Starstruck: An Interview with Elizabeth Currid-Halkett (Part Two)

You also call attention to the less visible labor which goes into the production of the celebrity. Why is becoming a celebrity such hard work and why is it worth it for people across a range of different sectors of the entertainment industry?

One thing that my research has indicated is that celebrity is big business – hundreds of thousands of people and billions of dollars go into the production and upholding of celebrities. Many paychecks and livelihoods beyond those of the stars themselves are a result of celebrity. Being a celebrity is hard work in that one has to constantly keep on top of cultivating one’s public persona and of course getting into the Hollywood star machine is virtually impossible for most of us. That said, many of us question the self-perpetuating, almost tautological nature of celebrity, but if we look at the number of jobs and payroll it makes a lot of sense why there are so many people who want to keep the celebrity industry and the production of stars in business.

John McCain rather famously attacked Barack Obama for being a “celebrity” on the same order as Paris Hilton. What were the implications of this slur and what might it suggest about our ambivalence towards celebrity?

For someone like Obama McCain’s slur has no negative impact – Obama is really talented and a very gifted politician so McCain can try to compare Obama to Hilton but it does not detract from Obama in the way he might have wanted. McCain’s comment rings true though: we’re collectively fascinated with both Paris and Obama and we care about how they drink their coffee and when they go to the gym. We are ambivalent about celebrity because we do think it’s frivolous but the fact is that we care about our stars and they build empires around our fascination (See again: Paris Hilton. See also: Kim Kardashian).

What are “celebrity networks” and what approach did you take to studying them?

I was interested in how celebrities might be different from us. One way in which they are different is that they spend time with an elite group of individuals and invite-only exclusive events – these social behaviors are part and parcel of one’s celebrity status. In order to capture celebrity networks my colleague Gilad Ravid and I looked at the caption information for over 600,000 Getty Image photographs and ran social network analysis to study who was in the photos, at what event, when and where. We found that celebrities really do have more exclusive networks but also that they are able to access one another with much greater ease than those of us in “random” networks. Given that much of career mobilization hinges on “who you know” this means that they have greater possibilities to advance their careers in these industries by virtue of being a part of the network.

How do the “democratic celebrities” which emerge through reality television differ from the more traditional kinds of celebrities you mostly discuss in your book?

Well, democratic celebrities are different because they are more like us – again less icons of perfection than our Hollywood stars. They give us the belief that should we want that type of stardom we could achieve it. They are also circumventing the conventional star system and they are created through the public’s – their fans’ – preferences. They’ve “beaten the system” and don’t have to comply to rigid Hollywood standards of stardom.

Some scandals seem to focus greater awareness on celebrities, while other scandals may destroy them. Do you have any sense on why these very different consequences?

I think the different consequences are a result of whether or not there is a disconnect between our perception of the star the scandal in which she/he is involved in. Tiger Woods took a hit because he was perceived as a clean cut family man and it turned out he was engaged in a string of infidelities. We expect a lot less from Charlie Sheen – not that his behavior is in any way okay but we’ve never thought him to be the poster child of good behavior. Kate Moss’ cocaine scandal was initially thought to hurt her career but she’s even more famous and in demand than ever – but she’s always been the bad girl of the fashion world and never pretended to be anything other than that. It’s really about synchronicity between the star’s public persona and their behavior – good and bad.

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 Developme

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