If you’re looking for someone to blame for Lady Gaga, Madonna and Britney Spears, go back to 19th-century actress Sarah Bernhardt, who made headlines with her love life and traveled with a pet lynx.
Celebrity painters such as Andy Warhol are the heirs of Joshua Reynolds; Tiger Woods and Richard Gere follow Lord Byron. This is the view of writer Fred Inglis, who links all these, Princess Diana, J.P. Morgan and Marilyn Monroe in his lively book, “A Short History of Celebrity.”
Inglis, a former member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, argues that the renown of early luminaries such as Byron grew into international fame as media, marketing and public-relations folks moved in. Celebrities have become brand names (Paul Newman, Newman’s Own). Disturbingly, others used their personality cults to become dictators -- Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
I wonder how Samuel Johnson would have felt about being included in this gallery of the good, bad and ugly. A latter-day Johnson might have been a regular on late-night TV. A 21st-century Byron would still be “mad, bad and dangerous to know” as he tweets and appears on celebrity game shows. Today’s Sarah Bernhardt would surely demand a cover picture and copy approval before granting magazine interviews.
In a crowded field of pop-culture authors, Inglis beats Marina Hyde, whose “Celebrity” (Harvill Secker) is a lightweight look at how entertainers work for the United Nations and meddle in politics. He also bests Graeme Turner, whose “Understanding Celebrity” (Sage) looks at D-listers who are famous for being infamous, and Tom Payne’s “Fame: From the Bronze Age to Britney” (Vintage), which tries too hard to date celebrity back to the cavemen.
Inglis, a polymath author of more than 20 books, loses his sure touch only when he ventures into rock music. Kylie Minogue is loved by her fans for her girl-next-door approachability, the book notes, as if she has absolutely no other talents.
Queen’s live show is described as “a crazy, stamping corroboree, wild, throbbing and stylized as Noh drama” -- as if this is staggeringly unusual for a rock concert.
The book dismisses “a pert little group of girlie singers called the Spice Girls,” then raves for thousands of words about Monroe’s eroticism, Cary Grant’s cool or Seamus Heaney’s poetry (“Famous Seamus”).
“Amiable old fogeys (me, too),” writes Inglis, “look at the capers of the celebrities of the present day and with varying degrees of distaste tut and wag their heads and see it all as the end of civilization.”
His conclusions remain positive: It’s not just publicists such as Max Clifford who need the stars of stage, screen or sport. Ordinary folk can love celebs or hate them, live vicariously through them or learn from them. From the glamour of John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot” to Ronald Reagan’s rise from B movies and Barack Obama’s election campaign, celebrity makes power, money and the world go around. At long last, we have a decent book that goes some way to explain how it got this way.
“A Short History of Celebrity” is from Princeton in the U.S. and the U.K. (311 pages, $29.95, 20.95 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)