The omnipresent producer went from directing One Direction music videos to rebranding the Kardashians. What's his end game?
The first name you see at the end of every episode of Hulu’s almost disastrously boring The Kardashians is not a K-named member of the Kalabasas Krew, but instead: executive producer Ben Winston. Though our society worships those who produce — and those who executive produce, even more so — the nature of who or what a producer is and does still baffles. Producers, well, make things happen. They procure money, they meet people, they fix and execute solutions. It’s all amorphous in the way that business, in general, is amorphous, in which case Ben Winston might be one of the most amorphous producers there is, his hands on so much of what we talk about, whether we like it or not. But who the hell is he?
A cursory search will tell you that Ben Winston is a British producer and sometimes director who founded the production company Fulwell 73. His Twitter photo is of himself walking down a hallway with the late Queen Elizabeth (cool?). Apparently he directed the Friends reunion on HBO Max. Okay.
Perhaps the most telling piece of information about Ben Winston is not anything in his latest body of work — Grammys producing, Adele One Night Only, the Kardashians — but a nearly 10-year-old One Direction music video.
“Best Song Ever” is both a bad song and a bad video, released in 2013 as promotional material for the boy band’s bad documentary, This Is Us, about the world tour for their pretty good second album, Take Me Home. (Despite my hedging, I am a Directioner.) This Is Us is a bizarre documentary, intercutting concert footage with staged interactions between One Direction’s members in an attempt to monetize the last of what made them normal fellas. Consider this odd, speculative moment in which Harry Styles and Liam Payne go fishing and talk about what their normal jobs would be if they had never gone on The X Factor. Both this scene from the film — staged, but in a faux-vérité sort of way — and the “Best Song Ever” music video are highly manufactured products; both are distinctly works of Winston. He co-wrote (alongside “best friend” James Corden, for whom he produces The Late Late Show) the “plot” of the video, directed it, and produced the doc This Is Us.
In the music video, the boys famously play two parts: themselves and Hollywood “industry” people, with Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson as grope-y, fat producers named Harvey (yikes) and Jonny (modeled after Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder), Styles as a nebbish marketing exec named Marcel (okay), Payne as an extremely homophobic representation of a choreographer named Leeroy, and Zayn Malik in drag as “sexy secretary” Veronica. It is a profoundly painful thing to watch with a decade’s hindsight, rich with cultural stereotypes that would get you a slap on the wrist now. (That Winston is Jewish maybe lets him elide the obvious anti-Semitism of the video, but like, come on.) The video is also rife with the type of comedic material — broad, obvious, physical, obnoxious — that has since made Corden one of the more loathsome figures on television, and the overall tone suggests a weird divide between the boys and the rest of the industry: Sure, they’re famous, but they’re not, like, famous famous (which has also been Corden’s M.O. since landing this side of the pond), and that, we are supposed to buy, is what makes them beautiful.
It’s this central psychological divide that is apparent in so many of Winston’s productions: not so much “celebs are just like us!” but rather, “famous people are human.” This is compelling — to a point. Mostly, though, it’s just insufferable. On the more harmless side of the spectrum is something like Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, a late-night segment turned cultural phenom, I guess, that involves him getting towed around Los Angeles beside a famous singer as they scream-sing along to the artist’s songs and other tunes. The comedic “point” of this is that no one is a good singer when they are singing in the car, ignoring that these segments often involve a professional musician and a man who won a Tony. So not really “like us” at all.
But Winston’s ethos manifests in more insidious ways in other works, chief among them his role in the rebranding of the Kardashians. Hulu’s The Kardashians is a much less splashy and melodramatic show than its predecessors, in part because the Kardashians have now decided to rebrand themselves as — and capitalize on the earning potential of — normal human women. Nice try, but I’m not buying it. Consider a useless, tedious scene from the new show’s first season, in which Khloe Kardashian goes on Corden’s show (nice crossover for Winston).
In the clip, Corden coaches Khloe on ignoring the haters and prioritizing her mental health. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, “making sure the Kardashians are tuning out the haters and prioritizing self-care” is so low that it’s dust. But this is the Winston touch, the touch that brought out a conversation between boy band members about what if they were firefighters, and makes Adele One Night Only feel like a casual, intimate night out at the pub with one of the world’s most notable singers. Winston’s feigned normalcy — again, this is a man whose profile picture is of himself with the queen — is presumably what attracts these insanely famous people to work with him (that, or maybe he has the best watercooler chat). He can spin celebrities into something we recognize, even if tinted by shades of uncanny valley. In his hands, Khloe is no longer a mega-rich titan who is part of a morally bankrupt family; she is a simple, insecure, but well-meaning mom just trying to figure it out.
He can spin celebrities into something we recognize, even if tinted by shades of uncanny valley.
When Winston took over The Kardashians, he pitched it as a story about women trying to figure out their lives. “I’d never watched an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which meant I could meet them with an open mind. And when I interviewed producers and showrunners, I’d say, ‘We are making a documentary about six incredibly brilliant independent businesswomen who are mostly billionaires. These are some of their individual stories, and they’re all related. Oh, and they’re the Kardashians,’” he explained to The Hollywood Reporter in June. The idea that the Kardashians are just “businesswomen” has hovered over them for the past decade — “not bad for a girl with no talent,” etc. It’s also a plain-faced lie, one that justifies their continued omnipresence and remorseless pursuit of capital.
There’s a famous little anecdote in Harry Styles lore about his early One Direction days, before the star was worrying or not worrying, darling. At the beginning of what would become a meteoric career, when he had no idea what was to come, Styles briefly moved in with Winston and his family while the singer’s London house was under construction. Though he promised to be out in two weeks’ time, Styles lived with Winston for almost two years. In the Rolling Stone profile of the singer, Winston shares a joke about waiting up at night late with his wife Meredith to see what, if any, A-listers that Styles would be bringing up to sleep with in the attic.
It’s funny in the way that having an extremely famous teenager live in your attic is funny, but I suspect that the experience also played a role in the evolution of Winston’s producing work. Here he was, witnessing the power of super-celebrity up close and personal, in the most mundane, familial type of way. In Winston’s telling, Styles may as well have been a surrogate son or a younger brother. In Winston’s world, celebrities are not exactly just like you, but they could live beside you. They could scream-sing in the car; they could worry about their mental health. That it is possible to think celebrities live like this does not make it true that celebrities live like this, though Winston’s productions would want you to think otherwise. He wants you to know that famous people, like everyone else, long for a different, better life. It’s just that they already have that, and we don’t.