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Our Obsession With Celebrities Goes Back 150 Years. What's Behind It?

Left to right, Kris Jenner, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian attend a dinner hosted by The Business of Fashion to celebrate its latest special print edition "The Age of Influence" at Peachy's/Chinese Tuxedo on May 8, 2018 in New York City. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Business of Fashion)
Left to right, Kris Jenner, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian attend a dinner hosted by The Business of Fashion to celebrate its latest special print edition "The Age of Influence" at Peachy's/Chinese Tuxedo on May 8, 2018 in New York City. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Business of Fashion)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Why do some many people care about celebrities? Our guest says the obsession took hold in the 19th century, and she has the scrapbooks to prove it.


Sharon Marcus, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Author of the new book “The Drama of Celebrity.” She’s also written “Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England” and “Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London.”  (@MarcusSharon)

Radhika Jones, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. She formerly served as the editorial director for the books department at The New York Times, deputy managing editor of Time and the managing editor of The Paris Review.  (@radhikajones)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “The Drama of Celebrity” by Sharon Marcus

On January 28, 1966, Life magazine put a French-born actress named Catherine on its cover. Her long, straight hair cascaded down the page, framing the charming face selected to represent a group of ten “lovely young film stars of Europe.” Calling the young women “stars” was something of a misnomer, since all were relative newcomers. But given that Life was then enjoying a peak circulation of 8.5 million copies, chances were good that at least some of the featured starlets would soon develop into true celebrities. Each had been handed an express ticket to fame, none more so than the woman showcased on the cover.

What would it take for Catherine’s big break to result in true celebrity? If stars achieve their status primarily because they are uniquely gifted, attractive, and interesting people, then the answer would depend on the aspiring performer herself. If the public plays the chief role in determining who becomes a celebrity, then Catherine’s success would depend on how well she realized its collective ideals and desires. And if the power to confer stardom resides first and foremost with the media, then publicity alone would do the trick.

Each of these three explanations of how celebrity works has received considerable support among both scholars and the general public. The notion that the media determines celebrity has been especially popular since 1961, when cultural historian Daniel Boorstin declared, “The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.” For Boorstin, the celebrity was merely a chimera, “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” The idea of being famous only for being famous caught on, as did Boorstin’s dire view of celebrity as at best an empty tautology, at worst a mirage imposed on hapless citizens unable to distinguish illusions from reality. Although the occasional economist has since argued that celebrity culture efficiently sorts for quality, many people still cast stars as deceptive effects of a sinister, monolithic, and all-powerful cause: the media. This account presents celebrities as victims who, despite their prestige, wealth, and apparent success, are nothing but commodities used to sell other commodities: movie tickets, clothes, cars. At the same time, this critique also charges celebrities with victimizing the public by putting a glamorous face on the status quo and propping up the myth that anyone who works hard and has talent can succeed.5 As inauthentic beings themselves, celebrities allegedly excel at peddling the false dreams manufactured by what Frankfurt School critic Theodor Adorno termed “the

culture industry,” which he accused of promoting “mass deception” and of impeding “the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves.”6 By these lights, fans are passive fools, celebrities are deceptively alluring pawns, media companies are evil puppeteers, and celebrity culture is a hoax that critical thinkers must expose.

The notion that celebrities are famous merely for being famous persists to this day, appealing to laudable desires to resist authority and unmask falsehood. Some dissenters have countered this pessimistic view. Film scholars writing case studies of individual stars have pointed out that many celebrities actively mold their own personae and should be given credit for their spectacular successes. Researchers studying fans who create their own materials and organize their own communities have argued that publics play the key role in sustaining celebrity culture.7 These

three approaches disagree over who wields power. But each concludes that celebrity results when one and only one entity exercises overwhelming force over the others. For some, it is celebrities themselves who charm the media and wow the public. Others believe that the public decides who will be a star. And many still contend that producers, publicists, and journalists determine who will be a celebrity.

There is only one problem with these accounts: this is not how celebrity works. No one entity has the power to determine who becomes a celebrity, not even the media. Consider the woman who landed the prime spot on the cover of Life magazine, Catherine Spaak. Catherine who? Exactly. Talented and hardworking, Spaak enjoyed a credible career as a minor singer and actor, but she never became a star. By contrast, another Catherine, accorded a mere third of a page toward the

article’s end, soon became an international sensation and an icon for the ages: Catherine Deneuve. Known both for her starring roles in critically and commercially successful films and for the famous men with whom she had children, Deneuve became the face of Chanel No. 5 perfume in the 1970s, starred opposite rock star David Bowie in a 1983 vampire movie, and launched her own perfume and fashion lines. In 1971, she was one of 343 famous French women who publicly acknowledged having had illegal abortions. In 2018, she lumbered into #MeToo territory when she signed an open letter that denounced women protesting harassment as waging war on sexual freedom, then quickly apologized to the many whom her stance offended.

Being showcased on the cover of Life in 1966 did not confer stardom on the one Catherine any more than being buried in the story’s back pages prevented the other from becoming world famous. No one can become a celebrity without media attention, but media coverage alone does not a celebrity make. Publicists, marketers, and entertainment industries are not omnipotent kingmakers. Stalled

campaigns abound. If relentless publicity alone created celebrity, then every one of the many songs that ever benefited from payola would have become a major hit, and every heavily promoted actor would be a star.

Excerpted from THE DRAMA OF CELEBRITY. © 2019 Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

New York Times: “A Star Is Born? Try Manufactured, a New Book Argues” — “The legendary actress, international superstar and shrewd self-promoter Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was the ‘godmother of modern celebrity culture,’ and is the central figure of this inventive, stimulating book by the Columbia professor Sharon Marcus. Bernhardt used the media to publicize her sexual daring and make even her flaws iconic. When she was caricatured as ‘skeleton Sara,’ she flaunted her fashionable thinness and extravagant costumes. Her nasal voice, sinuous movements and angular poses made her recognizable and electrifying even to audiences who did not know French. Reporters were fascinated with rumors of her exotic menagerie, the satin-lined coffin in her bedroom, her ride in a hot-air balloon, her adventurous world tours. Henry James called her ‘the muse of the newspaper.’ Even amputation added to her allure. After her leg was removed in 1915, Bernhardt kept on performing, ‘prone, on a litter’; the Shubert press office suggested a “Post-Amputation Tour” and it sold out across the country. The Divine Sarah was the most famous amputee since Captain Ahab.

“By highlighting Bernhardt’s agency and stamina, Marcus aims to overturn the elite intellectual position that the media is largely responsible for creating celebrities who are mere commodities; she wants to challenge the perception that 21st-century celebrity is ‘synonymous with an empty renown that has no basis in merit or achievement.’ Gender plays a role in this disdain; in the mid-19th century, when most celebrities were male, the term was ‘strongly associated with merit.’ Now that female stardom is accepted, bias is displaced to the gender of the fans: ‘The more feminized the fan base, the less seriously the press takes the star.’ Nonetheless, she argues, ‘celebrity culture is a drama involving three equally powerful groups: media producers, members of the public and celebrities themselves.’ ”

North American Victorian Studies Association: “Sharon Marcus, The Drama of Celebrity” — “Why do so many people care so much about celebrities? Who decides who gets to be a star? What are the privileges and pleasures of fandom? Do celebrities ever deserve the outsized attention they receive?

“In this fascinating and deeply researched book, Sharon Marcus challenges everything you thought you knew about our obsession with fame. Icons are not merely famous for being famous; the media alone cannot make or break stars; fans are not simply passive dupes. Instead, journalists, the public, and celebrities themselves all compete, passionately and expertly, to shape the stories we tell about celebrities and fans. The result: a high-stakes drama as endless as it is unpredictable.

“Drawing on scrapbooks, personal diaries, and vintage fan mail, Marcus traces celebrity culture back to its nineteenth-century roots, when people the world over found themselves captivated by celebrity chefs, bad-boy poets, and actors such as the ‘divine’ Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), as famous in her day as the Beatles in theirs. Known in her youth for sleeping in a coffin, hailed in maturity as a woman of genius, Bernhardt became a global superstar thanks to savvy engagement with her era’s most innovative media and technologies: the popular press, commercial photography, and speedy new forms of travel.”

Vox: “The first modern celebrity was born 175 years ago” — “Priests gave sermons denouncing her. Monarchs gave her jewelry. Stalkers threatened to throw acid on her while she performed. Men ended up in asylums, convinced she had promised to marry them. Fans serenaded her under hotel windows, made shrines to her in their tiny lodgings, and held vigils outside her Paris apartment while she lay dying. The press reported on her every move: her weight, her earnings, her pets, her hobbies. When she didn’t like what they wrote, she sued them or demanded that editors publish letters presenting her side of the story.

“She was Sarah Bernhardt, born in Paris in 1844, as well-known in her lifetime as Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, or Lady Gaga in theirs. Today it may seem inconceivable that a stage actor could attain this level of fame, but in the 19th century — before film, before radio, before the internet — theater was the only game in town. Rich and poor alike attended live performances several times a week. London, New York, and Paris drew up to 18 million theatergoers a year. Small towns had theaters too, and the biggest stars traveled to them; one of Bernhardt’s many US tours included a stop in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

“Today, an Italian rapper can have 3 million Twitter followers and still be someone most people have never heard of. Sarah Bernhardt, by contrast, was a household name around the world, even among those who never actually saw her perform. Tens of millions of people read about her in the cheap newspapers published in morning and evening editions to keep up with information flowing rapidly through newly installed telegraph cables. Even more saw her photographs reproduced in magazines and displayed in shop windows. Anyone who wanted their own image of her could order several cheaply through the mail.”

Allison Pohle and Alex Reice produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.