Fame and Celebrity

Today, the idea of celebrity embodies the ideal hero who emerged from the mass audience and gained notoriety as such our concept of celebrity involves little separation of notoriety from the recognition of greatness or individual success. In this lesson, we take a closer look at celebrity and the industry that surrounds it.


Celebrities are traditionally the individuals who society believes are worthy of celebration. Celebrity has become a defining characteristic of our media-saturated societies, functioning as a tokenistic marker of success. It is the cornerstone of entertainment media such as film, TV and music but also extends to other areas of social and cultural life such as sport, humanitarianism, politics, gastronomy (food culture), activism, business, science and religion.

The modern criterion for celebrity is media attention, which moves someone from being popular in a relatively small community to being known on a global scale. Today, the idea of celebrity embodies the ideal hero who emerged from the mass audience and gained notoriety as such our concept of celebrity involves little separation of notoriety from the recognition of greatness or individual success. Take Paris Hilton and Opera Winfrey for example. One is socialite and heiress to a global hotel empire and the other is a media proprietor, talk show host, actress, producer, and philanthropist. But regardless of their fortunes or successes, they both constitute major celebrity brands.

David Giles explains modern celebrity “is a phenomenon associated with mass communication, specifically television and print media. All celebrities are famous.” A genuine celebrity, by contemporary standards, has realized fame at a level “beyond what can be achieved through mere popularity, and so it requires either a specific deed or achievement to generate publicity or a vehicle for the spread of news.” They are people who are held up by the media as examples of what everyone should strive for; “the celebrity, in this sense, is not distant but attainable—touchable by the multitude. The greatness of the celebrity is something that can be shared and, in essence, celebrated loudly and with a touch of vulgar pride. It is the ideal representation of the triumph of the masses.”

Giles cited in Davisson, A. (2013). Lady Gaga and the Remaking of Celebrity Culture. McFarland Books

Fame Across the Ages

Pantheon, a new project from the Macro Connections group in M.I.T.’s Media Lab, has collected and analyzed data on cultural production from 4,000 B.C. to 2010. With a few clicks on its website, you can swing through time and geography, making plain the cultural output of, say, Brazil (largely soccer players) or Belarus (politicians). It also ranks professions from chemists to jurists to porn stars (No. 1 is Jenna Jameson; No. 2 is the Czech Republic’s Silvia Saint).

Like all good media critics, we should always look beyond the means of delivery and towards the source of the story. In this instance, the criteria upon which the M.I.T. team base their qualification of fame is Wikipedia. As we know, Wicki doesn’t always constitute a reputable source so what is the M.I.T team’s rationale for utilising openly editable content? The base criteria for inclusion into their database is that the candidate’s Wikipedia page must exist in more than 25 languages.

“We have taken a smattering of the most famous, according to Pantheon data and classifications, and wandered down rabbit holes of fame. There are many ghosts in the machine — spirits that César Hidalgo, the project’s director, likes to tend. (The ranking system takes longevity into account, which helps explain why many of its most famous people have been dead for at least 1,500 years.) “Poetically, we can say that Isaac Newton’s ghost — understood as information — lives reincarnated in the hard drives that populate server farms,” he says. And these ghosts gather to make a point. Even in an era of Kardashians, actually making things matters. “Tangible achievements,” Hidalgo says, “whether these are songs, books, works of art or scientific discoveries, are better tickets to long-term immortality than the accumulation of material wealth” (Garner, 2014).

Who’s More Famous Than Jesus?

There are many varieties of fame. Jesus Christ was the first person to achieve it globally, Clive James wrote, “without conquering the world by violence.” The best kind for a poet to earn, W. H. Auden said, is like some valley cheese – “local, but prized elsewhere.”

Celebrity Industry

Technological advancements in mass communication gave rise to the celebrity industry. In the early years, each celebrity sector was largely concentrated in a specific location (i.e., Nashville’s country music made it famous; public art celebrities did so for Seattle; film for Los Angeles, and so on). Due to technological advances, the celebrity industry has evolved into a state of decentralization. Not only has celebrity manufacturing moved into sectors beyond entertainment (e.g., sports, politics, and business), but Celebrities also do not remain in one sector (e.g., movie actor Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966 and president of the United States in 1980; bodybuilder and action star Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California in 2003). The celebrity industry also constitutes a growth industry: each year more people become involved in producing Celebrities and more jobs are created around celebrity, such as travel experts, whose whole function is to smooth Celebrities’ movements through airports (Rein, Kotler, & Stoller, 1997, p. 41) or the appearance industry (i.e., costumes, cosmeticians, hairstylists) whose job is to satisfy a competitive market environment that has fueled a race in all sectors to look younger and to better match the appearance requirements of their sectors (Rein, Kotler, & Stoller, 1997).

See Aeschbacher, N., & Hellmueller, L. C. (2010). Media and celebrity: production and consumption of “well-knownness”. Communication Research Trends, 29 (4) (Dec. 2010)

In order to understand the ‘culture of celebrity,’ we must look at the processes of meaning, power and identity production that structure and mediate fame. Artist Andy Warhol had a particularly sophisticated understanding of this, which is reflected in much of his art. He was obsessed with popular culture, mass production and particularly with the figure of the celebrity. Warhol himself was the personification of everything that he was trying to say about the fabricated, materialistic, celebrity-obsessed world as he saw it.

The images below are silkscreen prints by Warhol. Each featuring the image (often reproduced numerous times) of highly recognisable and influential superstars (from the left: Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor).

Drawing on your knowledge of popular culture and your visual literacy skills post your response to the question below in the comments box located on the right side of the Campus Online page.
Do you think Warhol is making an artistic commentary on celebrity and if so, what is he trying to say about modern celebrity?

Celebritisation of Society

Social science researcher James Stanyer has studied media coverage of political leaders in various western countries including Australia, the UK and the US from 1995 to 2009. He found that each country now devotes considerably more attention to politicians’ homes, spouses, children, birthdays, holidays and sex lives than they did in the past (see a discussion of his findings at the link below).


Celebrity as a site of Cultural Learning

Celebrities assert a certain amount of social, cultural and political power. With the help of the mass media, they start fashion trends, diet fads and lend themselves (or their image) to tabloid gossip, which often filters into our everyday conversation.

“It’s only relatively recently in human history that people have had near-constant access to celebrity news and gossip. But celebrities themselves are nothing new. People have long looked to monarchs for social, and even fashion, cues: The now-ubiquitous white wedding dress caught on after Queen Victoria wore one in 1840.

Even hunter-gatherer societies in which material goods are relatively scarce have status hierarchies, said Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan. Other primate species also keep a close eye on the dominant individuals in their groups.

‘There’s a few different reasons for that,” Kruger told LiveScience. “One is just learning what high-status individuals do so you might more effectively become one, and two, it’s basically political. Knowing what is going on with high-status individuals, you’d be better able to navigate the social scene.'”

Watch the short video below or check out the full article at: Pappas, S. (2012). Oscar Psychology: Why Celebrities Fascinate Us. Live Science.  http://www.livescience.com/18649-oscar-psychology-celebrity-worship.html 

Why We Worship Celebrities

But how much can we really learn from celebrity culture? After all, celebrities don’t provide us with any kind of direct instruction on how we should conduct ourselves. Or do they?


The images and text below depict a selection of popular games that simulate life as a celebrity. Read the text (and check out the apps on Google Play or iTunes if you dare) and post your impression to the discussion forum of Campus Online. Here are some questions to prompt your thinking.

► What social and cultural values do these games promote?
► What is the target market for these games?
► Why do you think games like these are popular?
► Can you generalise the cultural learning taking place through the gameplay?

Perhaps the above cultural learnings suggest that celebrity may be a misguided vehicle for cultural learning or even an abuse of a celebrity’s considerable capacity to influence us. But consider for a moment some of the examples of celebrity activism we’ve witnessed over the past few decades. Their notoriety gives celebrities the opportunity to spark debates in the media about complex or controversial issues such as environmentalism or Third World poverty and advocate for change. This may take the form of direct interventions, such as Angelina Jolie taking on an official role as Special Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or indirect displays of support for various social issues such as Elizabeth Taylor wearing a red ribbon demonstrating her support for the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Regardless of their cause, the reach and influence of celebrity are globally acknowledged. For example, the United Nations formalised a role for entertainers, artists, athletes and royalty to serve as goodwill ambassadors and messengers of peace.

Has a celebrity ever introduced you to a socially or politically significant issue? Although it’s difficult to determine or measure the efficacy of celebrity activism, do you think they help or hinder the causes they support? Do celebrities have the right to perform the role of pseudo-public intellectual, advocate, ambassador or diplomat?

Who really benefits from celebrity activism?

Ahead of the 30th anniversary of Geldof and Bono’s Live Aid, The Conversation asks whether star backers cause damage by oversimplifying the politics of power

Reality TV: Your 15 mins of Fame

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This celebrated quote has become one of Andy Warhol’s most well-known statements, leading to the notion of “15 minutes of fame”—the idea that celebrity, from media scandals to memes, will almost always be fleeting.

“Reality TV has emerged as a visible site for contemporary debates over modern fame. In fact, while issues of ‘taste’ and cultural value have long since shaped conceptions of celebrity, the issue of fame has played a central role in the negative cultural criticisms of Reality TV. … In many ways, Reality TV would appear to be paradigmatic of these discursive shifts in fame. … Reality TV in the form of Big Brother, Pop Idol or celebrity-reality shows (such as I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!), have made a particular claim to ‘reveal’ or ‘expose’ the process of fame construction – whether in terms of following ‘ordinary’ hopefuls from the audition stages to their entrance into the media world, or by claiming to offer us an unprecedented ‘access’ to existing celebrities (‘stripping’ away the celebrity façade). … Equally, in terms of the decline of older myths of fame, these shows exhibit a self-conscious acknowledgement of the process of image production and construction, and the use of celebrity for commercial purposes. Lastly, in mediating the threat of the manufacture discourse, they evidently speak quite explicitly to an emphasis on the ‘power’ of the audience given that, through the now familiar use of interactivity, they construct the audience as operating as the ultimate creator of the celebrity.”

Holmes, S. (Nov. 2004) “‘The Only Place Where ”Success” Comes before ”Work” Is in the Dictionary…?’: Conceptualising Fame in Reality TV,” M/C Journal, 7(5). Retrieved 03 Aug. 2016 from < http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0411/07-holmes.php&gt ;.


Watch these short videos that each offer a different perspective on the phenomena of reality TV. Once you’ve watched all three, complete the critical response task below.

Reality Check: Uncovering the truth behind "Reality" TV
Hunger Games: How Reality TV Desensitizes Us
Is Reality TV The Future of Space Travel? | Idea Channel | PBS Digital Studios


People have called it the modern freak show; they’ve compared it to the morbid curiosity of passing a car wreck, and others say it is just an affirmation that our lives are better than the people’s we see on our screens. Regardless of the reason, reality television (more aptly termed: “non-fiction” programming) has captivated America. But ‘reality TV’ is just that: it is TV. It abides by the same rules as everything else we watch, maintaining the four-wall convention seen in other types of programming. Once the ‘TV world’ is created, producers are told not to “break” from this produced reality both physically (by erasing the production apparatus) and narratively (by abiding by the established “rules” of the series). But while this works for fiction programming (even on “unrealistic” science fiction series), reality television purports to represent the “real” (or “corporeal”) world, which cannot be divorced from the reality created on screen. As a result, the fourth wall in reality television is harder to maintain throughout the entire run of a series. Over the last thirteen years, we see the concept of the fourth wall evolving once we begin bringing cast members back for multiple seasons of the same series.

► But how and when did we decide that these “ordinary” people should get more than “fifteen minutes of fame” without any recognizable talent?
► Why were these “ordinary celebrities” legitimized as such in the eyes of the public?
► What are the ramifications of this in our own society that now gives anyone with access to the internet the chance at achieving fame?

With the walls between “ordinary” and “celebrity” constantly being blurred, it is no wonder that we see the same thing occurring on the series that purport to represent this “real world.”

Cashmore, E. (2006). Celebrity Culture. Oxon: Taylor & Francis.
Leslie, L. Z. (2011). Celebrity in the 21st Century. California: ABC-CLIO.
Nayar, P. K. (2009). Seeing Stars: Spectacle, Society and Celebrity Culture. New Delhi: SAGE Publications
Rojek, C. (2001). Celebrity. London: Reaktion Books.
Taylor, P., & Harris, J. (2007). Critical Theories Of Mass Media: Then And Now. New York: McGraw-Hill International.


Your weekly reading task is included below. Take notes on it for further discussion in your tutorial groups. Taylor, P., & Harris, J. (2007). The culture of celebrity. In Critical theories Of mass media: Then and now. McGraw-Hill International.


Don’t forget to check out the resources on the SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest board. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.