The Making of Modern Celebrity: Famous for fifteen minutes - and longer

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The historian Daniel Boorstin famously defined a celebrity as "a person who is well-known for his well-knownness."

A person who is famous for simply being famous is hardly a modern phenomenon. On the publication of Childe Harold, Byron declared that he went to bed and woke up famous.  However, Byron was a poet and subsequent celebrities generally had proven talent as well as the knack of achieving an exalted social status based on fame alone - or even notoriety.

While the modern celebrity may possess a talent, that is no longer the sine qua non of achieving celebrity status. Increasingly that status would seem to be dependent on, and indeed to a great extent, manufactured, by the mass media.

This lecture will explore the nature of contemporary celebrity, how it is 'manufactured' by the media and what has been called the 'celebrification' of our culture.

This is the first of two lectures.  The second will be held on 9 March.

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Gresham Lecture, Wednesday 9 February 2011


The Making of Modern Celebrity


Professor Christopher Cook   Good evening. I should begin by thanking you for venturing out on a cold February night. I’m not sure that what I have to say will warm you, although I hope it may be a source of enlightenment. I would wish to thank Gresham College too, who once again have allowed me to think extensively about a subject that has that seems to nip if not bite at our cultural heels now with sharper teeth than ever. And lastly like everyone who teaches I owe a great debt to my students at Syracuse University who take me to celebrity websites that make me feel my age, share gossip with me and keep all us endlessly supplied with magazines that seem to cater for every kind of taste in celebrity.   Everyone has views about celebrities. And celebrities are everywhere. There are A lists and B lists and very probably Z lists where perhaps you find Gresham lecturers rubbing shoulders with men and women who appeared on television when it was still a sooty black and white and the image was made up of 405 lines. As for the word celebrity, it has morphed into an adjective to be applied to anything that is jostling for a place and attention in our ever-busier cultural market place. There is celebrity golf, celebrity cooking, and very probably celebrity sex, if you only knew where to find it. Actually it’s there in the popular newspapers, the red tops or the tabloids but we’ll get that later. There’s a noun too, celebrification, often shaken in our faces by prophets of cultural doom who think that the world is going to hell in a handcart pushed, no doubt, by Posh and Becks, or J.Lo or George Michael or Wayne Rooney or whoever has made the front page of the Sun, the Mirror or the Star this week.   IMAGE 1 – Front Page – The Daily Star – 31-01-11   And the front page of a popular newspaper is perhaps not a bad place to start an enquiry into celebrity. This is the Daily Star for Monday January 31st. And who takes the lead? Jordan, also known as Katie Price in a story which reads, I quote, “Glamour girl Kate Price was caught up in a 999 drama yesterday. Paramedics raced to the £3milion mansion where the model has been at war with her cage-fighter husband Alex Reed over their bitter split.’ The photo is vintage paparazzo with Price seemingly sticking her tongue out at the photographer. And across the chest that, you could say, launched a thousand tabloid sheets and burnt the topless ….Across her chest an oval inset of an ambulance. On its side just one word in yellow capital letters FAST. The jokes, visual and verbal are not exactly demanding. It’s a knowing conspiracy between the paper and readers and as we shall see a regular feature of popular British journalism.  And the second story? ‘Friends’, the Star tells us, unnamed friends of course, have warned the ‘X-factor beauty’ not to take back her love cheat ex-husband Ashley even though the couple have already met to “test their feelings”. In the interests of accuracy I should tell you that when you track the story inside the paper the final paragraph reads “A spokesman for Cheryl said last night ‘Cheryl did not meet Ashley last week. She did not speak to him either.” Never mind if it’s true or false, inaccurate or simply invented, Celebrity sells papers. And this on a day when the news elsewhere was all about the Mubarak regime unravelling in Egypt.   We tend to assume that the kind of celebrity that I have been discussing so far is only about a hundred years old, that it was fathered and mothered by the rapid growth in mass media from about the 1890s which accelerated at a breakneck speed through most of the twentieth century. The rise of a popular press, broadcasting, first radio and then television, the cinema and all the ancillary professions that came with those new media, advertising, public relations, professional representation and so on. In this history, the arrival of the World Wide Web and ever-speedier access to the internet is simply the most recent development in a process with its roots in the late Victorian period which was created for the millions of new consumers who had transformed the cities of the Western World into so many teeming metropolises.   But we could argue that the idea of celebrity has far deeper roots in Western culture. That is certainly the view of Fred Inglis, a distinguished Cultural Studies scholar. In A Short History of Celebrity [P3 - Princeton University Press – 2010 ISBN 978-0-691-13562-5] Inglis writes, “My most pointed moral is that the business of renown and celebrity has been in the making for two and a half centuries. It was not thought up by the hellhounds of publicity a decade ago.” And he is surely right, though notice the use of the word renown alongside celebrity. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and maybe back into the ancient world of Greek heroes and Roman emperors, it was fame, renown if you will, that gave men, though precious few women, their place in the sun of public approval. And it was deeds that made you famous: no one was famous for simply being famous though it helped to be born into the upper echelons of society.   More interesting from the perspective of this enquiry into contemporary celebrity is how fame or renown was used in earlier periods.   IMAGE 2 – Equestrian Portrait of Charles 1                      Anthony Van Dyke                        National Gallery, London   This is one of the greatest of all English royal portraits. It’s Charles 1 painted by Van Dyck and executed sometime in the early 1630s not long after the Flemish artist had been appointed painter to the king. Charles had been on the throne for some eight years and was already attempting to rule without Parliament, which he had been prorogued in 1629. The so-called period of Personal Rule. Van Dyck’s portrait is perhaps a visual enactment of the king’s political ambitions. Certainly it’s a carefully managed example of image building and a first act in the theatre of power. Here is a heroic portrait of a Baroque ruler in all his glory, the very image of the Divine Right of Kings. His horse with its left front leg poised seems ready to break into a canter; an equerry carries his royal master’s helmet to the right of the picture ready for battle. In reality Charles was anything but a hero, he was a nervous, stubborn man who had always been less robust than his older brother who had died perhaps of typhus making his sibling an unwilling heir to the throne. Charles was a small man too. Here van Dyck transforms him into a kind of super sized demi-god on his horse, a warrior in armour riding out to war. This is simple although magnificent propaganda for the Stuart ideal of kingship, an image for public consumption, to be admired, envied perhaps and even feared, and in this sense not so very different in its intentions as those images in celebrity magazines, say Hello! and OK.   Of course what these magazines promise their readers is something that isn’t here in this portrait of Charles I. The supposed reality behind the image. Wayne and Colleen, in happier times it has to be said, at home. The private as well as the public face of celebrity. But that too has a historical precedent in the seventeenth century.   IMAGE 3 –Portrait of Louis XIV   Not in England but across the channel at the court of Louis XIV. This formal portrait of the Louis exudes power. And its political intention is not so very different from the equestrian portrait of Charles I that we’ve just been looking at.  Notice how Louis’s crown on its cushion and the sceptre in his hand, emblems of kingship, seem to play second fiddle to the monarch himself wrapped in that mighty blue robe of state embroidered with the fleur de lys of France. And how despite its massive hilt, his sword seems to disappear into the ermine lining of the robe. La France c’est moi. Louis has literally clothed himself in the nation. But what the Nation, or rather the court surrounding Louis that stood for the nation, wanted or needed or were given was access to the private as well as the public life of the monarch. So at Versailles the Sun King’s private life was enacted in public and the most privileged amongst his courtiers were a part of these daily rituals, which were the same day in and day out.  You could set your clock by them.   Indeed the great diarist of Versailles the Duc de Saint Simon, wrote of Louis XIV: "With an almanac and a watch, you could be three hundred leagues from here and say what he was doing." Take the kings rising each morning. What for most of us is thankfully a private moment was transformed into a public spectacle as the King’s Levée. After a valet had announced that it was time to rise, the king’s doctors, members of his family and a few of his most fortunate courtiers entered the bedchamber and watched as his Majesty was washed, his hair combed and only every other day shaven. Then the Officers of the Chamber and the Wardrobe arrived for the full levee. The king was dressed and took a simple breakfast of broth. After the broth came the men who made the kingdom tick. ‘It is estimated that the usual number of people attending numbered one hundred, all male.’ [].   It would be a little facile to relate Louis XIV’s Levee at Versailles each morning to the intimate domestic shots of celebrities that are one of the principal reasons for buying and reading magazines like Glamour or Hello or OK! Louis’s private life made public was bound up with the exercise of power. To see the King, to be close to the King, to know the King was there kept the aristocracy at Versailles and not at home on their estates where they might be tempted to make political trouble. The French state was centralised in order that the king and his ministers might maintain absolute control. Nevertheless, the privilege of knowing what happens in the private life of the public figure, the belief that somehow the private is more real than the public is inscribed across all of our ideas about celebrity.   IMAGE 4 – Cover of Hello Magazine – September 2009   Never mind Cheryl Cole wearing her heart on this cover of Hello Magazine from 2009. Look at Leslie Ash and the ‘Amazing At Home World Exclusive’ at the bottom of the cover. Private life made public.   But what of Prince William showing his heart up on the top right? The heart as the guide to all that true and noble. This perhaps takes us to the next milepost in our brief historical journey to contemporary celebrity. In A Short history of Celebrity Fred Inglis reminds us that it was Jean Jacques Rousseau who helped to change the way that men and women thought about themselves and their relationship to one another in society, and in fundamental ways. He writes “Rousseau led the way to the thrilling view point that feelings are given by nature; that an individual is almost in possession of his or her self when feeling deeply; that what one feels is best discovered in solitude; and that being true to one’s feelings is the surest guide to moral conduct.” [Inglis – P25] So we arrive at the Romantic cult of individualism; and where is a man most himself and most true to those feelings that should guide his moral conduct?  When he is in love. We have arrived at the age of the Romantic hero, and in both senses of the word romantic.   IMAGE 5 – Byron   It was Byron who told his fellow poet Tom Moore on the publication of Childe Harold that ‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous’. And no one understood better how fickle fame can be. To his publisher John Murray the poet wrote, “I know the precise worth of popular applause, for few scribblers have had more of it; and if I chose to swerve into their paths, I could retain it, or resume it, or increase it … They made me without my search, a species of popular idol; they, without reason or judgement beyond the caprice of their good pleasure, threw down the image from its pedestal; it was not broken with the fall, and they would it seems, again replace it – but they shall not.” [Selected Letters of Byron – Ed V.H.Collins, Oxford OUP 1928]   When he wrote to Murray, Byron was in exile it Italy. He had chosen to leave England, his recent biographer Fiona MacCarthy suggests, in order to be free from the need to conceal his sexual interests, which included sodomy and incest. Byromania, the term coined by his wife Annabella, was becoming something more complex than simple adulation,in England at least. ’Mad, bad and dangerous to know’, as Lady Caroline Lamb said of the poet. His reputation began to curdle. This was not a man to welcome to your drawing room, unless you had locked up the womenfolk. And that’s the point: Byron not only adds a full measure of charm and glamour to what are thought to be public values but as Fred Inglis argues he also “turned scandal into an essential dynamo within the engines of publicity.” [Inglis – P68] Now the border between a man’s life and his work is not so much lowered as ripped down. Byron is Childe Harold and Don Juan. Private feelings are made art for an eager public, keen to measure their own moral worth against the poet’s supposedly superior feelings. We are but a step away from Shelley’s dictum in A Defence of Poetry (1821) that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

In so many ways Byron seems to foreshadow our present notions of celebrity. Outright individualism, an abundance of charm, an irresistible erotic allure, pursued by scandal and punished with exile – actual and not simply social. Think too of Byron’s end, the fatal if heroic adventure on behalf of Greek independence and the miserable death at Messolonghi. And then remember how celebrities to this let good causes borrow their fame all the way from Liveaid to Coldplay and the Arctic Monkeys lending their names to Oxfam and that regiment of United Nations humanitarian initiatives.

  Byron, of course, had talent and so do these musicians. But talent is not a requisite for contemporary celebrity status. The laws pertaining to slander and libel too forbid me from naming names, but spend a little time watching Strictly Come Dancing or the X Factor and you’ll see my point. In fact what is often surprising about these programmes is how far we seem willing to imagine talent where none exists amongst the competitors. This and that peculiar British attachment to men and women who willingly embrace heroic failure. What one of my students once called the Captain Scott Factor in British life – a passion of losers. Ands the perverse belief that in losing they are somehow the true winners.   So if talent is not a given in celebrity status with the single exception perhaps of sports men and women, what do you need. Or to go back to basics how should we try to define celebrity? We could no worse than begin with the cultural critic who is generally credited with having produced the modern definition of celebrity fifty years ago, Daniel Boorstin in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America [Harmondsworth, Penguin -1961].   Boorstin was an American cultural pessimist in the style and the tradition of Walter Lippmann and later more overtly political writers like Robert Bork and Allan Bloom. Celebrity, said Boorstin, required neither achievement nor skill. As Jessica Evans has written [ P16 Understanding Media: Inside Celebrity Ed Jessica Evans and David Hesmondhalgh – Open University Press – 2005] “Boorstin assumes that at some point in the past fame was legendary and noble, a referential yardstick for virtuous deeds, integrity or honour. It embodied noble and higher values, such as great thoughts and ideals or services for the higher good. For Boorstin, today’s celebrities suffer from narcissistic self-obsession. They stand for a culture where instant gratification is preferred over more long-term rewards and where surface is valued more than the substance underneath.”   This last criticism is indeed at the heart of Boorstin’s attack on modern culture, which really means mass culture. It is his contention that the way in which things are presented has become more important than what they might mean. We live in the age of what he christens the ‘pseudo-event’, that is an event that is quite deliberately staged for the media to disseminate to audiences. As Jessica Evans notes, for Boorstin “Celebrity is the quintessential media pseudo event …..  modern mass media celebrity is superficial – no celebrity possesses anything real in a culture devoted to consumption. All celebrities are interchangeable.” And so we arrive at Boorstin’s celebrated definition of celebrity as "a person who is known for his well-knownness.” And notice that the words Boorstin chooses are ‘known’ and ‘well-knowness’. His definition is sometimes reworked to read that a celebrity is a person who is famous for being famous. It’s neater and it rolls off the tongue altogether more easily, but the meaning is different. To be well known is not to be famous. One suspects that for Boorstin to be well known is an opinion that is open to being questioned, while to be famous is a judgement.   IMAGE 6 – Andy Warhol   In 1968 when Andy Warhol observed, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” judgement was precisely what was intended. The artist who had founded a celebrity magazine Interview, still going strong today, who turned the artist’s studio into a Factory and who made his reputation mass-painting images of celebrities – Mao, Marilyn, Elvis and Jacquie O – had no doubt that fame was the spur and to have been famous the only epitaph worth having. And when you watch Britain’s Got Talent or Big Brother, even The Jeremy Kyle Show or Trisha Goddard on Channel 5 you understand exactly what Warhol meant, though he might have been surprised at just how ubiquitous ‘ordinary celebrity’ to coin a useful oxymoron has become. Though you may wish to ask yourself what exactly was ordinary about “Tracy's mum Amanda, who was scared that her daughter was about to walk back into the arms of the man who left her for dead, as he [got] released from prison.” Or Hazel appearing in the same programme in May 2009 who's toyboy was made to sleep on the floor. Should we be surprised that ‘Hazel [wasn't] confident about her image.’ I’ll be returning to the idea of ‘ordinary celebrity’ in my next lecture.   Meanwhile, when read together Warhol’s definition of celebrity and Boorstin’s seem to me to be the poles between which all theories about the manufacture, dissemination and consumption of celebrity on our culture swing.   IMAGE 7 – Daniel J Boorstin   Boorstin represents the pessimistic view, that our fascination with ‘celebrity’ is a symptom of the collapse of traditional cultural values. We happily settle for the superficial because that’s what we are given by the media; we are content with the surface and feel no need to dive deeper. This is perhaps a new version of the traditional conservative lament that everything is going to the dogs. It’s also the anguished cry of the elitist who feels that the clamour of late Modern urban popular culture has deafened the world to traditional values such as discrimination, taste and above all the hierarchy of excellence. All of which are hard-won through a rigorous education. The barbarians aren't so much at the gate as there in the front hall and replacing the old masters with new mistresses, posters of Kylie and Lady Gaga, of Jordan and Jade. As Daniel Boorstin observed ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.’   IMAGE 8 – Marilyn Monroe   Andy Warhol’s definition comes to stand for a quite different reading of what celebrity and celebrities mean. Cultural critics have labelled it the ‘optimistic’ view. The elevation of ordinary people, who need possess neither talent nor any ability beyond flourishing in the public eye, are a challenge to the old cultural elitism. At its simplest, the idea here is that anyone can make it; it’s about the democratising of culture. But this populist drive also – and quite consciously – threatens the traditional hierarchies of power in society, since in this reading culture should be understood as an agent of social control. Only a privileged few are permitted to understand it, admission is by the invitation of education, which is often deliberately specialist. Think of it as a gentlemen’s club with strict membership rules and an elaborate vetting system for membership. And think of celebrity culture as that other kind of club, music, dancing, chilling out and then taking the last night bus home. Membership there is determined by little more than the size of the space, a dress code and perhaps the insolent authority of a bouncer at the door. But be in Brixton, Dalston or the West End it’s open to all, which is not the case with those august institutions in St James.   As Leo Braudy argues in The Frenzy of Renown- Fame and its History [Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1986 P585] “The longing for old standards of ‘true’ fame reflect a feeling of loss and nostalgia for a mythical world where communal support for achievement could flourish. But in such societies that did exist, it was always only certain social groups who had an exclusive right to call the tunes of glory, and other visual verbal media were in the hands of a few.” And Graeme Turner, the Australian cultural critic having drawn attention to Braudy’s argument suggests that ‘the older patterns of class and privilege have thus lost their power   … and in its place is a new media democracy, where ordinary people have greater access to media representation.’ [P79 - Understanding Celebrity – Graeme Turner – Sage, Los Angeles, London. New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC – 2004] Jessica Evans carries this essentially political argument into the economic organisation of western societies. Agreeing with Turner that ‘a number of critics take the view that celebrity culture represents a process of social levelling’, she continues. ‘For them celebrity culture is the natural end point of a long process of democratisation and the development of a capitalist market society.’  [P14 Understanding Media: Inside Celebrity Ed Jessica Evans and David Hesmondhalgh – Open University Press – 2005]   One other thing about Andy Warhol’s definition:  "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. How prescient it is, when you remember how capitalist market economies have developed over the past half century.  It’s not just ‘famous’ for fifteen minutes as so many people remember it, but ‘World-famous’. Warhol foreshadows an essential link between the construction and the consumption of celebrity and the emergence of a global culture.   I want to return to the consumption of celebrity and celebrities and how it has perhaps democratised popular culture in this age of the Internet in my second lecture, but we might remind ourselves that a template for this process is perhaps the most significant achievement of that bundle of overlapping entertainment interests that we label ‘Hollywood’, namely the star system.   IMAGE 9 – Elizabeth Taylor   Raymond Durgnat, who wrote as well as anyone about the cinema in the 1960s and 70s, once observed, “Through Liz Taylor, Golders Green bears the shock of Freud.” It’s a line from Chapter Twelve of Films and Feelings [Faber, London 1967 P169], which remains as pungently provocative as it was in that long gone age of crushed velvet and patchouli oil. Durgnat’s point, in part, was that film stars mediate what are often problematic psychologies for an audience. In the safety of the dark, alone and yet together with others, we can confront the ‘other’ in ourselves there on the screen In the film version of Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Elizabeth Taylor, a giant voluptuous figure towering above us, filled with the promise of pneumatic bliss puts North London sexual repressions in perspective, particularly in respect of Brick, her sexually ambivalent husband who is played by Paul Newman. The Freudian word has become flesh.   As Richard Dyer, who has written with such authority about stars and stardom, suggests “Stars articulate what it is to be a human being in contemporary society; that is, they express the particular notion we hold of the person of the “individual.” But “they articulate both the promise and the difficulty that the notion of the individual presents for all of us who live by it.” [Heavenly Bodies – Film Stars and Society – London, BFI Macmillan – 1986 P8]. This is also something that I shall be returning in greater detail in my second lecture when I hope to look in detail at the lives and deaths of Princess Diana and Jade Goody.   Back to Hollywood. What would Elizabeth Taylor have been, and what perhaps is she still, without a system – and it was and is a system in the full meaning of that word – a system, dedicated to creating Elizabeth Taylor. Or turning Archie Leach from Bristol into the American Cary Grant?   IMAGE 10 – Cary Grant   You may recall Grant’s rueful observation when his marriage to the heiress Barbara Hutton came to an end. ‘She thought she was marrying Cary Grant’, he said. At one level this is a comment on the public/private division within the representation of celebrity, but at another it reminds us that the so-called ‘dream factory’ also manufactured the men and women who gave us our dreams. The stars were man, and woman-made. And so are contemporary celebrities. The template that Hollywood designed is still in operation, modified but still wholly recognisable.   IMAGE 11 – A Star is Born – James Mason and Judy Garland    In the movie version of A Star is Born that features Judy Garland and James Mason as Vickie Lester and Norman Maine, there’s a studio publicist Libby played by Jack Carson whose job it is to keep Mason’s drunken sprees out of the newspapers. Norman is on the way down and Vickie is on the way up. For the most part Libby succeeds but he never forgives Maine and Lester for running off and getting married secretly so depriving him and the studio that employs him of their big story. Stars may be born, but they are made by publicity. Then and now. Think again of Glamour, Hello and OK!   In High Visibility: The Making and Marketing of Professionals into Celebrities Irving Rein, Philip Kotler and Martin Stoller [NTC Business Books, Lincolnwood, Ill – 1997] suggest that the celebrity industry is supported by seven ‘sub-industries. There is firstly what they call the Entertainment Industry, consisting of movie studios, recording studios, theatres, cinemas, sports arenas and so on. These are the primary production sites where stardom or celebrity is put to work and officially recognized places of consumption.   I might be tempted to divide this sub-industry into production and consumption, but there is a certain logic in yoking together movie studios and theatres. Both after all are specially developed facilities for the production of celebrity.   Then comes a second sub-industry, the Communications Industry, that is newspapers, magazine radio television and film that is closely tied to the third, the Publicity Industry. Publicists, public relations consultants, advertising agents and market researchers all work closely with the communications industry to bring their clients into the public eye, and as often to keep them out of it too. In Britain Max Clifford is a master of both when it comes to helping his clients to exploit themselves, commercially for the most part. It was Clifford who lent the Sun a hand to create one of the most celebrated of their front pages. A story that gave a new meaning to the phrase ‘Midnight Munchies’   IMAGE 12 – Sun – ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’   To judge him only by what we can know of his successes Clifford is also a deft practioner of the dark art of what we might call celebrity damage limitation. His strategy for defending a Madam who was being investigated by the News of the World has become a textbook case. Having learnt that a woman called Pamella Bordes, who had allegedly shared her favours with senior journalists and members of Parliament, had worked for the Madam, Clifford fed the newspaper Bordes story which mixing politics with journalists was altogether more attuned to the tastes of the readers of a certain Sunday newspaper. Thus he managed to take the pressure off his client.   The fourth sub-industry identified by Rein, Kotler and Stoller is the representation industry, that is the agents, personal managers and promoters who husband their client’s celebrity and bring it to the public acting as their business agents or the middle men between them and an audience.   Then come the image consultants, costume, hair and makeup as it used to be called in the movie industry. Nowadays they are more likely to call themselves ‘image consultants’ and cosmetic surgeons as well as cosmeticians, costumers and hairdressers probably fall into this sub-industry too.   Then there is the Coaching Industry, teaching singing, dancing, modelling and even acting skills. Look no further than the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing to see this in action, working too sometimes.   IMAGE 13 – BBC TV – Anne Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing   And failing. On Strictly Come Dancing at the end of last year ‘Hello Dolly’ became ‘Goodbye Anne’ when Miss Widdecombe was finally voted off the show.   “Judge Bruno Tonioli told her she looked like "a Dalek in drag" and that the dance was "more like Hello Trolley than Hello Dolly" while Alesha Dixon said: "I think the honeymoon is over", according to Andrew Hough of the Daily Telegraph. [] And the fact that Widdecombe having propelled herself into celebrity status on the BBC 1 programme was the subject of so many print and broadcast stories should remind us that that symbiosis is what characterises all of these sub industries when it comes to the production of celebrity.   Rein, Kotler and Stoller add two further sub industries to the five that I have been discussing. What they christen the Endorsement Industry, which is the tee shirt, jeans, toys and games business. And above all perfume.   IMAGE 14 – Beckham Cologne   How else are you going to feel Britain’s most famous celebrity exports in your arms except when you wear them on your skin?   Lastly, there are the lawyers and the accountants, the Legal and Business Services Industry, who work out the details of the deals for their clients, manage the money and advise on how to keep it.   As Graeme Turner writes in Understanding Celebrity [Ibid p42] “We don’t need to accept these categories …. but they do give is a good overview of the range of cultural intermediaries required to make the system function.” However, Turner would also argue that this taxonomy excludes an essential element within the production and consumption of celebrity nowadays. It’s what he calls ‘the whole edifice of commercial branding’ and this advertisement for the Beckham Signature Colognes is, of course, all about branding and nothing to do with old-fashioned ‘endorsement’.   David and Victoria Beckham aren’t endorsing someone else’s cologne, it’s theirs and an extension of the Posh and Becks Brand. Always friends and usually lovers. Look at the image. He is tall and masterful and above her. For her part she seems to have her eyes closed in some kind of melting ecstasy. It’s the traditional iconography for men and women in advertising that still underlines the inequality as well as the differences between the genders. Men on top, not girls. Active men and passive women who need protecting. Nowadays it’s Boy Power not Girl Power for this Posh Spice. Notice too the trademark open necked white shirt for him and the hint of an off the shoulder evening gown for her. They are branded down to the last lash in their eyebrows.   Useful as Rein, Kotler and Stoller’s categories are they run do the risk of all such analysis, they ignore the way in which their categories overlap. You could make an argument that celebrity is indeed constructed in the interstices between these sub industries, at the points where they nudge up against each other. That celebrity is created in the margin, in liminal spaces, and when enabled by these industries travels to the cultural centre. Think of Punk and the respective careers of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. After Rotten became the face and voice of Country Life butter The Times reported in February 2009,  “Dairy Crest has hailed an 85 per cent rise in its spreadables business on a leap in its butter sales thanks to John Lydon, also known as Johnny Rotten, the lead singer of the Sex Pistols.” []   The idea that celebrity is initially marginal and perhaps even transgressive is immensely appealing, but it flies in the face of most current theory about the production of celebrities and most importantly what we might call their commodification.    And so we arrive at the media, principally television, but print products too, radio and certainly what are now banded together under that catch all phrase ‘new media’. Fred Inglis has written that, “the hinge of our epoch turns with the coming of mass television: the story of celebrity turns with it.” [P15- P3Princeton University Press – 2010 ISBN 978-0-691-13562-5]. And he is surely right to see that television has fundamentally changed the way in which we perceive and consume celebrity. Television may be just one part of a number of interlocking activities that operate under the label ‘media industries’ – synergy is, as Rupert Murdoch, knows the name of the game – but it’s also the keystone, cornerstone, basic building block – choose you own metaphor – in the building of contemporary celebrity, So that when Graeme Turner offers his definition of celebrity in Understanding Celebrity writing that “Celebrity is a genre of representation. It is a commodity traded by the promotions, publicity and media industries that produce these representations and their effects …” [P9 - Understanding Celebrity – Graeme Turner – Sage, Los Angeles, London. New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC – 2004], it is the television industry, we feel, that plays the vital role in manufacturing celebrity.   But is it manufacture or mediation? This is more than a question of semantics. The two words represent two different processes that in terms of economics might be likened to the traditional industrial economy that transforms raw materials into products and a post-industrial economy that brokers services rather than goods. A brief comparison between the traditional television chat show and, say the X Factor will hopefully clarify my point.   IMAGE 15 – Michael Parkinson and Paul McCartney   The rock star is back on the road, the singer has a new song or the movie star makes a new movie, the he or she is booked to appear, for the sake of my argument, on the Parkinson Show, although the show itself though not the host was moved upstairs to the television attic four years ago now. Parkinson stands beside an empty line of chairs waiting for his guests and there’s a band somewhere that’s half on and half off stage. We yearn for the empty chairs to be filled; we long to know who the guests are. Parkinson introduces them and they enter from a space that we never see with a musical flourish from the band. Where have they come from? Celebrity-land, a place the camera never goes. It’s where they work and play, make movies, make love and linger by kidney shaped swimming pools or raise hell.  It’s a world that is imagined for us in other parts of the mass media wood. And the music than brings them down the stairs or through the curtain? It’s there to remind us that they are a part of the entertainment industry; that they come from a world that we can never visit but have been to vicariously so often. In other words Tom Cruise, Robbie Williams, Julie Andrews or Billy Connolly with no less than fifteen Parkinson appearances to his credit were booked to show us an identity that had already been made elsewhere. Here television mediated between them and us. It afforded them what Mrs Thatcher once called in a completely different context ‘the oxygen of publicity’. Through the medium of television they lived and breathed for an audience who were allowed to know them briefly, and at a level of intimacy that was and is the most delicious illusion of all. What has been called ‘para-social interaction.   It’s a moot point, but you can argue that this act of mediation can change things.   IMAGE 16 – Michael Parkinson and Meg Ryan   That television isn't just a window through which we view celebrity, but the process of seeing and being seen subtly modifies the nature of that celebrity. Who doesn't remember Meg Ryan’s standoff with Parkinson when she was booked to promote her movie The Cut? Whichever side of the argument you found yourself on it wasn’t the same Meg Ryan who left the show as the woman who’d walked in to talk about the difference between love and romance or whatever it was.   We can express this mediation in a simple diagram.   IMAGE 17 – Celeb Fig 1   There’s the celebrity mediated to the audience through the media; a straightforward linear process in which the media are the masters, controlling what reaches the consumer but also beholden to the celebrity without whom there would be no event.  In this model the media are effectively gatekeepers controlling what passes through the page or the screen, but dependent on celebrity too. For both access and therefore copy or a television appearance; and as desirable commodities that appeal to audiences and readers and so increase ratings or circulation. It goes without saying that the rarer that commodity then the greater its value: so to secure an interview with either of the Toms, Hanks or Cruise, Bruce Willis or Angelina Jolie adds considerable value to your product   But maybe this simple linear model has been radicalised by recent developments in the media and in particular the growth of interaction.   IMAGE 18 – Simon Cowell   Ostensibly, the X Factor is a talent competition with its title suggesting that the purpose of the show is to find winners who have that indefinable ‘x factor’ which is true innate talent. There are preliminary heats, then a first round and the contestants who get through that are mentored by the judges and groomed for the final round and success with the public.   Public success is not, of course, just winning, or indeed winning a prize as well as recognition and so celebrity status. It’s about winning a recording contract, winning the number one position in the charts and winning a career. It’s about exchanging some notion of talent for cash, in other words commodification. To watch a series of the X Factor is therefore to see the process of celebrification laid bare. And the audience, it seems, want more and more. The Beehive City Website reports that “X Factor 2010 became the most successful series for the ITV talent show in its history, attracting an average audience of 12.9 million viewers (48 per cent share) across the whole of series seven.  This represents an increase of nine per cent on from the 11.8 million average (45 per cent share) that the 2009 series (series six) enjoyed, previously the most watched.” [].  And as the results were announced “the show peaked at 19.4 million (60 per cent share), the highest peak viewing figure for a non-sports programme on any channel in the UK since 2001 when Only Fools and Horses attracted 20.8 million on Christmas Day for BBC One.”   What makes the X Factor part of a new generation of television shows, along with its predecessor Pop Idol, and Strictly Come Dancing and above all the daddy of them all, Big Brother is that the judges are not in the studio, but at home sitting on so many telephones. 15,448,019 telephone votes were cast during X Factor 2010, the seventh series with the eventual winner Matt Cardle out in front every week figures published after the competition revealed. As important, I would maintain, were the 12 million unique visitors who according to ITV went to the X Factor website during the series, a 14 per cent increase on last year. While the official X Factor page on the social networks attracted 2.27 million fans and the official X Factor Twitter account has 153,000 followers.   We need to revise the linear model.   IMAGE 19 – Celeb Fig 2   If we reconstruct the relationship between Celebrity, Media and Consumer as a triangle rather than a straight line then we can see that rather like nuclear fission once the process has begun it doesn't stop. And as it continues the successive acts of mediation change the three elements within the relationship. So the theory here would be that Matt Cardle, say, begins as good looking boy from Essex, he’s auditioned on television in the first round of the X Factor, the public like certain things about him and Matt adapts to that before going into the second round where the judges led by Cowell subject him to a more searching scrutiny. He’s re-approved by the audience and adapts around what he’s heard before the mentoring and grooming, mediation if you like, becomes even more exacting, then the public make their choice and Matt emerges as a star. In this revised model the consumer has a direct relationship with the celebrity. This is the interactivity that comes from telephone voting.   In fact I think the process is even more complex. For as well as it circling the three points of the triangle in a continuous motion, that grows ever faster, I would suggest that there are what we might call unilateral as well as trilateral relations involved.   IMAGE 20 – Celeb Fig 3   So Media and Celebrity are in constant negotiation about access but more significantly about revelation and concealment. In essence this is what the appeal for privacy is that so many celebrities make, not to have to reveal themselves when you could argue that the first principle of contemporary celebrity is precisely revelation and for the consumer to discover the supposed private self behind the public self. The canny celebrity, or his or her ‘people’, drip feed the media with revelation while all the while protesting at intrusion and demanding concealment.   Then again, as radical left wing cultural critics have argued, following Adorno and Horkheimer, investing in celebrity can be seen as a hedge against the uncertainties of the market place.  Post Adorno, Marxians have argued that popular entertainment is part of a culture industry that should be analysed in the exactly the same way as any other form of production within a capitalist economy. So David Hesmondhalgh reminds us that “Celebrity, via the creation and maintenance of stars, serves as a way of formatting and marketing media products, and therefore of reducing, or at least controlling, the uncertainty that the cultural industries approach sees as endemic in media production.” [P116 - Understanding Media: Inside Celebrity Ed Jessica Evans and David Hesmondhalgh – Open University Press – 2005]   The media negotiate with consumers, giving them the brands they crave and the revelation that they desire, but never enough, so that consumers up their demands and threaten to shut their purses and wallets and to seek satisfaction elsewhere if their demands are not satisfied.   IMAGE 21 – Jade and Diana 1   Consumers, as we shall see in my second lecture, have a proscribed number of celebrity narratives and woe betide the media who fail to follow these story lines, be it ‘Rags to Riches and Now the Heartache’ or ‘First Triumph, then Disaster, but after a Month in The Priory Triumph Again’. Equally, thanks to personal networks and above all a celebrity’s websites there is a direct relationship between the consumer and the object of their desire that bypasses the meditative role of broadcasting or print.   In Understanding Celebrity Graeme Turner writes “The approach that I am developing … deals with celebrity as a media process that is co-ordinated by an industry, and as a commodity or text which is productively consumed by audiences and fans”. [P21- Understanding Celebrity – Graeme Turner – Sage, Los Angeles, London. New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC – 2004] I am not sure that accounts for the one-to-one interaction that takes place between celebrity, the media industry and audiences and fans. Or takes due note of Leo Braudy’s view that ‘the consumers of celebrity are now able to play a part in the production of cultural visibility’ even though Turner glosses this passage in his own book.   As the theory has it, in a marketplace you always have a choice. And in respect of celebrity it seems to me that consumers are exercising that choice more and more. I find it difficult to subscribe to a post-structuralist approach like that developed by P.D.Marshall that celebrities serve ‘to control the masses and to channel their emotional energies.’ [P246 Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture, Minneapolis, MN, and University of Minnesota Press – 1997]. On the other hand when Marshall writes that celebrities  ‘act as representative embodiments for the rest of us of what it is like to be an individual.’ I find myself in agreement. That is surely why Warhol rather than Boorstin is on the better side of the argument; celebrity can be a form of liberation which is why so many yearn to ‘be world-famous for 15 minutes.’ How many people would buy into – and I use that phrase quite deliberately … how many Americans, how many people would buy into Boorstin’s dictum “As individuals and as a nation, we now suffer from social narcissism. The beloved Echo of our ancestors, the virgin America, has been abandoned. We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves.”   IMAGE 21 – Jade and Diana 2   What we have fallen in love with and what the consumer finds within the presentation of celebrity is the subject of my second lecture. A Tale of Two Funerals: Princess Diana and Jade Goody laid to rest. A pair of People’s Princesses you may feel. Thank you.


©Professor Christopher Cook, Gresham College 2011  

This event was on Wed, 09 Feb 2011


Professor Christopher Cook

Christopher Cook is a broadcaster and journalist. His work can be found in places such as the Guardian and the New Statesman, as well as...

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