The Drama of Celebrity | Sharon Marcus || Radcliffe Institute

The Drama of Celebrity | Sharon Marcus || Radcliffe Institute

As part of the 2017–2018 Fellows’ Presentation Series at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Sharon Marcus RI ’18 shares material from her soon-to-be-completed book, in which she addresses such questions as “What is a celebrity?” “Have they always existed?” “And why do so many people care about them?”

Marcus teaches at Columbia University, where she is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature, specializing in 19th-century British and French culture. She is the 2017–2018 Elizabeth S. and Richard M. Cashin Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

For information about the Radcliffe Institute and its many public programs, visit

[MUSIC PLAYING] – Thank you, Judy. And thank you to everyone
at the Radcliffe Institute. And I want to give a special
thanks to my Radcliffe research partner, Harvard
senior, Sally Yi. When I tell people that I'm
writing a book about celebrity, they ask a lot of questions. But three crop up
over and over again. The first is, what is
a celebrity, really? The second is, have
celebrities always existed, or is there something
radically new about our
celebrity-crazed present? And the third is, why
do so many people care so much about celebrities? These are the questions
that I plan to answer today by sharing with you material
from the introduction to my soon-to-be completed
book, The Drama of Celebrity And in addition to sharing
my research with you, I am going to ask you to
be part of my research. So periodically I am going to
pause to ask you questions. You are free– we are all free– not to answer them. If you want to answer them,
you can write your answers on the pieces of paper
that have been provided, along with what I have learned
are called "golf pencils." [LAUGHTER] If you prefer to
use your phone– judging from this crowd, I
don't think that's likely– but if you're on Twitter, you
can tweet your answers me. This is my Twitter handle. That is my cat, who
I have been trying and failing to turn into a
feline internet celebrity. [LAUGHTER] And this is my first question. "Who is the first
celebrity in whom you remember taking an interest?" If the answer is no one,
right down "no one." And this is my answer
to that question. So celebrity might
seem like an odd topic for a professor of 19th
century literature to tackle. But in my case,
celebrity actually inspired my love of
Victorian novels. So you see here the cover
of the first "grown-up" book that I bought as a child– not in this edition. I bought an
English-language addition. I wasn't that precocious. I found this book on
the remainder table of a Barnes & Noble in Queens. I convinced my father
to buy it for me. And reading this book,
I learned many things. I learned that you
can have five husbands and even marry the
same person twice. [LAUGHTER] I also learned that
Elizabeth Taylor started out as a child star and played a
small role in the 1941 film version of Jane Eyre. And since I was a child
reading this book, I found that very interesting. A few years ago when I saw
Charlotte Bronte's novel on a shelf, I
recognized the title from my Elizabeth Taylor phase. And I decided to try to read it. The rest was personal history. I fell in love with
Victorian novels, but I never lost my
interest in celebrity. So to the first question that
I said people commonly ask me– not the question I
asked you to answer– what is a celebrity, really? One reasonable
definition of celebrity is, anyone known during his
or her lifetime to more people than could possibly
know one another. By this definition, there
have always been celebrities. Of course, the heroes and
conquerors of antiquity were as preoccupied with
achieving immortal fame as with being well-known
in their lifetimes. And similarly, the saints
of the Middle Ages, though often popular
figures while alive, were canonized only
after their deaths. The use of the word
"celebrity" to refer to people well-known
during their lifetimes first became common
during the 18th century. When asked, have
celebrities always existed? I answer that modern celebrity
has existed for over 200 years. There is surprisingly
little that is truly novel about our
celebrity-crazed present. For me, this is a
deeply historical point about continuities
persisting over periods of significant change. And it means that if we want to
understand how celebrity works, we have to turn to the
moment when celebrity first inquired the global
dimensions it enjoys today. The history of celebrity culture
begins not with the internet, nor with film, but in the
18th century when "celebrity," the word, and its French
equivalent, "célébrité," first began to acquire
their modern meanings. Before the 18th
century, a celebrity was a ritual festivity– the celebrities of weddings,
funerals, the Sabbath. But in the middle of the
18th century, usage shifted. Celebrity was first something
that one could have, both during one's lifetime
and after one's death. So when the word originally
came to be used commonly to refer to being
well-known, it wasn't distinguished that much
from the notion of fame. An 18th-century
writer could refer– could and did– refer to a
cleric possessing oratorical celebrity or to a
future prime minister having obtained celebrity while
an undergraduate at Oxford. Publishers began to cater to
interest in the private lives of public figures. As Harvard English Professor
Deidre Lynch and others have shown, 18th
century books started to include frontispieces
featuring portraits of authors, actors, and statesmen. Philosopher
Jean-Jacques Rousseau published an
autobiography in which he confessed to
spanking fantasies and then complained that people
were gossiping about him. [LAUGHTER] Lord Byron, pictured here,
wrote a confessional poem and then, as the saying went,
woke up to find himself famous. In the 18th century however, a
fully-fledged global celebrity culture had yet to emerge. Images remained
time-consuming to produce and costly to purchase. Best-selling books often sold no
more than a few hundred copies. Newspapers had circulations
in the low thousands. Roads were improving, and
postal systems expanding. But information still
took weeks to circulate within national borders– even longer across
national lines. Only in the 1840s
did a celebrity become something one could be. Instead of simply
possessing celebrity as one trait among
many others, celebrity became, for the first time
in history, an identity. Who were these
19th-century celebrities? How did they compare
to the people that we consider typical
celebrities today? Before I answer that
question, another one for you. "Name at least five
living figures–" today, living figures, not
just in our minds, "whom you consider celebrities." When I participated
a couple of years ago in a Reddit
"Ask Me Anything" on the topic of celebrity. Many of the hundreds of
people who participated named Kim Kardashian
as the epitome of contemporary
celebrity culture. They also had nothing
good to say about her. "Famous only for being
famous" was a phrase that came up
repeatedly– a phrase to which I will return
towards the end of this talk. Their responses suggested that
today the word "celebrity" has quite negative connotations. For many people, the
typical celebrity is someone who does not deserve
the attention that we pay them. So this brings me to
the second big question I'm so often asked–
what, if anything, is new about today's
celebrity culture? My answer is very
little, except that for much of the 19th century,
books and magazines equated celebrities with, quote unquote,
"distinguished individuals renowned for their genius
and strength of character." The 19th-century
celebrity was much more likely to be a man than a woman. There were female
celebrities, but if you look at books about
celebrities, men absolutely dominate the table of contents– and as likely to be a general,
an archbishop, or a scientist, as an opera singer
or a ballet dancer. In 1855 for example,
a Boston minister published a book entitled
Visits to European Celebrities. The figures he discussed
included abolitionist William Wilberforce,
pictured on the left, and scientist Alexander
Von Humboldt on the right. To be sure, then as now,
celebrity had its seamy side. Writers in the 1840s referred
to courtesans, for example, as "celebrities of vice." But they had to qualify the
word "celebrity"– "celebrities of vice," to give the term a
tawdry ring that at the time was not at all a given. 19th-century books
about celebrities featured figures such
as Abraham Lincoln. Now my point here is not
a sensationalist one. Abraham Lincoln was
nothing but a celebrity, but rather that for decades
the term "celebrity" typically included the most
venerable figures– figures such as Lincoln,
who credited this photograph for helping him win the
1860 presidential election. Other 19th-century figures
referred to at the time as celebrities included– well,
you can tell they're important because they have beards– included authors
Alfred Lord Tennyson, on the left, and poet,
politician, and novelist, Victor Hugo, on the right. In 1879, three-volume compendium
entitled Celebrities at Home even included a profile of
the Pope at the Vatican. And I don't know if you can
read the table of contents, but those of you who could
probably also be flying planes will be able to
verify that here is an instance of many, many
people being called celebrities, most of whom are male figures– I'll read you– I can see it. Cardinal Manning, Doctor Pusey,
also a cleric, Father Ignatius, [? Gambetta, ?] who was
an Italian nationalist. The list goes on. In most other respects, however,
today's celebrity culture can be traced back
to the 19th century. In 1968, Andy Warhol memorably
referred to the future– future being now– as a
time when everyone would get their 15 minutes of fame. 19th-century news
cycles works slower, but journalists of
the day similarly evoked nine-day wonders. Tie-in products and
celebrity endorsements have existed for over 200 years. In the late 18th
century, shops sold mugs, walking sticks, and figurines
representing the theater stars of the day, such as these
objects featuring actor David Garrick. A host of 19th-century
celebrities endorsed wigs, face
creams, powders, pianos, and bottled water. Celebrity chefs–
the 19th century already had its share, including
Alexis Soyer, a French cook based in London, who sold his
own brand of kitchen gadgets and bottled sauces, whose
labels, which you see here, pictured him wearing
his trademark red beret. The late 20th century,
celebrity-hosted telethons and star-studded concerts
for charitable causes had their counterpart
in benefits that 19th-century
performers regularly held for victims of
fires, earthquakes, and in the example
pictured here, those suffering
from yellow fever. Celebrity activism– sorry
that this is a bit blurry. It's a newspaper photograph. There is only so big
you can blow them up. In 1913, a half century before
country-western singer Johnny Cash famously performed
live at Folsom Prison, the legendary actress,
Sarah Bernhardt, pictured in the Napoleon hat–
so she's in the dark jacket– she's actually not
that easy to see, but she's on the far left– visited San Quentin prison. She's pictured here in
a photograph whose frame was crafted by prisoners. Journalists reported that
Bernhardt became pals with the convicts, one of
whom recited a speech praising her wondrous personality and
entrancing art from liberating the prisoners' souls and minds. A month later, the star
published an article in The Boston Globe,
making an impassioned plea to abolish the death penalty. Our fascination with the
private lives of celebrities also has a longer history
than we might expect. Stalkers have long existed. Actress Sarah
Siddons, for example, complained of strangers
forcing their way into her London drawing room. Figures as different as Queen
Victoria and the local poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
allowed photographers to take, publish,
and sell photographs of them with their families. Fan mail, too, is as
old as the cheap postage rates that first democratized
the males in 1830s England and 1840s United States. When sending letters
became more affordable, celebrities found themselves
deluged with requests for autographs. At one point, Longfellow
received 400 of these a week. Actor Edwin Booth, the most
renowned Shakespearean actor in the United States of his
day and brother of John Wilkes Booth, received hundreds
of letters begging him for photographs, free books,
shoelaces, and locks of hair. [FAINT LAUGHTER] Shoelaces– and I've seen them– not the shoelaces, but the
letters asking for them. Some correspondents
also sent him gifts– books, flowers, religious
tracts, medical advice. Men asked for jobs and
free acting lessons. Women, such as the
Boston correspondent whose letter is pictured
here proposed assignations. Before moving on to ask why
celebrity culture took off when it did in the
1940s, I'd like to ask you to help me strengthen
my claim about celebrity culture's 19th-century
affinities by challenging it. So this one, I'm going
to give you a little more time because it's a
lot more complicated. So, "What elements of
recent celebrity culture would you argue are actually
unique to the present?" OK, so feel free to
continue writing. And of course, you might
have a brainwave later, and you can add to your answer. So why did modern
celebrity culture explode in the mid-19th century? Many reasons. To begin with, the rise
of democratic movements in England, France, and the
United States in the 1820s and 1830s transformed how
individuals and collectives imagined themselves. Those movements played out
differently in each country, but in each case
democratization made people eager to track current
events that they saw themselves as shaping. Literacy increased, extending
the number of people able to read about celebrities. Leisure expanded, affording
more people more time to visit theaters, opera
houses, and lyceums, where they saw celebrities in person. As many cultural
historians have noted, this period in Europe
and the United States also gave rise to a new
emphasis on individuality. The 19th century
began by ushering in a romantic cult
of genius, epitomized by our previous
acquaintance, Lord Byron, and ended by worshipping
the notion of personality, epitomized by Oscar Wilde. Indeed, in 1911, one could find
a theater producer explicitly speculating that the star system
loomed so large in the United States because Americans
were what he called "an individual-loving people." Catering to this
interest in individuals was the burgeoning
commerce in photographs. Around the 1860s, affordable
celebrity portraits became widely available in
shops and via mail order. In the 1890s,
heavily-illustrated niche magazines devoted to stage
stars began to flourish– here is an image drawn
from one of them– anticipating the
film magazines that first took off in the 1910s. Around the same time
that there began to be a new value
assigned to individuality, important transformations
in the newspaper industry encouraged publishers
to increase their coverage of celebrities. Until the 1830s, most
newspapers in England, France, and the United States
were costly publications, sponsored by wealthy
patrons and read by a small, select
group of subscribers, who received their
papers through the mails. Starting in the 1830s,
however, newspapers became more commercial, with
entrepreneurs in all three nations producing papers that
cost only a penny instead of the traditional $0.06. Newspapers began to rely on
advertisements, subscriptions, and daily sales,
including street sales. Instead of targeting a
select group of insiders willing to pay a high price
for privileged, specialized information,
newspaper publishers began to do a volume business. And so they had to appeal to
general interests in an effort to reach the largest number
of customers possible. As the number of
commercial papers grew, competition for
readers increased. More than influencing
and leading the public, the commercial press
needed to please it. Addressing journalism
students in 1912, a newspaper man explained,
"In publishing a newspaper, you endeavor to print what
the people want to read." The people wanted to
read about celebrities. An 1855 issue of the Illustrated
London News, pictured here, featured what the caption refers
to as "chess celebrities." So micro-celebrities have been
around for a long time, too. An 1862 issue of the
Illustrated London News covering a royal marriage
sold 930,000 copies, which was more than three times
the paper's usual circulation rate. Articles about celebrities,
especially when illustrated with lithographs
and engravings– it wasn't really possible
to incorporate photographs into newspapers
until the 1890s– became a reliable way
to boost circulation. In turn, celebrities
themselves began to focus on newspapers
as important organs of communication, even
arguing with editors about their coverage. The actress Sarah Bernhardt,
who you saw earlier, and who is one of the
focal points of my book, was a ceaseless writer
of letters to the editor, complaining about her
coverage, contesting the facts of a story published
the previous day, which of course was a great
way to make the story have a new lease on life
for a few more days. In 1829, two popular
London actors sent letters to a
newspaper addressed to the public, in which
they accused that newspaper of misrepresenting them. The editor published
those letters to demonstrate his fairness,
to avoid a libel suit, but also because the actors
protesting their coverage were leading figures in London's
theater scene and celebrity sells. At the very moment
that newspapers first came to depend on large
publics for their success, technological changes
were making those publics larger than ever before. Some figures, to give you a
sense of the shifting scale of the newspaper-reading public
across the 19th century– in the 1820s, one of the
best-selling Parisian newspapers of the moment
had 16,000 subscribers. By 1865, the
best-selling Paris Daily was selling more than
250,000 copies a day. 15 years later, that number
had more than doubled. Another technological
development that was important was in transportation. Steamships and railways
delivered publications to readers around
the world with what was then unprecedented speed. By the 1860s, transoceanic
telegraph cables enabled news to travel around
the world instantaneously– or close to it. An actress could, as Sarah
Bernhardt did in 1882, get married in London
one day and have the news reported in Paris,
Rio de Janeiro, and Chattanooga within a week. Beginning in the 1840s,
steamships and railways also began to deliver
celebrities themselves. In 1840, Austrian ballet
dancer Fanny Elssler visited the United States. The next year, a
steamship named after the celebrated ballerina–
the Fanny Elssler– was plying the Atlantic. The ship familiarized the
world with a celebrity dancer in person, and in turn,
the celebrity dancer's name helped to familiarize the
world with what was then a novel form of transportation. Authors and activists also
took advantage of the new modes of travel, with many crossing
the Atlantic to conduct readings and deliver lectures
that were the 19th-century versions of today's TED Talks– British author Charles
Dickens, on the left, visited the United
States in 1842. In 1845, abolitionist Frederick
Douglas, on the right, spent over a year in England. Three decades later,
extensive railway networks enabled celebrities to visit not
only a nation's major cities, but also its obscure
nooks and crannies. In the 1870s and 1880s,
actor Edwin Booth, whom you saw earlier, toured
with Polish actress Helena Modjeska. And they performed in
world theater capitals– Paris, London, Berlin,
Warsaw, and New York. But they also
visited small towns, ranging from Davenport,
Iowa to Zanesville, Ohio, with stops in larger cities,
such as Indianapolis. A poster for one of their
Indianapolis performances is pictured here. During one 1887 to
'88 tour, Edwin Booth appeared in 72 towns. Performers spent so
much time touring, that actor Maude Adams– you
saw her before with her long, red hair, but she also played
a lot of trouser roles– had sliding scenery installed
on her customized train car so that she and her troupe
could rehearse while traveling. The 19th century's
most renowned figures garnered kudos because
they had talent, ambition, and understood how to capture
the public imagination. But had they not come
of age in an era that invented cheap postage
rates, photography, the penny press, telegraphic news
agencies, and steam and train travel, they never would have
become global celebrities. Because without
those developments, global celebrity culture
would not have existed. Until I began the
research for this book, I thought– as many still do–
that the film industry invented modern celebrity culture. But in fact, the
Hollywood studio system was more of an
exception than the rule. Far from creating
the star system, 20th-century movie
studios simply adapted one that the theater
had invented decades earlier. A global star system
had already existed in theater in the 19th century. Indeed, "star" was
a 19th century term, coined in English, along
with "étoile" and "vedette" in French, to designate a
theatrical troupe's most compelling lead actors. As a young, middle-class
woman living in Glasgow announced in 1855, "Unless there
is some star in the theater, we do not go." Plus ca change. And though we may now
think of live theater as a niche form
of entertainment, before the advent
of film theater reached millions annually. In 1865, London shows attracted
almost 12 million viewers a year. In 1905, New York City alone
had 18 million theatergoers. And Chicago newspapers would
publish articles claiming that their theater scene was even
more lively and vibrant than New York's. Theatrical culture
it was also global. A play might open in London then
tour the entire United States, or start out in Paris and then
be adapted for performance in Berlin, Stockholm,
and New York. Not surprisingly, given
the depth and breadth of the theatrical
celebrity system, early film producers used
established stage stars to lure people to the
new medium of cinema. The famous 1896 Thomas Edison
film now known as The Kiss was originally billed
as The May Irwin Kiss because it featured
well-known theater star May Irwin in a popular scene from
her play, The Widow Jones. The very term "movie star" arose
because stars were presumed to belong to the theater. Many of the most famous
early film producers, directors, and performers,
from Lillian Gish to Barbara Stanwyck, started on the
stage and often continued to shuttle between
Hollywood and Broadway. Eventually however, Hollywood
did, for a few decades, change celebrity culture in
at least one important way. In the 19th century, the
biggest stage celebrities exercised significant autonomy. They had the power to choose
their roles in most cases, unless they belonged to a
national theater troupe, but those were the exception. They could control
their schedules. They could select
supporting cast. They designed costumes and sets. The leased and managed theaters. And they crafted
their public persona. Now, were a few important movie
stars, such as Carole Lombard and James Stewart– James Stewart, who
started in theater– were freelancers
who retained some of the independence enjoyed by
their theatrical predecessors. But in most cases, at the
height of the Hollywood era, film studio heads effectively
used restrictive contracts, well-oiled publicity
departments, and their influence
over the press to control what
movie stars could do and what the public
could learn about them. During the decades when– and
these are some of the people you see pictured here– studio heads Louis B.
Mayer, the Warner Brothers, and Harry Cohn– all notoriously dictatorial,
even abusive– reigned supreme. Many stars received orders
about what roles to play, whom to date, how to dress. In exchange, they
received the support of a powerful, integrated
entertainment industry. Those who balked, such as
Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, often
found themselves subject to retaliation–
lawsuits, smear campaigns, and periods of unemployment. But the decline of
the film studios in the 1960s, the breakdown
of broadcast television that began in the 1980s,
and the rise of the internet since the 1990s
have in many ways returned celebrity culture
to its 19th-century roots. No single medium
or industry today controls stars or stardom. So to recap, the answers to
the question, have celebrities always existed or is there
something new about today's celebrity culture– modern celebrity
culture first began to emerge in the 18th century
and exploded in the 19th. A few features of
celebrity culture have changed since
the late 1700s. Everything moves
faster today and ways of engaging with celebrities
that used to be more private– sending a fan
letter, for example– can now be much more public. If you tweet at Beyonce,
all of her followers can see what you write. Throughout the 19th
century, celebrity had more positive
connotations than it does now, perhaps because a celebrity
then was as likely or more likely to be a respected male
scientist, statesman, or artist than a female performer. 19th century celebrities also
had more autonomy and privacy than mid-20th century stars. And in terms of privacy,
they had much more of it in the 19th century than now. But in most other respects,
today's celebrity culture remarkably resembles
that of 150 years ago. So if you don't like
celebrity culture, don't blame the internet. The first part of my talk
is focused on the history of celebrity culture. The last third– I'm more than halfway through– will offer a theory that aims
to answer the third question I am so often asked– why do so many people care so
much about celebrity culture? But first, let me
pause to ask you, "Do you care about celebrities? Why or why not?" Now, if you don't care about
or don't care for celebrities, you are in excellent company. Intellectuals love to
hate celebrity culture. Despite its popularity,
or perhaps because of it, many of celebrity culture's
most widely cited scholars– and you see here five of
the most widely-cited books on celebrity– view celebrities and
fans as trivial at best, pernicious at worst. Millions of people admire
and even envy stars, but most pundits
dismiss celebrities as empty [? ciphers, ?] famous
merely for being famous. Even scholars with a more
favorable view of celebrities, such as Richard Dyer, whose
book, Stars, is not pictured here, ultimately see
celebrities as reinforcing the status quo, which in his
view, is not a good thing. While a few
commentators see fans as helping to create
the celebrity culture they consume– Jackie Stacey and
Henry Jenkins have been very important in
promoting that view– most commentators tend
to envision publics as either gullibly
imagining that they truly know their idols or as cruelly
reveling in their downfalls. The ultimate villain
in this bleak tale is almost always an
abstraction called "the media." Theodore Adorno charged what he
called "the culture industry" with promoting,
quote, "mass deception and impeding the development
of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide
consciously for themselves." Strong words. By these lights, fans
are passive fools, celebrities are deceptively
glamorous pawns, media companies are
evil puppeteers, and celebrity culture is a
zero-sum game in which one and only one party takes all. In the drama of celebrity,
I propose a different way of understanding
celebrity culture. Instead of seeing it as a binary
contest in which one side has all the power and
the other has none, I conceive of celebrity culture
as a triangular game involving three equally powerful groups– publics, media
producers and owners, and celebrities themselves,
who are surprisingly absent from much of the
academic discussion of celebrity culture. In a minute, I'm going to
give you a concrete example, but bear with me as I lay
this out somewhat abstractly. In this articulation of how
celebrity culture works, all three entities
compete and collude to assign value and meaning
to renowned individuals and to those who take
an interest in them. Sometimes this game ends up
reinforcing dominant values, as when a culture elevates a
figure such as Pat Boone, who was a bit of a nut in
private, but his image was extremely conformist. Often, however,
celebrity culture privileges those who elude
constraints and defy norms. Here's Lady Gaga wearing a
dress made entirely of meat– now preserved in the Rock &
Roll Hall of Fame as a jerky– I am not joking. [LAUGHTER] And Sinead O'Connor,
many years ago, tearing up a picture of
the Pope on live television to protest the abuse
of children by people in the Catholic church. In the game of
celebrity, all players– and here we have them again– have some power to form
and execute intentions, to express preferences
and pass judgments, and to exercise
intelligence and initiative. Each of the three players can
create artful representations, interpret them, repurpose them. Most importantly, each requires
the others in order to play. Each can resist the others
or collaborate with them. And each can, at
least for a while, influence, succumb to,
or dominate members of the other two groups. So to take an example,
when thousands of people gathered outside
Kensington Palace in 1997 to mourn Princess
Diana, they participated in a media event that
was not simply being staged for the public but also
being created by the public. The spontaneous gathering
of so many mourners attracted reporters. Their coverage
attracted more members of the public, who
were commoners seeking to influence the
actions of the surviving members of the royal family. For days after
Princess Diana died, the media and public wondered
if Queen Elizabeth II would appear to greet the
London crowds gathered to mourn Princess Di. The contest to define the
meaning of Diana's death came after a decades-long tussle
over who would define her life, itself a proxy for
debates about what it meant to be a woman, a
mother, a wife, a member of the elite, and,
most fundamentally, as is always the case with
celebrity, a human being worthy of admiration. The participants
in those debates included the many journalists
reporting on Diana, often competing with
one another for access to her and for the
public's interest and attention, other
celebrities in Diana's orbit– how many times has Elton John
played Candle in the Wind? And ordinary people who
identified for diverse reasons with the story of a very
privileged person who nonetheless faced challenges
similar to their own. At the center of the struggle to
define the Princess stood Diana herself, often credited
with being a savvy, self-presenter who understood
contemporary media relations far better than did other
members of the royal family, whether using a 1980s
photo op to demonstrate that it was safe to touch
people with AIDS or a television interview to reveal that her
husband's infidelities had preceded hers. Publics influence media
coverage by deciding which media to consume
or not consume, by sending letters to editors,
posting comments online, or producing
old-fashioned applause. Some fans create their own
celebrity representations, but most content themselves
with collecting and arranging materials produced by others,
as in these 19th-century scrapbooks, hundreds
of which still survive in theater archives and
represent a really interesting way to recreate how
people in the past interacted with newspapers
and magazines that were, as we heard earlier,
covering celebrities in great detail. Celebrities, too, vary
in the degree of control that they can exert over their
self-presentation and careers. Some are content to let
photographers and journalists define them, while
others excessively craft their own persona and find
ways to connect directly with readers and viewers. Media producers, journalists,
publicists, photographers, publishers, executives
can position themselves as fans, critics, or kingmakers. Some even become
celebrities themselves, as gossip columnist
Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell did in the middle
of the 20th century. To the extent that media outlets
and platforms themselves also seek to become iconic
brands and acquire large, loyal
followings, they do not function so very differently
from celebrities, in addition to using celebrities
to publicize themselves. New media formats,
from sound recordings, to television, to
digital social media, have long marketed
themselves by forging links with established
celebrities who have already made a name for themselves,
using older media forms. Photography, as we saw
earlier, first became popular when commercial
studios began to sell images of celebrity royals,
politicians, and performers, who had already been rendered
familiar to the public through press coverage. In the 1890s, companies
selling newfangled phonographic cylinders– and a label
from one is pictured here– used celebrities to promote
their novel product. Early short film similarly
attracted audiences by portraying famous royals,
politicians, and stage actors. Television at its inception
featured stars from the radio. In the 21st century,
digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter,
Instagram, and Tumblr each expanded astronomically when pop
stars such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyonce, Adele,
Rihanna, and Taylor Swift began to use them. Other celebrities, from Ashton
Kutcher to Donald Trump, were drawn to Twitter because
the relatively new media platform helped them to
bypass those standing guard at older ones. During the 2016
presidential campaign, many rightfully decried
the free publicity that television and
the press gave Trump, but the game of celebrity is
not that simple with established gatekeepers exercising
top-down control over who and what they cover. Far from simply using their
platforms to advertise Trump, news outlets were using Trump
to advertise themselves. Faced with declining
circulations the press latched
on to Trump's savvy for galvanizing
public attention. Now my final
question for you is, if you can think of any
examples of celebrities publics in the media either
competing or colluding? So something where this
triangular dynamic is in play. And as you mull that over, let
me offer some final examples that illustrate how
what I'm calling "the drama of celebrity" works. While scholars often
assign absolute power to the culture industry
to media companies, the biggest celebrities can
break a media company's stride in quite significant ways. That is what pop singer
Taylor Swift did in 2015, when with one Tumblr post in
which she said, "we don't ask you for free iPhones," she
forced Apple to pay royalties to artists featured on
its new music platform– not just to her,
but to all artists featured on its
new music platform. Only a few weeks
ago, singer Rihanna caused the shares of social
media platform Snapchat to lose $800 million in
value in a single day after she criticized the
app for creating a game that had mocked her for having been
a victim of intimate partner violence. Rihanna affected this
by taking to Instagram to protest Snapchat
and to encourage her over 60 million followers to
discard and delete the app. Many discussions of
celebrity culture assume that journalists
and editors alone decide who gets free publicity
and what kind of publicity that will be. But celebrities can also quite
successfully conceal facts from the public or spin
them for the media. Joan Crawford, for
example, successfully posed as a doting
mother for decades. She was exposed as being
something other than that by her daughter, and she went
the old-fashioned route– a book. Nor are members of the public
uniformly passive consumers. Some are cynical
about celebrities, while others push
back against the press as did the armies of "Beliebers"
who stood ready in 2016 to defend pop singer
Justin Bieber against even the mildest criticism,
only to turn against Bieber himself soon after. All of these examples suggest
that we care about celebrity culture not simply because we
are interested in celebrities themselves, but because
celebrity culture is a suspenseful,
interactive drama in which we ourselves play a leading role. Because publics,
media, and celebrities all have considerable
power, these contests are very evenly matched. As a result, their outcomes
are not predictable. That unpredictability
lends celebrity the drama that keeps millions engaged. Adding to the drama of
celebrity is the fact that each of the three
players constitutes a diverse and internally fractious group. The media proliferate and borrow
from one another, compete. Celebrities are a varied
lot, ranging from micro-stars with 50,000 Instagram followers
to superstars like Rihanna, who, in 2017, had over 84
million Twitter followers. Some celebrities joined forces,
as film stars Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas
Fairbanks, and director DW Griffith did in 1919, when
they formed United Artists. Some celebrities compete
and get together, as when great athletes
compete against one another on different teams,
but then joining forces on all-star teams, or when
actors Sarah Bernhardt and Maude Adams
joined forces in 1991 to play the same role
on alternating nights. Stars can also change direction
and find their meanings altered, as when America's
beloved First Lady Jackie Kennedy morphed into America's
scarlet woman, Jackie O. Of the three players
in the triangular game of creating celebrity
culture, the public is the most complicated, which
is why I, like many scholars, consider it more accurate
to use the plural "publics." Publics are dynamic,
heterogeneous, and unpredictable. They tend not to think
as one for very long. Fans can be fickle. Someone might gush about
a celebrity in one breath and belittle them in the next. Subcultures peel off
from the mainstream and abandon favorites when
they become too popular. Niche markets form. Die-hard fans argue amongst
themselves, often fiercely, about the best Billy Joel song
or who was the cutest Beatle. In 1964, US teenagers
voted for Ringo. [LAUGHTER] It was in the newspaper,
so it must be true. [LAUGHTER] The drama of celebrity
also derives from the fact that publics are genuinely free
to ignore celebrity culture. Some of us may feel
like captive members of an involuntary
public, flooded with celebrity factoids
we'd prefer to ignore, but we can opt out. And that ability is crucial. Celebrities cannot
exist without publics. But publics can and do
exist without celebrities. So to conclude,
celebrity results from large numbers
of individuals deciding which stars to
like, hate, or overlook. And usually the ways
in which publics do that is mediated by
newspapers, film, and the list goes on– radio, the internet. Because each of those
many individuals exercises idiosyncratic
taste, it's not easy to predict how publics
will respond from one moment to the next. Marketers and
entertainment industries do not make stars, they
nominate candidates for stardom. As a journalist observed
over a century ago, celebrities are elected
by the will of the people. To this day, publics enjoy
the drama of celebrity because they are stakeholders,
not mere onlookers, who care about the
outcome because they help to determine it. The prevalent academic framework
for understanding celebrity culture has been commodification
theory, which views only one group as wielding power– the capitalists who allegedly
manipulate the public into thinking that stars
have special qualities, and who turn
celebrities into objects for sale in order to extract
profits, and reinforce dominant belief systems
and power structures. To this way of
thinking, celebrity is an illusion or hoax that
critical thinkers must expose. And celebrity
culture offers only two antagonistic
positions– duper and duped, faker and sucker. This view has been
around at least since 1961, when Daniel
Boorstin defined a celebrity as, quote, "a person who is known
for his well-knownness." So that's the original variant
on "famous for being famous." Not variant–
that's the original, and the rest is variance. Boorstin's phrase has acquired
an enviable fame of its own, but as definitions go, it is
more catchy than accurate. Indeed, its own
popularity might be one of the few
instances in which its claim about celebrities'
lack of substance holds true. [LAUGHTER] As a theory of celebrity, it is
steeped in the dualistic model. By Boorstin's [? light, ?]
public relations firms– and he writes a lot about
them– trick most people into thinking that celebrities
merit our attention, when in fact, they don't really
merit our attention. I would say that's
a strange claim. The Beatles, Madonna, Audrey
Hepburn, Muhammad Ali, Steve Jobs, celebrities
all, and all became celebrities because
they created memorable songs, gave brilliant performances,
were exceptionally beautiful and stylish, had
amazing athletic abilities, invented something
important, and were willing to work with the
media to turn themselves into public icons. Various forms of manipulation,
from payola to promoted tweets, do often first push a celebrity,
or a would-be celebrity, into the limelight, but
those who stay famous usually remain so thanks to some
extraordinary talent, skill, or achievement. To be sure, there are always
celebrities who in their day were widely perceived as
famous only for being famous. That's an inevitable
part now of how we think about celebrity
culture and experience it. Kim Kardashian's
19th-century forebearers included the courtesan
known as Skittles, pictured in the center,
and professional beauty, Lillie Langtry. You can figure out who
Kim Kardashian is, so. [LAUGHTER] Even these figures, however, fit
author Zadie Smith's definition of an artist– as someone with an expressive
talent that most of us do not have. In Kardashian's
case, that talent is a notable ability to promote
herself and her products. If anyone could do that,
everyone on YouTube would be a millionaire. Many scholars have taken the
triviality attacked by Boorstin to be definitive of celebrity,
but because the category of celebrity
encompasses everyone from Albert Einstein
to Paris Hilton, I prefer the definition
with which I began– celebrities are people
known during their lifetimes to more people than could
possibly know one another. The biggest
celebrities are those known to the largest
numbers of people, for the longest periods of time. And their history holds the key
to a new and improved theory of celebrity culture. Celebrity results
from large numbers of individuals
deciding which figures to like, hate, or overlook. Publics enjoy the
drama of celebrity as participants,
not mere onlookers. Members of the public who care
about the drama of celebrity– and millions do– care because that drama
establishes channels that link publics, media
producers, and celebrities themselves, all of
whom work together to create the drama of celebrity
and to determine its outcomes. [MUSIC PLAYING] Thank you. [APPLAUSE]


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