It’s everywhere. This term. Nepo-babies. Even worse, they appear to be everywhere, virus-like, not so much growing in numbers, instead being outed like moles at last being flushed out of their gilded, hidey holes.
If I were to believe the hype, these children of showbiz insiders seemed to be favored for employment over the average Jane or Joe. Apparently, these nepo-babies are not just unqualified for their highfalutin jobs, but also their mere existence results in creating victims of hard-working actors and writers and directors and whatever other showbiz gigs were being denied the clearly more deserving nobodies.
I tried not to gasp at this revelation. For years, I’d heard about the awful conspiracy theory that success in Hollywood came by playing your cards in that ultimate relationship game called It’s Not What You Know, But Who You Know. Only while I was stuck under my own writer’s rock, the rules had somehow changed, and I’d missed the most recent career memo.
The axiom of who-you-know had evolved into who your parents were, or your aunts and uncles or even grandparents. I was informed that being a legacy was the ultimo line-item on a resume. Forget your education, art, and hard-earned skills, let alone that cache connection at your kid’s preschool.
Your bloodline was what mattered most.
So, here’s what I was hearing: if my DNA doesn’t match, my showbiz dream was already over—or so far out of reach it might not be worth all the hell-sweat I would have to expend? Man, I told myself. Thank goodness I got through the door of The Magic Factory way back in the olden days when the threshold for entry was only a matter of who-you-knew.
I thought, wow. If you have such aspirations and you’re reading this, you might as well flush that dream down the toilet and start connecting with all those online career counseling sites I hear advertised on true crime podcasts.
Still, instead of feeling proud of myself for having launched a successful writing career based on some insider I supposedly knew—as well as feeling awful for victimizing those without a secret leg up—I felt even worse for the latest generation of artists whose entry was denied in favor of the latest flavor of royal cinema or television lineage.
Oh my. After a champagne toast to those halcyon who-you-know glory days of yesteryear, I wondered if I needed to raise a glass to this present generation of nepo-babies or throw sympathy in the direction of the victimized. I broached the subject with some successful peers. Writers. Directors. Actors. And strangely, when I asked who they knew that helped gain them entry to the biz, they all replied with words akin to, “When the hell did I ever say I got a leg up from anybody? I started with nothing. I got no help whatsoever. My question is, did you?”
I strained my aging memory for the obvious names and faces of my enablers. And wouldn’t you know, I couldn’t recall a circumstance, situation, or person who assisted me in opening a single industry door. If it was truly a rigged, who-you-know game, how the hell did a schmuck like me land a career?
OK. All jesting and hyperbole aside. Like most others I know, I scratched, I clawed, I risked massive rejection, I stayed in my lane and did all I could to outrun the competition until I got my big break. In fact, that two-word term—Big Break—is more familiar to me, as well as a more accurate descriptor. It’s common-sense physics. A fulcrum, if you will. When a person gets their big break. Ergo, their talent or craftsmanship recognized in such a way that someone on the inside chooses to risk their own money or reputation or company assets.
Success or failure follows. A simple meritocracy.
It's verifiable. Hard work and initiative can lead to that not-so-mythic showbiz break. But if such is true, where did the axiom of success being due to some form of friendly in come from, let alone a family connection? AKA, how the who-you-know biz morphed into having to compete with all the nepo-babies.
Come to think of it, I’ve only heard the who-you-know axe utilized by those seeking an answer to their own lack of success, a bit of personal magnification on their own self-delusion. Therefore, why expend the sweat equity if you don’t know a special somebody offering you a golden ticket?
Sound like victimology to you? It does to me. And all joking aside, it always has. The usual lie is that one’s lack of getting that big break must’ve been because someone less deserving cut the line.
Enter this silly nepo-baby debate. It’s the who-you-know excuse of the post pandemic. Only in this social media, cancel-culture atmosphere could this kind of hooey catch fire, this time calling out the perpetrators by name—primarily actors or children of celebrities portrayed as public victimizers. Of course, in reply, some of the so-called nepo-babies claimed their own high-profile victim status.
Wait a minute. Back up. I hear some of you already asking, “I hear what you’re saying about the myth of Hollywood being a who-you-know biz. But c’mon. Isn’t showbiz overrun by nepotism?”
Hell, yeah! Always has and always will be.
But here’s a trigger warning—nepotism is even more pervasive than you think. Nepotism is everywhere. It not only exists in nearly every industry on planet Earth, but it has also been a staple since human industry itself, the blood relative acting as a slave, a plow mule, as the next generation to keep the family trade aloft, housed and fed. I might suggest that those practiced in the world’s oldest profession would admit theirs wasn’t the oldest profession.
The oldest profession was being somebody’s kid.
I recently had an electrician over to do some repair work on my house. As usual, he arrived with his employee-slash-partner, otherwise known as his son. They’re a delightful pair, always cheerful, extremely professional, and full of good humor about their father-son relationship. I asked the son how it felt to be a nepo-baby. He asked, “What’s that?” I explained. They both laughed, instantly recognizing the issue as utter hogwash.
“But because your dad gave you your job,” I half-assed argued, “some other wannabe electrician isn’t getting the opportunity you’ve been handed free of charge.”
My argument was met with an even stronger serving of ridicule and laughter.
In further research, I’ve learned that the nepo-baby brand has expanded to include people of privilege. For example, if you attended a private college or didn’t need to take out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, you are a nepo-baby.
My daughter, who works in the music industry, has been accused of being a nepo-baby simply because her dad wrote a couple of hit movies. As if my writing for movies and her managing rock stars have anything to do with the other. Her job is high wire. If she doesn’t perform to expectations, she will fall.
Nepo-baby or not, when people hit the pavement, they will go splat.
Which brings me to this point. Nearly all of entertainment is a high-wire act. It’s clear and pretty public when you fail. And there are not many jobs out there if, after your big break, you stink up the place with the level of shoddy work usually assumed of a nepo-baby.
The true nepo-babies of Hollywood—ergo those actors who were given opportunities because mommy or daddy was powerful or famous? If and when their work isn’t up to snuff, it shows, and they are usually washed up and hoping to retire to the C-grade celebrity reality show circuit. This is because if one is a nepo-baby or not, employers in this game don’t want to pay for lousy results.
I’ve worked with a few of these untalented nepo-babies, some you might even have heard of. Their parent might’ve gotten them the job through their obvious big-name leverage, but it’s not as if they had serious careers thereafter, chock-full of respectable results. In other words, they got their break—but because they lacked a certain measure of talent and acumen, it was a very public failure.
I firmly acknowledge that the world, for the most part, can be hard place. Unfair. If you aren’t born and raised in New York or Los Angeles, you are at an immediate disadvantage in that the closer you are to the source at your start, the fewer hoops you might have to jump through. It’s easier to be raised here than there. Moreover, it’s easier to be raised in the United States and make it in showbiz than elsewhere, especially countries without a flourishing film and television business—which is most other countries.
Every so often I get an email or a Facebook message from wannabe writers in far off places like Africa or Southeast Asia. They want advice. It’s difficult to give when their lives are so far away, in another culture and economy. In situations like that, I don’t know where to suggest they begin.
Why tell you this?
Certainly not to make you feel a greater measure of career hope because you aren’t as disadvantaged as others. Hardly. What I suggest is that we all have different trails to blaze. Nearly every path to Hollywood is different and unique to the individual.
Mine is mine. Yours is yours.
And when you get here—or upon receiving that big break—I’ll leave you with the advice of one of the world’s most successful actors.
*Feature photo by cottonbro (Pexels)