#Relevant - Thoughts on Celebrity Culture

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

Celebrity Culture - a topic that is seemingly brought out of the closet every time a new season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians airs. Critics lament our pointless preoccupation with the life of the rich and famous and proclaim that this surely must be the reason society is going to shambles. Well, that and Millennials eating too much avocado toast.

The advent of digitalisation has brought about new aspects of this phenomenon, as we have unprecedented access to information about celebrities’ thoughts, words and works not least because they willingly showcase them on social media. And while the likes of Piers Morgan moralise about the latest #cancelled celebrity on an individual level, celebrity culture as a whole has emerged largely unscathed - until now, that is.

Incidents like Ellen comparing self-isolating in her multimillion dollar mansion to serving time in jail have brought up the question of celebrities’ relevance and value during the current pandemic and in society. But where does this fascination with celebrities come from? How has our attitude towards them changed in recent times? And what’s the deal with that cringeworthy video by Gal Gadot? Lucky for you, that’s exactly what I’ll discuss in the next couple of paragraphs, so read on.

What exactly is celebrity culture and how did it evolve over time?

Despite it’s buzzword-y ring, celebrity culture has been around for longer than one might think. Back in the days - actually, tens of thousands of years ago - our hunter-gatherer ancestors laid the foundations for celebrity culture as we know it today. They gave special privileges to exceptionally skilled hunters and copied their traits in order to survive. Anthropologists argue that this mechanism, called prestige-bias, is partially responsible for the way we treat celebrities today.

The cult of personality surrounding public figures started to develop quite some time later in the 18th century with the emergence of the public sphere. Individuals realised that they were part of a much larger community than their core family and started to discuss public matters openly. Back then gossip revolved around the latest happenings at royal court. Twitter users who make a fuss about the Kardashians being famous for being famous are actually quite late for the party - contemporary writers have been proclaiming that the days of people being famous for "proper" reasons are numbered since 1786.

Celebrity popularity reached new heights in the subsequent two centuries. In the 1800s the invention of novel means of transportation like trains and cars enabled luminaries to tour the world and capitalise on their fame. In the following century the rise of new mass media outlets such as television and radio consolidated celebrities’ role as means of entertainment for the masses. With close to universal internet access and the rise of social media platforms in the 21st century, celebrities are now able to circumvent traditional gatekeepers of the press, influencing their millions of followers as well as the world around them directly.

But why does society actually care so much about what celebrities do?

Different people are interested in different celebrities for different reasons. For one, there’s inspiration. Capitalism inherently places value on the accumulation of wealth and it comes as no surprise that we look at seemingly rich people to point us in the direction of success. Prestige-bias leads us to associate prominence with behaviour that is worth observing and emulating, even if that behaviour might be completely unrelated to the individuals’s accomplishments. I’m pretty sure Jennifer Lopez’ inaugural perfume Glow for example didn’t break records with over 100 million sales in less than a year due to its generic floral and citrus scent alone.

On the other hand there’s fascination. One may question the necessity of dozens of articles detailing celebrities’ lavish birthday gifts with price tags that bring tears to the eyes of a grown man - but there is no supply without demand. We can sit on our high horses as much as we want, but fact is that people are more than twice as likely to snap up a tabloid than a broadsheet. After all they make up 70% of papers in circulation in the UK.

Last but not least there’s identification. On second glance this might seem a bit contradictory, as celebrities’ everyday life often has little in common with the experiences of the vast majority of the population. However, the shift to authentic marketing and #relatable content has led us to not only observing but also connecting with celebrities, even if it might be a very one-sided relationship. We enjoy candid moments and behind the scenes precisely because they humanise and demystify these larger than life figures.

And how has the perception of celebrities shifted during COVID-19?

Headlines like “No One’s Looking At You Anymore” (The Times), “Celebrity Culture Is Burning” (The New York Times) and “Celebrities Have Never Been Less Entertaining” (The Atlantic) outline the current mood in mainstream media and beyond. The pandemic is forcing us to reassess our list of priorities and celebrities oftentimes just don’t make the cut.

Most people’s first concern are their loved and close ones, not people they might have read about extensively but never actually met. As celebrities defy state-mandated safety measures and peddle conspiracy theories that blame 5G for the virus outbreak, some justifiably query if we should really take inspiration from potentially unqualified people just because they’re in the limelight.

The very things that made celebrities fascinating have been unmasked as symbols of the ever-growing social divide between the 0.01% and the rest of us. As COVID-19 began to infect people across social classes Madonna proclaimed the virus to be the “great equaliser” but yet again some are more equal than others. People start to wonder what merits celebrities’ preferential treatment across the board and begin to cast doubt on society’s unfair distribution of wealth.

After all, how can we identify and empathise with Gal Gadot and her friends calling upon us to “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can” when their combined net worth of £280 million amounts to the UK government’s total research funding for coronavirus vaccines and testing? Snapshots from celebrities’ Malibu mansions seem even more tone-deaf, in light of 22 million Americans filing for unemployment in the past four weeks alone.

An outlook: what will happen to celebrity culture in a post-COVID world?

Back in the early 20th century the aftermath of the Spanish Flu was one of the catalysts for the creation of national health services. I believe we will see similarly far-reaching societal and economic changes after the worst of COVID-19 is over. While critically assessing the expansion of state surveillance would go beyond the scope of this blog post, the re-evaluation of celebrity culture will most likely be equally palpable.

Celebrities are a window to the world of the rich and famous. Since we don’t actually know an awful lot about the lives of the majority of people that made it onto the Forbes Billionaires 2020 list, we base our assumptions about them on seemingly wealthy public figures. As a result, celebrities' actions unwillingly give rise to people’s frustration as they realise the comparatively disadvantaged situation they find themselves in.

As we gain new perspectives on the current distribution of wealth in our society, our attitudes to celebrities change and so does celebrity culture. Going forward, we might start questioning the necessity of keeping tabs on celebrities’ lives as means of entertainment. We might develop a healthy dose of scepticism about the exhibition of unimaginable wealth. Or maybe we’ll follow John Lennon’s advice and actually give up all of our possession, live in an utopia of love, freedom and self-expression. Who can really tell, in uncertain times like these. I guess we’ll all find out in a few years time.