lost in translation

Can You Read These Famous Lips?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Thanks to the cosmic confluence of awards season and Taylor Swift being very Taylor Swift–y, we have been blessed lately with an influx of soundless celebrity footage — and, with it, a surprisingly large group of people claiming to know what’s being said. Lip-readers have been a tabloid fixture for years, often stepping in for royal weddings. Even though there’s no official certification process, experts in the field often get paid to read CCTV footage or help medical patients communicate. But ever since Selena Gomez was filmed gossiping at the Golden Globes, it seems anyone with a front-facing camera is confidently relaying celebrities’ conversations as if they’d been eavesdropping from one table over.

The results of the boom have been decidedly mixed. Also at the Golden Globes, John Krasinski allegedly whispered to his wife, Emily Blunt, “I can’t wait to divorce. I’m serious.” A totally normal thing to say on a red carpet surrounded by nosy E! hosts and cameras, right? At least according to Kyle Marisa Roth, the woman behind the celebrity gossip account @thekylemarisa_, who sent tabloids and TikTokers running to lip-reading experts to weigh in. Three days later, Roth issued a correction video for her own “erroneous lip reading.” “I’m a gossip activist, okay?” she quipped in a post where she also displayed two slightly more accredited interpretations — “Can’t wait ’til we’re indoors” and “They keep waiting for us.” Roth concluded, “You guys gotta take everything I say with a grain of salt, including lip-readings.”

Despite having built a TikTok platform on her ability to lip-read celebrity conversations, self-titled “lip-reading girl” Nina Dellinger — who was one of the first to debunk the Krasinski reading — tells me she’s never been formally trained. “I just happen to lip-read well sometimes,” she says. Dellinger told me she’s only been paid for lip-reading services once, when she charged a producer $120 for an hour spent interpreting a clip for a documentary. She says she recently turned down a request from TMZ to lip-read a clip of Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce from New Year’s Eve — it was too blurry. Otherwise, she makes “a very small amount” from brand deals.

A video pinned to Dellinger’s account reminds new followers that “lip reading is not a science” and her translations are “not always correct.” One prominent line of her bio reads, “ALL CONTENT IS ALLEGED.” But she’s not sure how effective those warnings are. “I think the way the public takes it in is very much, like, Oh, this is correct,” she says. People have such faith in her skill set that she’s been flooded with messages offering to pay her to lip-read personal videos. She says one woman asked her to lip-read a video of her boyfriend, who she believed was talking about another girl. “I’m definitely not getting involved in that,” Dellinger says. “I’m not willing to take money knowing there’s a chance I’m wrong.”

Professional lip-readers, who offer services for everything from helping throat-surgery patients to decoding CCTV footage in court, are understandably wary of the current frenzy. “This is not just celebrity gossip,” says Jacqui Press, an expert lip-reader who’s covered royal events. “You have to be respectful of people’s private lives.”

“I’m not gonna disrespect the TikTokers,” said Jeremy Freeman, a popular forensic lip-reader who’s been lip-reading for tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mail for years, “but I have seen some nonsense out there.” That doesn’t mean he’s above getting involved. He weighed in on the Blunt-Krasinski moment for The Mirror; while he was at it, he also asserted that Selena Gomez was definitely talking about Timothée Chalamet, and put forward a theory on what Chalamet and Kylie Jenner were discussing between make-out seshes. In the month since then, he says, he’s lip-read about 20 celebrity clips.

Freeman, who like many lip-readers is deaf and relies on lip-reading to communicate, is also skeptical that non-hearing-impaired people could meet the standards he applies to his work. “People who are hearing and lip-reading would certainly not be as good as people like me who’ve had a lifetime of it,” he says. Where some professionals lip-read in real time, Freeman told me it can take him an hour to nail down 60 seconds of footage. “I have a reputation to uphold,” he says. Not everyone offering interpretations takes the job so seriously. When I asked Dellinger if she’d gotten pushback on her accuracy, she said, “We have multiple lip-readers out there. There’s an opportunity to look at a couple of us and decide for yourself.”

Yet as celebrities feel compelled to debunk rumors about their private conversations, that opportunity might be dwindling. Gomez and Blunt may have been joking when they took a photo covering their mouths shortly after the Globes, but Taylor Swift was recently seen holding a well-manicured hand up to her face while chatting with Donna Kelce at a Chiefs game (something athletes have been doing for years). At the Grammys, Swift accessorized with a fan as an eavesdropping prevention tactic. Still, just to be on the safe side: If you find yourself on a red carpet anytime soon, make sure not to mutter your social security number.

Can You Read These Famous Lips?