by Dene October for Viewpoint
This is the rough-and-dirty draft for the Viewpoint print article which includes early research and observations.
When a contestant on the game show ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ revealed her lifelong ambition – to be interviewed by the king of British chat show, Michael Parkinson – she was marking the democratisation of the latest cultural currency. The last century saw ordinary people gain mobility through wealth. In the twenty-first, this embougoisment is about celebrity.
The desire for public recognition has never been so strong, particularly amongst the young. Studies by The Henley Centre show that half of 15-18 year olds ‘would really love to be famous’, dropping to 20% of 19-34 year olds and 10% of people older than this. Such statistics need of course to be mediated by the relative frequency that pop icons prefigure as fantasy role models, at a time after all when the young are grappling with career choices. At the same time, this particular young generation could be said to be capturing the zeitgeist.
Alongside the proliferation of the celebrity making machinery is the expansion of both the need and desire for new personalities. A career in the media is increasingly seen as the top career choice for undergraduates, for instance. Here, if they don’t themselves achieve fame, as journalists they may get to hobnob with the stars. It isn’t too late for middle-aged academics and experts either. A heart surgeon was voted British TV’s People’s Person of the Year 2000, although it is perhaps less clear at what point we can say he achieved public affirmation, since his popularity itself originates in publicity. For lesser mortals, the trend for ‘Docu-soaps’ and ‘Reality TV’ means the spectator is increasingly drawn into the spectacle. The Dutch version of fly-on-the-wall show ‘Big Brother’ turned two contestants into media stars in their own right. And even where access to it is restricted, fame is doggedly pursued. Last year, 20,000 wannabes chased 60 places for UK TV’s ‘Stars in Their Eyes’, the show which morphs the anonymous unto the iconic by getting contestants to reproduce the sound and look like of their celebrity idols. It may only be fame by proxy, yet personal appearances and the opening of supermarkets are real enough for the winner. Right now everyone seems to have stars in their eyes. We are no longer merely in thrall to celebrity. We want a piece of the limelight for ourselves.
For the last half of the twentieth century, celebrity has cocooned us in a way we could do very little about. It acted as a hegemonic filter to privilege the elite and block access to others. Both part of it and essentially apart from it, the ordinary person was pretty much left to the job of voyeurism and worship. But it is perhaps this very emphasis upon image that could be said to lead to a ‘democratisation of celebrity’, for as gossip magazines are evidence the desire to scratch away the veneer of ‘celebrity mystique’ leaves the audience scrutinising the hollowness of the image, an ‘inner everydayness’ of the famous that seems to say, yes you too can be famous because I, like you, am ordinary underneath.
‘We are in an era where we are celebrating the common man,’ says Andrew Morton, famous himself for biographies on icons Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky and more recently celebrity couple the Beckhams. The Beckhams frame the limelight generation particularly well. While for David Beckham ‘playing football has been his goal and the fame has been secondary’, says Morton, for Spice Girl Victoria, ‘it seems that fame and success has been her goal and the singing was just the means to that end. She is a classic example of someone who is desperate for fame’. Isaac Mizrahi, the fashion designer whose company recently went bust, is perhaps another example. ‘I am in fashion / But really my passion / Is stardom’, he sings, having self-reinvented as a one-man cabaret.
According to psychologist Patricia Wallace, the Internet is the best place to find evidence of how this desperation is working on ordinary people. ‘Tinkering with a personal homepage,’ says Wallace, ‘can promote an increased focus on the self and a heightened, and perhaps exaggerated, sense that others are watching with interest.’ Wallace believes users spend many hours creating sites unduly preoccupied with presenting themselves to an imaginary, and probably absent, audience.
‘We live in a perpetual state of ambivalence,’ says Joshua Gamson, associate professor of sociology at Yale University. ‘We know that we might be watched and feel the danger and also the thrill of that.’ Gamson sees the modelling behaviour (particularly) of young people, expressed through their consumption, as an attempt at ‘associating themselves with someone who has been deemed culturally central and therefore powerful.’
The window-blackened limousine crawling through the high street on a Friday evening, then, is not so much a rehearsal for fame as admitting to what Gamson calls the ‘logic of celebrity’, something as clear to ordinary individuals as it is to politicians, academics and experts.
‘There is more and more awareness of the artifices involved in celebrity creation,’ says Gamson, ‘and more savvy about it. Increasing my own visibility can make even a professor like me more valuable in certain parts of the academic marketplace.’
Learning the logic of celebrity is a democratising event, and draws together disco stars like Barry White, who last year addressed the Oxford Union, and criminals like the Unabomber. Meanwhile, Internet sites like egosurf.com, where you can do a web-wide search on own name, or amihotornot.com where users upload their own images and everyone rates them out of ten, teach us all the value of focusing on the self. Mary Spillane, author of ‘Branding Yourself’, even urges ‘you to see yourself as a product.’ In fact, what she is really proposing is a Disneyfication of the self. For in an age when personality talks louder than character, production is replaced by projection. Celebrity, in this sense, is a kind of self-graffiti: the more we inscribe ourselves with the celebrity message, the more likely our message will be read and affirmed.
For the limelight generation, this maintenance of high visibility is what acts as the signifier of celebrity. If others are famous for being famous, so might we be. Buying a guest pass at ‘Crunch’, a gym in Sunset Boulevard, means much more than being able to tone your thighs alongside Ally McBeal’s Calista Flockheart. Shop at ‘Harry Winston’ and you get to share more than the same jeweller as Winona Ryder.
Associating with privilege is part of it. But what really fascinates us is not so much the idea of conspicuous consumption, but in surrounding ourselves with ‘celebrity aura’. The VIP room isn’t merely the place where celebrity goes it’s the place where it may actually emanate. The (TV inspired) makeover isn’t merely the preserve of the chosen it is the route along which stars are made. The same goes for ‘upgrading’ into expensive hotels, designer outfits, luxury restaurants and holidaying at star beaches or slumming it at the latest celebrity hotspot, the Hamptons.
The limelight generation is all about keeping up appearances then. At its helm are people like ex-sport-turned-film star Vinnie Jones and gossip columnist Liz Smith, who in her recent autobiography managed to scandalise – and therefore draw attention to – herself. Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, according to ‘No Logo’ author Naomi Klein, makes little more than his name brand – the actual production of goods is licensed out. Similarly, ‘celebutots’ like Sophia Coppola, Carnie Wilson and Katie Wagner all ride the coattails of celebrity.
The Limelight Generation is about the rise of the anonymous too. Matt Drudge, the media mogul, started out by airing his views over the Internet, while Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s Hamburgers, starred in his own commercials.
All of which is keeping celebrities on their toes. Artists Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst made entries onto the Power 300 list – put together by UK’s Channel 4 – at the expense of supermodel Naomi Campbell and actor Ewan McGregor. Brynle Williams, the media-made leader of last year’s British fuel blockade, also found himself on the list. Williams’ debut at position 254 demonstrates the potential rewards for those ‘infotainers’ who can capture the public imagination. No one from ‘fly-on-the-wall’ TV has made it this far, not yet.
‘We’ve moved into a transitory phase,’ says Mark Robinson, the marketing director for global advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson. ‘There is a constant hunger for celebrity, but how long it lasts is another matter. In terms of publicity, it’s very difficult getting it right, who is going to last, who is an enduring personality. Increasingly, celebrities are not viewed on as enduring. You have to make judgements like I can get a couple of years out of that one.’
Perhaps not surprisingly, some responses to this democratisation of fame have been downbeat. In the media frenzy that followed UK’s ‘Big Brother’, London’s Evening Standard newspaper put up a reward to the first celebrity party to not have former contestants on the guest list, while artist and ex-Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney, was said to be frantic about being labelled a ‘celebrity painter’.Meanwhile, that contestant on ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ failed to scoop the big prize. Had she won, she would certainly have lived out her fantasy. It barely matters. She got her time in the limelight. About 15 minutes, oddly enough. ……………………………………………………………………………
Legacies of the Limelight Generation:
the chaperone: the sure sign of stardom is employing an army of helpers to attend to your every whim. In the US, Bill Fischer has made a career out of ensuring clients like Donna Karan and Tom Cruise receive personalised pampering. In the UK, PR agency Freud Communications has made this its hallmark. The trickle down effect means chaperoning gaps for B-list celebrities, but also in personal services (maids, valets and ‘leisure organisers’) for those keen to live it up or make their mark.
movie star chic: ‘rock n roll rebel’ and glam chic – of which the feather boa is an exemplar – were key looks for Autumn/Winter 2000. The trend for celebrity-connoting wardrobes continues into Summer with Cannes elegance (see Valentino). Owning a decent pair of shades is essential, of course. Sunglasses conceal the face and therefore draw attention to the owner’s aura. They also act as a sign that the wearer is deferring the act of ‘spectating’ in exchange for the desire to be ‘spectated’ upon.
celebrities as models: ‘It’s a Wrap!’, ‘Star Wares’ and ‘Real Clothes and Props’ all specialise in celebrity cast-offs; consumers can even shop online at CelebTop1000.com. Consumers will also soon be able to order celebrity clothes while watching TV shows via iTag technology.
treat me special: Stores that offer excellent service to their customers are likely to find this resonates with the customers desire to feel special. A recent advert by British retail chain Tesco’s demonstrated how it treated high-spending customers with privileges that were connoted to celebrity.
cosmetic enhancement: The social stigma attached to cosmetic products and surgical procedures is falling away as people recognise the value in keeping up appearances. Sixty-year-old singer, Sir Cliff Richard, admits to having Botox injections to keep wrinkles at bay. Meanwhile consumer magazines, like the UK title ‘Cosmetic Surgery’, are launching across the globe and establishing the signal that cosmetic enhancement connotes celebrity.
limousine: ‘celebucrats’ may show royal disdain for the stretch limo, but there are ever more hire companies with ever more impressive fleets. As signifiers of fame, these 30-foot Lincolns, with their gadgets and blacked-out windows, are still a big hit with the Saturday night re-enactor of celebrity.
celebrity hire: celebucrats and B-list celebrities alike are cashing in on the growing demand for celebrity hire. Faye Dunaway is said to have earned £30,000 to attend a private individual’s ball, while DJs and sports stars are getting requests to make personal appearances at weddings and parties.
‘celebrity of the day’: Short-term employments and serialised relationships are setting the context within which the individual may adopt a ‘mobile commitment’ in relation to most other things. With the reservoir of celebrity apparently bottomless, attachment to celebrity is as likely to become fluid. The phrase ‘celebrity of the day’ could enter popular ironic idiom. Inappropriate celebrity endorsements and failed celebrity enterprises (or those deemed failures by the public, such as Planet Hollywood, and supermodel Naomi Campbell’s authorial debut) could lead to a deeper scepticism and ‘celebrity fatigue’. As part of ‘brightening up’ also expect a pre-visual world renaissance emphasising ‘character over personality’.
celebrity sperm donors: widening your gene pool may be the only way your progeny can make their mark in a future obsessed with image, at least that’s the sale pitch behind a new trend in glamour sperm donation dotcoms.
new Lolita – theteenage.com identifies what it calls The New Lolita, ‘ a new form of celebrity, one whose shrine populates the online world and whose image is the object of fetishistic obsession’.
addition: The heavy branding and monogramming of luxury goods has led first to high street mimicry by small labels and then to a trend in personalised gear. One cover image used by retail fashion magazine FW last year demonstrates the connection here: the image was of three neon lights that shouted ‘ME! ME! ME!’ Clothes that shout ‘ME!’ gain attention. Interiors and luggage could follow this trend.
communities: This new culture is even reshaping the very nature of community. We have surveillance TV which keeps us aware of our own visibility. Meanwhile our local meeting places have been superseded by soap opera simulations and by our on-line communities (where we may occasionally even chat to celebrities via ‘typeradio’). Most of us can name more famous people than we could our own neighbours. Real friends perhaps are being replaced by characters on programmes like the US sitcom ‘Friends’. Private lives? The public’s appetite for celebrity continues to contest with concerns about privacy. In Hong Kong, Sudden magazine mounts around-the-clock surveillance on even minor celebrities. These reports, like the September 2000 feature on former actress Gloria Yip, are comprised of a photo sequence complete with times of intrusion and background data. celebrity protectionism: As celebrity grows more powerful, we can possibly look forward to a geographic spreading of the kind of legal protection the US affords its celebrities. Not only is the right of publicity protected, the ‘celebrity branding’ (the name, characteristics and likeness of a celebrity) is attached to the notion of ‘intellectual property’ and, typically, authorship is privileged over readership. The contest for rights is less clear, say, in Great Britain where OK Magazine recently ran a celebrity marriage exclusive that cover-featured the couple eating a new candy bar. The bride was said to be distraught and apparently had no idea she was the means to a product endorsement.
Celebutot – ‘American culture is presently awash with star-spawn, of varying degrees of accomplishment.’ Steven Daly and Nathaniel Wice, ‘alt.culture’. 4th Estate, 1995.
Celebucrat – a new breed of success ensured celebrities eg Madonna
Infotainer – anyone who can balance performance skills with argument is likely to be valuable in the ‘attention economy’
See also: Joshua Gamson. Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America” (University of California Press, 1994)
Andrew Morton. Posh & Becks. (Michael O’Mara, 2000)
Mary Spillane. Branding Yourself. (Pan books, 2000)
Patricia Wallace. The Psychology of the Internet. (Cambridge University Press, 1999)