Lately, when “The Bold and the Beautiful” actress Maile Masako Brady scrolls through TikTok, she sees the hashtag #nepobaby, which can lead her to countless videos, many of which pose similar questions: Did you know that “Stranger Things” star Maya Hawke’s dad is Ethan Hawke and her mom is Uma Thurman? Or that Jack Quaid is related to that Quaid? Or that Beanie Feldstein’s family connections may have helped get her ultimately doomed role in “Funny Girl”?
Brady, 19, finds these TikToks pretty entertaining — even though, technically, “nepo baby” also describes her. She knows the phrase certainly sounds insulting. However …
“It’s not like it’s wrong?” said Brady, the daughter of actor and comedian Wayne Brady. “I’m an actress, I’m a singer. I basically do what my dad does, in a way. I’m very fortunate to have grown up around the arts and being given certain advantages. So I’m not going to be like, ‘Don’t make fun of me for the truth, that’s mean!’ It doesn’t make me feel bad — it’s just funny to me.”
Nepotism and Hollywood have been synonymous since the dawn of time, or at least since the 1870s when aspiring actor Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe changed his name to Maurice Barrymore and left England, sailed to America, married actress Georgiana Drew and they produced an acting lineage that continues today with our nation’s most chaotic talk-show host, great-granddaughter Drew Barrymore.
But recently on social media, such celebrities have been sardonically dubbed “nepotism babies.” The phrase saw a massive spike on Google earlier this year — right around the time a tweet went viral from a young viewer of HBO’s “Euphoria” who was apparently shocked to learn one of the show’s stars, Maude Apatow, is the daughter of actress Leslie Mann and “a movie director.”
Much like when HBO’s “Girls” debuted a decade ago — incidentally, produced by aforementioned “movie director” Judd Apatow — and millennials had a field day realizing all four lead actresses had well-known parents, a new online generation has discovered Hollywood nepotism. The hashtag #nepobaby, with more than 30 million views on TikTok, includes videos that “expose” models whose moms were models (Anwar Hadid, Kaia Gerber, Lila Moss) or list their “fave” nepotism beneficiaries (Zoë Kravitz, Dan Levy, Dakota Johnson). Some use the app to process their feelings on the matter. (“Tracee Ellis Ross being Diana Ross’s daughter. Why did that shake me to my core?”) Others question why it’s suddenly become such a volatile subject, since children follow their parents into plenty of other industries, such as politics and journalism.
“The nepotism baby community on TikTok is more than just a digital fad, but instead part of a wider trend of social justice,” theorized one video posted by British magazine the Face, explaining nepo babies can fall into “good” and “bad” categories depending how honest they are about their path to fame, if they do charity work or simply seem humble. “Young people who have had enough of an unlevel playing field are writing their own rules and applying justice to a system that was created without them.”
Kit Keenan, a podcaster and content creator whose mother is fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, said she has thought a lot about her privileged upbringing in New York City as she’s built her career. By the time she got to college, she had her own clothing line and a large enough social media platform to catch the attention of “The Bachelor” producers, who recruited her as a contestant for the 2021 season. After millions of viewers saw her on the popular show, she continued to build her Instagram and TikTok followings, incorporating food and recipe content, and now hosts a podcast with Rowley called “Ageless.”
“I know what I have been given in life, and I’m trying to use those opportunities to help other people and just recognize that,” said Keenan, 23. One thing she’s certain about is that it’s important to be transparent about your background.
“It doesn’t mean that you finish the race already in first place, but you started with a huge head start,” she added. “I think the worst thing a nepo baby can do is say that they earned everything they had all on their own.”
Nepo babies are fully aware that their mere existence — being born into wealth and opportunities, especially in an era of economic and social distress — can spark an intense, and often negative, reaction. They’ve seen the memes. (Such as the one about how you should never ask an indie musician why the names of their parents have a blue link on Wikipedia.) Snarky tabloid items populate gossip sites daily. (Who can forget the one about the rumored team of people tasked with helping Brooklyn Beckham — son of David and Victoria Beckham — learn to cook after he landed a cooking show.)
They would just like to add that Hollywood nepotism is more complicated than it appears, and just because one is born a nepo baby does not mean they aren’t also human beings with emotions and nuanced inner lives as they navigate a harsh spotlight in the social media era and try to live up to enormous expectations. (For example, the time Brady took an improv class, terrified that someone might find out her father is the star of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”) And they know that people have little to no patience to hear about those challenges, as real as they may be.
“There’s no nepotism in my family!” actor Oliver Hudson, 45, joked at the start of a phone interview as his mother, Goldie Hawn, was heard talking in the background. He was in Colorado for a few days, where Hawn and his stepfather, Kurt Russell, bought a home years ago. “My mom’s next to me giving notes,” he explained.
Hudson has no qualms opening up about nepotism but generally, the “nepo” part of “nepo babies” isn’t a subject they love to discuss. The Washington Post tried to contact around 50 nepo babies for comment for this story, the majority via their representatives. About 60 percent declined the request or said their clients were unavailable; approximately 35 percent never responded; a few replied and then ghosted.
Hudson loves working in the same industry as his relatives — he and his sister, actress Kate Hudson, launched the podcast “Sibling Revelry” in 2019. It brought him and Kate even closer, he said, and has led to in-depth conversations with other Hollywood siblings who appear as guests, including Dakota and Elle Fanning and Matthew and Rooster McConaughey.
Growing up, Hudson tried to keep his legacy a secret: “I just wanted people to like me for me.” Wondering if people only want to spend time with you because your parents are Hollywood icons can do a number on your self-worth; that insecurity persisted and manifested itself when Hudson decided he wanted to be an actor, too. He got an agent but didn’t put in much effort and showed up hung over and unprepared for auditions. He barely got any work, he said, and realized he had to get his act together.
“There’s this misconception of me and Kate and Wyatt — ‘Oh we’re the sons and daughter of famous parents so everything comes easy, you get a bunch of jobs and life is set,’ ” Hudson said, referring to his half brother, actor Wyatt Russell, recently cast along with Kurt in Apple TV Plus’s new Godzilla series. “And yes, no doubt about it, it gets your foot in the door — both feet in the door. But at the end of the day, you still have to prove yourself, you have to go to auditions and get the job. I learned that the hard way.”
Hudson, who now co-hosts the relationship podcast “Unconsciously Coupled” with his wife Erinn, went on to star in CBS’s “Rules of Engagement,” ABC’s “Nashville” and “Splitting Up Together” and many more shows. Even though he understands why the nepotism conversation continues, he wishes it didn’t have such a negative connotation, particularly regarding acting. It’s not like other corporate professions, he said, where someone can say, “Hey, son, you’re vice president of the company now.”
“My mom and Kurt can’t force you down someone’s throat. They can’t say, ‘He needs to be in this movie,’ ” Hudson said. Personally, he was thrilled when his preteen son, Bodhi, was hired alongside him in a network pilot after going through the casting process. “If he sucked, CBS wasn’t going to hire him.”
“Privilege is something you’re born with, you got lucky. But entitlement is something that is learned and something that is railed against in our family,” Hudson continued. “You earn what you get — don’t think you deserve anything.”
If you were watching TV this summer and saw a Jonas Brother and a man who vaguely resembled a Jonas Brother, your eyes did not deceive you. That was Kevin (a member of the pop trio) and Frankie (their younger “bonus Jonas” brother) co-hosting “Claim to Fame,” a new ABC reality series where the relatives of various stars — Zendaya’s cousin, Brett Favre’s daughter — live in a house together and … well, we’re not sure what exactly but money will eventually be awarded to someone.
E! took a similar shot this winter with “Relatively Famous: Ranch Rules,” sending eight celebrity offspring — including Harry James Thornton (son of Billy Bob), Taylor Hasselhoff (daughter of David), Myles O’Neal (son of Shaquille) — to a ranch to see what would happen. Such shows serve as somewhat of a gig economy for nepo babies, but the networks wouldn’t greenlight them if they didn’t think people were consistently fascinated by anyone connected to fame.
“Culturally, we are programmed to be interested in the spawn of celebrities,” said Elaine Lui, the “Etalk” and “The Social” TV personality who runs the website LaineyGossip. “If we weren’t … magazines wouldn’t have paid millions of dollars to have photos after a celebrity had a baby.”
Though the days of People magazine reportedly shelling out $6 million for pictures of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony’s newborn twins may be gone, the public is often still invested. Lui pointed to Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, the 16-year-old of Angelina Jolie (daughter of Jon Voight) and Brad Pitt. In June, a YouTube video of Jolie-Pitt dancing to a Doja Cat song blew up online, and seemed like a natural evolution of a child whose baby photos reportedly fetched $4 million from People.
Then there’s the anticipation of wondering what the future holds for some of the most potentially powerful nepo babies, Lui said, such as North West, Blue Ivy Carter and Rihanna and A$AP Rocky’s newborn son. It’s also a change from when nepotism benefited mostly only White stars such as Liza Minnelli or Gwyneth Paltrow. (For her part, Paltrow — daughter of Blythe Danner and Bruce Paltrow — recently said to Hailey Bieber — daughter of Stephen Baldwin — that nepotism also makes life difficult because “then you have to work almost twice as hard and be twice as good.”)
The Black List founder, Franklin Leonard, brought up a similar issue last summer after he tweeted “Hollywood’s a meritocracy, right?” alongside an article about how Hopper Penn (son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright), Destry Spielberg (daughter of Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw) and Owen King (son of Stephen and Tabitha King) were collaborating on a short film together. Ben Stiller (son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara) jumped in to defend them: “Show biz as we all know is pretty rough, and ultimately is a meritocracy.” As Franklin pointed out that such privilege is connected to the lack of diversity in the industry — and makes it the opposite of a meritocracy — the tweets took off across the internet.
“I think that there was a time where you couldn’t ‘nepo’ your baby if you were a person of color,” Lui said. “We haven’t even seen Rihanna’s baby yet … but this baby is already a superstar. Is that nepotism? Sure. But when you layer on the inequity from past years in history and you think about nepotism through the lens of race and privilege, I think it’s kind of exciting and cool that Blue Ivy and Rihanna’s baby are celebrities from birth.”
Journalist and author Stephen Farber remembers an interview from the early 1980s that went off the rails. He was talking to Nicolas Cage for the New York Times and asked a question about his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola. According to Farber, Cage replied something along the lines of, “I don’t want you to mention in the article that he’s my uncle.” When Farber wouldn’t agree, he said, Cage stormed off.
“I think he eventually got over it and he was willing to talk about it,” Farber said. “But there was the indication as a young actor that he didn’t want people to think he had gotten to where he was because of family connections.”
Farber, who co-wrote the 1984 book “Hollywood Dynasties,” thinks nepotism is actually less of an issue in Hollywood than in the past. When studios in Los Angeles were launching, the men in charge hired all their relatives; Carl Laemmle, co-founder of Universal Pictures, was known as “Uncle Carl” because he brought so many family members on board. “Now, it’s a small number compared to what used to go on in Hollywood’s golden age,” he said.
Mary Murphy, a journalist and professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, recalled a similar though less dramatic interview experience when she was reporting for “Entertainment Tonight” on the red carpet for the premiere of “The Runaways” in 2010. When Murphy asked newcomer Riley Keough how she got her role in the film, Murphy said she received a not-so-thrilled look in response — only later to find out that Keough was Elvis Presley’s granddaughter and probably didn’t appreciate the question. (Keough’s publicist said she was unavailable for an interview; Cage’s manager had no comment.)
Murphy gets it, especially when you just think about it from a human point of view. “They’re just trying to live up to their parents’ expectations,” she said. “And living it under the glare of klieg lights on the red carpet and just imagining people thinking, ‘Well, they’re not as good as their mother, their father.’ That’s tough.”
However, there appears to be an attitude shift in newer stars, who, perhaps boosted by the transparency of social media, feel like they have nothing to hide. Grace Van Dien, 25, daughter of actor Casper Van Dien and great-granddaughter of Robert Mitchum, saw her breakout role this year as Chrissy the cheerleader on Netflix’s Season 4 of “Stranger Things,” a character that garnered a passionate response from viewers that she called “insane” and left her “beautifully surprised.”
Though she believes that the priority for casting is about who fits the role authentically, she knows that having relatives in the industry can help. But it’s something that she embraces.
“I love my dad. I love that I have someone to guide me through this rollercoaster of an industry,” Van Dien wrote in an email. “I beam with pride whenever I walk into a room and a producer, or a casting director asks, ‘Is Casper your father?’ Does that single-handedly book me the job? No. And I wouldn’t want it to. But I find it so awesome.”