Celebrity Culture

views updated


CELEBRITY CULTURE is an essentially modern phenomenon that emerged amid such twentieth-century trends as urbanization and the rapid development of consumer culture. It was profoundly shaped by new technologies that make easily possible the mechanical reproduction of images and the extremely quick dissemination of images and information/News through such media as radio, cinema, television, and the Internet.

Thanks to publications such as People, tabloids such as Star and The National Enquirer, and talk shows where both celebrities and supposedly ordinary people bare their lives for public consumption, there is a diminished sense of otherness in the famous. Close-up shots, tours of celebrity homes such as those originated by Edward R. Murrow's television show Person to Person, and intimate interviews such as those developed for television by Barbara Walters and by shows such as Today and 60 Minutes have changed the public's sense of scale with celebrity. Americans are invited, especially through visual media, to believe they know celebrities intimately.

Celebrity culture is a symbiotic business relationship from which performers obtain wealth, honors, and social power in exchange for selling a sense of intimacy to audiences. Enormous salaries are commonplace. Multimillion dollar contracts for athletes pale in comparison to their revenues from advertising, epitomized by basketball player Michael Jordan's promotion of footwear, soft drinks, underwear, and hamburgers. Celebrities also parade in public media events as they receive honors and awards ranging from the Cy Young Award for baseball, the Grammys for recording stars, and the Oscars for movie stars. Although it is certainly difficult to measure the social power accruing to celebrities, Beatle John Lennon's controversial assertion that "The Beatles are] more popular than Jesus," suggests something of the sort of grandiosity that celebrity culture fosters.

For the fan, celebrity culture can produce intense identification at rock concerts, athletic arenas, and other displays of the fantasy object, whether live or recorded and mechanically reproduced. Such identifications can lead to role reversals where the fan covets the wealth, honors, and supposed power of the celebrity. Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon in 1980, thought he was the real Beatle and that Lennon was an imposter. In 1981, when the Secret Service interviewed John Hinckley Jr., shortly after he shot President Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster, the object of his fantasies, he asked: " Is it on TV?" Toward the end of the twentieth century, the excesses of celebrity came into question, notably in the examples of Princess Diana possibly pursued by paparazzi to her death in a car accident, and of the notoriety surrounding President Bill Clinton's relation-ship with congressional aide, Monica Lewinsky, a notoriety that threatened to eclipse any other reason for Clinton's celebrity status.


Gamson, Joshua. Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Schickel, Richard. Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985.


See alsoFilm ; Music: Popular ; Sports .