By James Clark Ross
Isn’t it curious how we can be utterly engrossed by people who lead completely intangible lives to ours? Lives that permeate what we see, what we hear, and what we read.
Celebrities aspire to achieve omnipresence and we oblige them. What compels us to care and what does this say about us?
I’ve scarcely been one to indulge in celebrity culture. In fact, those that know me well may wonder why I’ve dedicated any time at all to write about it. I could just refrain from delving deeper into something that, however superficial, people clearly enjoy interacting with. But this is a system which is so effective at garnering our attention that I believe it warrants closer inspection. And in a world where a former TV star is the President of the United States I can’t take the situation too lightly.
What is a celebrity?
Charlotte from Geordie Shore and Barack Obama are both considered celebrities but I challenge you to draw parallels between the two. Nevertheless, fame and wealth should both be considered common identifiable features.
Somewhat surprisingly, talent isn’t essential to attain them. Merit is an immaterial property in this strange realm, in which so-called personalities can bask in disproportionate levels of undue adoration.
There are, of course, numerous talented celebrities who are probably worthy of our interest and who are wholly competent at their jobs. Beyoncé and Leonardo DiCaprio aptly illustrate this point. But many of these people solely covet these two apparent markers of success. It is these people who are in my firing line. How and why do they engage our fascination?
Simply, this is the world of show business.
It has been argued that celebrity culture was born as early as the 18th century, when the proliferation of portraits and cheap image printing facilitated intimate, not-always-flattering insights into how public figures live (sound familiar?).
At a human level this engages us because we are nosy enough to peek into the lives of others and to reassure ourselves that even great people consist of flesh and bone.
One can easily imagine how public engagement, in general, could be put to good use: our society can always benefit from collective scrutiny and criticism. But consumerism has perverted this potential. An increasingly financially-driven and digitally-connected society has bred a mechanism which acts to generate fame for particular people. Carried by mass media coverage and by pandering to human curiosity, celebrities exploit us. They need us to buy into their lives to sustain their careers.
Celebrities augment their wealth when we consume products associated with their personas. The process can be direct: we may be more inclined to buy products that have been endorsed by a recognisable face, such as perfume, butter, motor insurance, or a fitness DVD. The process can also be indirect: by watching, listening to, and reading about these people we promote their relevance in our minds and allow our purchasing patterns to be manipulated.
This is a system that is cold-heartedly efficient at smothering every facet of our existence. What chance do we really have? As writer George Monbiot puts it: ‘It is pointless to ask what Kim Kardashian does to earn her living; her role is to exist in our minds.’ And, indeed, her and her team have succeeded at capturing our attention.
But celebrities are prudent when it comes to appearing relatable.
A cunning trick is to masquerade their lives as highs and lows that can be universally experienced: stories gain more traction when they are personal. ‘X is cheating!’ ‘Y is pregnant!’ ‘X and Y file for divorce!’
Delivering contentious statements or otherwise acting controversially is another approach.
In terms of the propagation of their personas, various methods are employed to provide us with what feels like a personal insight into their lives: we can follow them on social media to gain a sense of intimacy; journalists document their lives in tabloids and glossy magazines; the paparazzi photographically expose them; we can watch reality TV and chat shows in an attempt to understand their personalities and observe how they interact with people; and so on. Equipped with these tools, this system is sufficiently powerful to catapult almost anybody into fame. Ultimately, we are consumers of this unreservedly huge market.
So it’s lucrative to be a celebrity; I think we all knew that. Money aside, celebrities aren’t that different to you and me. To a degree, each of us feels the desire to be adored; to feel a sense of importance. We seek ‘followers’, ‘likes’, ‘hits’, and ‘shares’. We revel in popularity. Going viral is a momentous achievement. Why?
The draws of recognition are inherent to us all. It informs us that we’re doing things right. It also positively reinforces our behaviours and increases our confidence, which is empowering since high self-esteem enables us to lead the lives we want to live. As such, gratifying this appeal is a completely human self-assuring strategy.
But when we overly rely on society’s approval the views of others can play a significant role in how we define ourselves. This form of validation—being reassured that we’re adequate—forms only a temporary state of satisfaction. Detrimentally, if we afford too much credence to self-perception, our happiness is always going to be at the mercy of others’ judgements.
In my opinion, those who crave approval and those who pursue financial reward to demonstrate individual success possess inflated desires to be reassured by others. Fundamentally, this paints an abject picture of our unfulfilled selves—insecure, discontent, and, at times, narcissistic—but celebrity culture, I believe, has shamelessly pandered to these traits and exacerbated them. Many celebrities, and those who envy them, are extreme manifestations of these behaviours: caricatures. They are desperate to be perceived as successful in a society where income is a marker of achievement.
We only have to look as far as an example to epitomise the unrealistic and materialistic dreams of a nation obsessed with fame and wealth through celebrity culture: X Factor, led by a mogul with a net worth of £330 million, has contrived a notion of success that exploits the desperation of people to be recognised. A contract, with which people have little control over when it comes to creating music, is the prize along with often-temporary fame. Hundreds of thousands are pitted against each other but very few can succeed. Yet millions of us tune in for musical performances and for manufactured personal stories that might resonate with our desires to witness regular people reach the ultimate stage of stardom.
And then there are shows like Big Brother and Love Island, which offer different versions of the same ‘success’. But any potential prominent appearance or full-time role in showbiz beckons many with the temptations of fame and wealth.
I’m not attempting to make the point that we can just simply omit the inherent desires to be acknowledged from our psyches. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be if our accomplishments were never recognised! Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t enjoy the entertainment that is delivered to us. Rather, I argue that celebrity status and fortune collectively nurtures exaggerated illusions of worth, which, for us, often leads to disappointment and insecurity.
But are there noble ambitions of fame? Indeed, there are some good reasons to pursue it. The great David Bowie, for example, chased stardom to gain greater access to resources and a wider audience, for he possessed what he saw as grand ideas that he wanted to impart on others. ‘I wanted to make a mark,’ he’s on record as saying. This is something, perhaps, we can all relate too. Many of us wish for our philosophies to resonate with people and for our work to positively impact society. Feeling valued, not excessively adored, to me seems normal.
However, although Bowie purported to not want to be a celebrity—he declared that ‘fame itself is not a rewarding thing’—even he sought to become an icon beyond music. He tried everything he could think of until the end of the Sixties to build traction, including different costumes and personas, until it all came together. He required the attention of an audience to find out more about himself, whilst later in his life his music became autobiographical. Essentially, then, did he just seek a more sophisticated form of validation of his unconventional self?
Either way, from us and to them, from Paris Hilton to Prince, at the core of celebrity culture is an attempt to engage our insecurities and to entice us with the lures of fame and wealth to varying extents.
Isn’t celebrity culture merely an innocuous form of enjoyment?
I appreciate the entertainment value that showbiz delivers to us; however, an incomplete perspective leads us to dismiss the non-trivial consequences of this self-serving culture.
Celebrity presence is so ubiquitous that it should come as no surprise that our values have changed as a result. In 1997 TV content for 9- to 11-year-olds was mostly associated with community feeling and benevolence. But by 2007 these values had fallen from 1st and 2nd to 11th and 12th and were superseded by fame, image, popularity, and financial success. I find this rather striking and, actually, quite scary.
These cultural effects are particularly pertinent to the insecure and the impressionable. Of these people, children are probably the most susceptible since the young mind can be absorbent and directionless. Furthermore, they are under tremendous amounts of social pressures already. Thus ask children of today what they would like to be when they’re older. No doubt, many will want to emulate their celebrity role models and dream of experiencing the distant lives they lead because ‘success’ culturally emanates from them.
Moreover, authors of another study found that people who were most engrossed by celebrity culture were three times less likely to be involved in local organisations and half as likely to volunteer than those who were most interested in other forms of news . They concluded that those who followed celebrity culture were least likely to be politically engaged. Again, this is an indictment of our society. Surely we can do better.
An alternative vision
The society we coexist in has facilitated a system that suffocates consumers with the relevance of celebrities, who actually depend on us. But not only is celebrity culture a money-making machine that spuriously conflates fame with genuine achievement; it’s an ugly and distorted growth of something intrinsic to us all.
Relying on external approval in order to achieve internal harmony is perpetually unfulfilling since one’s self-esteem is at the behest of others. We try to please others with our looks, our views, and our achievements; we cultivate favourable reputations; and we curate idealistic online identities in attempts to live up to impossible standards. But surely we realise that this is futile. Alas, many still aspire to be famous and wealthy.
Despite all of this, I remain cautiously optimistic. That is, if we can free ourselves from the constant urge to prove ourselves to others, self-perception will no longer be a determinant of our happiness. And so, with more humility and more introspection, there is hope for our society yet.
Andy Millman (Extras):