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The Culture of Celebrity

The nature of fame has changed in modern times, and celebrities, and their fans, are diminished by the process.

He was the sexiest man alive and one night I went to see him. For two-and-a-half hours I watched Brad Pitt play the hero in his latest—a man who looks like Apollo and lives like Dionysus.

It was People magazine that crowned Pitt the sexiest man alive of 1995. Who cares anymore about Tom or Kevin or Mel?

Celebrity in America has always given us an outlet for our imagination, just as the gods and demigods of ancient Greece and Rome once did. Celebrities are our myth bearers; carriers of the divine forces of good, evil, lust, and redemption. "The wish for kings is an old and familiar wish, as well-known in medieval Europe as in ancient Mesopotamia," writes Lewis Lapham in his book The Wish For Kings. "The ancient Greeks assigned trace elements of the divine to trees and winds and stones. A river god sulks, and the child drowns; a sky god smiles, and the corn ripens. The modern Americans assign similar powers not only to whales and spotted owls but also to individuals blessed with the aura of celebrity."

Once the famous were recorded for the ages in stone and in paint. Alexander the Great was the first famous person in a modern sense, contends Leo Braudy, Ph.D., professor of English at the University of Southern California and author of The Frenzy of Renown. "Not only did he want to be unique, but he wanted to tell everybody about it, and he had an apparatus for telling everybody about it. He had techniques for doing famous things. He had historians, painters, sculptors, gem carvers on his battles."

Heroes, we all might agree, carry intrinsic value—the essence of the heroic and the noble. Durable gods serve to lift our vision above the mundane.

But fame ain't what it used to be. Celebrities are borne aloft on images marketed, sold, and disseminated with a rapidity and cunning unimagined by the heroes of old, and then just as quickly cast aside.

"We're in the Kleenex phase of fame," notes Braudy. "We see so much of people, and in all branches of the media. We blow our nose on every new star that happens to come along and then dispose of them." Every year brings a new Sexiest Man Alive. Technology has changed fame so that it is far more immediate and instantaneous—and our fascination with it has become far more fickle.

Where once the famous achieved an almost godlike status, one that seemed impermeable and historical (consider Lincoln or Washington, Charles Lindbergh or Jesse Owens), today celebrity exists for and by an information age. In our global and atomized world of bits and bytes, where information is instantly available and massive in its quantities, and as perishable as an electronic image, celebrities help personalize that information. They put a human face on it. However, they are diminished in the process. The trouble is, so are we.

Information comes at us with incredible speed, in innumerable changing faces and stories, on Court TV, on CNN in 24-hour play. We have far too much information about celebrities these days—their love affairs, their private conversations on cellular phones, the color of their underwear, how many nose jobs they've had, how many intestinal polyps our presidents have had removed. But the surfeit of information strips the famous of the sacred and heroic—therefore our culture and our own lives—as heroes reflect what we believe is best in ourselves.

"There has been a tremendous increase not only in coverage of celebrities but in the number of carries themselves," observes Dana Kennedy, senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. "Thirty years ago the only real celebrities were in the movies. Now they're everywhere"—radio hosts, lawyers, murderers, teenagers. As a result, "celebrities are just less interesting. Take Ingrid Bergman. She was beautiful, talented, a movie star, and then she went and brought a big scandal upon herself, and then triumphed with an Oscar. She was a perfect celebrity. These days we have people like Tony Danza. Who cares?"

Psychiatrist Peter Kramer, M.D., author of Listening to Prozac, a book that brought him his own measure of fame, found himself facing a huge media maw. "There is so much specialized media that the amount of material they require is extraordinary. I was amazed at the number of outlets on my book tour. Any small city has cable stations, drive-time morning shows, women's shows—you name it. The sheer amount of material needed to run the media we consume is enormous, so you have to create lots of characters."

In the beginning was the image. Thirty years ago in his landmark book, The Image, historian Daniel Boorstin defined modern fame in terms that have resonated ever since. "The hero was distinguished by his achievement, the celebrity by his image. The celebrity is a person well known for his well-knownness. We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so realistic that we can live in them."

The images, in turn, transmute celebrities into commodities to be sold for a price. In Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America (University of California Press), Yale's Joshua Gamson quotes 1930s screen star Myrna Loy. "I daren't take any chances with Myrna Loy, for she isn't my property…I couldn't even go to the corner drugstore without looking 'right,' you see. Not because of personal vanity, but because the studio has spent millions of dollars on the personality known as Myrna Loy."

As our culture generates its endless images, we are fed more and more information about people who are less and less real. There is increasingly tight control of the image by the image makers—the publicists, managers, and agents behind the scenes. Press agents and publicists arrange the locations of interviews, channel the discussion into approved areas, and influence a magazine's selection of a writer by refusing to cooperate with any scribe they feel will not benefit the celebrity. A media outlet that publicizes scathing information about a star risks alienating a publicist who controls an entire stable of stars.

The same control is exercised over photos, as well as copy. Celebrities control photo shoots far more now than a decade ago, reports Mitch Gerber, a paparazzo who specializes in long-lens surprise shots of celebrities. "It's not like it used to be. Years ago people didn't care if you took photos of them eating or blowing their nose. Now they're cautious because of all the TV shows and news magazines out there. Stars don't want to be caught in real-life situations. I tried to sell long-lens photos of Michael J. Fox with his sons, and two magazines said if they were to publish them, they would never get a photo with Fox again. The big-shot celebrities are all doing that now."

Increasingly, our national passions, cultural watersheds, sexual mores, gender and racial battles, and political climate are viewed through the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of stories about people. As a result, our whole culture has come to be defined in terms of the personal, as seen through the celebrities of the week or month.

People magazine was founded in 1974 to "focus entirely on the active personalities of our time." Now people pages are in news magazines, television shows like Entertainment Tonight and its imitators, even the New York Times Magazine.

As the scope of world events is reduced to individuals, it limits our vision to the foibles and failings of those particular individuals. Indeed, the spirit of the times seems to demand confession of personal failings. In presidential elections, as Lapham points out, candidates submit to the ordeals of public confession at the feet of talk show hosts.

"In an increasingly complicated world," notes USC's Braudy, "we personalize our understanding of life. That's why biography has become a major genre over the past few decades, and why in journalism everybody from the New York Times on down starts a story—even one about ideas or policies—with an anecdote of some sort. It's part of the relentless personalization of our society."

The selling of persona has permeated even traditionally pure fields. The publication of literary novels has become a celebrity-making event. In hallowed academe, professors are now marketed as personalities. "The genteel tradition of the gentleman scholar has given way to the academic hustler; the self-promoter and entrepreneur whose name is everywhere," explains John Rodden, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas and author of The Politics of Literary Reputation.

If a moment can be singled out when this shift began, it was probably in the mid-1920s, when Walter Winchell penned the first newspaper gossip column. As his biographer Neal Gabler points out, "In 1925, at a time when the editors of most newspapers were reluctant to publish even something as inoffensive as the notice of an impending birth for fear of crossing the boundaries of good taste, Winchell introduced a revolutionary column that reported who was romancing whom, who was cavorting with gangsters, who was ill or dying, who was suffering financial difficulties, which spouses were having affairs, which couples were about to divorce, and dozens of other secrets. He suddenly and single-handedly expanded the purview of American journalism forever…Winchell helped inaugurate a new mass culture of celebrity."

By 1978, when Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism, the indignant cultural critic could define an entire age in terms of a personality disorder where all of America was fixed on itself with a kind of "transcendental self-attention." Lasch noted that the narcissist identifies with individuals of grandeur, because he believes he is like them—and he labeled our entire culture narcissistic: thus our increasing need for celebrities.

More and more we live in what Boorstin called the "illusory" world of created characters. Whatever harm this may do to us—critics point out that mass-marketed images fit only a few people and stigmatize many, as opposed to homemade stories in which we each learn about ourselves and our own possibilities—it does serve an important purpose. The culture of celebrity, biographer Gabler emphasizes, has been able to "bind an increasingly diverse, mobile, and atomized nation until it became, in many respects, America's dominant ethos."

Whether it's a hero-turned-murderer or a rock star committing suicide, the media brings us information about our culture and holds us together in a global society. Instead of gossiping over the back fence about our neighbor, we now gossip with strangers about other strangers (celebrities) all over the world. "We treat celebrities as characters in an ongoing, shared soap opera of America that we all watch," says Mark Harris, senior editor at Entertainment Weekly. "Their failures, successes, sudden deaths, twist endings, windfalls and comebacks…we get a new episode daily courtesy of the media boom."

They also add excitement to our lives. "We have strong feelings about all these celebrities," notes psychiatrist Kramer, "and we don't have enough intimate passion in our lives. There is the whole sequence of building up, deflating, and rehabilitating heroes. It seems to go on endlessly and repeatedly. It's risk free for most of us."

Yet for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and so a certain cynicism has set in among us all, and a rabid fascination not only with the false beauty of the glorified, sterilized celebrity, but also with the dark and seamy underside. "We live in a media culture that encourages people to think two different things," notes Harris. "One is that celebrities live lives we can't possibly imagine, and they are worthy of our slavish devotion, attention, and respect.

"The other is that celebrities are just like us, they're people with problems, and they drink too much or hit their wives or have bad relationships. Of course those are opposing beliefs, that they are just like us and nothing like us, but the illusion that we can get to know these people gives fuel to a lot of subsidiary enterprises in the media."

Harris believes that the balance has shifted in favor of the dark morality tale: "What we really look to celebrities for today is the reassuring moral tale. 'Oh look, he just got $10 million for his new movie—but his wife is leaving him.' 'She's so famous, everybody loves her; too bad she drinks.' There's a booming industry now in proving celebrities can be just as miserable as the rest of us." At a certain point the debunking has to take place, whether or not there's something to debunk, notes Kramer. Sensing that these people are manufactured, we seem to have developed an appetite for both their inflated and deflated selves. We want to both elevate and destroy our celebrities.

The very technology that has brought heroes, albeit manufactured ones, into every home has also brought the stark, vivid images of their failures and vulnerabilities and mortality into our bedrooms and living rooms, on television and in newspapers.

Today we shuttle routinely between Ivory-soap versions of celebrities—their perfect marriages, perfect children, and perfect careers—and genuine slander. Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere become the golden couple when they are first married, only a few years later having to take out full-page newspaper ads to protest that they are not homosexual and that their marriage is real. Soon after, they divorce.

Celebrities have been demoted from gods of the natural world to agents of the flow of information. Courtney Love, wife of deceased grunge star Kurt Cobain of Nirvana fame, bares her soul on late-night E-mail forums, and anybody in America can read or reprint her thoughts and confessions. A photo of Terri Hatcher is down-loaded 400,000 times in a day onto computers around the world—and that fact is written up in Time magazine, along with the original photo and Hatcher's opinion about her moment of popularity.

Fame, notes Braudy, has become so immediate that it has lost its posterity. We have a growing sense of impermanence. "With the media you have the sense that our entire definition of true fame is visibility. We eat people up a lot faster:' he contends.

Where President Roosevelt was never photographed below the waist, to protect the public from the image of a disabled leader, President Clinton is asked to describe his underwear, and the presidency is devalued along with us. Technology allows us to tap the talk of lovesick, adulterous princesses and princes on cellular phones, and air those utterly damning conversations over TV and radio. It makes information so accessible that the wish for kings is transformed into the wish to know.

If our gods are no longer permanent, if our heroes are murderers, if our political leaders are exposed as compulsive adulterers or tax evaders, then we can no longer fill ourselves up on them in quite the same way. Instead, we drown in information, and use it to allay the anxiety of a godless and ever-shifting culture. Our endless lust for stories derives in part from the pure pleasure of it—but also to distract us from our deeper anxieties.

"There is an amazing desire on the part of the consumer to have an edge, to know a little bit more than the next guy," comments Mark Harris, "and to know it a little bit sooner, a little more fully. One of the most popular things we do in the magazine is to print the weekend's box-office grosses. People love that. They can figure out who is winning and who is losing."

Though fractured into bits of gossip, celebrities, of course, still bring us real meaning. They are human beings rare enough to reflect a truth—even a moment's truth—about our culture.

If Marilyn was the Aphrodite of another age, Uma Thurman is this 1995's love goddess. And that year's Fury might be represented by Lorena Bobbitt—an unknown woman who became an instant celebrity after cutting off her husband's penis in a fit of rage. Whatever prompted her to not only sever, but retrieve, his penis accurately embodies contemporary female ambivalence toward men.

If there is one aggregate truth about America that celebrities also tell us, it is, Braudy points out, "the basic myth of an individual and country that is self-created." Every time an individual creates him or herself out of whole cloth—when a sexually abused black girl becomes an Oprah Winfrey, the single most powerful woman in America—we are reconfirmed in our essential notion of who we, as Americans, are. So let us praise them while we can!