Why celebrities are buying Bored Ape NFTs

Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Jimmy Fallon has officially bought an NFT, and he showed it off on national television. On Monday’s episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the host and guest Paris Hilton shared their new Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs — or rather, the physical, printed-out copies of them. Fallon’s is decked out in nautical gear, with a captain’s hat and striped shirt. Hilton’s has shaggier red fur and a black pair of shades. The segment was deeply awkward, with tepid audience reactions at best. Mostly it felt bizarre compared to Fallon’s typical fare of promoting celebrity shows and movies, or doing silly games like karaoke. Why were these celebrities talking about crypto on late-night TV?

Hilton and Fallon might seem like an odd pair to chat blockchain, but Hilton is actually really into NFTs. She’s the reason Fallon even knows what they are. “You taught me what’s up, and then I bought an ape,” Fallon said, as a kind of brag that read a little more like a mea culpa. And if you’ve taken a peek at Hilton’s social media lately, you’ll notice she’s increasingly styled herself as a crypto influencer-evangelist, as well as an early adopter of the metaverse trend (true Hilton devotees might recall that in 2021, she launched “Paris World” in Roblox). The Tonight Show episode capped off with Hilton announcing her own NFT collection, a collage of GIFs largely about her and her husband called “My Forever Fairytale.” Every audience member got one for free, and we can only assume they all thought it was definitely a better live-audience goodie than a flat screen TV or whatever Ellen likes to give out.

The short segment is yet another mainstream recognition of non-fungible tokens by celebrities — and not just those involved heavily in tech. So, what’s going on here?

What is an NFT?

An NFT, or non-fungible token, is just a token (sorry, that’s already in the name) that says you own a digital item. The key distinction is that it’s unique. This is what fungible means — though you’d be forgiven for thinking these NFTs are for non-mushrooms only. (Please laugh.) Ownership is tracked through the blockchain; each NFT is a unique token on the blockchain. Think of it like a Pokémon trading card. There will be a number of copies of the same kind of card, right? But each card is technically different. These cards also have different values, depending on their rarity and popularity. (You can read more about NFTs here, as well as their impact on climate change.)

Hilton isn’t the only celebrity who’s making NFTs. Far from it. There’s Lindsay Lohan’s fursona — disliked by furries, apparently — and the perhaps less surprising “War Nymph” series from Grimes, in which winged babies wave swords. Though these examples are clearly priceless art, NFTs don’t all skyrocket in price or desirability. That said, a few specific communities have sprung up in the NFT trading world, with certain creators making a series of designs that stick with a certain theme and then command special attention, sort of like a series of popular collectibles. (Or Funko Pop.)

Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) is one such collection. (Here, you may note that whether or not the digital art is good appears to have nothing to do with whether the NFT becomes popular or valuable.) The BAYC collection consists of 10,000 unique, avatar-like digital illustrations of apes, depicted from the shoulders up — each with a different expression and wearing different clothes and accessories.

These apes are everywhere, lately. People seem to be going … [long-suffering pause] apeshit for them. The brand recognition is so powerful it has landed BAYC a few significant collaborations, like a recent one with Adidas. You might have also spotted BAYC images on Twitter, as buyers have often made these digital images into their avatars. Or maybe you’ve noticed buyers getting roasted by people who joke that “stealing” one of these pieces is as easy as hitting right click/save as.

So, you’re saying I can steal Jimmy Fallon’s Bored Ape by downloading the JPEG?

Technically speaking, actually owning the NFT means just owning “a token” that corresponds to it (hmm), rather than just the JPEG, which … can be downloaded by anyone, any number of times? We’ll let you puzzle that out.

Why are celebrities buying these NFTs?

Short answer: Because they can afford them. Scarcity, speculation, and hype tend to attract a certain kind of buyer. The profile of that buyer (or the artist) can be a kind of feedback loop that makes the NFT more desirable. The resulting rises in price can be steep. Rinse, repeat.

Longer answer: Much like any hyped commodity, NFTs that are perceived as being valuable have become a kind of status symbol. A Beeple NFT sold for $69 million at Christie’s, which the auction house said puts Beeple “among the top three most valuable living artists,” according to The Verge. Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, has some reasons to be popular. He’s got roughly 2.5 million followers across social platforms, and is famous for creating and posting new art each day — the NFT is a compilation of 5,000 days of it. And what did that lucky NFT winner get? A digital file, and also, as The Verge put it, “some vague rights to present the image.” The buyer also won the ability to tell people they have a Beeple NFT. Whoever spent that much on it is probably excited to own something made by this cool guy. Fun!

Some NFT collectors also think that these items will increase in value — a lot like priceless physical works of art. For a number of NFTs, they’ve been right, so far. Here’s an animated cube that originally listed for $500 but was last sold for $17,000.

And here’s where things get even hairier. How do you predict which NFTs will become wildly profitable to resell? I don’t think any of us would have anticipated the popularity of Bored Ape NFTs — much less the current version of reality where a growing group of celebrities changed their social media images to ugly illustrations of primates. Deciding which to buy becomes a gamble, wherein making money requires finding someone else to sell that NFT to. It’s a “bigger fool scam,” as Dan Olson puts it, in an episode of Folding Ideas. To actually make money, you always need someone to be the “bigger fool” in the chain of buyers, Olson explains, someone willing to pay increasingly large sums. (Some have made compelling arguments that NFTs are just a tech elite’s pyramid scheme.) If you’re buying as a “collector,” it’s that price tag that plays into the item’s value as a status symbol or a “flex.”

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Add in the fact that celebrities hold enough influence over popular culture to effectively impart value to NFTs — which don’t necessarily have intrinsic value — and it just feels skeezier and skeezier. With each additional Bored Ape purchase (or whichever NFT of the moment), celebrities further legitimize the brand, the idea that it’s appealing, and the notion that we should want to spend money on it. In sharing the Bored Ape, a number of celebrities are even endorsing other cryptocurrency brands, creating this shared halo of legitimacy through the purchases of wealthy, powerful people. Think about it that way, and Fallon and Hilton’s move to “share” their NFTs looks more like a naked promotion to inflate their value.

At the end of the day, this is a game for the rich; for celebrities who can part with that chunk of change as easily as I might buy a bag of chips. Though the metaphor doesn’t quite work, because the chips are real and I can actually eat them. It’s depressing to consider how easy it would be to lose a huge sum over an NFT purchase that never becomes popular enough for the money to be recouped.

So … why the apes?

Owning a Bored Ape is “cool” now. Mostly, it’s expensive! There are a total of 10,000 Bored Ape NFTs, all of which sold out in 12 hours for roughly $190 each. 10,000 different versions might sound like a lot, but it’s a small enough number to still be considered limited-edition. By the time Fallon bought his BAYC NFT, it was roughly $216,000, the LA Times reported, in a piece that also notes the value might be even greater on resale given his “hyping it up on the show.” (Though, depending on your Fallon feelings, you could also argue his interest in BAYC will eventually decrease its value.) And he’s not the only one buying. Logan Paul bought one (which tracks), as has Eminem, Steve Aoki, Steph Curry, The Chainsmokers, Shaquille O’Neal, Gwyneth Paltrow, and of course Paris Hilton, among others.

BAYC does some other stuff to keep things interesting for their lucky 10,000. They released a free-to-Bored-Ape-owners digital “serum” that turns their Bored Ape NFTs into “Mutant Ape” NFTs — essentially just modifying the art to make the primates look like ape-zombies — along with a “Kennel Club” line of dogs with traits based off of the original apes. Predictably, buying either of these NFT series has become bananas expensive.

BAYC also likes to refer to themselves as a kind of “social club.” They’ve hosted meetups in California and New York — apparently 5,000 members literally ate bananas together in Manhattan. There’s also a private Discord, where the NFT owners can ostensibly gather and chat, giving it a different kind of exclusivity. This isn’t unique to BAYC — a number of these high profile NFT communities have them, including one called Pudgy Penguin. We don’t know if celebrities are participating, but I personally like to think about Shaq, Eminem, Paris Hilton, and now Jimmy Fallon, all sharing primate pics in there. It’s much nicer to imagine a world where these celebs are legitimately excited about their personal apes, as opposed to just pumping them for a future possible resale on a television show with a massive audience.

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that owning the NFT meant owning the “commercial rights” to it. This is incorrect, as owning the NFT means owning a token. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.

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