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“Every day I feel a little more back to normal,” Carrie Underwood told Hoda Kotb in a pre-taped segment on the Today Show.
It was Underwood’s latest statement about the status of her face as she’s recovered from a fall last year that resulted in 40 stitches around her mouth. Underwood was largely out of public view until April, when she performed at the Academy of Country Music Awards. The performance set internet on fire, but the coverage was largely not about her vocals or her new song and album: It was about her face. Not because it looked different, but because of Underwood’s warnings about her altered appearance on social media.
As Kotb told Underwood in the Today segment, “I feel like you look the same.” Underwood thanked the morning host, joking “I have a dedicated team of professionals who can spackle and paint and paste.”
When Carrie Underwood performed at the Academy of Country Music Awards it was the first time she’d appeared on stage since her accident in November. It was the culmination of months of mysterious posts and announcements from the singer and former American Idol winner. (The Washington Post helpfully published an exhaustive timeline.) Last November, Underwood’s publicist told fans that Underwood fell down the stairs at her home, suffering a broken wrist and “cuts and abrasions.” She reportedly had surgery on her wrist but stayed pretty much under the radar both on Instagram and in real life.
Then in January, she announced that she had injured her face at the same time as her fall, writing in a letter to her fans: “I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but when I came out of surgery the night of my fall, the doctor told Mike [Fisher, Underwood’s husband] that he had put between 40-50 stitches in. Now here we are 7 weeks later and, even though I’ve had the best people helping me, I’m still healing and not looking quite the same.” This was a month after a fan posted a picture on Twitter with the singer in which she looked more or less the same as she always has.
Cue the plastic surgery conspiracy theories. Did she really get injured? Was she using the fall as a cover to get some elective plastic surgery? “WHAT IS HAPPENING WITH CARRIE UNDERWOOD?” the internet demanded to know.
Over the ensuing weeks, Underwood posted increasingly more revealing photos of her face on her Instagram account — a black-and-white profile here, a close-up of her eye there, finally culminating in the big reveal of her performance at the ACM Awards. The consensus? She looked pretty much the same.
Some of her fans took to her Instagram account to dissect her look, though, writing comments like, “I actually think it’s her mouth/teeth as her mouth looks very different…” and “I personally think her lips on the left side was affected from her injury…” Some even seemed disappointed in her apparent sameness: “Carrie played us!! I was expecting Al Capone scar!!!”
Why are people so invested in this narrative? It has a lot to do with why humans care about celebrities in general, and female celebrities’ looks in particular. “The short version is that we evolved in a world where mass media did not exist, so anyone we knew a lot about was a socially important person to us,” Dr. Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College who has written about the appeal of celebrities, writes in an email. “Mass media tricks our brains into thinking that celebrities are socially important people in our lives simply because we already know a lot about them.”
Dr. Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Research Center, agrees, calling the phenomenon a “parasocial relationship.” Underwood embodies this profile particularly well because while she’s glamorous, she also fits into an accessible girl-next-door archetype, à la Jennifer Aniston and Drew Barrymore.
Rutledge adds, via email, that Underwood also has a Cinderella appeal because American Idol took her from obscurity to fame, complete with “her own ‘Prince Charming’ [Fisher, a hockey player] and having a baby. Thus she is relatable, inspirational, and aspirational, appearing to have it all.”
You can basically explain the snarky comments you see popping up in between the well-wishers and supporters as schadenfreude. It’s also possibly why the singer felt the need to preemptively warn everyone that a change might be coming.
“Someone like Carrie Underwood, who is a celebrity at least in part because of her good looks, will attract attention in this situation because one of the things that makes her high status (and formidable competition from a psychological point of view) may be damaged and this is interesting to us,” writes McAndrew.
And there’s a difference in how she will be perceived based on whether she chose to change her looks or an accident left her no choice. Is she using her wealth and status to make herself even more beautiful? Or is she fighting to overcome a disfiguring injury? That seems to be the crux of why whether she had plastic surgery is so important.
“It is a natural inclination to want to see icons pulled from their pedestals to prove they are human; yet we also want to see them overcome, persevere and succeed because it shows us that we can do the same,” writes Rutledge. “Many avid Carrie Underwood fans likely heaved a sigh of relief to know that she appears more-or-less the same (in fact, many remarked that they saw no difference and she is a beautiful woman) and their own dreams and aspirations (represented by Underwood and her story) are intact.”
Because if a famous person can’t pull through a fall down the stairs, what the hell chance do us normals have?