Many times, when a celebrity wants to convey something to the public, it’ll be done in bold fashion — like when actor Michelle Williams gave that much-talked-about speech on women’s rights at the 2020 Golden Globe Awards. Or when, in November of that same year, pop star Katy Perry dressed as an I Voted Sticker and stood on a Los Angeles street to encourage people to vote in the general election. Other stars, however, choose to send their messages secretly — and some have even done it on TV.
Of course, there are several reasons why a famous person would convey their message in code. Maybe what he or she has to say doesn’t align with their television project, so it has to be snuck in. It’s also possible that TV time constraints could force one to give a message on the down-low and very quickly. But regardless of why certain celebs do it, whatever they convey often gets a big reaction on social media, with many trying their best to interpret the meaning. And who knows? Maybe that’s another reason why some famous folks send sneaky messages, because it keeps their name buzzing online and in the press.
So, with that being said, here are some of the celebrities who’ve shared secret messages on live TV.
Justin Timberlake dissed Kanye West on live TV
There was a time when it seemed like Justin Timberlake stopped making music and replaced his singing career with acting. That’s because he didn’t release an album for seven whole years at one point. But he returned to the music scene in 2013 with his third solo record, The 20/20 Experience, and its lead single, “Suit & Tie,” featuring Jay-Z. Most of the reviews of the single were positive, with the Los Angeles Times calling it “a radiant, ramshackle song that’s less of a coherent single and more of a coronation event.”
But there was at least one celeb who didn’t care for the cut: rapper Kanye West, who dissed it while playing a show at London’s Hammersmith Apollo that February. “Remind me again who’s the original Superfly / And I got love for Hov, but I ain’t f**kin’ with that ‘Suit & Tie,'” rapped West, using Jay-Z’s nickname.
Timberlake, who’s no stranger to controversy, seemed to respond the following month while performing on Saturday Night Live, where he changed his lyrics from, “S**t so sick, got a hit and picked up a habit” to “My hit’s so sick, got rappers acting dramatic.” However, during a stop at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, he downplayed the headline-making move, telling his pal with a smile (via the Los Angeles Times), “I don’t remember that … Did I change a line? … Let me say, for the record, I absolutely love Kanye, so there’s that.” Whatever you say, JT.
Carol Burnett communicated with her grandmother
Carol Burnett is known for being a sketch comedy, acting, and singing legend due to The Carol Burnett Show and for also paving the way for other female entertainers. But she’s also known for tugging on her left ear at the close of each episode. It was a move many probably thought Burnett started on the series, but she first did it in 1955 while appearing on The Paul Winchell Show.
Decades later, the multi-talent talked about it while being honored at The Colleagues Champion of Children Award in Beverly Hills, Calif. in 2017. “My grandmother raised me out here in Hollywood,” said Burnett. “And when I got my first job back in New York, I called her and I said, ‘Nanny, I’m going to be on television Saturday morning.’ And she said, ‘Well, you gotta say hello to me.’ … We figured this out, to pull my ear, so that was my signal to her.” Noting that “it always meant, ‘Hi Nanny, I’m fine, I love you,'” she went on to quip, “And then later on it meant, ‘Hi Nanny, I’m fine, I love you, your check’s on the way.'”
Burnett’s parents died at the age of 46, according to what she told UPI in 1986, which is why she was raised by her grandmother, Mabel Eudora White, who died in 1967. But the tugging-of-the-ear tradition continued long after Burnett lost her beloved grandma, as she’s still seen making the gesture in photos and public appearances today.
Amy Poehler and Tina Fey promoted a film on live TV
If you caught the 2021 Golden Globe Awards and did a little squinting, then you might’ve seen a tiny drawing of a heart and star on hosts Amy Poehler’s hand and on Tina Fey’s wrist. No, these funny ladies didn’t suddenly join a cult, and they didn’t get matching tattoos either. The drawings were meant to send a message about Poehler’s Netflix film, Moxie.
The story follows a high school student who fosters a feminist revolt after learning that her mother challenged the patriarchy as a youngster. Poehler plays said mom and also directed the film, which was released for streaming in March 2021. In the trailer, one of the characters says, “Draw hearts and stars on your hands to show support.”
Presumably, Fey wore the symbol to support her good friend’s project, and Netflix explained what the drawing was all about in a tweet: “In Poehler’s new movie, the design is a battle cry — worn by anyone who is sick of the status quo and willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in.”
Emma Stone wore certain colors to support Time's Up
At the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, Emma Stone acted in solidarity with other actors by wearing black to support the Time’s Up movement. But she made an additional statement about supporting women and female empowerment with the help of a makeup artist. “Once I heard about the idea of women coming together and wearing black to the ceremony, and the message behind it … I wanted the makeup to have a message as well,” makeup artist Rachel Goodwin told People.
Goodwin also did some research before getting Stone ready for the awards show, and decided to mimic the colors worn by suffragettes in the 19th century. Noting that said feminist group wore “red lipstick” back then, that’s what she chose for Stone, in addition to using other styles from that period, as well. “They also wore very specific symbolic sashes, pins, petticoats and all these things in purple, emerald green, and white when they were fighting for the right to vote,” Goodwin explained.
During an interview with Flare, the celebrity makeup artist further revealed, “At first, I wanted to pull back and not do a lot of makeup because it felt like the message could be lost. But then once I found a way to actually send the message with the makeup I thought, ‘Wait I shouldn’t be apologizing for that, I should be proud of this, I should be excited about this.'”
Was Serena Williams sending a secret message to Meghan Markle on live TV?
When Meghan Markle claimed to Oprah Winfrey in March 2021 that some in the royal family had shown concern about how dark her son, Archie’s, skin would be prior to his birth, Serena Williams defended the Duchess of Sussex on Instagram. “My selfless friend lives her life — and leads by example — with empathy and compassion,” she wrote in part.
Some may have chalked that post up to the tennis GOAT merely reacting to the shocking accusations, but those people would be wrong. That’s because Williams and the former Suits star have been close friends since meeting at DIRECTV’s Celebrity Beach Bowl back in 2014. As Markle explained on her now-defunct blog, The Tig (via E!), “We hit it off immediately, taking pictures, laughing through the flag football game.”
So, based on that longtime friendship, and Markle stepping away from her acting career to marry Prince Harry, many believed that Williams was sending her a secret message at the 2019 Oscars while discussing Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s film, A Star Is Born. “In tonight’s nominee for Best Picture, we see through Ally’s eyes the highs and the low on the journey to stardom,” said Williams, referring to Gaga’s character. “There’s the rush of fame, the pressure of success, and the heartache that comes with sacrificing love for career … or career for love.” Whether Williams really sent a secret message to her best bud remains unknown, but it’s definitely in the realm of possibility.
Steph Curry does this on live TV to keep him grounded
NBA star Stephen Curry lights up the scoreboard with three-pointers so often, it would be hard not to catch the celebration he always does afterward — which consists of him tapping his chest and pointing to the sky with an index finger. In fact, as of January 2021, the Golden State Warriors guard became No. 2 on the all-time three-pointers list, according to NBA.com, with only former NBA player Ray Allen ahead of him. As it turns out, Curry’s celebration is a message about his faith that was established by himself and his mother, Sonya Curry, years ago.
“Back in college my freshman year, my mom and I started that,” he told The Mercury News in 2016. “Every time after the national anthem stopped, I’d find her in the stands whenever she came to my game and we’d do the sign to each other. Basically, means ‘have a heart for God.'” The former Davidson College star explained that he eventually started doing the sign every time he scored, noting that it’s grounded him throughout his career.
And how’s this for Curry passing on the tradition? In 2015, when the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Finals, his daughter, Riley, tapped her chest and pointed to the sky just like dad, per the Bleacher Report. Aww, you’ve got to love it.
Vernon Kay shared secret messages because he missed his family
British TV host Vernon Kay didn’t only send one message when he was a contestant on the UK’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! in 2020, he sent multiple. And he did it during a live trial as a way to express how much he missed his family, while also letting them know that he was doing okay.
In November of that year, Kay’s wife, Tess Daly, took to Instagram to reveal as much, saying that her famous husband had sent a message to their two daughters, Amber and Phoebe, by waving to them. “Loved Vernon waving hello to Phoebe & Amber tonight! So sweet they loved it! … Nice to see the novelty of live TV hasn’t worn off for @vernonkay,” she wrote.
If that weren’t thoughtful enough, Kay also let his wife know that he was also thinking of her by pulling a Carol Burnett — touching one of his ears — which she told one of her Instagram followers, according to Entertainment Daily. Plus, the TV host wore a diamond ring while appearing on the show, as the Mirror reports, which his wife had custom made for him on one of their wedding anniversaries. Daly explained that he only wears the ring on special occasions, so the fact that he wore it on the reality TV show seems to be a major message about their relationship.
Saoirse Ronan conveyed a little something about positivity
A lot of people believe the year 2020 was one of the worst in quite some time — and for good reason. But stylist Elizabeth Saltzmanher previously felt that 2018 wasn’t all that great, so she decided to help turn things around for herself and others by styling actor Saoirse Ronan in a silver Gucci dress for the 2019 Golden Globes.
“Last year was such a tumultuous year for so many things. There was a lot of negativity, and I kept trying to find the positive,” Saltzmanher told The Hollywood Reporter. “I just said, ‘I’d like a silver lining. It’s so embarrassing, but I feel like I really want to be able to say something.” There’s no word on whether the Gucci gown itself brightened Ronan’s day, but the wonderful reviews she received from fashion critics probably did. For example, she was listed as No. 9 on Harper’s Bazaar best-dressed list for that particular awards show, and also landed on Vogue‘s best-dressed listicle for the same event.
Taylor Swift put this secret message on an outfit
Taylor Swift had a huge night at the 2019 American Music Awards, where she was given the artist of the decade honor and racked up five additional trophies. She also dazzled many on stage, performing a deadly-medley of her hits, including “Love Story,” “Blank Space,” and “Shake It Off.” But it was how the pop star began her performance that got the most attention.
Swift, a.k.a. the queen of sharing Easter eggs with fans, appeared to send a message to music exec Scooter Braun by wearing the titles of her first six LPs on a white shirt. Braun infamously purchased the master recordings to those albums from her previous label, Big Machine Records, that summer, and Swift apparently had no idea about the deal beforehand. He later sold the rights to private equity firm Shamrock Capital for $300 million in 2020, according to Bloomberg.
Thankfully for Swift, a stipulation in her contract allowed her to re-record songs from those albums so she could regain ownership of her own early musical output, and she’s already begun that process. In February 2021, the singer-songwriter released a re-recording of her 2008 cut, “Love Story,” which reached No. 1 on the U.S. iTunes chart, according to Chart Data. As for her AMAs performance, Swift was joined by several children who also wore the names of her first six albums just to drive the point home, per BuzzFeed.
Meghan Markle may have used a book to share a message about one of her passions
One could easily say that Meghan Markle has supported feminism and women’s rights ever since she’s been in the public eye. In 2015, for example, during a speech at the United Nations for International Women’s Day, the future duchess said she was “proud to be a woman and a feminist,” according to Future Women. At the Royal Foundation Forum three years later, Markle spoke about the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, as well as female empowerment. “When speaking about girls’ empowerment … you’ll often hear people say they are helping women find their voices,” she said. “And I fundamentally disagree with that, because women don’t need to find their voice … they need to feel empowered to use it and people need to be encouraged to listen.”
Perhaps it’s not too surprising, then, when Markle appeared to send a secret message about feminism in October 2020 while hosting an episode of Time Magazine’s Time100 series alongside husband Prince Harry from their home in Montecito, Calif. As reported by Express, behind the royal couple was the book, Women: National Geographic Image Collection, which examines the lives of women around the world through photos and interviews. Markle’s friend, Oprah Winfrey, appears in the book, as does journalist Christiane Amanpour and primatologist Jane Goodall.
And, well, if the book’s display wasn’t actually a secret message from the duchess, then at least she let people know about some good reading material, right?
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