The saddest, strangest thing about the ongoing saga of Chrissy Teigen is that Teigen herself doesn’t seem to realize what sort of saga it is. The swimsuit model-turned-influencer evidently believes she’s on a hero’s journey — the tragic sort, yes, but a hero nonetheless. The arc is familiar: from hubris to hamartia, peripeteia to anagnorisis. First the pride, then the fall, then, eventually, redemption and a rise from the ashes.
But is the tale of Chrissy Teigen that kind of story?
Teigen, a key figure in so many online draggings over the years, should know better. At the height of her influence, she drew applause for her epic clapbacks, her awesome dunks, her ability to make mincemeat of ordinary people with the perfect cutting remark — which she got away with by persuading us that she was really quite ordinary herself, or at least ordinary-adjacent. Although she’d been nominally employed as an entertainer in various capacities, her true power was as a figurehead in a cult of personality, a D-list celebrity perfectly positioned at the nexus of attainable and aspirational. Teigen was glamorous but self-deprecating, brassy yet strategically vulnerable. She was the queen bee of the social web, rich and beautiful but also oddly relatable, like the mega-popular girl in high school who was omg so nice actually?! because she’d let you borrow a pen.
The twist came when it turned out that Teigen’s capacity for meanness had not always been so strategic, so fine-tuned on deserving targets — and that all that epic clapping-back was part of a broader, less attractive tendency to bully others and delight in their suffering. This was something else, not queenly behavior but unprovoked cruelty: telling a teenager to ‘take a dirt na’p” taking swipes at the bodies of pregnant women, piling on poor Lindsay Lohan when she’d already suffered enough. In a more recent screenshot, a then 29-year-old Teigen appeared to tell a stylist who was falsely accused of using a racial slur that he should ‘suffer and die’. Suddenly, the righteous cancellation of Alison Roman didn’t seem like such an untrammeled good anymore.
As a chief architect of the culture that is now tearing her reputation to shreds, Teigen of all people should have known that she was in serious trouble when the tides began to turn. It’s beyond the ordinary irony of the woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party, now sobbing that she never expected leopards to eat her face. Teigen didn’t just vote for this, she created it. They are her leopards. This machine has no ‘redemption’ setting; it’s made for destruction and destruction alone, as we’ve seen over and over.
The best explanation for what happened next is that Teigen failed to recognize that she’d been demoted from queen to pawn, a position that makes the game unplayable.
‘Not a lot of people are lucky enough to be held accountable for all their past bullshit in front of the entire world,’ she tweeted, by way of apology. ‘I’m mortified and sad at who I used to be. I was an insecure, attention seeking troll.’
It went on like that for a few tweets, as all apologies should. Then, per protocol, Teigen disappeared — to give the ‘sorry’ some time to sink in, after which she would return, chagrined but clear-eyed and uncanceled, to pick up where she’d left off.
…just kidding. That’s not how any of this works.
You get the sense that Teigen is starting to catch on. This week, after a rolling tide of her old offenses continued to make news and at least one professional opportunity vanished in the wake of the damage, she returned with a second apology. It is much longer, written on Medium, with cross-posts to her other social platforms.
‘I know I’ve been quiet, and lord knows you don’t want to hear about me, but I want you to know I’ve been sitting in a hole of deserved global punishment, the ultimate “sit here and think about what you’ve done,”’ she wrote.
And yet, unlike so much of her previous content, this post will satisfy no one. Not just because you can practically see Teigen sighing between the lines, frustrated, wondering how much longer she really has to do this, but because this is what happens when you cultivate a culture of apology without forgiveness and appoint yourself empress of the permanently-held grudge.
The door that slams in your face is shut forever; you can’t apologize your way back in.
Those who’ve been through cancellation already know this. For them, salvation is to be found in the population who never asked for an apology in the first place. And for the lucky ones, it’s a living. Louis C.K. can spend the rest of his life packing comedy clubs with his ride-or-die supporters while the permanently aggrieved protest impotently outside. Alison Roman can sell a newsletter to people who always thought that her firing from the New York Times was horrific and undeserved.
But Teigen, well, that’s complicated. Her fanbase loved her because she fed their appetite for destruction. She was the queen of the clapback, and they her devoted subjects — not because she was good and kind, but because she made it cool to be savage. And where Chrissy Teigen seems to still imagine herself as the hero of a classic story about hubris, humiliation and eventually, grace, the snarling of her former fans is more like something out of Game of Thrones. They were loyal. Now they’re starving. This tends not to end well.