Celebrity culture is in many ways the flip side of fan culture. Having spent many years studying fans, I was delighted upon arriving at USC to meet a new colleague, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, who studies celebrities. We instantly began comparing notes. In many world, those fans who are drawn towards celebrities display very different dynamics than those drawn towards fictional characters. Celebrity-focused fans seem more competitive, less collaborative, with each other, in part because the celebrity is a limited good. The fans who get close to the celebrity often become “protectors” of that access by “policing” the behavior of other fans. Only a limited number of fans can be “close” to Johnny Depp, while there can be as many Jack Sparrows as there are fan fiction writers. And so, I suspect celebrities often see fans at their worst rather than understanding the richness of all that fan culture has to offer.
Currid-Halkett’s book, Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity, was released late last year and I am happy to present it to my readers “for their consideration,” as the posters around Hollywood this time of year would put it. I found it a very engaging and informative read, one which seeks to understand the economics of being famous, and one which takes an imaginative approach to mapping the social networks which grow up around celebrity culture in Hollywood and elsewhere. She certainly has a lot to say about what it means to be famous in our culture, including being famous for being famous, as is true say for Paris Hilton, or being famous in a niche community, as might be true for Big Name Fans in the science fiction world or in her example, designers in the wargaming world. While there’s just enough gossip here to keep us turning the pages, people checking out this book will get a lot more — a deep understanding of what makes being a celebrity or being close to a celebrity or selling news and pictures of celebrity such a lucrative business in today’s culture.
You open the book with a comparison of the kinds of lifestyle information some people divulge on Facebook and the role which celebrities play in our culture. In what way are they the same? How are they different? Why do you think so many young people want, above all, to be famous?
Celebrity hinges on the collective fascination we have with particular people which means it can exist in all social stratospheres. Hollywood is just a very visual mega version of a phenomenon that exists in all of our lives. Facebook and social media more generally just provide more avenues for people to cultivate a public persona. If we look back to high school or the family reunion we see the same type of collective fascination in more old fashioned contexts as much as in “celebrity 2.0”.
You define celebrity as “the special quality that some individuals possess that propels society to care more about them than about other people.” Do we have any basis for understanding why some personalities become celebrities and others fall below the grade?
Yes and no. I think that it’s hard to truly pinpoint what makes us anoint some people as stars while we discard others – is there a meaningful difference between say Paris Hilton and every other pretty socialite? That said, celebrities do behave differently than everyone else. They over share, they put themselves in the spotlight, they show up at events that are documented and they create a public persona – we see this on Facebook as much as we see it in Hollywood.
You suggest that the nature of celebrity shifts when the media system changes. How might we contrast our current era of celebrity gossip from, say, the Hollywood star system of the 1930s?
Social media and the 24/7 gossip cycle have transformed stars from being icons of perfect who we admire from afar to individuals who we attempt to relate to and who are, to borrow US Weekly‘s phrase, “Just Like Us”. Also the ability to take a photo and have it online in under 10 minutes means that we are recording the day by day activities and banality of stars. I actually feel bad for them because now it’s not just looking fabulous at the Oscars, they have to think about what their makeup looks like when their grabbing their morning Starbucks order.
One of the interesting aspects of the book centers around what you call “relative celebrity,” a topic which takes you from the Warhammer workshop to ROFLcon, trying to understand how people become famous within smaller niches. What can studying such relative celebriities tell us about the larger phenomenon of celebrityhood?
Relative celebrities are simply fractal versions of mainstream Hollywood-style celebrity. They are not on their way to Hollywood, they are autonomous forms of stardom. In this sense, relative celebrities tell us a lot about how celebrity is a social phenomenon everywhere and a way in which society is organized. We anoint special people, we collectively obsess about certain people for things that transcend their talents and our stars provide an important social function -as you’ve pointed out in your own work, they are the material and information we gossip about. So their function is more than just existing as people – their existence provides a stickiness for society to bond over.
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the author of The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City (Princeton University Press) and Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity (Faber & Faber). She is assistant professor at University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development.