Book Review: The Importance of Being Famous

Aug 14th, 2010 | By businessnews | Category: Business

When did celebrities stop having talent and become ubiquitous?

By Paul M. Barrett

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Editor’s Rating:
star rating

The Good: Inglis offers a convincing history of how modern celebrity traces back to the British theater of the 1700s.

The Bad: The author wraps up his lively narrative without taking account of the Internet or reality television, which have generated a troubling, talent-free variant of fame.

The Bottom Line: The development of the fame business comes into clearer focus as a result of Inglis’ sophisticated perspective.
Four stars out of five.

Reader Reviews

A Short History of Celebrity
By Fred Inglis
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 312 pp

Keeping up with Snooki, aka Nicole Polizzi, has become a full-time job. The recent start of the second season of her MTV reality show, Jersey Shore—a chronicle of binge drinking, bed-hopping, and excessive tanning—has received dawn-till-dusk, all-media coverage. When Barack Obama visited ABC gabfest The View and professed ignorance about the Snooki phenomenon, well, no one really believed him. Sorry, Gail Collins wrote in The New York Times, even the President must have heard of Snooki. After all, the Times had just published a full-dress profile of the zaftig 22-year-old with the pouf hairdo in which her father marveled at her lack of aptitude—can’t sing, can’t dance, nothing. Within a couple of news cycles, Snooki fed her fans’ hunger for Snooki doings by getting stumble-down drunk and arrested on the beach in Seaside Heights, N.J. She was wearing a T-shirt with the word “Slut” spelled out across the front.

Our infatuation with Snooki and her ilk deserves serious consideration, since the nature of such fame says something about the society it reflects. That’s one lesson to be drawn from A Short History of Celebrity by Fred Inglis. A cultural historian formerly affiliated with Princeton and now with the University of Warwick, Inglis traces the fame business to its roots in 18th century British theater, on through the high fashion of 19th century Paris, and the intersection in New York of Gilded Age superwealth and mass communication. With scholarly dexterity (he’s written more than 20 books), Inglis describes the manipulation of political celebrity by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, followed by the postwar democratization of fame, as movie stars, sports heroes, and rock guitarists became leading celebrities.

Through it all, Inglis argues, the lucrative exploitation of the lives of the rich and famous has entailed an appeal to what audiences think of themselves—for better and for worse. Celebrities provide entertainment, sure, but they also satisfy a need for social cohesion. They are characters in a vast morality play, teaching us what, and what not, to do.

Until the mid-1700s, Inglis explains, kings, cardinals, and other leading citizens enjoyed “renown” rather than celebrity. “Public recognition,” the author writes, “was not so much of the man himself as of the significance of his actions for the society.” Queens qualified, too. Elizabeth I was renowned as a monarch, not a mere personality; her fame was “conferred by her people on behalf of God and England.” The rise of urban democracy in London “made fame a more transitory reward and changed public acclaim from an expression of devotion into one of celebrity.”

Successful merchants and their wives had free time to gossip in elaborate pleasure gardens and attend the burgeoning theater. Artists, composers, and, above all, actors gained recognition for the elevated diversions they offered. They were commoners whose private lives became intermingled with their public accomplishments. It did not go unnoticed among a new class of theatrical impresarios that scandal, especially sexual misdemeanors, enhanced a star’s glamour quotient. Actress Sarah Siddons elicited audience tears for her stage performances in the 1770s. A friend of Queen Charlotte, she was rumored to be the mistress of not only a well-known painter but a fencing master, too. In a gesture familiar to devotees of Angelina Jolie and Madonna, Siddons received visitors while in the midst of what Inglis calls the “ostentatious mothering of her children”: using her foot to rock the crib of one while holding another to her breast. Fans simultaneously adored and deplored her, a love-hate dynamic that still defines the culture of celebrity today.

Extravagance acquired a French accent with the rise of haute couture in the mid-1800s. The Parisian department store provided ordinary Sunday strollers with greater access to the trappings of luxury.

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