A Close Look at the Thing We Call ‘Celebrity’

AP Photo/Matt Sayles

How are certain people famous enough to be famous for being famous? And how do people famous for getting laughed at earn $28 million a year? For The Times Literary Supplement, Irina Dumitrescu looks at three books about celebrity to examine the phenomenon of celebrity itself, now and throughout history. This is a fascinating example of the way a book review becomes an essay about a larger subject. Its intelligence also echoes one of the subject’s many facets: the inverse relationship between earnings and what we consider “ability.” It’s easy to dismiss famous people like the Kardashians because they didn’t get famous by producing artful films or performing music, but their ability to, as Dumitrescu puts it, “absorb the energy of the world’s criticism and translate it into cash,” is a well-honed skill that deserves its own kind of respectful recognition, because if celebs didn’t provide the public with something, then we wouldn’t engage with them the way we do. We may laugh at people like the Kardashians, but they’re laughing all the way to the bank, so the question is: What do celebrities give us?

People turn to celebrities to feel emotion, connection, even transcendence. The emotions a star provokes can be just as gratifying if they are negative. Disgust, scorn and outrage provide their own satisfactions. A celebrity who is good at her job gives the public the opportunity to experience unruly feelings. She also arouses in them a desire for her true, “authentic” self. Marcus convincingly argues that celebrities do so by crafting their image carefully. Bernhardt enchanted audiences through precisely controlled movements, deliberately modulated vocal intonation, and the careful choreography of her performances both on stage and off. This was a woman who had herself photographed sleeping in a coffin, was reported to keep a menagerie of exotic pets, and apparently drank from a skull and kept a skeleton in her bedroom….

Celebrities feed the eternal hunger for newness without ever being truly new. Cashmore reminds us that Kim Kardashian found her teachers in previous socialites, in Anna Nicole Smith’s willingness to self-destruct for reality television cameras and in Paris Hilton’s nightclub and TV ubiquity (in fact, Kim started out on Paris’s show The Simple Life as a friend and stylist). For Cashmore, Madonna’s erotic revelations in the documentary Truth or Dare (1991; released in the UK as In Bed with Madonna) tolled the death bell for privacy: “Sit still for a couple of hours watching … and you’ll turn into an inveterate voyeur and spend the rest of your days as a restless, tormented spirit wandering through the arid wastelands of other people’s lives”. The shape of criticism has not changed much either. In an interview with George Ezra last year, Elton John – subscribing to our first narrative about modern celebrity and overlooking the lessons of the second – railed against reality TV “celebrities”: “For me a celebrity is somebody who is top of their game, a top film star, in music, whatever. I hate the word celebrity … You’ve got to work for it and the people that don’t work for it and get it instantaneously are the ones that go pfft”. As Cashmore points out, there has always been someone who thinks the current crop of stars is different and not working hard enough. Indeed, it is a reliable way of telling a person’s age: your generation is determined by the last parvenu you consider a genius and the first you think is a trumped-up mediocrity. This is one clue to the strength of the Kardashian brand. Cashmore describes Paris Hilton in the early 2000s as a shiny new toy, thrown aside once the novelty wore off. The fertile Kardashian clan, however, can always counteract boredom by bringing out a new model: a younger sister with big dreams and the entrepreneurial touch, a baby with an Instagram handle ready to be monetized.

Dumitrescu is a writer whose sentences sparkle with multiple truths, and whose intelligence treats this familiar American pastime not as a simple guilty pleasure, but as a phenomenon worth studying. Yet like most writers, she’s not earning a fraction of the big bucks the Kardashians do. That’s another sad facet of this essay.

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