Monday 15 October 2018

Cult of celebrity spreads: The velvet rope revolution

As the cult of celebrity becomes all-pervasive, tanya sweeney asks the experts what fuels our insatiable appetite for all things showbiz

Michael Jackson and Madonna
Michael Jackson and Madonna
Liz Taylor
Lindsay Lohan
Beyonce and Jay-Z
Lucie Cave
Debbie O'Donnell

Tanya Sweeney

Once upon a time, it was all so very different. There was the firmament of Hollywood stars, while several atmospheres below on Earth, there was us.

Things have changed dramatically since then of course, and now we're all part of a growing culture that has seen the lines between celebrity and civilian dissolve. Not only has showbiz become all-pervasive in culture, creeping insidiously up the news agenda so far as to be discussed in broadsheet columns and current affairs shows, but now we all have a part to play in the increasingly gladiatorial spectacle.

Just last month, a tiff in an elevator between three celebrities – Beyonce and Solange Knowles, and rapper Jay-Z – pushed more serious news stories (like 243 Nigerian teenage girls kidnapped by Boko Haram) off the front page. The leaked video of the fight went viral within hours, trending worldwide on Twitter for several days. Before long, everyone had a theory, opinion or snarky riposte to hand about it.

"Twitter is like an addiction to most people now," says Lucie Cave, editor-in-chief of 'Heat' magazine. "The thrill of hearing about something first and being the one credited for sharing it with your friends or the world means there's more appetite to know what's happened when, and how.

"The public has always had an appetite for sharing – it's just that people can now share on a mass level and become famous for their opinions through retweets, shared stories and videos."

So how did it come to this? Who knew that the cult of celebrity would become a societal behemoth, not just for teenage girls and magazines at the hairdressers?

In mapping the co-ordinates of showbiz, scholars and historians often start at the Hollywood studio system of the 1950s and '60s. It was then, according to Ellis Cashmore, professor of media, culture and sport at the University of Staffordshire, that the first celebrity really took flight.

"Liz Taylor changed everything," he asserts. "Before her, the studios were tightly controlled, and they made sure that we got information on the actors that only they wanted us to know. With Liz, we were interested in her, but more interested in her private life. The studios went crazy, because they couldn't control her ... but she became the most famous woman in the world.

"The media was encouraged by the fact they could invade people's private lives. A few years later, Madonna then took it to another level by essentially saying, 'I'm not going to have a private life at all'.

To understand celebrity culture in its current incarnation, it's impossible to overlook the significance of 'Big Brother', which launched in 2000. For the first time, Average Joe was front and centre, and audiences started to hunger for the truly banal. Within months, newspapers and magazines were awash with gardeners, teachers and dental nurses, freshly anointed with fame.

"'Big Brother' was a pretty preposterous idea when it started, but the thing is, we are intrinsically fascinated by people just like us," says Cashmore. "They have the same weaknesses and strengths. We started turning our attentions to people with no body of work behind them at all.

"The one thing that 'Big Brother' had that we hadn't had before is the capacity to judge. It's quite satisfying to be put in a position of ... if not authority, at least the delusion of authority. We got to approve people or admonish them."

Herein lies the real kernel of what has happened to celebrity culture: it has become interactive, with the public encouraged to have opinions, judgments and reactions. The celebrity is no longer an untouchable, infallible, godlike entity. Even more curiously, the culture of hating celebrities is as strong as the culture of liking them.

"It seems really clear that in modern celebrity, the pre-requisite for talent is dissolving," says Professor Diane Negra, of UCD's School of English, Drama and Film. "The sheer ability to promote oneself is becoming a credential in itself. Previously, the idea of a star meant they had luminous qualities – they were 'extra-human'. We talked of celebrities as being 'high auratic'.

"That's probably why it's easy for many to hate the Kardashians, because we are still thinking of them in terms of the old criteria of celebrity. The thing is, we need to recognise that that's the nature of our public culture now. Talent and merit aren't as clear-cut as they used to be. If we don't celebrate someone for being talented, we feel that they're a bit 'closer' to us."

She adds: "In a wider sense, they're able to exemplify how we think about capitalism; that idea of selling yourself in as many different arenas as possible.

"Often, we use celebrities as social targets for the things in wider society we choose not to see."

Psychologist Allison Keating of the BWell Clinic in Malahide (bwell.ie) pinpoints the fact that the human brain is hardwired for beauty bias.

"There is a conflicting enjoyment there, the pleasure/pain principle," she says. "We love celebrities, but we love their fall from grace, too. Comparing yourself to others essentially makes you unhappy, but when we compare ourselves to celebrities and they make a mistake, it helps people feel less bad about themselves. It's not necessarily a good thing."

Even more worryingly, celebrities with demonstrable skills are starting to lose ground. "When people are too perfect, like Gwyneth Paltrow, you can't relate to them," says Debbie O'Donnell, producer of TV3's 'Xposé'. "Even when Gwyneth split with her husband, she couldn't say anything normal and there was a terrible backlash. But when someone like Jessica Simpson puts her hands up and admits she has difficulty losing weight, people love it."

The bizarre paradox is this: while celebrity culture is no longer populated with skilled, talented or even extraordinary people, it has been afforded a fresh credence. Years ago, celebrity culture was for vacuous, bored women and teenagers; fans of frivolity and fluff. Now, every aspect of life – from politics to sport – has been 'celebritised'.

"There's no shame or embarrassment in knowing about celebrity culture any more," says Cashmore. "It used to be part of the outer reaches of academia, but all that has changed too. Celebrity culture isn't simply inescapable: it penetrates us."

As to the idea that celebrity news has shimmied up the general news agenda, Cave says: "It's about what people want to read and what they're more likely to talk about and most importantly – share with their mates. These days websites get their most valuable numbers through social and sharing so that's what their news agenda is set up for."

Social media has also heralded inexorable changes for celebrity culture. "In a sense we have a generation of people who have grown up with a different perception of what 'private life' means," says Cashmore. Adds Negra: "Social media is directing people towards the idea that you should be creating a narrative of your own life that's pleasing and appropriate, and celebratory of your accomplishments."

Our consumption of celebrity culture, in a way, has replaced the sense of community from days of yore. In the absence of neighbours we can view behind twitching curtains, we take to gossiping about celebrities. In an increasingly atomised society, this gives us a sense of commonality, and belonging.

"On one hand we lead very connected lives, but we have a hard time pinpointing what holds us together," says Negra. "Celebrity following offers a parasocial experience. If you work digitally or at a distance from others and you don't take lunch with co-workers, celebrity watching helps you feel connected to a group of social actors."

"There's something about idle chit-chat and gossip that we love," adds Cashmore. "It's the lubricant of human interaction – it enables many of us to interact face to face."

Other commentators say that, in an increasingly unforgiving and break-neck modern society, showbiz is a welcome distraction: a place to park the mind amid myriad stresses and anxieties.

As 'Xposé's' producer, O'Donnell has witnessed the public hunger for showbiz stories grow first hand. "I did a straw poll in our office and everyone has a showbiz app on their phone," she says. "The average person will turn on the news and hear about water charges and property taxes, and are likely to turn to us for pure escapism. If I can help someone forget about all that for 10 minutes of the day, I'll have done my job."

"Take the Beyonce, Solange and Jay-Z incident, and the fact that this mini-scandal arose and consumed people's time," Negra adds. "We might want to ask ourselves, 'in devoting so much time to this, what are we not paying attention to in our own lives?'"

This might explain why in the world of showbiz, the emotions of its bit-part playing public has become so heightened. Consider, for instance, the sheer outpouring of grief when a celebrity dies. The precedent was likely set in 1997 at Princess Diana's death – in the years since, the deaths of Jade Goody and more recently Peaches Geldof have prompted episodes of mass mourning.

"We had all been bit-part players in the creation of the myth of Diana, which is why there was such genuine sorrow at her death," says Cashmore. "When Peaches Geldof's death occurred, I was blown away by how much public sentiment there was for this woman. Emotionally though, we change as people with our culture. Cynics can say you can't love someone just by tweeting at them, but on social media we can express and feel emotions, which makes our interactions with celebrities very different to 10 years ago."

In Ireland, we have a unique way of engaging with celebrities, according to Negra: "What's distinctive to the Irish experience is the public investment in Irish celebrities who do well outside Ireland. There's an experience of national pride that's very intense here. At a time when we're being forced into compulsory immigration, there's a lot of pleasure in seeing that the Irish are doing well somewhere else. The Irish celebrity doing well abroad offers proof that getting away can result in tremendous success."

So what does the future hold for the entire celebrity ecosystem? Will the low-aura, average person still be able to experience fame simply by selling themselves well? Or will talent and merit win out in the end?

"The word 'celebrity' needs to be redefined," says O'Donnell. "Celebrities now measure fame by how many followers they have on Twitter, but they haven't earned it. But Twitter will eventually be replaced by something else. We're moving on from the 'Made In Chelsea' model of celebrity."

"I'm sad to say it, but I'd expect the popularity of the older model of celebrity – the people who are really stars and can attract audiences with a body of work – will continue to decline," says Negra. "It's hard to build a career of that kind these days."

To anyone who finds the tell-all nature of celebrity culture hard to stomach, Cave offers a slightly heartwarming prediction. And in this new world order, the media just might be the ones that end up coming out on top.

"Social media has meant celebrities are permeating our world more than ever before, whether it's exposing themselves, showing off their selfies, belfies and healthies or shamelessly promoting a product they've been paid to talk about," she says. "Oversharing becomes something people start to distrust. They might appear to be more real and accessible but they are masters of their own image which means trusted media outlets and brands are more important than ever – people need a valued and objective opinion or voice to cut through and help them understand what place these celebs have, or should have, in their lives."

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