Even as a young man he wanted to be a celebrity, and he succeeded. He courted publicity and sought the company of the rich and famous. He loved the ladies as well, and when word of his dalliances got about, he was delighted, scanning the newspapers for mention of his name. As his jets cooled, he settled into an old age rich with honors and, no doubt, a certain smug self-regard.
Is he Jack Nicholson? Maybe Warren Beatty? Is he any of the countless American rock stars who sowed their wild oats in the 1960s and are reaping domestic contentment now as they saunter through their sixties? No, he was Joshua Reynolds, the most important and influential English painter of the 18th century and arguably the first English-speaking celebrity, although no one in his day would have applied that word to him.
The idea of “celebrity”, meaning “the condition of being much extolled or talked about”, has been in use since about the year 1600, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although the word was not used as a noun to describe individuals until 1849. But Reynolds behaved much as movie stars and singers do today, making sure that he stayed in the public eye so that his reputation became not just a bid for artistic immortality, but a way of cashing in big while he was still around to spend the profits.
He had to, according to Martin Postle, editor of “Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity”, the catalog of the Reynolds exhibition in London’s Tate Gallery in 2005. After all, the traditional “high” genres—the epic poem, the historical painting, the tragic play—were being elbowed aside by novels, broadsides, pamphlets, comic paintings, pantomimes and rowdy revues of all sorts. So if Reynolds was to make the most of his time on earth, he needed to rise above the flood of popular entertainments and become a celebrity.
He was very good at doing so; he chose as his subjects the society people that viewers of all ranks would most want to see. And if he was later castigated by critics for being too complicit in the machinery of celebrity, then in this, too, he helped pave the way for notables as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Pete Rose and Madonna, talented figures who have been taken to task for being too eager to profit from their notoriety.
Before there was celebrity, there was fame. Indeed, fame and its complications existed before people did: In Paradise Lost, Satan is found wandering in Eden by two angels, and when they ask him who he is, he says, “Not to know me argues yourselves unknown.” That’s the Miltonic version of the pained cry of the actor or athlete who has been turned away by a bouncer or stopped by a cop: “Hey, buddy, don’t you realize who you’re dealing with?”
Speaking of the heavenly and the hellish, Dante was famous, too—even people who couldn’t read knew who he was and pointed him out as he walked past. But Dante was no celebrity because he declined to take advantage of his gifts in a commercial way. And even if he had wanted to, the culture in which he lived was not well disposed to a public figure’s self-exploitation.
Here we come to a critical observation: A would-be celebrity cannot achieve that status alone; his or her fans have to conspire together to make it happen. In other words, individual human avarice may be universal, but greed established as a social institution takes a village. Hence, it is not so surprising to learn that one of the first American media stars, the Civil War-era actress Adah Isaacs Menken, was a “self-creating celebrity” who nonetheless required the new age of mass culture to succeed. According to Renée M. Sentilles, author of the recent Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity, Menken was aided by a second surge of mass culture in her time. The celebrity cult in Joshua Reynolds’ day waned toward the end of his life and did not flower again until the next century, when the popularity of music halls (and, not long after, the movies) created a demand for idols like Menken.
A star like Menken is key to understanding contemporary celebrity because, as Sentilles points out, she was among the first to realize that she had not only to perform roles on a stage but also perform herself offstage and in print, much as Madonna does today. In the end, Menken the performer was less important than Menken the non-stop performance: “Who she was underneath that mask is difficult to define”, Sentilles writes, and becomes “ultimately unimportant.” Menken, certainly America’s first Jewish show-business phenom, erased the boundary between the artist and the art, allowing an adulating public to erase the boundary in its own mind between artifice and reality, thus enabling fantasy to invade the workaday as never before.
The fantasy was not always pure and sweet, and not always deliberate. Half a century after Menken made her mark, Theda Bara became the first female anti-hero celebrity. The infamous “vamp” of the silent screen, a mild-mannered Jewish girl named Theodosia Goodman, could not persuade emotionally pumped followers that offstage she was just an actress and not an evil seductress. Seemingly normal people cursed, spat and threw things at her when she dared show her face in public. She tried to explain; it did no good.
Now even more than then, the public is the celebrity’s indefatigable master, since we ask to be stimulated not just sometimes, but continuously. If we have to plod through life without rising and falling curtains defining our roles, so, damn it, do they. But we ask for more than to be entertained. We ordinary folks also look to our celebs for understanding, just as we look to family and friends for structure in our often disordered lives. In the tumult of 19th-century America, “celebrities gave an intimate, personal feeling to a world that was expanding beyond comprehension”, says Sentilles. Celebrities were like made-to-order imaginary friends, but unlike old-fashioned imaginary friends, real friends could share them.
And what can the 19th century hope to say to the 21st when it comes to unadulterated tumult? If anything, the role of the celebrity as a virtual imaginary friend is more pronounced today than ever. US Weekly, the un-People, has a feature called “Just Like Us” in which the celebrated and glamorous are shown with their hair down, walking the kids to school, or stopping by Starbucks for a frappuccino. “Celebrities are seemingly part of our social circles”, says Dr. E. Ashby Plant, assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University. “As we become friends with others, we self-disclose”, which is why celebrities (as opposed to the merely famous) make sure we know (or think we know) the details of their daily lives. The very rich may be different from you and me, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, but American celebrities pretend as much off-camera as on to be the same as the rest of us.
And certainly we want to be like them. “Everybody has to some extent the desire to be famous”, says Dr. Jon Maner, another FSU psychologist, and knowing about celebrities allows us to do that vicariously. As opposed to actual interaction, we have what Maner calls “parasocial” (or near-social) interaction with celebrities as we learn about their lives and get a sense of being close to them. What this comes down to, of course, is not imagining that we are friends with a fictive character as such, but imagining that we are friends with an actor or a rock star who nevertheless actively projects a round-the-clock fabricated persona—in short, yes, a fictive character that we pretend isn’t. Just who’s doing the character acting around here, anyway?
Now that the transmission of information has become nearly instantaneous, we are clearly beyond those early pulses of celebrity worship represented by Reynolds and Menken. We are well into a new, third phase that’s accelerating at warp speed. If you’re walking down Sunset Boulevard and bump into Jennifer Aniston, and you and a friend in Boston have compatible cell phones, you can ask Jennifer how she really feels about Brad, make a thirty-second video of her response, and send it across the country courtesy of the latest technology. And of course the Internet makes celeb-sleuthing literally a parlor game, since there are both general celebrity sites as well as niche sites specializing in everything from mug shots of arrested celebrities to lists of celebrity atheists, all of which you can view and even chat on while you’re still in your pajamas.
Much of the chatter on these sites is devoted to dissing celebrities (“My girlfriend works at a clothing store, and Susie Starlet came in the other day and started ordering everyone around”), and it’s clear that, while users may get only a parasocial sense of closeness to the celebrities themselves on these sites, those who choose to can forge real relationships with fellow celeb-watchers by trafficking in the intimate details of the lives of the well-known.
Sooner or later, the demand for any wildly popular commodity is bound to exceed the supply, and today the media can’t invent new celebs fast enough. The current explosion of our fascination with celebrities, which generates new and more tawdry reality TV shows every week, and figures with no apparent talent like Paris Hilton who are notable merely for being notable, makes the flurries of Joshua Reynolds’ and Adah Isaacs Menken’s days seem staid in comparison.
This all leads, rather predictably, to self-appointed guardians of pop culture’s outer limits getting up—before the television cameras, of course—to denounce this or that propriety breached, whether new song lyrics that go below and beyond the pale or the rogue exposed Super Bowl halftime-show nipple. And so the mega-preacher or the senator or the former vice president’s wife gets a renewed 15 minutes of fame, and everyone goes home media exposed and happy, or happy enough.
So celebrity—at least celebrity American-style—is all just froth, right? It comes to mere foam on life’s sea of certainties, with no real harm done, yes? Well, not really.
Most of those who still follow the news by reading broadly through a respectable newspaper entertain the conceit that items in the front section about war, terrorism and assorted other forms of political and social mayhem may be assumed wholly separate from the fashion, “style” and entertainment sections lodged way back in sections C and D. But this is not so clear in a time where everything the mullahs of radical Islam hate about Western culture is encapsulated in the image of the midriff-baring starlet and her gangsta boyfriend, their bling glittering in the glare of the paparazzi’s flashguns.
Religious fundamentalists—and not just the violent Muslim sort—hate celebrity trashiness not only for its own sake but also because of its irresistible appeal to their own disaffected youth. Television images of last fall’s riots in suburban Paris housing projects showed young men wearing the same clothes and jewelry and making the same hand gestures as (mostly black) American rap stars. America now exports the “anti-America” as well as the America, our shrewdly commercial “angry young men” of color smiling all the way to the bank. Some other societies seem to have a hard time hating us without our providing the template. Perhaps they hate us because we don’t hate ourselves enough. After all, our gansta rap exports are not real any more than our imaginary-friend celebrities are real; but don’t tell the customers.
Daniel Boorstin predicted this international love/hate relationship with American celebrity culture in 1961 when, to most people, “electronics” meant a black and white TV with rabbit-ear antennas. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Boorstin made the point—even before Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard—that images trump words: At a conservative estimate, there are more than 3,000 languages in the world, but no translation is necessary for the vast majority of mankind to understand a picture. The old saw has it that if a Martian who watched American television for years came to earth, he’d expect to find that most men are policemen and most women prostitutes. But that’s so old-school: Cops and hookers are blue-collar workers, after all. When somebody in Malawi or Kazakhstan looks at American images these days, they see rappers and actresses, figures more like kings and queens. We’ve gone from blue collar right past white collar all the way to rhinestones.
Of course, you don’t have to be a card-carrying member of the Taliban to hate the famous. Academics, especially those who, like scientists, often perceive of themselves as team players, tend to cast a skeptical eye on celebrity colleagues. Thus, the more credibility gained by Carl Sagan in the public eye, the more his fellow astronomers resented the mass acceptance of ideas such as the possibility of life on other planets, a hypothesis that represented little more than Sagan’s own views but came across as scientific consensus to the general public. In sports, team owners and officials try to regulate dress codes and limit on-field celebrations so that no individual appears greater than the team, an attitude flagrantly defied this fall by Terrell Owens, who seemed genuinely surprised when the Philadelphia Eagles let him go rather than put up with his chest-thumping narcissism.
These things happen because it’s not easy to be a successful celebrity. Many celebrities “lose their sense of a private self”, according to Dr. Maner. Those whose primary drive is to be well known can be “charming from the get-go, then their over-inflated egos get in the way and they lash out.” Or they check out: There is no shortage of prematurely deceased American celebrities.
For these loosely-wrapped egotists, it might not be a bad idea to revive the Renaissance approach to infamy, which is fame’s ugly twin. In Florence and other Italian city-states, portraits of unscrupulous members of the upper classes were painted by such notable artists as Andrea del Castagno, Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto, and then displayed publicly. In the present day, though, these pitture infamanti would probably backfire: Those who deserve to be defamed would only end up being aggrandized, because, after all, who would not want his likeness painted by the same Botticelli who did “The Birth of Venus” and “La Primavera”? Besides, on the street “bad” has long since meant good, and good has meant something not bad but not good either, so that the iron law of book publicity seems now to apply generally: Bad reviews are better than no reviews.
If continuity is what defines identity, as Sentilles notes in the Menken study, the celebrity has to walk a fine line, since he or she is a social mirror that reflects the way the public sees itself. Yet the public is always changing; it tires quickly of what it sees in that mirror and becomes eager for a new image. So Madonna makes the transition (somehow) from pointy-boobed bad girl to protective kabbalah-spouting mother. But not everyone can pull this off. A feeling of intimacy can lead to expectations that are too easily thwarted: In the movie The King of Comedy, talk show host Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) is walking down a New York street when he is accosted by an adoring fan who wants him to talk to her nephew on a pay phone. When Langford refuses, she screams, “You should only get cancer! I hope you get cancer!” In real celebrity life (whatever that is), NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon recently was hailed worshipfully by two fans decked out in Gordon paraphernalia, but when their hero ignored them (probably because he couldn’t hear them above the track noise), they turned on him viciously, screaming their hatred and making lurid gestures toward the man who, a few minutes before, had been as a god to them.
My own brush with celebrity began four years ago when my older son not only competed but won $500,000 on a television show called “Big Brother 2.” Will had just graduated from medical school and was pulling 36-hour shifts at Miami Heart Institute when he decided he needed a break. So he sent in a video to CBS and survived every cut until he was one of the dozen contestants to be locked up in the Big Brother House, a well-appointed above-ground dungeon from which one resident would be expelled every week. And as the last man standing, Dr. Will Kirby took home all the dough.
During Will’s three months on television, I learned that the father of a celebrity becomes a celebrity of sorts himself. Day and night, strangers contacted me out of the blue. Comely young women sent me their photos; gruff-voiced men called at 3 a.m. to say, “Your son’s a loser”, and hung up, or else threatened to come over and physically assault me unless I pulled Will out of the Big Brother House immediately.
Since he was 28 and had been living on his own for years, he was unlikely to obey any orders from his dad, especially when half a million bucks were at stake. Years later, after I talked to Drs. Plant and Maner, I was able to label the behavior of these strangers and understand that, while I didn’t know them, they certainly thought they knew Will. They had seen him on an unscripted TV show and felt that, since they were privy to the details of his everyday life, somehow they not only knew him but knew him well, either as potential boyfriend or sworn enemy. They couldn’t contact Will directly (the contestants in the Big Brother House were off limits to everyone, including me), so they visited their love and rage on his father. I became their imaginary friend (or enemy), once removed.
Earlier I called reality TV “tawdry”, but I’ve made my peace with it; anything that results in an immediate cessation of father-to-son checks can’t be all bad. What surprises me when I visit him in Los Angeles today is that even now, four years later, we are often pulled out of long lines outside clubs and restaurants and sent right in with a crisp, “Will Kirby, you and your party step this way, please.”
Then there are the people who stop him on the sidewalk with some version of the “aren’t you that guy?” question. Invariably, Will says, “No, I know who you mean—and I just look like him”, a reply that nips awkwardness in the bud without being literally untrue. Other celebs handle the buttonholing in their own ways. I read that Samuel L. Jackson and Laurence Fishburne are often mistaken for each other and are said to cheerfully sign autographs with the other actor’s name. Sure enough, I was at a play in New York once and spotted Laurence Fishburne making his way to his seat as fellow playgoers on either side whispered, “Look! It’s Samuel L. Jackson!”
In fact, New York theaters are the single most promising hunting grounds for celebrity watchers. A few years ago, I was watching The Iceman Cometh and saw Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Dustin Hoffman and Danny Glover in the audience. Not long after, I ran into Meg Ryan, Kevin Spacey, John Lithgow and Nathan Lane during the intermission of A Long Day’s Journey into Night. (Evidently, marquee-name actors love their Eugene O’Neill, which is mildly reassuring.)
But as the world changes, you really don’t have to stray far from home to encounter the celebrated. Once I ran into Saul Bellow in the airport here in Tallahassee, population 150,624. His brother had just died in south Georgia, and the Nobel Prize-winning novelist had come to settle the estate. Earlier this year, I was at a dinner party and in walked Ted Turner, who has a big spread outside of town. I had been too tongue-tied to talk to Mr. Bellow, but I had a spirited twenty-minute conversation with Mr. Turner about one of his passions, sailing, a subject of which I know nothing. (Hint to those who wonder what to say to a celebrity: Ask lots of questions.)
Do I, a critic of celebrity culture, become a little giddy myself when I turn the corner and bump into an action hero or a favorite novelist? Sure, I do: If the psychologists are right, we are all hardwired for celebrity worship. In 1968, Andy Warhol promised that, in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Well, it became the future sometime just last month, and a lot of people out there still haven’t had their moment in the spotlight. But in this latest stage of our obsession with celebrities, the flow of words and images is getting not only faster but cheaper every day. So it seems fair to say not that everybody will be famous soon, but that approximately half of us will. The rest of us will look on with adoration, envy and, too often, murderous rage.