Celebrities aren't

I am nearly 60, and back when I was young a celebrity was someone who was generally admired and venerated for their achievements. They seemed, in a sense, otherwordly because the studios, record companies and agents and, to a degree, the press colluded in putting celebrities on a pedestal: their transgressions tended to be hidden or ignored, and anything even remotely risque (by today’s standards) was forbidden; for example, Elvis Presley being filmed from the waist up to prevent us being either/or stimulated or outraged by his wildly gyrating hips.

I quite liked the idea of our heroes being unnaturally perfect; I think we all knew that, for example, Errol Flynn was a randy git who screwed anything that moved, but, because, it was never more than rumour, it just added a frisson of excitement to his persona.

Now, the word ‘celebrity’ seems to have a different meaning. There are so many television programmes featuring ‘celebrities’ that clearly have had, at best, only brief brushes with fame. Achieving anything worthwhile or significant has ceased to be part of the equation. It has all come down to a cheap marketing ploy. Even the pretence that they might be better than us isn’t bothered with anymore.

OK, there are still the Merryl Streeps and Dustin Hoffmans, the Bob Dylans and Neil Youngs, but maybe they are stars and not celebrities. Maybe we have created a new category, and used the old nomenclature, but I think it’s become a bit tawdry and sleazy. Bring back the old standards of mystery and glitter.

I think you are describing the infamous Andy Warhol situation where we have quantity, rather than quality, of famous folks.

As media outlets multiply (cable channels, internet, etc.), we need more and more people to talk about. As the sheer volume of “celebrities” climbs, the requirements to qualify for that status necessarily drop.

I’ve tried Googling to find out who said it, but there is a famous (hee hee) quote which says, “A celebrity is someone who is famous for being well known.” It’s not strictly a new phenomenon. You often had celebrities on game shows such as the Match Game and the old Hollywood Squares who made you go “Hmm, now why is that person famous?” They may have had a career in the dark, distant past, but most of them later became famous just for appearing on game shows.

I like Steve Martin’s quote: “A celebrity is any well-known TV or movie star who looks like he spends more than two hours working on his hair.”

Well, at least those people did something to warrant whatever fame they achieved. Now, you have people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian who have achieved fame despite having literally done nothing (aside from being born to rich parents). You also have a whole class of reality show people who just refuse to go away even after their proverbial 15 minutes are up.

An awful lot of this is selective memory. There were dozens and dozens of instant “celebrities” in the past whose names are completely forgotten today. The era of what we would term modern celebrity probably started after World War I when the first tabloid newspapers began (although you can find as many instances earlier as you have the patience to search for). They did all the things we talk about today. Every year had a murder of the century. Every rich guy who ran away with a waitress got headlines. Flagpole sitters. Wrong-way Corrigan. Daredevil pilots. A million Hollywood fan magazines making up stories or printing handouts from the studio publicists.

There may be more these days because there’s more of everything: more people, more outlets, more connections outside of communities. Quantitative rather than qualitative change.

Nobody seventy-five years from now will recognize the names of Jon and Kate or Paris or the balloon parents, just as we don’t remember any of the names or events from the 20s or 30s. And they’ll be griping about how their culture has become debased unlike the glories of the Good Old Days. They’ll be just as wrong then as we are today and our grandparents were when they griped about the same thing.

For the record, I’m also nearly 60. But I’m also a historian. The difference between history and memory is so huge that you need astronomical terms to describe it. It took me several decades of reading to fully understand this so I should appreciate and understand when others don’t. But it still annoys me. :slight_smile:

I agree with the above poster, we always had “flash in the pan,” celebrities. We think criminals and celebrity is new, but it’s old. I was doing a project and I was reading old Chicago Tribune papers from the 1880s and it was full of sensational murders, and prostitutes and such.

Richard Loeb (of Loepold and Loeb fame) was especially sought after by papers and hordes of women because he was very good looking (not to mention his family was rich).

You look at Paris Hilton who was famous for her relatives but back in the 40s you had Cobina Wright Jr (a woman) who’s mother Cobina Wright Sr was a gossip columnist for society. Bob Hope mocked Cobina Wright Jr for being nothing more than a society wannabe. So she sued him and they agreed to a settlement that landed her a spot on his radio show and other radio shows, she was quite popular.

Sound familar

There are tons of parallels where marginal people grow to fame.

The thing was in the old days it wasn’t quite as rapid, but this worked both ways. George Burns said the great thing about Vaudeville was if your act was a disaster you only failed in front of 50 people or so. Then you could rework your act, move to the next town and change your name, and you could keep doing that till you got it right

I’m a few years on the other side of 60, and I think the problem is that we live in a world in which everything is disposable . . . especially art. Nothing is built to last, whether it be a painting, a song, a story or a celebrity. Yesterday’s celebrities are tomorrow’s has-beens, and nobody knows, or cares, what made them famous to begin with. Even politics has taken the same route: we delight in creating celebrity politicians, and take even greater delight when they fall. Everything is disposable . . . and sadly, most of us are living disposable lives.

Hell, “flash in the pan” became nonsensical after the invention of the flashbulb!

Even earlier you had Brenda Frazier, whose celebrity was solely based on being a rich family’s daughter.