Back in 2015, Celeste Barber was struggling to prove just how funny she was.
But, as the actor, comedian and writer told ABC RN’s Stop Everything! this month: “I’ve always been quite the hustler when it comes to my career, always knowing that I needed to create a lot of what I wanted to do, and just kick down doors myself because they weren’t always open for me.”
That year she began re-creating celebrity photos and posting them to Instagram, with the hashtag #celestechallengeaccepted.
“[Instagram] was a way to push out what I do, show the world that I’m funny and … it went gangbusters,” she says.
She had only posted a handful of photos, when one — Barber imitating a photo of Kim Kardashian in barely there lingerie, lying on a mound of dirt — went viral.
Barber has since amassed 9.5 million followers on Instagram, including Gwyneth Paltrow (who only has a measly 8.3 million followers herself) and Taika Waititi.
And, now aged 40, she has become a celebrity herself. She has graced the covers of Vogue Australia and Vogue Portugal and even passionately kissed fashion designer Tom Ford as part of his 2018 New York Fashion Week campaign.
But she doesn’t see any tension between parodying and inhabiting the same world.
“I’ve always felt that I’m five minutes away from walking for Tom Ford; I’ve always felt that I’m living in my own reality TV show … So now when I’m in that world, it doesn’t feel foreign to me.”
As Barber’s star has risen, so too has her list of famous fans, including Kris Jenner, Cindy Crawford and Zooey Deschanel. She has also been interviewed by Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Kimmel.
But Barber says she never gets starstruck.
“I see it [celebrity] for what it is, and now that I’m in, I’m gonna blow it up from the inside,” she jokes.
“But I’ll get the free sunglasses first — I’m not an idiot.”
While maintaining her gargantuan Instagram following, Barber has also built an impressive comedic resume including a memorable role in ABC TV’s The Letdown (2017-19), a string of sold-out live shows, three books, a podcast, and two stand-up specials (one for Showtime in 2019 and another for Netflix, coming later this year).
Her hustle has also led to a star turn in the new Netflix comedy Wellmania, which premieres this week.
As she told Leigh Sales in 2021: “I’m an overnight success, 20 years in the making.”
‘OK, I can do this’
Growing up in Terranora in regional NSW, Barber was a loud and out-there kid; unable to sit still in class (she was diagnosed with ADHD at 16) and bullied at school, she took solace in the TV show Friends, drama class and dance.
At 17, she left home to attend drama school at University of Western Sydney’s now-defunct Theatre Nepean (alumni include David Wenham and Joel Edgerton).
After graduating in 2002, she spent years performing in independent productions in Sydney.
“It’s still in the bucket list to grace the stage of Belvoir Street and/or Sydney Theatre Company, but that’s yet to happen,” Barber tells ABC Arts.
From 2005 to 2009, Barber played paramedic Bree Matthews on All Saints. After long days shooting the medical drama, she would film silly sketches with her close friend and All Saints co-star, the late actor and comedian Mark Priestley.
“[Once, when we were recording] I was really quite hesitant to say a funny line and he just stopped and he looked at me and he said: ‘Can you stop doing that? …. You’re one of the funniest people I know and I’m getting really bored of you not knowing how good you are at this.'”
Still it would take Barber a few years to prove that, as the actor juggled her career ambitions and motherhood.
“I was still trying to audition and trying to get jobs, but women have children and they are forgotten about,” says Barber.
Then in 2015, she began jokingly exchanging screenshots of celebrities’ Instagrams with her older sister Olivia.
She told ABC RN’s Life Matters in 2016: “[Olivia] was saying, ‘Look at these photos! Normal people don’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Maybe normal people do do that. Challenge accepted.'”
Her posts highlight the absurdity and falsity of celebrity social media accounts, and see her contort her often scantily clad body into hilarious poses.
She told 7.30 in 2021 that her main purpose was to “make people laugh … I wanted to cut through and I wanted to be seen”.
Barber’s Instagram posts have often courted criticism in the comments, and some have been taken down after complaints.
In 2021 she faced backlash and accusations of internalised misogyny and slut-shaming over a post imitating model and sexual assault survivor Emily Ratajkowski. The caption read: “We are sick of you objectifying our bodies! Also, here’s my ass.” The model ended up blocking Barber on Instagram.
When ABC Arts asked about this, Barber said: “Different strokes, different folks. People work in different worlds and people block each other all the time. I just don’t want to get into that stuff.”
The same year she launched the Instagram hashtag that would win her fame, she also appeared in ABC comedy series How Not to Behave and started performing stand-up comedy, making it into the NSW state final of the RAW Comedy competition.
“I’m not a stand-up by trade; I’m not someone who’s worked the rooms for 15 years doing 1am slots. I don’t stand and deliver, I do more storytelling. I never thought that that’s what stand-up could be, but then when I did it, I was like, ‘Oh, fun. OK, I can do this.'”
Life, death and wellness
Barber’s latest project Wellmania is an adaptation of Brigid Delaney’s journalistic memoir, Wellmania: Misadventures in the Search for Wellness.
Delaney told ABC Arts: “I am a huge fan of broad comedy and Celeste is great at that and you see that slapstick [in the show].
“But it’s also a dramatic role; she has these moments of absolute devastation and heartbreak and she just plays those really well and that’s a side of her, for those coming to her from Instagram, that people might not have seen.”
In Wellmania, Barber plays Liv Healy, a bold and unhealthy food writer desperate to nab a coveted judging gig on an American TV cooking competition.
Liv turns to wellness to help her pass the health check required to get a US green card, and as fodder for an attention-grabbing article that she hopes will convince TV execs to take a risk on her.
Despite the crossover between celebrity and wellness culture, Barber says she was never very curious about wellness until she read Delaney’s memoir and began working on the show.
“I’ve done some wellness stuff: I had to get a colonic once, every now and then I drink green things. But it is an absolute lifestyle, if you want to do it to the degree that the fancy celebrities are doing it.
“[But] you don’t have to be all in, even though that’s what’s sold to us on a celebrity level … I learnt during the show that’s actually not the case. You can pick and choose and kind of cater it to your own personal journey.”
Like Liv, Barber has had her own health crisis; at age 25 while she was shooting All Saints, a fairly routine surgery to fix a hole in her heart turned into emergency open heart surgery.
But while, at first, Liv pretty much just barrels onwards despite her doctor’s pleas to take her health more seriously, Barber didn’t have that option: “I had hideous surgery and even if I wanted to run away, I was not capable of doing it.”
Shameless and fearless
Barber and her Wellmania character are not the same person.
“[Liv has this] ability to live wholeheartedly in any given moment, in any given situation. She bathes in it, she marinates in it, and she lives it to its nth degree … No opportunity passes her by,” says Barber.
“I’m a little more cautious, I’m not as brave as her.”
Listen to Stop Everything!
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But Stop Everything! presenter — and Wellmania co-creator — Benjamin Law says Barber and Liv do share a “courage, fearlessness and lack of shame” about their bodies.
Barber explains: “[That fearlessness] comes from knowing that my currency isn’t how I look.
“And I think women aren’t really allowed to do that. [They are] more so now, but I started doing this shit eight years ago, this Instagram stuff. Back then it was like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing?’ I just sit really comfortably in my strength and my power.”
Barber is proud of what her body has achieved, including doing all her own stunts on Wellmania, which saw her fall through a glass table in the first episode.
“As women, we get taught so often to abuse our body and hate our body. [But] I’ve really liked using my body, I’m so physically capable of so many things and … physical comedy is my most favourite thing in the world.”
“[But] I’m 40 now, it’s taken a good 58 years to get to that point,” she jokes.
“There’s a fair bit of training that goes into it, but I just refuse to hate how I look. And I go into a lot of stuff thinking that, and I think that’s how it comes across — and how I got to where I am.”
Barber told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2016 that her five-year plan was to write and star in a “sitcom-type show”.
While she’s not a writer on Wellmania, she is an executive producer.
“This is my dream come true; I’ve got my own Netflix show written by people who I think are amazing,” says Barber.
She’s now in the process of developing her own show to pitch to networks.
“I really want to do it [a show] here, at home in Australia, I’ve been away so much, but I’m in a really unique, really lucky position where I have traction internationally. So I can tell local stories on an international scale exactly like Wellmania,” she says.
Wellmania is streaming on Netflix from March 29.