explain to me how I’m supposed to talk about things.”

Glenn Kinsey, a media trainer with 33 years of experience, said that while he has always encouraged authenticity in his practice, it’s a style of training that has only recently become popular among celebrities.

“Certainly in the past few years, it’s really been blowing up, because my thing is getting them to be themselves and to look like they’ve had no training,” he said. “Ultimately, the more raw, the more real, the more imperfect — in many ways, the better.”

One can only imagine the carnage that will ensue if Ms. Rapp undergoes her 40 hours of court-ordered media training.



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