On May 28, 2019, minutes before the dawn of a new day, Ansel Elgort dropped seventeen selfies in the span of three minutes. These pictures- unedited, unfiltered, and largely shot in front of a mirror by a shirtless Elgort came with no captions and no explanations. “Omg” one Instagram user commented underneath a close up of his smolder. “You’re killing me homie” this from former Justin Beiber clone turned Disney royal-consort Cody Simpson. “Why” another user asked simply, no question mark needed. It was the question on perhaps everyone’s lips. We post selfies on Instagram with the kind of ruthless attention to detail that would quickly be bottled and weaponized if we ever figured out how. To post one unfiltered pic is to pander to a hashtag (#iwokeuplikethis #allnatural #nomakeupmonday!!!!). To post two is spit in the face of all that is right and holy, the kind of move that can only be pulled off by quirky comedians and people with less than 500 followers.
But to post seventeen, in a row, with half of them from the front-facing camera? It’s a Herculean flex, the type of thing that can only be accomplished by someone as simultaneously big and small as one of the Internet’s first boyfriends. It was as I scrolled through his feed the morning after, shrouded in the secrecy of my office cubicle, that I allowed myself to voice a question that has haunted me ever since: Am I in love with Ansel Elgort?
Ansel Elgort became a somebody after the release of the highly anticipated movie adaption for The Fault in Our Stars, based on the book written by another Internet mystery, John Green. The film was stupid successful compared to its budget, became the most talked about movie of that summer, and launched both Shailene Woodley and Elgort into the stratosphere of the teenybopper A-list. They then went on to star as siblings in the Divergent series, the dystopian flop that also featured Miles Teller, who completed the “Serious Young Actors Who Keep Doing Teenybopper Shit but They’re Better Than This We Promise” triumvirate.
But (and there are nothing but buts when it comes to this particular subject) was Elgort any good in the movie that put him on the map? The official reviews trend positive. I am very much not a fan of the book which I believe might have colored my perception of the movie. The character Gus is very annoying- hence, I found Elgort very annoying in the film. But is that… a good thing? Was he so in character that my dislike is actually proof of his ability? Did wanting to punch him the entire time prove that he’s one of the defining talents of his generation?
What about in Baby Driver? It’s another smash hit in Elgort’s arsenal, one that garnered acclaim from more “serious” outlets and a nomination for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in the same year as Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out. I watched Baby Driver after most of its initial hype had died down and I didn’t like it. It was fine enough, with performances that were fine enough but I fell asleep the first time I tried watching it. Even now, I don’t think I could tell you how it ends. Elgort, as a leading man, seemed incapable of carrying himself from scene to scene, let alone carrying a cast that included Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey on his back.
So what is the truth? Can Ansel Elgort actually act? I put the question to my Twitter feed and no one could give me a straight answer. I figured that if I was going to get any clarity, I would need to dig into his origin story.
Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School spits out future stars the way other high schools spit out future college burn-outs. In the last five years alone it’s given us an Oscar nominee (Timothée Chalamet , undeniably a megastar in the making) and an Emmy Award winner (Jharrel Jerome, criminally underrated, also a megastar in the making) as well as Elgort, who led the way for both of them with his turn in the John Green drama. According to Chalamet, Elgort was for sure more popular than he was, getting cast in lead roles in LaGuardia’s yearly musicals. Harry Shifman, Elgort’s acting teacher at the school said that he “was totally blown away by him…You didn’t see him acting… I believed him.”
There is no shortage of industry professionals willing to swear that Elgort is a star. But when one asks the average person if Timothée Chalamet can act, there isn’t so much as a pause before you’re met with a resounding yes. For those who know of Jerome, the same is true. All three alumni have major award nominations under the belt and all three have been blessed with prime material but while Chalamet and Jerome’s talent is undeniable, I’ve yet to meet a person in real life who could confirm what Hollywood seems to have already decided.
So what is his appeal? I don’t care for a single thing he’s ever professionally acted in and yet, his name alone sends a tingle or awareness down my spine, an immediate instinct to defend him, to praise him, to stan. What could possibly be behind this strange devotion?
Ansel Elgort is a multifaceted human being. Not only is he an actor, but he’s also a musician; a fledgling DJ who’s performed with the Chainsmokers, featured on a Logic album and who, in February 2017, released “Thief” a single that absolutely no one asked for. The song is fantastic. The accompanying music video is what dreams are made of. In it, Elgort gets a little softcore with his high school sweetheart, ballerina Violetta Komyshan, wearing nothing more than boxer briefs and a six-pack that does not match the boyish face of the star it’s attached to.
The video features everything you could possibly ask for: hazy neon lighting, Elgort brooding in a black turtleneck, Elgort doing pushups in the aforementioned boxer briefs, Elgort moonwalking in a leather jacket with nothing underneath. It’s a sensory smorgasbord, providing the type of contact high you’d catch in the crowded rave I imagine Elgort intended this song play in. The first time the beat dropped, I audibly gasped. It’s a masterpiece that can only be viewed via bootleg uploads on YouTube since it’s been inexplicably scrubbed from Elgort’s main channel.
If Shawn Mendes suffers from a complete dearth of anything resembling a personality, Elgort perhaps suffers from an excess. He is somehow both the boy next door and the sleazy high school senior. Both introspective and completely out of touch with reality. He befriends fans he meets on trains while also playing with an actual light-up fan! Everything about him is so deliciously performative that a feeling of hyperreality clings to him like cologne, wooing me back to him again and again and again.
In an effort to get into his mindset, I, too, dropped my own collection of selfies, seventeen of them all posted within minutes of each other to an unsuspecting Instagram populace. In an interview with The Times (the same interview in which he tries to explain platonic friendship as if he’s discovered a new sexuality), Elgort explained his selfie release, saying “I took a bunch of photos of myself and decided to post them because it was honest. I’m obsessed with the idea of not wearing a mask.”
Ansel Elgort wants you to know that he’s real. He’s not like those other guys! He’s a man that wears crystal-encrusted Celine frames indoors and totes around a Prada weekend bag unironically. Everything about him is authentic, which is to say, absolutely nothing about him is authentic aside from perhaps, the burning desire to be cooler than he is.
After posting seventeen consecutive selfies to an Instagram account I remember about once every three months, I felt untouchable for the rest of the day. “No one can tell me shit!” I declared to my best friend, feeling excessively pleased with myself. It was a heady sort of power, the kind that, after a night of reflection, I realized most closely aligned with how I feel right after I step offstage, coated in a post-performance high. Elgort is obsessed with the idea of not wearing a mask, which perhaps is the reason I have never felt connected to any of his acting, a job that demands sinking into someone new.
Offscreen, however, we get a new version of Elgort every day. The Elgort who DJs under the pseudonym Ansolo is the same Elgort who posts rapid-fire sultry selfies, who is the same Elgort who really wants to fall in love with his male BFFs, no sex attached. Oftentimes, it feels like the very act of existing and existing publicly is a performance in and of itself.
Even as I posted seventeen unedited, unfiltered pictures of myself, I was aware at every moment that it was a calculated choice, #iwokeuplikethis on crack. Am I more real because I flouted the conventions of what is typically acceptable on a social media platform? Can one be real while also putting themselves on display, easily available for public consumption?
I don’t know who Ansel Elgort really is. In his Times interview, author Ellie Austin writes how he spent the first few minutes of their interview flamboyantly switching between pairs of obscenely expensive glasses as if trying on new identities.
Perhaps, Ansel Elgort doesn’t even know himself.