Throughout history, celebrities have evoked many different responses. From the early Greeks who celebrated a person as a god to modern “reality” television shows, celebrity has continued to elicit contradictory responses.
A celebrity may be a person or group of people who are known by the general public for their work, philanthropy, or a high social status. They may also be a member of a famous family. A family like the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, or the Osbournes may be associated with politics, business, or popular music. A celebrity may also be a celebrity for other reasons, such as for their wealth, extravagant lifestyle, or for a connection to a famous person.
Throughout history, celebrity has played a vital role in the dissemination of news and information. In the 18th century, fame was connected to rumor, ceremony, and celebration. However, the 19th century brought new forms of celebrity. It introduced human-interest stories, memoirs, portraiture, and the development of a new field of biography. The late 18th century and early 19th century saw the development of exceptional personalities, like Sarah Bernhardt, Charles Darwin, and Franz Liszt.
The mass media, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, multiplied the opportunities for celebrity. Cable television channels, for example, used celebrity chefs, doctors, judges, and presenters. These celebrity stars, or “Idols”, became cultural brokers and generated revenue for media corporations. The cable television channels used these personalities to promote new genres and personalities.
In the 1950s, celebrity manufacturing became more intense. Hollywood employed 300 correspondents and made celebrities into a newsworthy item. Celebrity became a popular subject of news reports and talk shows. In fact, People Magazine made celebrities a daily news item.
The television set created new forms of celebrity, including presenters and lovelorn bachelors. Unlike the earlier celebrity cultures of the 19th and early 20th centuries, contemporary celebrities are no longer contractually bound to a particular company. They can now move between television and movies. Some examples of stars who have done this include Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Amy Adams.
The celebrity culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was also influenced by the rise of popular music. The Beatles and Elvis Presley were popular rock stars. This popular music brought new forms of celebrity, including the pop group. The popularity of these groups and the subsequent celebrity culture of the 1950s and 1960s gave rise to the notion of a celebrity “mania.” Popular music was the first mass-produced entertainment in modern terms.
Contemporary celebrity permeates all aspects of our daily lives. It captures a fleeting social reality. However, celebrity culture is also unstable, and celebrity can elicit contradictory responses. For example, when former Obamas launched their own production company, they did so as part of a larger campaign to expand their celebrity status. They later became best-selling authors.
In the 21st century, the modern newspaper offers a discursive realm where people can meet and interact with their celebrities face to face. This challenges traditional notions of achievement and status.