Celebrity Culture makes vultures out of all of us

What the good books say

My word bible, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines ‘celebrity’ as both a state of being (“the condition of being much extolled or talked about; famousness, notoriety”) and “a person of celebrity; a celebrated person: a public character.”

The word ‘celebrity’ has its origin in the Latin adjective ‘celeber’, meaning famous or distinguished. But even in Emperor Nero’s day it also connoted notorious and, sometimes, crowded, both of which would have been useful in describing the lifestyle of the man who fiddled while Rome burned.

Hello. Peace to you all. Goodbye.*

I’m not a lexicographer, but (Shalom aside) I generally dislike words that have several meanings some of which are almost polar opposites. While the context may often hint at the intended meaning, this is not always so and non-native speakers are likely to be confused.

But in the case of ‘celebrity’ I understand the origin of the tension, because there is indeed a thin line between fame and notoriety. The former can morph into the latter at the drop of a zip, I mean hat.

From Grace Kelly to Kim Kardashian

Decades ago celebrities were talented performers, popular because of their creative or sporting ability. We revered the likes of Grace Kelly, Sir Ian Botham, Oscar Wilde, Bobby Charlton and Frank Sinatra because we considered them exceptional. We loved and respected them as almost demi-gods.

Fast forward to 2011 and we are clearly a far less discerning bunch. Our addiction to and obsession with celebrities has reached fever pitch. We hero-worship anyone skilled in the art of self-promotion (or savvy enough to hire expensive publicists and PR companies to do so on their behalf). And we voraciously devour every crumb of information the obliging media feeds us.

In its most extreme form, our celebrity culture bestows fame upon those with an extravagant lifestyle and personal (often inherited) fortunes that could solve many of the world’s economic problems. They become famous simply for being famous. Nowhere is this more evident than with the current ‘K’ obsession. (Was the 72-day marriage just a massive PR exercise?)

We hunger for every tiny piece of information the likes of Heat magazine throw at us. A visit to the hairdresser wouldn’t be complete without devouring of the latest edition of Hello.

We demand, and believe we are entitled, to know the most intimate (and arbitrary) details of their lives.

Our insatiable appetite for information about those we put on the pedestal of celebrity often proves too much for the target to bear. Some of those we once celebrated for their genuine talent have been exposed as philanderers, cheats, drug addicts and murderers. Tiger Woods, Hansie Cronje, Amy Winehouse, OJ Simpson and Charlie Sheen will be remembered more for their self-destructive, anti-social or illegal behaviour than for excelling in their field.

Fame and notoriety co-exist awkwardly under the umbrella of celebrity, the latter always lurking behind the former, waiting its turn.

Iconic novelist and poet Erica Jong warned us that “(f)ame means millions of people have the wrong idea of who you are.” We imbue ordinary individuals with extra-human qualities, placing them under huge pressure to live their personal lives in a manner consistent with our idealised version of them. And when they fail, we feel personally wronged and demand that they apologise to us all.

Social media fuels our obsession

It’s little wonder then that the internet in general and social media in particular have become such powerful forces in our lives. We no longer wait for the next tabloid to satisfy our cravings. We now have direct access to the objects of our adoration. We simply Like their Facebook page or Follow their tweets and are then instantly connected to the intimate details of their lives. Or at least to those they (or their publicity crew) choose to share.

Who wants to be a celebrity?

Literary critic William Deresiewicz wrote that “(c)elebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known.  (W)e become real to ourselves… by being seen by others.”

Add this to Sarah Britten’s statement in her Thought Leader column, “We’re all our own publicists now” and you have the ingredients for a perfectly baked pseudo-celebrity.

Next week I’ll dissect some popular Twitter accounts. Let’s see what our Follows say about us.


* For those unfamiliar with Hebrew, the heading alludes to the three meanings of the word Shalom.