Who is Hilaria Baldwin? A guide to this week’s strangest story

Hilaria – or is it Hillary? – Baldwin – Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan You could be

Hilaria – or is it Hillary? – Baldwin - Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan
Hilaria – or is it Hillary? – Baldwin – Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan

You could be forgiven for thinking 2020 would be remembered chiefly for the pandemic. None of us could have foreseen the arrival of a late-stage contender for the year’s most memorable event: the ‘outing’ of Hilaria Baldwin as not Spanish. 

But who is Hilaria Baldwin and why does it matter that she’s not Spanish? Is this merely a celebrity frippery, or something that cuts to the heart of questions surrounding identity, cultural appropriation and online authenticity? 

Let me quickly bring you up to speed: Hilaria is the wife of the actor Alec Baldwin, with whose work you may be familiar (30 Rock, The Hunt for Red October, The Departed…). She is also the mother of his five children, whose names, like hers, are Spanish-influenced. But so what? People can name their children whatever they want, especially if they’re famous and American (or even just American). 

Professionally speaking, Hilaria is multi-talented: her work includes teaching yoga, podcasting and writing. She co-owns a chain of yoga studios, has penned a fitness book called The Living Clearly Method and even has a signature calming ointment to her name. Don’t worry; you need no prior knowledge of what a calming ointment is either. It’s not important here. 

If you want to see many, many pictures of her children, or what she looks like while posing with her baby in her underwear (something we mums do constantly), it’s all there for you and her 885,000 followers on Instagram. 

So far, so standard celebrity spouse. But here are the pertinent facts about Hilaria, and I want you to pay close attention: her accent sometimes sounds a little Spanish. It’s subtle, sure, but it’s there: that gentle Spanish lilt that creeps into some of her words; and into her husband’s impressions of some of her words. She speaks Spanish to her children. Demonstrating how to make gazpacho on US television, she even momentarily forgot the English word for cucumber. She also used the word “we” when talking about the Spanish. 

Why should this be surprising? On the website of Creative Artists Agency, a biography of Hilaria said she was born in Mallorca. Alec Baldwin once appeared to confirm this, when he said on TV: “My wife is from Spain”.  

Yet here’s the very odd thing: his wife is not from Spain, she’s from Boston. Born and raised (from what we can tell) largely in the US, by American parents, she used to be known as the rather less Spanish-sounding Hillary.

All of which might have remained in the shadows were it not for one bored Twitter user trying to fill those dark days at the fag end of 2020. The woman, who uses the handle @Lenibrisco, posted on December 21: “You have to admire Hilaria Baldwin’s commitment to her decade-long grift where she impersonates a Spanish person.” She then proceeded to post about Hilaria’s not-so-Spanish origins.

The woman has remained anonymous, and her Twitter account is now locked, but the thread sparked an outpouring of delight and scorn that found its way into national news titles on both sides of the Atlantic. 

“I have so many preguntas!” tweeted the writer Rachel Dodes. “Love the idea of a US-born vegan not knowing what a cucumber is called,” someone else responded.

So what does Hilaria/Hillary herself have to say about it all? In a seven-minute video posted on Instagram, she tries to explain herself: “So there’s been some questions about where I’m born,” she says, before clarifying: “I’m born in Boston.” She spent some of her childhood in Boston and some of it in Spain, she continues. It is not clear if this is in the same sense that I spent some of my childhood on French campsites. Hilaria has so far, even when talking to The New York Times this week, declined to provide a precise timeline. 

She goes on to explain that her family has now moved to Spain. “There was a lot of back and forth my entire life and I’m really lucky that I grew up speaking two languages,” she says. Again, nothing to see here. 

OK, she continues, she has been “insecure” about the way she sometimes sounds a little Spanish while speaking English. It happens when she’s nervous or upset, apparently. But listen: 2021 is going to be the year she gets over her insecurity about that (are you still following?) and addresses her insecurity openly. Or something. Possibly this will take place via Instagram; we don’t yet know.

By the time she adds that speaking more clearly in each language is something she should try to do, it starts to feel like she’s slightly missing the point: the point being that her husband said on television that she was Spanish when she wasn’t – an oversight that lies in a very different error category to forgetting the date of your wife’s birthday. 

“We shouldn’t be so upset” about her having two names, she argues, because really they are the same name. So that’s that cleared up. Around four minutes into the video (are you still with us?) she confirms she is a white girl. But then, as she says: “Let’s be very clear that Europe has a lot of white people in them.” 

Wait, what? Would this sentence make sense in Spanish? There’s no time to check, because she’s now racing through a few important questions about cultural identity to arrive at the conclusion that she’s “a different kind of Bostonian” and “as you get older you embrace who you are.” 

In case any unanswered preguntas remained, she also used her interview in The New York Times, published on December 30, to try to clear up the confusion. 

“There is not something I’m doing wrong, and I think there is a difference between hiding and creating a boundary,” she insisted, confusingly – particularly when her Instagram account includes shots of her in her underwear and reams of details about her family life.

Why does any of this matter? Not since the exposure of black rights activist Rachel Dolezal as white in 2015 has the internet worked itself up into such a frenzy. Not since English football manager Steve McClaren started speaking with a Dutch accent have so many tears of mirth been shed. Is Hilaria guilty of cultural appropriation or does she have a right to identify as whatever she wants?

It’s been suggested her branding herself as possibly slightly Spanish is problematic as it takes away from the lived experience of actual Hispanic people in the US who suffer discrimination. There is also the uncomfortable fact that her persona, as liberally displayed on Instagram, suggests a certain authenticity; a this-is-me-in-my-underwear-and-messy-house-with-no make-up-on kind of honesty that starts to fray when you tug a little at the seams. (“My thing is about being authentic,” she said in yet another Instagram video to defend herself.)

Building a personal brand that can then be promoted online is hardly uncommon today, for the famous and obscure alike. Only the most naive of Hilaria’s followers can have thought what they saw of her life was totally unfiltered. But many believe this goes further than that. 

Perhaps Hilaria was happy to let people think what they did, never dreaming it could all blow up into such a big issue. Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition, after all. 

However, in the world we’re currently living in, a weary celeb-watching public has decided the facts do matter.

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