Celebrity Culture


The religious texts of the world’s faiths are replete with examples of individuals who are well known by the general public. Some of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt set in motion devices to ensure their own fame for centuries to come. Herostratus, a young Greek man arsoned the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) in 356 BCE in order to immortalize his name. Although authorities at the time tried to expunge him from history and punished people with the death penalty for even merely mentioning his name, he succeeded in achieving lasting fame, as his name is well known to this day.

Celebrity culture, once restricted to royalty and biblical/mythical figures, has pervaded many sectors of society including business, publishing, and even academia (scilebrities). With every scientific advance names have become attached to discoveries. Each nation or cultural community (linguistic, ethnic, religious) has its own independent celebrity system (e.g. J-Pop), but this is becoming less the case due to globalization. Mass media has increased the exposure and power of celebrity.

One possible explanation of this trend is that an artificial importance has been created in order to promote a product or a service, rather than to record a purely biographical event. As more new products are launched in a world market that is constantly expanding, the need for more celebrities has become an industry in itself. Another explanation, used by novelist Chuck Palahniuk, is that this exaggeration of modern celebrity culture is created out of a need for drama and spectacle. In the book ‘Haunted,’ he describes the pattern of creating a celebrity as a god-like figure, and once this image is created, the desire to destroy it and shame the individual in the most extreme ways possible. Tabloid magazines are the prototypical example of this theory.

A common complaint of modern celebrity culture is that the public, instead of seeking virtues or talents in celebrities, seek those who are the most willing to break ethical boundaries, or those who are most aggressive in self-promotion. In other words, infamy has replaced fame. The social role of the town drunk, the court jester, or the sexually indiscreet are not new, but arguably, the glorification of these individuals is. Celebrity status is widely sought after by many people, though some celebrities are displeased by their status. Paparazzi are a problem for celebrities. Another problem is celebrity marriage (often both glamorous and short-lived). There is research that suggests child celebrities have poor emotional health in adulthood, and often turn to drug abuse. Celebrity status is ranked by an ‘A-list’ or ‘B-list’ hierarchy. In the US, celebrity culture is created and disseminated by television talk shows such as ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ where actors and music stars promote their latest films and albums, and by many celebrity magazines such as ‘People,’ ‘Us,’ and ‘Star.’

Celebrities are known for making onerous demands and throwing tantrums when displeased. ‘Acquired situational narcissism’ (ASN) is a form of narcissism that develops in late adolescence or adulthood, brought on by wealth, fame and the other trappings of celebrity. It was coined by psychiatrist Robert B. Millman at Cornell. ASN differs from conventional narcissism in that it develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society. Fans, assistants and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person really is vastly more important than other people, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency, or latent, and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder.’ Millman says that what happens to celebrities is that they get so used to people looking at them that they stop looking back at other people. In its presentation and symptoms, it is indistinguishable from narcissistic personality disorder, differing only in its late onset and its support by large numbers of others. ‘The lack of social norms, controls, and of people telling them how life really is, also makes these people believe they’re invulnerable,’ so that the person with ASN may suffer from unstable relationships, substance abuse, and erratic behavior. A famous fictional character with ASN is Norma Desmond, the faded silent movie star of ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ who clings to the fantasy that she will make a triumphant return to the screen.

Some creators such as poets, artists, musicians, and inventors are little-known and little-appreciated during their lives, but are feted as brilliant innovators after their deaths. In some cases, after historians uncover a creator’s role in the development of some type of cultural or technical process, the contributions of these little-known individuals become more widely known. A desire to achieve this type of posthumous fame may have motivated Alan Abel, Adam Rich, and Pauly Shore to stage their own deaths. Sometimes a false death mention can cause a person to rethink their legacy. Alfred Nobel founded the Nobel Prizes after an erroneous obituary labelled him a ‘merchant of death’ due to his invention and selling of dynamite. Individuals whose greatest fame came after their deaths include: Socrates, Galileo, van Gogh, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, singer Eva Cassidy, artist Edith Holden (whose 1906 diary was a best-seller when published posthumously in 1977), novelist John Kennedy Toole (who posthumously won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twelve years after his death), and author Stieg Larsson (who died with his ‘Millennium’ novels unpublished).

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