WHY IS IT THAT MOST celebrities in the culture today are people I've never heard of? I always thought fame had to do with being well known to the public, with being easily recognized on the street, with being, you know famous.
If you asked me to name some famous people, I might offer up examples such as Bill Clinton, Meryl Streep and Sting. If I spotted any one of them at the supermarket, it would probably warrant a call to my best friend to report what brand of peanut butter they were buying.
But these are also people who'd never go to the supermarket. The reason is that celebrities, at least according to my definition, don't buy their own groceries. They have their assistants do it, or they order special deliveries from organic farms or, more likely, they don't eat at all.
That's because they're not quite real people, which is exactly why we love them. Or at least we used to. These days it seems that only crotchety dinosaur types like me still harbor such provincial notions of what it means to be famous.
I know what you're thinking right about now: Here's another column about the vulgarity of contemporary celebrity culture, with sentences that start with phrases like "these days." Believe me, I feel your nausea.
But I've also been feeling something else lately that goes beyond my cluelessness about who's on the cover of In Touch Weekly. Call it reverse indifference. You know how you can walk into a room that smells like garbage, initially be bowled over with disgust but eventually grow immune to the odor? That's the opposite of what's happened to my celebrity radar. Whereas I used to merely ignore news about the faux famous and their tabloid-targeted exploits, I now notice it and feel repulsed. And I'm pretty sure that's the whole idea.
Obviously, celebrity repulsion has been in the air in recent weeks. I don't need to name names, but suffice it to say that popular culture's approval rating (and, in turn, that of the media that can't get enough of it) is at an all-time low. Whether we're talking about a deceased gold-digger or an apparently deranged astronaut (and, be honest, we're still talking about both of them — all the time) it's pretty clear that it's never been a worse time to be famous. For one thing, the competition is stiff. (The Dixie Chicks, celebs with some old-school fame value, swept the Grammys, but we're still more interested in paternity claims and NASA-issue diapers.) For another thing, celebrity is just not as valuable as it used to be. By the look of things, just about anyone can get it — or at least something closely approximating it.
NOT SO LONG AGO, you had to make a pretty strenuous effort to become well enough known to register as famous. If you were an actor, you auditioned your butt off. If you were a musician, you played in clubs for no money. Part of the allure of fame was that access was limited. You pretty much had to show up regularly on network television, in studio movies or on top-40 radio. However, because that playing field was relatively small, once you got there it wasn't too hard to become a household name — if only for the allotted 15 minutes.
Now I'm not sure there's such a thing as a household name anymore. Instead of 15 minutes of fame, we get personalities who are famous in the eyes of maybe 15 people. Fame is no longer about reaching the masses but about finding a niche audience somewhere.
This can, of course, be a very good thing, since the masses have never been known for their taste or intelligence. But there's a dangerous flip side to the democratization of fame. The YouTube/ "American Idol"/MySpace regime may be providing new opportunities for genuinely talented, less conventional people, but it's providing even more opportunities for untalented, often downright annoying people. "Celebrity" now connotes a mundanity that borders on tedium, not to mention that smelly territory of reverse indifference.
Merriam Webster's 2006 word of the year was Stephen Colbert's coinage of "truthiness," which describes our inclination to believe in ideas without regard to logic or evidence. Perhaps our definition of celebrity has taken a similar path. Now that the mystique of so many celebrities is rooted less in their accomplishments than in their ability to get our attention by provoking our disgust, perhaps it's not fame they're offering but "fame-iness."
Unlike actual fame, which involves some talent and hard work, "fame-iness" requires little more than a willingness to humiliate oneself. Instead of a reward for a job well done, it's more like a punishment for cutting corners. And guess what? The audience gets punished too.
Talk about dirty work — no wonder only the unskilled seem to be applying. Now if we could only stop reading their resumes.
Famous for being famous is a pejorative term for someone who attains celebrity status for no particularly identifiable reason (as opposed to fame based on achievements, skill, or talent) and appears to generate their own fame, or someone who achieves fame through a family or relationship association with an existing celebrity.
The term originates from an analysis of the media-dominated world called The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1961), by historian and social theorist Daniel J. Boorstin. In it, he defined the celebrity as "a person who is known for his well-knownness". He further argued that the graphic revolution in journalism and other forms of communication had severed fame from greatness, and that this severance hastened the decay of fame into mere notoriety. Over the years, the phrase has been glossed as "a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous".
The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge may have been the first to use the actual phrase in the introduction to his book Muggeridge Through The Microphone (1967) in which he wrote; "In the past if someone was famous or notorious, it was for something—as a writer or an actor or a criminal; for some talent or distinction or abomination. Today one is famous for being famous. People who come up to one in the street or in public places to claim recognition nearly always say: 'I've seen you on the telly!'"
Neal Gabler more recently refined the definition of celebrity to distinguish those who have gained recognition for having done virtually nothing of significance — a phenomenon he dubbed the “Zsa Zsa Factor” in honor of Zsa Zsa Gabor, who parlayed her marriage to actor George Sanders into a brief movie career and the movie career into a much more enduring celebrity. He goes on to define the celebrity as “human entertainment,” by which he means a person who provides entertainment by the very process of living.
The Washington Post writer Amy Argetsinger coined the term famesque to define actors, singers, or athletes whose fame is mostly (if not entirely) due to one's physical attractiveness and/or personal life, rather than actual talent and (if any) successful career accomplishments. Argetsinger argued, "The famesque of 2009 are descended from that dawn-of-TV creation, the Famous for Being Famous. Turn on a talk show or Hollywood Squares and there'd be Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Charles Nelson Reilly, so friendly and familiar and—what was it they did again?" She also used actress Sienna Miller as a modern-day example; "Miller became famesque by dating Jude Law . . . and then really famesque when he cheated on her with the nanny—to the point that she was the one who made Balthazar Getty famesque (even though he's the one with the hit TV series, Brothers & Sisters) when he reportedly ran off from his wife with her for a while."
Celebutante is a portmanteau of the words "celebrity" and "débutante". The male equivalent is sometimes spelled celebutant. The term has been used to describe heiresses like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in entertainment journalism. The term has been traced back to a 1939 Walter Winchell society column in which he used the word to describe prominent society debutante Brenda Frazier, who was a traditional "high-society" debutante from a noted family, but whose debut attracted an unprecedented wave of media attention. The word appeared again in a 1985 Newsweek article about New York City's clubland celebrities, focusing on the lifestyle of James St. James, Lisa Edelstein and Dianne Brill, who was crowned "Queen of the Night" by Andy Warhol.
- ^Jenkins, Joe (2002). Contemporary moral issues. Examining Religions (4, illustrated ed.). Heinemann. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-435-30309-9.
- ^ abRichards, Jeffrey (2007). Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 259. ISBN 978-1-85285-591-8.
- ^Boorstin, Daniel Joseph (1961). The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. New York: Vintage. ISBN 978-0-679-74180-0.
- ^Muggeridge, Malcolm (1967). Muggeridge Through The Microphone. [page needed]
- ^ abGabler, Neal. "Toward a New Definition of Celebrity"(PDF). The Norman Lear Center.
- ^Argetsinger, Amy (August 10, 2009). "They Must Be Stars Because They Get So Much Press, but What Is It They Do Again?". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-08-15.
- ^ abcZimmer, Ben (January 20, 2007). "Celeb-u-rama". Language Log.
- ^Winchell, Walter (April 7, 1939). "On Broadway (syndicated column)". Daily Times-News.
- ^"James St. James profile". Newsweek. June 3, 1985.