The Slow Rebirth of Celebrity
How the currency of recognition became its own worst enemy
The last few months have seen a number of (really rather good) pieces written proclaiming 2020 as the year the concept of celebrity finally met its end. Celebrities, the argument goes, were so elevated from everyday life that they failed to grasp the horror that was life in a pandemic while the rest of us no longer had the emotional energy left to enjoy their displays of ostentation as amusing quirks.
There’s certainly a wealth of evidence from this year to back this theory up, from Gal Godot’s notorious cover of Imagine, to Ellen’s treatment of her staff once again coming to light and, of course, Kim Kardashian’s private island party.
The public responded to all these with mockery, the initial condemnation quickly turning into an opportunity to create endless memes. Celebrities have not been viewed as untouchable role models for a long time, instead being open targets for criticism and outrage. Now, it seemed, they were facing a fate worse than that — they had become jokes. All this while earnestly posting about how “we’re all in it together” without a hint of irony.
Celebrities, it would seem, have fatally misread the room. Unable to adapt to our new, more austere, reality, they have exposed the huge gap between themselves and us. Coupled with TikTok (and to a lesser extent, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube) introducing a whole new field of fame which most established celebrities have struggled to understand (Jason Derulo somehow being the exception) has posed a further challenge to our famous friends.
So you can understand why it’s being said that celebrity is on its last legs. However, it’s not quite as simple as that. After all, we’ve always had famous figures misread the mood or make a fatal gaffe. Rising up to take their place have been a host of new faces. There’s no reason to believe that this won’t happen again. As the TV-age celebrities like Ellen and Kim Kardashian struggle to stay relevant, social media natives such as Chrissy Teigen or, it would seem, Dionne Warwick are only too ready to fit the new, more contemporary public figure we’re looking for.
The real crisis celebrity faces is not that the faces we are used to are no longer entertaining us but that the whole value system upon which celebrity functions is falling apart.
Starting with the rise of proto-reality-TV in the 1990s and really coming into its own in the excesses of the pre-2008 noughties, a new class of celebrity came into existence, epitomised by Paris Hilton. Here we had a figure who we were expected to know, whose life we were told to care about with the notable addition that she had not done anything to warrant this attention. Previously, however unimportant it may have been, all our famous faces had become famous for doing something, often singing, acting or sporting success.
The rise of these new spontaneously-made-famous celebrities came alongside a new fetishisation of celebrity itself. Children went from wanting to be famous singers/footballers etc. to being famous for its own sake. The rise of celebrity-centred gameshows and reality shows also took off. While the most obvious example is I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! which takes celebrity-ness as a central selling point, it at least has some other draw in that the participants are also expected to take part in trials. Celebrity Big Brother, on the other hand, had nothing to offer the viewer other than the ability to watch famous people living in a house together, being famous.
Fame therefore went from being the end goal of a successful career to becoming a tool with which a career could be created. You no longer had to do anything to become famous. In fact, it helped to become famous before trying to do anything.
Being recognisable had become its own currency. Fame opened the doors to wealth through new opportunities open only to celebrities, beauty through cosmetic treatment and talent (or rather the chance to attempt it) through book/film/music deals. All these products of fame of course, continued to create more fame.
Taking place during the pre-2008 boom, the parallels with the economic situation are easy to draw. Fame had become a source of credit that was being used to manufacture more fame, rocketing those caught up in it into superstardom. None of this was based in reality, and just like the economy, any growth that had only been backed up by previous growth was bound to come crashing down at some point.
Previously, celebrities were made somewhat organically. A public persona with an amount of charisma grew popular in a niche crowd, who spread the word in a repeated process until the figure had become a household name. Whatever you may have thought of a ‘traditional’ celebrity, their fame was rooted in a popular awareness, if not always support, of them.
Now, celebrities could be made by a producer picking someone out to appear on a reality TV show. Their appearance on this show would be enough justification for another producer to declare them worthy of celebrity status, appearing on chat shows, advertising campaigns and the like. The public had become irrelevant. At no point did anybody ever need to consider if this persona was actually liked, or even known, by viewers.
The end of all this was not a sharp collapse, but like a dying empire, the old structures of the recognition economy continue to run, creating content that is ever more absurd when compared to reality. The most recent example is EE’s baffling TV ad.
Featuring both Kevin Bacon and Rita Ora, the ad’s main selling technique is seemingly the presence of these famous faces, albeit two that appeal to different demographics. Yet, and this is speaking as someone who knows who Rita Ora is and probably listens to her music more than the average person, she could be walking down the street and I wouldn’t know a thing, to quote Keke Palmer. Even once we’re told it’s her, the effect is not of awe, but bafflement. Why is the singer here? Why is she singing about love while walking through a model London like Godzilla? More importantly, why should we care?
The recognition economy has overshot. In expecting us to know, care about and be influenced by Ora’s presence in an ad, it never considered if she would even be known by viewers, let alone what they might think of her. As a result, the ad has been roundly mocked.
This isn’t the end of manufactured celebrity, but it is one of its dying throes. Advertising and culture, the realms of the celebrity, are driven by results and now that the schism between public perceptions of public figures and their perceived influence has grown so large as to be absurd, their ability to drive sales and viewers will surely start to decline. With that, so will they.
This clearly marks the end of systematic celebrity and celebritisation but why not celebrity altogether? The fact is, fame, in its traditional form, is the result of natural cultural patterns. Even with the collapse of the celebrity-built-on-celebrity, we will still create popular figures, just in a new way.
Going back to the pre-noughties concept of fame, our new celebrities will be democratic, raised to their position by popular support (and equally liable to be brought back down by them). The superstar will also become an increasingly rare phenomenon in a media culture that is split across more platforms and subcultures than ever before. Instead, each community will find their own figures to elevate, creating localised fame wherein somebody may be idolised by one group while being almost unkown in wider society. For an example of this, we can simply look to the stan culture that exists around pop musicians today.
Celebrity is certainly not dead. If anything, now that its worst excesses are falling away, the concept is boucing back stronger.