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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Isabelle Aron

From bedtime with Harry Styles to watching stars snooze: the meteoric rise of sleep celebs

Harry Styles
Pillow talk … Harry Styles’s bedtime story, read by himself, was an instant hit. Photograph: Valérie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

In July 2020, something new dropped from Harry Styles. Naturally, people went wild for it. But it wasn’t an album or a tour announcement. It was a bedtime story.

Produced as part of a series on the sleep and meditation app Calm, Styles’ story, Dream With Me, was an instant hit. According to Calm, the app crashed on the day it launched because so many people were trying to listen to it. Since then, Dream With Me has remained one of Calm’s most popular sleep stories. The company hasn’t shared individual figures, but combined with another story, Wonder, the two have had more than 30m listens. The reader of Wonder? Matthew McConaughey.

It isn’t just the dulcet tones of Styles and McConaughey that are helping people drift off. In recent years, there has been no shortage of celebrity sleep stories, where well-known figures read soothing bedtime tales over a wash of peaceful music or ambient noise. Calm’s series also includes narratives read by the likes of Stephen Fry, Cillian Murphy and Mary Berry. Last year saw the launches of John Legend’s “sleepcast” on Headspace and Audible’s Sleep Sound with Jamie Dornan, a six-part “sleep aid podcast” (there are now two more seasons, voiced by Sienna Miller and Maya Jama). Even the radio station Classic FM has got in on the action with Classical Dreams, in which presenters such as Alexander Armstrong, Myleene Klass and Alan Titchmarsh lead breathing exercises before reading you uneventful stories set in places such as Vienna, Venice and Salzburg.

Cillian Murphy
Cillian Murphy, possessor of a remarkably soothing voice. Photograph: PR

Some comedians, too, are going against the grain by actively trying to be soporific. “Hopefully there are some good jokes and people can relax into a state where they can fall asleep,” says comic Joe Pera. His podcast, Drifting Off with Joe Pera, sees him talking – in his incredibly soothing voice – about making soup or the history of clock chimes, against a background of relaxing music. But it can be trickier to get right than you might think.

“We got in trouble a few months ago,” says Pera – who has been doing sleep content since an early standup set saw him try to make audiences nod off. “I was talking about clock tower bells and we wanted to use the sound of this bell in the Czech Republic. The audience got a little pissed at us because it disturbed the relaxation. It’s kind of nice, because it means they were relaxed before the bell rang.”

For Pera, the “highest compliment” he can get for his podcast is that it helped someone fall asleep. But people also get in touch to say that it got them through a tough time. Others have found an entirely different use for it: “Inevitably, somebody says they took drugs and had a better trip because they listened to the podcast. You put it out there but you never know how people are going to use it,” he says.

* * *

It’s easy to see the appeal of celebrity sleep podcasts. As Pera says, the idea of going to sleep while someone reads you a story isn’t new. But on Twitch, YouTube and TikTok, a whole other kind of sleep content has emerged: sleep streaming. Content creators on various platforms are streaming themselves while they sleep, with surprisingly lucrative results. One of the best-known sleep streamers is Amouranth, who recently said she could make up to $15,000 from one sleep stream. Another sleep streamer is Mikkel Nielsen, AKA StanleyMov. He says that the money he makes from sleep streams on Twitch is enough to cover rent, bills and groceries, and that’s without factoring in any money from YouTube.

But Nielsen’s approach to sleep streaming is a little different. For starters, his content doesn’t involve him getting much sleep. There are two types of sleep streaming content, he says. “There is the type for people who feel lonely, so they find someone to watch who is just sleeping normally. Nothing is happening – they watch that stream to have some company,” he says. “Then there’s the other kind of sleep stream, which is what I do, where it’s purely for entertainment purposes – it’s to mess with my sleep schedule, it’s to fuck me up as much as possible.”

During Nielsen’s streams, viewers donate money so that they can wreak havoc with his sleep. That could mean flickering the lights in his bedroom, playing loud noises or activating the shock bracelet he wears. He even has a subwoofer underneath his bed which vibrates the entire room.

Unsurprisingly, Nielsen says he has only managed to nod off for a few minutes during these streams. He’s been doing them for the past two years, although he is now taking a break. “I would go insane if I had to do it over and over again,” he says. But the appetite is there; his subscribers ask every day when he’ll do another.

Joe Pera.
‘People want to be kept company’ … Joe Pera. Photograph: Adult Swim

Why do people feel such a need to be virtually lulled to sleep? Geraldine Joaquim, a clinical hypnotherapist and psychotherapist who specialises in sleep disorders, says that with both celebrity podcasts and sleep streams, it’s about finding comfort at a time when you can feel most isolated. Sleep streams, she says, can create “a sense of community and authenticity”. She adds: “Seeing people at their most vulnerable and unfiltered makes the viewer feel like they are sharing in a personal and real experience in a world where so much is edited, scripted or fake.”

Pera thinks it’s because night-time can be lonely. “People want to be kept company. Oftentimes your thoughts are spiralling to places you don’t want them to go. Having something that will centre you makes sense. I use audiobooks. I feel like the need has been there for a while, ever since people have been read stories as children. It’s a nice feeling, instead of just laying in the dark by yourself.”

Of course, having iPads and phones in our bedrooms – and relying on them to get to sleep – isn’t ideal, says Joaquim. But perhaps more concerning is the idea that people need to watch a stranger go to sleep to help them drift off. “This may highlight how isolated some people are feeling, particularly the younger generations – they can’t connect with ‘real’ people but rather with strangers through these tools,” she says. “It is concerning that these remote one-sided connections are needed, that people are perhaps filling a void in their lives because they feel isolated and unable to develop relationships with people around them.”

Perhaps having to watch a stream of a stranger sleeping in order to get some shut-eye isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s probably better than staying up all night. And hey, if the only way you can get to sleep is with the soothing sounds of Harry Styles in your ears, then who are we to judge?

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