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The Hollywood Celebrity Comes to Iceland

Arts & Culture | April 27, 2015

The year 2000 was the first in which the annual number of visitors to Iceland exceeded the national population. To be fair, that’s not saying much, as the population of this isolated island is about 300,000 people. But since 2000, the tourism industry in Iceland has become just that: an industry. In 2012, the number of people traveling to Iceland amounted to over twice the population, and in 2014 it was just short of a million people. This sharp rise in tourism has changed many things about Iceland. More hotels and restaurants have appeared on the streets of Reykjavik, but more importantly, Iceland has become much more culturally connected to the rest of the world. The Hollywood film industry has gotten a foothold in the country over the last decade, recognizing it as a great place to film because of the untouched landscape and great tax breaks. A decade ago, Iceland was a safe haven for celebrities, but this is changing. Constant exposure to foreign stars and tourists whose own culture, namely American culture, idolizes them is changing how Icelanders view celebrities.

It’s no secret that Americans tend to idolize celebrities. Celebrities are a constant presence in the entertainment industry, which seems to be ever expanding: magazines, commercials, clothing lines, social media, and even the political sphere. It’s impossible to go anywhere without seeing perfectly Photoshopped faces staring out from the covers of publications and billboards. Celebrities have a presence in some shape or form in most Americans’ daily lives, whether by following them on Instagram or copying their style. There may be a million different reasons why American culture so emphasizes celebrities. As an outsider looking in, I think it’s a byproduct of the age-old American ideology of constant self-improvement. From American thinkers like Emerson who preached self-reliance to the myriad stories about Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to create a better life for themselves, it’s unsurprising that the same society praises the rich and famous. Celebrities are the embodiment of the American success story.

In contrast to this celebrity-frenzied culture, Icelandic culture does not worship celebrities—neither American nor their own—in quite the same ways. There is no such thing as paparazzi in Iceland, and in fact, the whole concept of approaching someone on the street to ask for a picture or autograph is downright unheard of. Iceland is protective of foreign celebrities that come to visit—affectionately termed “Íslandsvinir,” or “friends of Iceland.” Icelanders genuinely love that these people, who can barely go one day without getting a cheeky picture snapped of them in the states, can come to Iceland and be left alone.

Before the rise of tourism, the only guests that came to Iceland were geothermal scientists, genetic researchers, devoted outdoorsmen, and fishing enthusiasts. The visitors matched the population and culture well: scientific research in Iceland is very well respected and our landscape is appealing to hikers. Today, the culture that “regular tourists” bring with them has begun to influence Icelandic society. While celebrities can still walk the streets of Reykjavik without being followed, elements of American celebrity idolization have infiltrated Icelandic culture. Whenever a foreign celebrity touches down in Iceland, it’s bound to make news the next day. While this may seem insignificant to Americans who are used to media coverage on a much grander scale, this is a big change from ten years ago.

The increasing popularity of the film industry that has taken place compounded with the booming tourism industry is augmenting this trend of idolization. In addition to Icelanders making their own films, a market has emerged for foreign (mostly American) productions to come film in Iceland. Notable examples include Game of Thrones, the Thor movies, Noah, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Interstellar, Oblivion, and Star Trek Into Darkness. While photographs of these films’ stars are infrequent in Iceland, their presence dominates cultural conversation when they’re within the country’s borders. People update their Facebook statuses recounting their run ins with Emma Watson at the movies or their sightings of Chris Hemsworth outside a hotel. Furthermore, when these stars update their own social media pages, it’s like an ego boost to the nation. The fact that Ben Stiller chronicled his visit to Iceland with pictures on his Twitter makes Icelanders very proud.

This rising fanaticism over foreign celebrities, although still at minor level compared to the United States, completely contrasts with the way Icelanders treat their own celebrities. Iceland has a handful of people who have reached international fame: Björk, Of Monsters and Men, Sigur Rós, and for soccer fans, Eiður Guðjóhnsen, Gylfi Sigurðsson, and Aron Jóhansson. Occasionally there will be small articles about these celebrities’ activities on Icelandic news websites or social media such as “Björk buys a house in Reykjavik.” Scroll down to the comments section on one of these articles and it’s full of people either vehemently demanding privacy for these people or denouncing the article with arrogant comments like, “who cares what these people are doing?”

It’s not that Icelanders don’t care about the success of their fellow countrymen. On the contrary, I think the nation as a whole is very proud of the bands that have made it big and the goals scored by the best soccer players. Whenever our national sports teams do well in international tournaments, they are always heroically referred to as “our girls” or “our boys” in the papers the next day. Our view of celebrities is simply a bizarre mixture of thinking that everyone deserves their privacy and wanting to maintain a level of self-respect that doesn’t include drooling over the rich and famous. There’s also an element of refusal to allow celebrities to think they’re better than the average person just because they’re famous.

While Iceland still maintains its status as a safe haven for celebrities, I’m afraid that more and more people are going to slip into idolatry. There’s undoubtedly a correlation between the rise of tourism and how connected Icelandic society is to American culture. The change isn’t just limited to our way of treating celebrities, but also extends to a more general erasing of authentically Icelandic elements of the culture. Don’t get me wrong, Iceland is still a wonderful, unique, quirky place to visit. But from my perspective, Reykjavík is becoming more “normative” with each passing year. Downtown Reykjavik, the most colorful and bizarre city center you’ll ever see, caters more and more to tourists than to its own citizens . Admission to the Blue Lagoon, the natural geothermal pool just outside Reykjavik, used to cost about $10, complete with a shabby a changing room next to the lagoon. It was a wonderful, authentically Icelandic experience to run through the freezing cold in your bathing suit to jump into the lagoon. Right now, it’s a minimum of $50 and there’s a gourmet restaurant, gift shop, and spa, with a luxury five star hotel coming in 2017. It’s now a hot tourist spot that gets free marketing from Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake’s Instagram posts of them taking a dip.

I have a lot of internal struggles about recommending it as a place to visit. Every time a friend asks me if they should go to Iceland, I always say yes. It’s a beautiful, unique place full of friendly people, and I’ve never heard of anyone regretting their visit. But a part of me strongly dislikes contributing to that rising number of tourists.

Art by Rachel Cunningham. Photo by Menglan Chen.