Lip Readers Decode Celebrity Conversations

From a New York Times story by Steven Kurutz headlined “They Said What? Lip Readers Decode Celebrity Whispers”:

Nina Dellinger was 16 when she realized she could read lips.

She was zoning out in math class, she said, and it struck her that she could understand what a classmate was saying across the room, even though she couldn’t hear a word.

For years, Ms. Dellinger kept this skill to herself, practicing in secret in social situations, making it a game. That changed in 2020, when she joined TikTok and found that she could rack up followers by interpreting the whispered, caught-on-camera conversations of celebrities and other prominent people.

At the 65th annual Grammy Awards in February, Ben and Jennifer Affleck appeared to be in the middle of a tense but inaudible conversation at their table. Ordinarily, a celebrity couple’s off-mic conversation would remain a mystery to anyone out of earshot, but Ms. Dellinger filled in the blanks.

In a video she posted to TikTok, she said that the former Ms. Lopez appeared to have said, “Prove it.” Then, after a pause, Ms. Affleck repeated the same thing: “Prove it.” Ms. Dellinger’s video has more than 12 million views.

Ms. Dellinger has decoded nearly 100 such seen-but-not-heard moments. They include Matt Gaetz and Kevin McCarthy on the floor of the House of Representatives; Taylor Swift dishing to Phoebe Bridgers at the iHeartRadio Music Awards; an on-court taunt between two players at the N.C.A.A. Women’s Basketball championship; and the actor Miles Teller talking to a Philadelphia Eagles player at the Super Bowl.

Lip reading perhaps marks a new era, or devolution, in celebrity culture. One wonders if people in the public eye will start covering their mouths when they are in the vicinity of a camera, like pitchers and catchers during mound visits.

Ms. Dellinger, 26, lives in Belize, where she moved from her native Southern California a year and a half ago to start her dream business of operating a cruise company. She said she did not set out to become “lip reading girl,” as she is referred to by her TikTok fans, or to amass nearly a million followers on the platform.

“I didn’t understand how much of a phenomenon it would be,” Ms. Dellinger said.

Lip reading is hardly an exact science. Jeremy Freeman, 49, who has been called upon as an expert lip reader in cases involving sexual assault, insurance fraud and other serious matters, described it as a skill that can be honed with considerable practice. For Mr. Freeman, who was born deaf, the practice has “been ingrained in me since I was brought up,” he said.

He said he still relies on other cues, like body language and social context, to determine what is being said. “There is guessing involved,” said Mr. Freeman, who works as a writer near London. “I would never say I can lip read 100 percent accurately.” Certain people, like the Scottish comedian and actor Billy Connolly, confound him. “I find him impossible to lip read,” Mr. Freeman said.

Aside from accuracy, there is the question of ethics. Is lip reading an invasion of privacy?

Mr. Freeman said he would never lip read someone in their home. But if it’s a celebrity at a live event, like the coronation of King Charles III, which he lip read for a media outlet, he views it as “part of the commentary.” (He added that he heard from a deaf person afterward who thought that it was an invasion of privacy.)

Ms. Dellinger said she also has limits. In a video she posted on a conversation between Olivia Rodrigo and Iris Apatow in the front row of a Los Angeles Lakers game, Ms. Dellinger left out the name of the person Ms. Rodrigo appeared to say she was dating.

Krystin Kalvoy, 25, another popular lip reader on TikTok, said she will not interpret videos in which she believes something deeply personal is being said. She recently lip read footage of royal family members during the coronation, after having decided against trying to narrate what the Afflecks were saying at the Grammys, which some TikTok users had asked her to do.

“The last thing I would want is to leak private moments,” said Ms. Kalvoy, who is hearing-impaired. ‘We want to know what’s going on? Is Ben drinking again?’ You don’t want to be the fuel to that fire.”

Initially, Ms. Kalvoy wasn’t sure she could lip read celebrity videos, because they’re often taken at live events and shot from side angles rather than square on the face. But like Ms. Dellinger, she has posted videos in this subgenre that have gotten millions of views.

Ms. Kalvoy also relies on lip reading to navigate everyday life — which has gotten more difficult in recent years. “Everyone is glued to their phone,” she said. “I need eye contact in order to get by. I need people to look at my face, and I need to look at theirs.”

Steven Kurutz joined The Times in 2011 and wrote for the City and Home sections before joining Style. He was previously a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Details.

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