Gleeful rubbernecking at celebrity “meltdowns” is the internet at its worst

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Time to do better.
Image: Deciem/Instagram
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Brandon Truaxe, who launched and ran the cult multi-brand beauty company Deciem, has died at the age of 40. No official cause of death has yet been publicly confirmed, but a report in Canada’s National Post says that “it is understood he fell from a condominium building near Toronto’s downtown.”

Deciem did not respond to a request for comment, but according to Vox, the company’s acting CEO, Nicola Kilner, confirmed Truaxe’s death in an email to staff. Deciem also posted the following message on its Instagram on Monday:

A brief history of Brandon Trauxe and Deciem

Truaxe founded the Toronto-based beauty company—best known for its popular and inexpensive skincare brand The Ordinary and its tagline, the “Abnormal Beauty Company”—in 2013. Five years later he was ousted and replaced by Kilner, who was reinstated in October 2018 after Truaxe fired her as co-CEO in February.

The complicated series of events leading up to Truaxe’s ousting took place over the course of last year, and began when he started posting bizarre videos and images on Deciem’s Instagram account in January of 2018. Most of them have now been removed, but some were so outrageous (one was of a dead animal, for example) that some speculated the company’s account had been hacked. At one point, Truaxe’s takeovers led to the loss of about 5,000 followers. In February 2018, several anonymous former employees came forward with reports of an unhealthy workplace culture, which was quickly followed by mass firings of Deciem staff by Truaxe, which he subsequently denied had ever happened.

The chaos came to a head in October 2018 when Truaxe posted a now-removed Instagram video announcing that Deciem would shutter operations, effective immediately. He claimed that “financial crimes” and “major criminal activity” had been committed against him by a variety of players, including Deciem employees, various celebrities, and other beauty companies.

These accusations were never confirmed, but they led the beauty conglomerate Estée Lauder—which had invested a minority stake in the company in June of 2018—to pursue legal action against Truaxe. This resulted in his ousting, as well as a restraining order against him following disturbing emails he reportedly sent to the company’s leadership team.

The problem with ogling the celebrity “meltdown”

As all this transpired, and it became patently clear that Truaxe was unwell, the internet ogled, speculated, and shook their collective heads. In April 2018, Truaxe posted a plea for help on Instagram, saying he was in trouble and urging followers to call 911. A series of emails to lawyers and Estée Lauder executives in May and June of 2018 revealed that Truaxe had been hospitalized for mental illness. This was confirmed in November 2018, when Canada’s Financial Post published a wide-ranging report on Truaxe, establishing via court documents that he had indeed been hospitalized in several different psychiatric facilities for mental health issues, and had problems with drug use.

The events involving Brandon Truaxe over the last year were certainly newsworthy—after all, his company was on track to make $300 million in sales last year, Bloomberg reported. They were also so bizarre, and so genuinely dramatic, that at times the whole saga felt like the plot of a television show. And indeed, much of the internet treated Truaxe’s “flame-out” as an entertainment:

“Are You Ready For Some Plump, Dewy, Moisturize-Rich SKINCARE DRAMA??” asked Jezebel in one headline. Paper Magazine gleefully told readers to pour themselves a glass of wine before reading a “bonkers” Racked interview with Truaxe, “because this shit is a mess.” Meanwhile, Reddit threads were rife with speculation and conspiracy theories about him, while WWD speculated on whether Truaxe’s posts could be part of “a calculated public relations strategy” after he said in a late February phone interview that his controversial behavior was just “creating more sales.” Twitter users joked about stocking up on Deciem products as Truaxe’s behavior became increasingly disturbing.

Of course, a free society and press gives everyone the right to comment on and criticize the actions and words of elected leaders, public figures, and celebrities. That said, this past year has seen the internet treat celebrities with mental health issues as “curiosities to be observed and studied,” as Lux Alptraum described it in an essay for Vox last year.

Indeed, between the breathless running commentary on Truaxe and the armchair-diagnosing of everyone from the rapper and entrepreneur Kanye West to the comedian Pete Davidson, rubbernecking the celebrity “meltdown” has evolved into a full-fledged spectator sport. The media—both mainstream and niche—has joined the fray, often analyzing these public unravellings with snarky commentary and a rich sense of entitlement to probe celebrities’ lives.

Of course, famous people—from Hollywood to the business world to journalism—arguably expose themselves to this scrutiny in an era where building a “brand” means revealing a slew of personal details. This is particularly true of a new breed of online “influencers,” who have built massive followings and fanbases—and lucrative businesses for themselves—by creating a feeling of personal connection with fans. It’s perhaps unsurprising that those fans, and the media outlets that helped build that fame, feel entitled to comment on those celebrities’ egos or eccentricities.

Still, the slack-jawed speculation around Truaxe’s actions highlighted sensational details, in a tone of morbid fascination or faux concern that should have set off alarm bells. Let’s say it again: There’s simply no responsible way to diagnose a public figure’s mental health if you’re not a qualified mental health professional who has performed an in-person examination. Armchair diagnosing is such a useless and inaccurate endeavor that the American Psychiatric Association banned its members from doing it in 1964. What’s more, it does a massive disservice to psychology, not to mention those living with mental illness.

Many of us in the media failed to cover Truaxe, and the implosion of his company—a business story with human costs that went beyond Truaxe—in the way that common decency dictates one should talk about something that has gone terribly wrong. And in light of his death, it’s good time to reflect on the pitfalls of this. Truaxe is not the first prominent figure whose words and actions suggest he is not OK, and he will certainly not be the last. No matter how well we feel we know celebrities, we rarely actually know the details.

It’s always worth considering, before we report or comment on or joke about a viral story, whether we’ll end up wishing that we’d swallowed our own hot take.