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What's hot and what's not? With celebrity status easier to achieve than ever before, are the parameters which define fame about to shift?

The word ‘celebrity’ is derived from the Latin word celeber, meaning “frequented or populous.”  The first celebrities in recorded history were the gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman culture.  Because people believed that the gods had a direct impact on their fate, people grew a strong desire to learn more about them and their personal lives; hence, the birth of Greek and Roman mythology, an artistic form of storytelling which personified the objects of people’s worship, often spinning scandalous tales of love, sex, and betrayal which excited bards’ audiences around campfires for hundreds of years.  As civilizations developed into organized societies, celebrity took on more tangible forms through elite members of royalty and political figures, creating celebrities that people could actually see and relate to.  When athletics took on a prominent role in society, Olympic athletes and gladiators took on celebrity status.  Centuries later, the Renaissance brought notoriety to the arts, as painters, sculptors, writers, and musicians became the celebrities of the day.  Actors were the last group to claim their fame; throughout the Golden Age in Greece, most actors were slaves, and in Puritan times, they were viewed as heretics and heathens, revered only within the small circle of theatre practitioners and the odd theatre-goer.  Many argue that acting was not even considered a noble profession until the actor Sir Henry Irving was knighted in 1895. 

The invention of radio brought the words and talents of celebrity status to the masses.  The voices of Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore and the sounds of Glenn Miller and Bennie Goodman filled radio airwaves in the earliest years of radio music shows.  Blacks began to gain fame for their art forms for the first time as the world got “the blues.”  Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith are just a few examples of black celebrities who came up during the Roaring Twenties.  During World War II, radio was heavily utilized by Roosevelt and Churchill to inspire entire nations, advancing each political leader’s status as a world-renowned celebrity.  And of course, radio personalities such as Orson Welles and Casey Kasem were abundant.

The industries of film and television brought celebrity to another level altogether.  Film brought us stars such as Clarke Gable, Ava Gardner, James Dean, Debbie Reynolds, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis, and of course, Marilyn Monroe.  By the 1950’s, television had taken its place as the world’s most popular entertainment source.  Television brought the world such famous actors as Lucille Ball, Paul Halliwell, Robert Young, and even the earliest child celebrities, such as Jerry Mathers and Ron Howard.  At that time, celebrities were the few and elite and usually had a specific talent or skill which earned them a place as a world-renowned celebrity.

Today, the status of celebrity has taken on an entirely different meaning.  Television has been used to catapult status for years.  Both Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger used their fame as film stars to launch their political careers.  The shameless televization of the OJ Simpson trial seemed to put entertainment value ahead of the tragic loss of human life.  The whole world knows about Mike Tyson’s criminal record, and the media certainly turned the Michael Jackson trial into a three-ring circus.

Most recently, it seems that everyone is out there grabbing at their 5 minutes of fame!  Of course, the first finger everyone points at is the world of reality television, and undoubtedly, it has contributed to the uprise in fly-by-night celebrities; but reality TV is a relatively new phenomenon.  Talk shows have been doing that for years!  Morton Downey, Jr. brought what was widely regarded as “trash” into American homes throughout the 1980’s.  Sally Jesse Raphael enchanted world audiences throughout the 90’s by sending rebellious teenagers to boot camp, and Maury Povich ranks in the ratings airing shows with such titles as “Find My Baby’s Daddy!” and “My Teenage Daughter Has Sex 300 Times a Week Trying to Get Pregnant – HELP!”  And of course, Jerry Springer has made quite a name for himself throughout the US and Europe.  Cheating spouses, secret-harborers, proud strippers, midget sex maniacs, men in diapers, transvestites ready to come out, and die-hard members of the Ku Klux Klan have all stolen their 5 minutes of fame on the Jerry Springer set. 

So what does celebrity really mean these days?  Celebrities once gained their status through a particular talent, skill or feat.  But when your average joe can garner celebrity status by barking and prancing around on a leash on national television, hasn’t the ideal of celebrity lost some of its weight?  Paris Hilton had no other means of attaining celebrity status than birthright; yet the publication of her sex life and the leak of a few private sex tapes shot her from hotel heiress to international celebrity.  Housewife Marguerite Perrin went from every-day citizen to international laughing stock after her hysterical outburst as a “God Warrior” on Trading Spouses, and has since become known all over the world, appearing on Access Hollywood, Jay Leno, and a second episode of Trading Spouses.  And Chris Crocker became a household name overnight after releasing his “Leave Brittany Alone!” video on YouTube, which generated over four million hits in two days.  What did he do to earn his celebrity status, other than cry and scream into the lens of a video camera?  Then again, Picasso’s contemporaries thought his artwork was crap, and look at it now! 

It seems that celebrity status has an addictive element to it.  Once in the limelight, no one wants to let go.  Washed-up celebrities have utilized reality TV in order to keep holding on; just look at Danny Bonaduce’s new show, I Know My Kid’s a Star.   Monica Lewinsky, having lost the limelight after the death of her Oval Office scandal, became the hostess for reality TV show Mr. Personality.  Even once-respected celebrities, such as rock star Brett Michaels and hip hop icon Flava Flav have sunken to new lows, with Rock of Love having just completed it’s second season and Flava of Love recently completing its third; both shows feature mansions full of women competing in ridiculous contests for dates with the men, with one woman getting eliminated each week until Brett or Flav choose one girl to enter a relationship with.  To outdo these and like-minded shows, Penthouse model Tila Tequila rocketed from semi-famous to famous with her reality show, A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila (currently in its second season), in which a house full of men and women compete for the heart of the bi-sexual hottie. 

There was a time when celebrities attempted to stay out of the limelight and to keep their private lives private; dark shades and overcoats assisted them in attaining some level of privacy, and lawsuits were often filed against tabloids which produced photos and stories without permission, regardless of accuracy.  Yet today, most celebrities seem to have bought into the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity!” as the rich and famous clamber for every bit of air time they can sink their teeth into.  Brittany Spears’ love life, shattered marriage, and custody battle seems to have helped her career, if anything, and Brangelina seem to have no problem parading their shameless collection of African children across the cover of any magazine who offers a photo op.  And let’s not forget about Victoria Beckham, who, in spite of enjoying a worldwide spotlighted career with The Spice Girls, marrying a world-renowned football star, starting a solo music career, becoming a fashion designer and author, and releasing her own lines of jeans, accessories, and fragrances, no amount of publicity seems to be sufficient.  It seems that the spotlight can’t focus on Posh enough, as she continues to sell her life story to any documentary-maker who will bite and will make an appearance on any television show whose producers extend an invitation.

So when will celebrity culture die?  Most likely when more people have been on TV than have not.  A good quote from the newly released Sex In The City film sums this up; all four characters order Manhattans at a bar and Samantha says, “Mmm, this is so good!  Why did we stop ordering these?”  And Carry replies, “Because everyone else started.”  Indeed, the vast majority of people want to stand out.  No one wants to be thought of as ‘mainstream.’  Since the invention of television, appearing on it has been ‘cool.’  When is it going to become ‘uncool’ to have appeared on television?  Most people know at least one person in their life who has appeared on national television.  (I went to college with Samantha Weisberg, who appeared on Season One of Rock Of Love and I know a good friend of Patrick Lake, who appeared on Season Three of American Idol.)  And there are now more forgotten faces in the pages of reality TV history than there are memorable ones. 

The world has always had celebrities, and we undoubtedly always will.  But perhaps the paradigm of celebrity status is about to shift.  People are already starting to roll their eyes each time a new reality show is announced.  And the world will certainly eventually tire of the personal-life tragedies of celebrity drama queens and the gossip which steals the focus from almost any international issue.  So what next?  Perhaps the status of celebrity will halt and regroup, and the credit will go back to where it was due, not just to those who are talented, but to those who carry their celebrity status with dignity and use their popularity to genuinely affect positive social and global change, free from ego and without avidly searching for the next close-up PR shot.

1st June 2008
The Death of Celebrity Culture
By Jill A. Bolstridge