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Starstruck



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About The Author

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the author of The Warhol Economy and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. She holds a PhD in urban planning from Columbia University and divides her time between New York and Los Angeles.

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EXCERPT

1
 
Celebrity Today

M and I met briefly several years ago on a tree-lined street in New York City’s West Village. He knew the man I was with, and when M said hello he introduced himself to me as well. We spoke for perhaps ninety seconds. I have not seen him since. He did ask for my e-mail address, and at some point I got an e-mail asking if I would like to be friends with him on Facebook. I accepted in the way that most of us accept Facebook friends, as long as they’re not Charles Manson.

In the several years since I first met M, I have learned a lot about his life. He works in media. He seems to fly back and forth between Los Angeles and New York at least once a week. I don’t think he has a girlfriend, but from his Facebook photos he seems to spend time with attractive women and semifamous people, and he goes to lots of parties. I pretty much always know when he’s watching a movie, getting brunch, listening to new music, unable to sleep, or feeling pensive, gloomy, or euphoric. I know what parties he goes to, what he ate for breakfast, and when he’s in Los Angeles or New York, running late for a flight to Los Angeles or New York, or anywhere else.

I am not a stalker. Every time I go on Facebook and see my “News Feed” I am assaulted with information about M. Between my log-ons, M has updated his “Status” multiple times, sometimes several times in an hour. I know about him and really about everything in his daily life with minimal effort. I can also tell that I’m not the only one fascinated with his fascination with himself. Recently, M uploaded a picture of his sofa with a laptop open and the status update, “This is my sofa view when I’m not living the glamorous life,” to which a flurry of friends commented: “all too familiar” and “without love it ain’t much” (the latter of which made no sense to me), and M was able to respond in kind. For someone who several posts later wrote “M is busy” (which also received several comments by friends), he sure has an amazing amount of time to spend online. Many people (any of his three thousand–plus Facebook friends) are reminded of the intimate details of his existence several times a day. Whether they want to know these things or not, no one ever forgets that M exists. Ironically, I’ve grown attached to M. The other day there was an entire nine-hour hiatus between status updates. I genuinely wondered what the hell was going on. As much as I’d like to say that people like M are annoying, in truth, I click on their Facebook profiles more than on the people who never update their statuses, and I notice when they have gone silent. I can’t help myself.

All of us know characters who seem to have no job, hobby, or chore other than updating their blog or Facebook status. Twitter, the online social-messaging and “microblogging” system accessible by personal digital assistant (PDA) applications, short message service (SMS) text messaging, or computer, tantalizes with the question: “What are you doing?” Users are challenged to answer in 140 characters or fewer, and they do. Dozens and dozens of times per day. We “follow” (in Twitter-speak) people’s lives via a click of a button, and people follow ours as well. Britney Spears does it. So does British comedian Stephen Fry and Hollywood heartthrob Ashton Kutcher. So does one of my favorite economists. And my graduate school adviser. And my husband (though, recently, I’ve put a stop to that). And yet their status updates, or tweets, as it were, would lead us to believe they have extraordinarily exciting lives (which some of them surely do)…so extraordinary it’s a wonder they have time to do anything other than live it. They are “off to Brazil,” “heading to the Super Bowl,” “eating brunch with Mickey in Santa Monica,” “stayed out waaaayyy too late” “pondering between steak frites and a cheeseburger at Balthazar.”

I choose to pay attention to M’s news feeds more than those of any of my other friends on Facebook for reasons I can’t fully explain. I don’t know M personally and I don’t think he is particularly remarkable, and yet I find him fascinating. But here’s something you might have picked up on already: My seemingly banal, casual interest in M, or any of the Facebook or Twitter characters each of us develops a personal affection for, is no different from our interest in the average celebrity gracing the cover of OK! magazine. The socialite may feed gossip about herself to the tabloids while M employs Twitter and Facebook, but these distinctions are pretty academic: Our interest transcends any talent these individuals may or may not have; they provide us with personal information that we really shouldn’t know, and we remain consistently engaged in their lives and want to know more. My “friend” M, the perpetual Facebook updater, is as much a star as the high-profile socialite giving us constant new information about her boyfriends, new shoes, and where she goes clubbing. We can find versions of celebrity—that collective obsession with someone—in all of our lives. And just like with Hollywood fandom, in our desire for information from him, his friends (including me) are the essential participators in cultivating M’s celebrity.

I have a particular affection for M’s updates in the way that someone else may have an interest in the New York socialite, or perhaps his or her own Facebook celebrity. I’m not entirely sure if M’s updates are true, but then again, Hollywood publicists have been spinning stories to the media since the beginning of time. Asking whether his updates are credible is missing the point. M is able to create a fabulous persona that engages a wider public in a way never possible before. M’s star power is a function of new forms of social media that allow him to share intimate information about himself and enable his “fans” to attain his personal details with very little effort.

The phenomenon of celebrity—that collective fascination with some people over others—is everywhere. The way we use Facebook and Twitter demonstrates that star power is not just about “special people in special places.” This disproportionate interest exists in the most prosaic and ordinary places and is directed at people who are not conventional stars. In fact, we confuse celebrity and its accoutrements of tabloids, TV programs, and flashbulb lights with a basic maxim: We just care about some people more than others. Celebrity on the big screen and plastered across glossy magazines is just a magnified version of a phenomenon present in our own lives.1 M is a celebrity in his Facebook world, in the way Paris Hilton is in the world at large. The high school quarterback is as much a celebrity in his small town as Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers was to America at large. And in this respect, celebrity has a significant importance in illustrating some of the fundamental principles of human and social dynamics. This process of selecting some people over others happens everywhere and almost always requires the same elements: a collective public, some type of mechanism for distributing information (whether People magazine, Facebook, or the small-town local newspaper), and interest in these people for reasons other than any contribution they make to society.

Celebrity is the special quality that some individuals possess that propels society to care more about them than about other people. This quality, most visible on the big screen, is present in every layer of society, in every pocket of the world, and in all types of social circles from Hollywood to the family reunion. Some celebrity can be chalked up to charisma, the magical trait that catalyzed the public frenzy surrounding Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy, for example. Some celebrity is sheer determination to be noticed: M spends way more time updating his Facebook page than most other members, and as a result, I’m more aware of his existence. Some celebrity is the luck of being born beautiful or being in the right place at the right time. Undoubtedly, the attainment of celebrity on the big screen or Facebook or in small-town America is not a simple formula. Not all stars achieve their status through the same means or characteristics. Yet these diverse individuals are tied together by the basic fact that we are interested in them.

This book is about celebrity as a social phenomenon that exists everywhere. Far from being frivolous, celebrity permeates our social dialogue and generates millions of dollars in revenue for celebrities themselves and the various people and companies that latch onto these individuals. A person who possesses celebrity may win elections, get the lead role in a movie, or become homecoming queen. Despite the seemingly vast difference between M and Paris Hilton, they are connected by their common attribute of being interesting to their respective collective publics. This assertion leads to many questions. What basic “rules of stardom” do celebrities abide by? Can we predict who will become a celebrity? What makes someone so captivating? What makes us want to know more about someone over another? How does celebrity work?

Before getting into the different aspects of stardom, it’s worth taking a moment to look at where we are now, which is in a state of unprecedented oversaturation and decentralization. Yes, undoubtedly, in order to be a film star one must pass through Los Angeles. But the deluge of social media has provided a virtual geography with no barriers to entry, such that people like M can permeate a collective consciousness around the world like any other celebrity. No, he will not grace the cover of US Weekly, but his wide and diverse social circle will be aware of all the intimate details of his life and may discuss him just as they would a conventional star. Similarly, Bollywood film stars (and their fans) care not at all about breaking into Western markets, and why would they? Hollywood is not the only pinnacle of celebrity. As such, celebrity is a definitive example of cultural multipolarity. Just as many argue that a central political superpower or financial center no longer exists, the point should be extended to celebrity, which increasingly has no one particular type, market, or fan base.2 People can become extraordinarily celebrated and reap the financial rewards of their celebrity without ever stepping into a film studio executive’s office. The ability to ignore the conventional channels of stardom is due to celebrity’s changing definition. Today’s celebrity is different from the past in three interweaving ways. First, anyone seems to have the chance of becoming a star. Second, we want more from our celebrities than ever before. And finally, new media and technologies make both of these trends possible.

Let’s start with the first defining trait of contemporary celebrity: anyone can be a celebrity. Yes, celebrity has always existed in smaller versions in our own lives, whether the high school quarterback or our favorite aunt. People like M have always existed on a smaller scale, but our awareness of so many people like him is a product of the massive rise of new democratic media forms. YouTube celebrities, the Gosselins, and Tila Tequila are not just celebrities within their own proximate social worlds; they are everybody-knows-your-name stars who are on the tongues of average Americans and yet for reasons we cannot pinpoint. They are not notably talented, beautiful, or starring in blockbuster films. Instead, these individuals emerge, by their own volition, through the various new entry points made available. Otherwise unknown people come out of the woodwork in the form of YouTube videos, reality TV, MySpace profiles, and obscure web-based phenomena like ROFLCon, an organization and annual conference devoted to promoting what we now call “Internet celebrities.” Great Britain is abnormally fixated on Big Brother, a reality show (with splinter series in multiple countries) that bunks up complete strangers in a confined space and records their every move in creepy, overexposed Orwellian style. Each week, a housemate is “evicted.” Meanwhile, the housemates are sequestered from all forms of media, news, or information from the outside world. Needless to say, extraordinary things occur.

Mark Frith, former editor of Britain’s celebrity tabloid heat, had an epiphany while observing Britain’s obsession with the show. He was presciently aware that despite the utter ordinariness of these people, society was fascinated with their inner workings. Voyeuristically, Britains peeked into the housemates’ lives and wanted to know everything about them, despite—or almost because of—their banality. Just by putting the characters of this reality TV show on the cover of the magazine, heat increased its circulation by 50 percent. “Anyone is now a celebrity,” Frith said. “We’ve [heat] been the first to realize this and it’s something that is helping us immensely. No one else has picked up on it.”3 Frith was onto something big. These individuals being obsessed about went on to be rewarded with TV contracts, book deals, and so forth.

Big Brother was only the beginning of a worldwide trend of making celebrities out of nobodies. Tila Tequila got a reality TV show because she was the most popular girl on MySpace (based on number of page views), and lonelygirl15 captivated the world just hanging out in her bedroom doing nothing (or so it seemed) and recording all of this nothingness on gritty YouTube footage. In Britain, Katie Price, otherwise known as “Jordan,” went from a tabloid pinup girl to reality TV star to equestrian clothing designer, author of children’s books, and novelist, earning more than £50 million for just being an ordinary girl from Brighton with a nice smile, giant breasts, and an affection for bad language and hot pink.

As celebrities themselves have changed, so has our relationship to them. Celebrities have existed since the formation of social and economic stratospheres in society. Anyplace where differences exist in social class, there will be an elite group that is revered and focused upon more than the rest.4 Early cultivation of celebrities had two important qualities. First, the public accessed stars primarily from a distance. Sightings were limited to official events, like the Oscars, which showcased the stars looking glamorous and perfect. Second, stars’ public personae were carefully constructed and micromanaged: The public rarely got a taste of them as regular people. Even though Marilyn Monroe’s life was filled with sordid and tragic tales, she still maintained an aura of glamour and sexiness. She did not truly unravel or become pathetic in a way that would challenge her stardom.

The other quality of past celebrity is that stars historically attained that position through possessing something special, whether power, talent, social status, wealth, or achievement. Leo Braudy notes in his definitive book on the history of fame, Frenzy of Renown, that Alexander the Great attained celebrity through conquering much of the known world. Later, Julius Caesar achieved renown through his creation of the Roman Empire. The French saw their aristocrats as celebrities, and the British still do. Yet possessing something special and extraordinary is not necessary to attaining contemporary celebrity. So what changed?

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum has been the definitive celebrity monument for almost two hundred years. Tussaud’s wax representations are a reflection of society’s changing relationship to stars throughout history. Born Marie Grosholtz in 1761, Tussaud herself was a young woman from Strasbourg, France. Her mother was housekeeper to Phillipe Curtius, an affluent doctor with a skill in waxworks. After years as his apprentice, Tussaud finally produced her first solo waxwork, a statue of the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire. In the following years, Tussaud built an empire of wax museums documenting the celebrities of her day, a blend of notable intellectuals, such as Benjamin Franklin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, along with French aristocracy and high society. Ahead of her time, Tussaud was a keen appraiser of the public’s tastes and an expert on the perpetual “cult of celebrity.” As early as 1849, Madame Tussaud’s wax museums were viewed as litmus tests of the cultural zeitgeist, with one magazine coining the phrase “the Tussaud Test of Popularity.” Or as the magazine put it, “Madame Tussaud’s has become in fact the only dispenser of permanent reputation.”5

Tussaud’s original ambition adhered to our modern-day understanding of celebrity: The people she immortalized in wax (even the talented ones) had always been individuals whose stardom rested as much on their personae as their work; they were individuals the public was captivated by. The result of her efforts was to bring, as the historian Kate Berridge put it, “the gods down to earth.” But over time, there were changes in how the museum presented its stars. When it first opened in the early 1800s, a rope protected the wax figures and no photographs were allowed.6 The public could observe these icons only from a distance. But in the last few decades, as a recent visit I made with my father showed, we can now go right up next to them. We can touch them. The museum has not only allowed cameras but actually encourages visitors to be photographed next to the statues. In fact, if you’re my father, you can take a tedious tour around the museum and compare your height to all of the U.S. presidents, reporting back with smugness that you inched out Nixon, even if by just a hair.

And thus we are today at a moment in which we strive to be near celebrity by any means possible. Contemporary celebrity is defined by our desire to know everything about stars, not as icons but as people “just like us,” to use US Weekly’s mantra. An 1850s French aristocrat whose life was followed with great intensity was surely a celebrity, and surely many wished for more information about her daily existence. However, her public did not have access to it. In other words, the modern appetite for celebrity is greater, but perhaps partially because we have been given more material, which in turn created a yearning for more—this need is not so different from an addiction to a substance or activity. Today’s reportage of celebrity is different because we have expanded the list of things we want to know about stars. No longer is it enough to see them at the Oscars in Chanel; we want to see them at Starbucks without makeup, getting their nails painted, fighting with their boyfriends, see what they ate for breakfast—we want to know everything about them. Just as in Tussaud’s wax museum, we want to remove the protective rope and be as close to them as possible. And we do not care so much about their talent anymore (if they even have any); celebrities, even the talented ones, are focused on for things that have nothing to do with their talent.7 Stan Rosenfield, one of the most famous and respected publicists in Hollywood, explained the evolution of celebrity to me. “There was a time when most media coverage had to do with their [stars’] ability to perform. Frank Sinatra [was covered by the media] because of the crowd he ran with and the lifestyle he lived, but he was still a [music] star. But these days, he wouldn’t need the profession.”

With this greater emphasis on personal narrative, the talentless celebrity has become just as legitimate a star as the actors, musicians, writers, and other talented celebrities.8 And gone are the days of the Hollywood studio system and well-oiled PR departments, where actresses were under strict contract to give interviews only to a very select group of media outlets and those outlets’ output was tightly controlled. In the old world of celebrity, stars were rarely reported doing anything second to perfection. In our modern celebrities, we have all the tawdry and dull stuff of human existence. Celebrities and aspiring ones are willing to trade their intimate moments—some seemingly mortifying and embarrassing—for the chance that the world might take notice of them. The collective interest in the everyday or oddly unglamorous, decidedly “un-Hollywood” parts of celebrity life has saturated us.9 In fact, the banal details of one’s personal life are the currency of contemporary celebrity. In the process, we ordinary (even talentless) individuals have ever more potential ways to enter the state of celebrity.

In one of the more grotesque examples of this phenomenon, former U.K. Big Brother reality star Jade Goody (a classic example of how anyone can be a celebrity) allowed the Sun to document a graphic daily account of her rapidly deteriorating health as she battled the cervical cancer that would ultimately kill her. We watched her quickie marriage, leaving her doctor’s office, sucking on a pain medication stick, losing her eyesight, and feebly getting in and out of cars as the paparazzi flashed the camera lights. We watched her die. I knew as much about Goody’s failing health as I would know of that of a close friend.10 Initially, it was hard to understand why someone in the throes of cancer thought it would be a good idea to pose on the cover of OK! magazine, bald from chemotherapy and needing two naps just to make it through the photo shoot. Goody, it turned out, was actively raising money through these media gigs to provide for her soon-to-be motherless children (she made £700,000, or $1 million, for photos of her wedding). But our rationale for watching Goody’s tragedy unfold was more ambiguous. What was wrong with us that we wanted such devastating updates about a woman we didn’t even know? According to OK! the week Goody’s hurried and tragic wedding was on the cover, the magazine sold two million copies, almost four times the average.11 Even the New York Times, the BBC, and the Financial Times, which generally deal with world events and “real news,” felt compelled to cover the story in feature articles.

Despite M and Goody being such different cases, their celebrity was manufactured in a similar manner. M posts his deluge of status updates on Facebook and his friends read and comment. And we create M’s celebrity, much as we create Goody’s, through our insatiable interest in his goings-on. Today anyone can be a celebrity: We define a celebrity as someone we want to know everything about, whether she likes it and maximizes the benefits of such exposure (the Jade Goodys of the world) or she crumbles under the pressure and invasiveness (the perpetually derailed Britney Spears, for example, who seems to both abhor and desire her participation in this drama).

This transformation has been made possible through the essential element of contemporary celebrity: the rise of new forms of media and entertainment and the change in what constitutes media. Media has been not only an observer of these processes but also part and parcel of creating this new kind of stardom that enables anyone to place himself or herself front and center of the public’s eye, even if just for a minute. The media—from print to television to blogs and online paparazzi sites—gives us up to the minute visuals and news snippets on every star we could ever want to hear about while symbiotically giving those stars a channel to be heard.

The Hollywood studio system no longer can control what is being written about their stars. Nor can they control their stars, who tweet away about their breakups, mishaps, and any other traditionally private information they choose to share. In the last few years, celebrities haven’t just dominated the media; they have actually created and fed entirely new forms. Dozens of blogs, magazines, and TV shows devoted to their every move began to appear. In 2000, US Weekly, the definitive celebrity glossy, had a circulation of 872,000, and stood at ninety-fourth place in U.S. circulation rankings, just inching out Arthritis Today and the Handyman Club of America. Today, US Weekly boasts a circulation of 1.9 million, making it the fortieth best-selling magazine in the United States. People, the classic celebrity middle-brow magazine, had a circulation of 3.6 million in 2009, up from 3.5 million in 2000. Magazines like OK! and In Touch didn’t even exist in 2000 and yet in 2009 each boasted a circulation of almost one million. Since 2000, the presence of celebrity tabloids in the top two hundred best-selling magazines has nearly doubled. This figure doesn’t include hybrids like Rolling Stone, Harper’s Bazaar, W, or Vogue (which are also in the top rankings). Contrast this increase in celebrity media demand to the rest of the publishing world. Since 2000, circulation has declined by almost 11 percent for non-celebrity-focused magazines overall, but celebrity-focused magazines are actually up by 10 percent. In other words, in an era when the publishing industry has struggled, and sales for print media have taken a drastic dive, celebrity tabloids are not just defying the trend but also producing substantial growth.12

Why Celebrity Matters More Than Ever

What can explain the dominance of celebrity, and this new form of celebrity, in this particular moment in time? Those of us old enough remember where we were when Princess Diana married Prince Charles. We remember John Lennon’s murder and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. We recall, all too recently, the real-time reportage of Michael Jackson’s legal travails and, later, his cardiac arrest, rush to the hospital, and subsequent death. Even the commonplace details of modern celebrity—the love lives or rags-to-riches stories of stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Sean Connery, and Jennifer Lopez—are a part of their legendary status as much as their acting or music. Lopez grew up in the Bronx and lived on pizza. Before Madonna became Madonna, she grew up in Detroit, lived in squalor in New York City as a Dunkin’ Donuts waitress, dated Basquiat and Warren Beatty, married Sean Penn and later Guy Ritchie, and dated A-Rod, America’s most famous baseball player of the twenty-first century. Connery grew up in rural Scotland, one of eight children in a house with no toilet. Taylor grew up in the affluence of London and Los Angeles and was married eight times to seven men (she married Richard Burton twice and, as I write this, is set to wed again). Because celebrity is a magnified version of the human experience, we can’t help but watch as all of the things that are important to us in our own lives—love, children, family, divorce, or vacations in exotic locales, as the case may be—play out across the stage of stars’ lives.

A crucial part of modern celebrity is our desire to access celebrities through new forms of media and the creation of new types of stars. Society’s desire for information about both conventional and democratic stars appears more acute than ever. Perez Hilton, whose salacious gossip blog that documents almost live footage of celebrity antics is one of the most trafficked sites in the world, wouldn’t have a job if we didn’t troll his website by the millions, giving advertisers a pretty strong signal to keep paying for ads there. Gawker Stalker, the application on Gawker.com that allows readers to post exact celebrity locations in real time, wouldn’t exist if readers didn’t send tips in. (There’s no criticism here: I too am fascinated with stars picking up dry cleaning, reading the newspaper, and leaving the hair salon. And in high school the way the homecoming queen, Mandy Hendershot, was able to get her hair that precise blond with those perfect curls was a mystery I desperately wanted to solve.) The media creates stars and new shows, magazines, and blogs because there is a built-in audience for whom celebrity fulfills a particular acute need.

A fundamental part of celebrity’s heightened importance in current society can be explained by the last fifty years’ radical changes in how we work, live, form relationships, and interact. In a superglobal world, where many coastal twenty- to thirty-year-old urbanites don’t live down the street from our parents, have anything in common with our coworkers, or attend the same events as our neighbors, celebrity offers an adhesive that binds us together.13 Consider, for example, how much later we marry: In 1970, the median age at first marriage for men was 23.2 and for women 20.8. By 1990, the age for men bumped up to 26.1 and 23.9 for women, a 12 percent and 13 percent increase, respectively. By 2000, the age moved up to 26.8 for men and 25.1 for women, increasing women’s average age of first marriage by yet another 5 percent in just ten years.14

Many of those who are late to marry live in big cities and spend most of their twenties toiling away at their careers.15 And these metropolises are nothing like the small towns they might have grown up in. In New York or London it’s unlikely that we know the names of more than a few of our neighbors. In fact, because our communities are not as close, the chance we even care what our neighbor is doing and feel the urge to talk about it is pretty minute.16 While there are exceptions to these generalizations (people in suburban New Jersey or small-town America do tend to be more neighborly), there is a broader, changing definition of community and social structure taking form. Sociologists call this transformation one from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft, going from a community of strong and close ties among neighbors and family to less personal relations among a society of almost strangers. These latter connections are more economic (jobs, networking, picking up groceries, and so forth) than the previous close social ties of smaller communities.17

This classic theory on the transformation of society is played out in contemporary society. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam found that, since the 1960s, Americans have become less and less “civically and socially engaged.” People have less face-to-face contact, do not vote as much, and do not participate in civic organizations, whether the bowling league or the PTA. Putnam blames watching television and the rise of the Internet as substitutes for human engagement, and believes these new behaviors cause an overall decline in social capital. Without joining clubs and spending time with one another, we lose collective experiences that allow us to bond and form close relationships. One sociological study corroborating Putnam’s thesis concludes that we are lonelier than ever. Comparing U.S. national data from the General Social Survey from 1985 and 2004, the researchers found that the number of people who have no one to talk to about important matters has tripled, and individuals’ personal networks have declined by almost a third.18 The sociologist Dalton Conley calls this new form of community the “Elsewhere Society,” whereby our community is increasingly constructed through technology and social media, causing us to be slightly disengaged from any particular physical moment and less likely to form bonds with those immediately around us.19

And yet, despite all of these changes, because we’re human, our desire for community and social belonging has not left us. Our ability to simply talk to one another about something or someone we all know about—to gossip—is limited in an age when most of us wouldn’t know each other’s aunts, uncles, or the village idiot. It’s not surprising that we live to talk about others and that we seek out those topics of conversation that will socially glue us together and help prevent us from feeling lonely in a society marked by weak personal relations and anonymous communities. A friend of mine recently remarked that the only way she could talk to her coworkers was by reading celebrity tabloids, because then at least she’d have something to chat with them about. Gossip, the media scholar Henry Jenkins points out, is a way for us to create social ties. “It’s not who you are talking about,” Jenkins writes, “but who you are talking with that matters.”20 A Social Issues Research Center study found that more than half of both men and women spend most of their “conversation time” talking about other people’s lives.21 Another study found that women who gossip are actually happier than those who do not, because such bonding actually produces feel-good hormones.22 Historically, people gossiped about what was going on in a particular place; the subject matter was localized. Now that our societies are organized in different ways, gossip has been institutionalized and commercialized and revolves around people we have no direct contact with and thus celebrity is a prime topic of conversation. Celebrities are the global water cooler topic, so to speak.

We can also explain the new role of celebrity through the fact that we simply have a lot more information from a variety of both old and new media, what Jenkins calls “convergence culture.” Technology is both inexpensive and efficient in giving us the immediate information that defines current celebrity. As Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson points out in Free, so much of our access to news and entertainment is at no cost and abundant. If we have any interest in celebrity gossip, and most of us do, why wouldn’t we saturate ourselves with updates when they are there for the taking, at the click of a refreshed computer screen? Our relationship with new media is mutually reinforcing. We want abundant and varied information about our celebrities, and social media enables more and different types of people to try to become celebrities. Technology provides us with an easy way to indulge our curiosities and voyeuristic tendencies. But instead of satiating us with its copious news updates and a cult of oversharing, technology has actually whetted our appetites. This process builds upon itself: If just one news source provides instant and free access, then every other website must follow suit or be left behind. Thousands of magazines, millions of blogs, and news from the BBC, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and every other news media source are updated by the second. That picture of Britney Spears stumbling out of a nightclub can be uploaded in real time to a blog so that millions of viewers can see it less than ten minutes after the photo was taken. We found out about New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s call girl, Ashley Dupré, not just through news reports or press conferences but through her MySpace page, where Dupré posted all sorts of juicy things about her life, including a few music singles she was hoping would take off. For the most part, stars are happy to share instant updates through various social media too. (There are hundreds of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf shops in Los Angeles, but Paris Hilton and the rest of the Hollywood star posse choose to stop by the one Perez Hilton is blogging from.)

Celebrity Today

There was a time when celebrities were a compartment of society like professional athletes, popular TV shows, or Star Trek—a part of our lives by choice, not foisted upon us. The fusion of technology, free information, and our need to socially bond has created a perfect storm: the current, frenzied moment of celebrity taking on every shape and form. There’s no possibility of standing in line at the grocery store, pumping gas, turning on the radio or TV, or walking through an airport without a constant barrage of celebrity. Even the most respected media outlets have paid homage, such as the New York Times’s “serious” profile of Angelina Jolie and Atlantic Monthly’s coverage of the paparazzi covering Britney Spears. We can’t escape the allure of celebrity, and the presence of celebrity virtually defines contemporary society.

Even if we choose not to engage with it, and whether we like it or not, celebrity has become an intrinsic part of modern society, dominating our newspapers, magazines, and television with a ubiquity unlike ever before. Celebrity news stories crowd out other topics from the issues agenda and distract the public from more serious matters: Tiger Woods’s extramarital affairs were covered at the expense of discussing President Obama’s health care plan; former presidential candidate John Edwards’s love child and separation from his wife dominated news headlines more than the contentious confirmation of the Federal Reserve chairman and America’s increasingly tense relations with China.23

Economically, the importance of celebrity is clear (people get wealthy from stardom, products are sold through celebrities), but the social impact of celebrity might be the most profound reason why it cannot be ignored. People live vicariously through celebrities, people talk about celebrities, and, truthfully, many people actually want to be celebrities. A 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that 51 percent of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds said that their first or second goal in life was to become famous. “Certainly, the consumption of celebrity has become a part of everyday life in the twenty-first century,” writes the media critic Graeme Turner, “and so it is not surprising if it now turns up as a part of young people’s life plans.”24 Like it or not, celebrity matters and is more present than ever before.

So how does contemporary celebrity—as people, as an industry, as a social phenomenon—work? Are all celebrities the same? Why do so many individuals want stardom and what does society want from those who attain it? We know that only a very small fraction of people who aspire to celebrity actually become stars (certainly not 51 percent). Even if that select group is expanding, how does that selection process work? Why does society hand-pick some to be celebrated and callously discard others? What makes stardom happen for some and not for others, and why should we care? And for those of us who have no interest in personal stardom, what does it mean for us that our airwaves are dominated by celebrity? How much does it distract us from “the things that matter”—unless celebrity really does matter? Does it? This is what Starstruck is all about.

STARSTRUCK Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

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