The Importance of Being Famous

A Short History of Celebrity
By Fred Inglis
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 312 pp

Keeping up with Snooki, aka Nicole Polizzi, has become a full-time job. The recent start of the second season of her MTV reality show, Jersey Shore—a chronicle of binge drinking, bed-hopping, and excessive tanning—has received dawn-till-dusk, all-media coverage. When Barack Obama visited ABC gabfest The View and professed ignorance about the Snooki phenomenon, well, no one really believed him. Sorry, Gail Collins wrote in The New York Times, even the President must have heard of Snooki. After all, the Times had just published a full-dress profile of the zaftig 22-year-old with the pouf hairdo in which her father marveled at her lack of aptitude—can't sing, can't dance, nothing. Within a couple of news cycles, Snooki fed her fans' hunger for Snooki doings by getting stumble-down drunk and arrested on the beach in Seaside Heights, N.J. She was wearing a T-shirt with the word "Slut" spelled out across the front.

Our infatuation with Snooki and her ilk deserves serious consideration, since the nature of such fame says something about the society it reflects. That's one lesson to be drawn from A Short History of Celebrity by Fred Inglis. A cultural historian formerly affiliated with Princeton and now with the University of Warwick, Inglis traces the fame business to its roots in 18th century British theater, on through the high fashion of 19th century Paris, and the intersection in New York of Gilded Age superwealth and mass communication. With scholarly dexterity (he's written more than 20 books), Inglis describes the manipulation of political celebrity by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, followed by the postwar democratization of fame, as movie stars, sports heroes, and rock guitarists became leading celebrities.

Through it all, Inglis argues, the lucrative exploitation of the lives of the rich and famous has entailed an appeal to what audiences think of themselves—for better and for worse. Celebrities provide entertainment, sure, but they also satisfy a need for social cohesion. They are characters in a vast morality play, teaching us what, and what not, to do.

Until the mid-1700s, Inglis explains, kings, cardinals, and other leading citizens enjoyed "renown" rather than celebrity. "Public recognition," the author writes, "was not so much of the man himself as of the significance of his actions for the society." Queens qualified, too. Elizabeth I was renowned as a monarch, not a mere personality; her fame was "conferred by her people on behalf of God and England." The rise of urban democracy in London "made fame a more transitory reward and changed public acclaim from an expression of devotion into one of celebrity."

Successful merchants and their wives had free time to gossip in elaborate pleasure gardens and attend the burgeoning theater. Artists, composers, and, above all, actors gained recognition for the elevated diversions they offered. They were commoners whose private lives became intermingled with their public accomplishments. It did not go unnoticed among a new class of theatrical impresarios that scandal, especially sexual misdemeanors, enhanced a star's glamour quotient. Actress Sarah Siddons elicited audience tears for her stage performances in the 1770s. A friend of Queen Charlotte, she was rumored to be the mistress of not only a well-known painter but a fencing master, too. In a gesture familiar to devotees of Angelina Jolie and Madonna, Siddons received visitors while in the midst of what Inglis calls the "ostentatious mothering of her children": using her foot to rock the crib of one while holding another to her breast. Fans simultaneously adored and deplored her, a love-hate dynamic that still defines the culture of celebrity today.

Extravagance acquired a French accent with the rise of haute couture in the mid-1800s. The Parisian department store provided ordinary Sunday strollers with greater access to the trappings of luxury. Paris exported versatile celebrities, such as the stylish Sarah Bernhardt. Improved transatlantic transportation allowed the trend-setting performer to tour America frequently. In New York she stopped traffic. "She travelled crazily, accompanied by her pet lynx, alligator, [and] python." Public and private merged. "I've always acted," Bernhardt wrote. "I never stop. ... I am my own double."

From the 1880s into the early 20th century the American Robber Barons indulged in a degree of conspicuous consumption that made them the focus of a new variation of fame: that of the fantastically wealthy. At the same time celebrity became industrialized via the proliferating media. Press lords Hearst and Pulitzer discovered that papers sold more briskly if gossip columns mingled sightings of the ultra-rich with those of actors starring on Broadway and, later, in Hollywood. Radio, movies, television—each made it easier and more profitable to market fame to the masses. Hollywood studios hired promotion departments that anointed screen idols like Marilyn Monroe and orchestrated innuendo about their bedroom affairs. B-movie actors were recast as corporate pitchmen—and, in the case of Ronald Reagan, as leader of the free world. Taking cues from the commercial celebrity complex, the political Establishment learned to sell personal glamour, from the New Frontier shimmer of Jack and Jackie's Camelot to the brainy sparkle of the Obamas' Hope campaign.

For the paperback edition, the author ought to address the conundrum of the current crop of talent-free celebrity. How to explain Paris Hilton, Kate Gosselin, and Snooki? Historically, celebrity stirred conflicting emotions of adoration and jealousy. Does anyone admire the contemporary train wrecks, notorious for being self-destructively notorious? As Snooki's puzzled father observed, reality TV stars often have no discernible skill beyond getting wasted and throwing up. Now that everyone is the star of their own homemade YouTube video, their willingness to do so on camera too often explains the extent of their appeal.


Talent, beauty, or wealth have traditionally fueled fame—at least until recently

1. Sarah Siddons (1755-1831): The great London actress's private life fascinated theater goers just as much as her stage performances.

2. J.P. Morgan (1837-1913): Extraordinary wealth, described in the burgeoning U.S. popular press, helped create a new form of celebrity.

3. Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923): Improved transatlantic transportation helped the versatile French performer craft a truly international image.

4. Diana Spencer (1961-97): The shy aristocrat married into royal celebrity and was subsequently canonized as a victim of the fame industry.

5. Tiger Woods (1975-): The sports hero cashed in efficiently on corporate sponsorships, but his carefully shaped persona was crushed by sexual scandal.

6. Snooki (1987-): Bereft of any discernible talent, Nicole Polizzi typifies the reality television flavor of fame based solely on notoriety.

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