Amidst the ostentatiousness of King Charles’ coronation last May, what captured TikTok users’ attention was a private conversation. The exchange between the king and his wife, queen Camila, took over headlines after the TikToker Krystin Kalvoy, a specialist in lip-reading videos deciphered its contents. In the video, the couple can be seen in their carriage outside Westminster Abbey. According to the TikToker’s version, the monarch expressed his discomfort at having to wait outside the church for a few minutes. Despite the fact that the veracity of Kalvoy’s dubbing cannot be confirmed, the video spread like gunpowder, adding to a trend that has been taking over Gen Z’s favorite social network for months. Under the name of “lip reading” abound videos that reveal bits of private conversations between celebrities.
Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, always under the media’s gaze, have become involuntary stars of these posts. So have Kendall Jenner and Bad Bunny. Taylor Swift hasn’t escaped scrutiny, either. During the ceremony for the iHeartRadio music awards, celebrated last March in Los Angeles, the artist had a chat with the singer Phoebe Bridgers. According to the TikToker Nina Dellinger, one of the most successful lip readers on social media, Swift said, “my type of person, and so it’s so good to have him around full-time.” The contextless fragment has achieved millions of views and hundreds of comments.
These videos don’t tend to reveal big secrets. They tend to contain loose phrases that set off viewers’ imaginations. The veracity of lip readings that circulate on TikTok is not guaranteed. Humorous voice overs aside, it’s possible to put in celebrities’ mouths words that they didn’t really say, and there are differences of opinions about what can be heard in a single video.
Behind those profiles we find TikTokers like Nina Dellinger, with almost a million followers on the platform. A Californian by birth and a resident in Belize, where she runs a business of small tourist boats, the 26-year-old content creator recognizes that her ability to read lips was something she discovered by accident in high school. “At first it wasn’t conscious. I would be sitting in class and watching people, and I realized I could understand what they said, but I didn’t think too much about it,” she recalls in an interview with EL PAÍS. In 2020, to combat the boredom of the lockdown, Dellinger downloaded TikTok and magic happened. “I published a duet video, where I read the lips of a content creator who had posted a video talking without sound.” She never expected that that post would go viral and make her into a star of virtual lip reading. Among her most-viewed videos is one of the singer Olivia Rodrigo in a conversation with actress Iris Apatow in which they allude to a third person. “That video has 33.6 million views and 3.1 million likes,” the TikToker says.
But getting involved in a too-private conversation can have consequences. That’s why Dellinger has her own limits, and she says she omits anything she considers “too personal, like names, dates and sensitive information.” For now, she says, she has never received a complaint from the celebrities involved in her videos. “I always try to be respectful, and I would never publish something personal or defamatory. No celebrity has ever complained. Once I read the lips of the actor Miles Teller in a video and his wife commented saying that I had been right.” The interest in knowing how celebrities speak when they think no one is listening is feeding a burgeoning trend. The new era of gossip is forming on TikTok.
#duet with @celebsbase WHO do you think they are talking about?! 🤭🤨 p.s. I can read a possible name at the beginning but I’m not going to reveal it🤐 #lipreading #lipreadinggirl #lipreader #oliviarodrigo #irisapatow #lipreadingcelebrities #celebs #lakers #whatdoyouthink #tea #celebritytea☕ oh yeah p.s.s. Olivia, if you see this, your fans want you to release your next album soon❗️♬ Love You So - The King Khan & BBQ Show
Ethical and legal dilemmas
It’s worth asking whether the rules of conduct that structure everyday life in society translate into the digital world. Tilting an ear to listen to another conversation is not usually seen well, much less sharing the content with the world. With the videos’ millions of views, some voices on TikTok disagree with the practice, emphasizing that celebrities also deserve their privacy.
The phenomenon brings up ethical dilemmas, but it is not clear whether it violates any legal rights to privacy. According to the lawyer Ignacio Palomar Ruiz, the key is in whether the conversation contains information of “public interest.” It depends on the location of the conversation and whether informing about it can be attributed to the right to information and freedom of expression: “If the images used for the lip reading are of a famous person at a public event or in public places, the practice is compatible with the right to privacy and would not be considered an illegitimate intrusion.” But, he says, “that doesn’t mean carte blanche to record celebrities in public and publish the corresponding lip readings.”
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