awards lip reading

How lip-reading became the glue of Hollywood’s award season

Selena will never want to gossip with her girls again

There’s nothing better at a party than gossip, which is why when Selena Gomez rushed over to spill her secrets to Taylor Swift in front of a room full of cameras at the Golden Globes this January the world collectively craned its neck and asked: “What was that now?”

A barrage of lip readers – both professional and amateur – took to their keyboard to publish a guess at what the girlies had been saying. Experts claimed Selena had been refused a photo with Timothée Chalamet by Kylie Jenner. Selena herself said she’d been spilling the details of two close friends of her who were hooking up (“Not that that’s anyone business!”).

This wasn’t the first, second, third, or last instance of lip reading joy that stemmed from the evening. The practise of watching celebrities mouths – even when they aren’t mic’d up – has become as addictive as ranking the red carpet. Taylor Swift allegedly called the host Jo Koy a “piece of shit” while taking a picture of him. Kylie and Timmy were non-stop gushing at each other between snogs at the adjacent table (“I love you. I only care about you”). Emily Blunt and John Krasinski even sparked “divorce” rumours from the way their mouths moved.

Despite the boom in TikTok lip readers hazarding a guess at what’s going on at celebs’ award-ceremony tables, there aren’t actually many professionals who do the job properly. “I don’t think there are more than five or 10 [in the world],” says forensic expert witness lipreader, Jeremy Freeman. “I treat every lip reading project that I’m given as if it was a murder case…It’s my professional reputation.” 

Jeremy has specialist equipment which slows down video footage and allows him to analyse a subject’s every move. But, even then, he’s not prepared to bet his career on saying his reading is 100 per cent accurate. “Sometimes I’m 80% sure I could be 70% sure,” he says. “But it’s the culture we live in, celebrity culture, people want to know what’s been said. They love it.” 

Of course, thanks to the rise of lip reading stories now feeding the news cycle, one “private’ conversation can spawn a thousand articles. Despite celebrities being a room filled with cameras, it still feels somewhat intrusive – like we’re collectively ear-wigging on Hollywood. So, how far can the spying go?

Jeremy is clear his lip reading works off a set of moral principles, though he can’t speak for everyone in his profession:  “One thing I would never do is if someone sent me a clip of a private confrontation in someone’s home,” he says. “I’ve turned down work where people are at home or a private event. But the Golden Globes, it’s in the public eye. [Celebrities] are aware. 

“Another thing I would never do is if there was something that could cause a scandal,” he adds. “Selena Gomez saying Timothée Chalamet wouldn’t have a picture with me— that’s not a scandal,” he claims. “But I do have my ethics. If somebody spoke about sexual abuse or anything like that, that’s something I wouldn’t do.”

Since the Golden Globes, Emily and John have denied their divorce, Selena has denied a feud with Timmy and Kylie, and thousands of joke bad lip readings have littered Twitter timelines, with convincing scripts which are entirely fictional.

But Jeremy isn’t surprised the internet is getting the majority of the conversations it attempts to analyse wrong: “Don’t forget, I’ve built up nearly 50 years of practice,” he says of his life-long lip reading career. “You can’t become a lip reader overnight. When you look at [someone saying] the word elephant and eleven – they look the same.

“The difference between a qualified forensic expert witness lip reader and am amateur lip reader is that we are trained to look at all the homophenes,” he adds. “When more than one sound shares the same viseme or mouth shape, a forensic expert lip reader can determine the intended meaning of a speaker by utilising all visual clues including lip movements, body language, facial expressions and context.”

So, as we head into the hill for Hollywood’s award season, (Critics Choice are this weekend, Screen Actors Guild Awards follow in February before the all-important Oscars close out in March) Jeremy points out the responsibility of those undertaking the task of reading lips:

“I approach every lip-reading task with the utmost seriousness and professionalism,” he says. “Lip-reading is more than a skill for me; it’s a responsibility…When it comes to high-profile figures, there’s often a tendency to sensationalise. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not every whispered word or exchanged glance holds a deeper significance.”

That won’t stop TikTok trying, though.

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Related stories recommended by this writer:

• Selena Gomez was ‘absolutely not’ gossiping about Kylie and Timothée… apparently

• Selena Gomez gossips to Taylor Swift that Kylie wouldn’t let her get a pic with Timothée

• Who is Jo Koy, the Golden Globes 2024 presenter who made THAT bad joke about Taylor Swift?

Featured image credit via Matt Baron/BEI/C Flanigan/imageSPACE/David Fisher/Shutterstock