Perhaps the most rapidly expanding facet of today’s media landscape is celebrity culture; entertainers’ work in the film, television, music, and fashion industries accompanies gossip about their personal lives in magazines and newspapers, on television, and online. The major players in celebrity culture are known worldwide – today, there are few who do not know of American actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, English power couple Victoria and David Beckham, Australian singer Kylie Minogue, or Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen. The ability of celebrity culture to cross national and cultural boundaries as well as media outlets has made it an important issue in communication studies.
The analysis of celebrity culture began in the 1940s with Lowenthal’s (1944) content analysis of magazine biographies, which traced a shift in focus from “idols of production” (politicians and businessmen) to “idols of consumption” (entertainers). Though the idols of consumption have remained the center of celebrity culture, communications researchers have broadened their studies to explore the types and purposes of celebrity, celebrity media, and audiences’ relationships with celebrity culture.
Attempting to categorize and describe the various types of celebrity has been a part of studying celebrity culture since Lowenthal (1944) initially distinguished between the idols of production and consumption. Researchers have often studied a celebrity’s line of work – whether film, television, music, or fashion – as the determining factor in the type of fame a celebrity experiences. Gledhill (1991) and other researchers have argued the type of fame that dogs film stars is different from that of television personalities because of the distance each maintains from the audience. On one hand, film stars appear on the big screens at movie theaters, and on the other hand, television personalities enter viewers’ homes on a daily or weekly basis making them seem more familiar. It is the air of mystery and unpredictability surrounding film stars that seems to lend itself to “true stardom.”
Researchers maintain it is the audience’s search for the authenticity of celebrities that creates the fascination of stardom. Gledhill (1991) observes that the “persona” of a celebrity is the coming together of the performance (role) and the private life to form a public self-available to the audience. And while the creation of a persona has been traditionally reserved for film stars, Jermyn (2006) points out the number of A-list celebrities that now appear both on television and in films, as well as the widespread stardom of American television actors, in particular, resulting from the international distribution of American programs (e.g., Sex and the City and Friends).
Uses Of Celebrity
Communications researchers recognize the connection between celebrity culture and consumer culture. The function of celebrity overwhelmingly seems to be promotion: of self, of lifestyle, and of products. Celebrities themselves are an important part of the culture industries because they can advertise themselves – on talk shows, at red carpet events, in interviews – and at the same time promote their latest projects.
The excessive media exposure that comes naturally from this type of self-promotion lends itself to advertising specific products, whether intentionally or not. McCracken (1989) points out in his study of celebrity endorsements the insufficiency of traditional “sources of credibility” and “sources of attractiveness” models. Celebrities cannot increase sales simply because they are well known or have had successful endorsement deals in the past: he notes Bill Cosby’s popular American campaigns with Kodak and Coca Cola and subsequent failure with E. F. Hutton. Instead, he argues, a celebrity must “connect” with a product, and the transfer of meaning from role to celebrity to product to consumer must flow seamlessly.
Researchers have also looked at the inadvertent celebrity endorsements emerging from tabloid magazines and television shows. Jermyn (2006) and Feasey (2006) both point out the red-carpet-turned-fashion-ad photographs in tabloid magazines such as heat, OK! and the Daily Mirror. Jermyn notes the detail with which a photograph of Sarah Jessica Parker becomes a “how-to” guide for readers of the latest trends in fashion, hair, and makeup. Similar features discussing the exercise regimes, diets, and leisure activities of celebrities also serve to promote the celebrity lifestyle.
Celebrity culture media outlets combine the audience’s need for authentic celebrities and celebrities’ ability to encourage consumerism. Schely-Newman’s (2004) analysis of Israeli gossip columns explains how tabloid magazines use intimate language to draw readers into the circle of celebrity gossip. She applies Bergmann’s (1993) triad of gossip interaction to the participants in celebrity culture: the columnist, the audience, and the celebrity. Schely-Newman points out how Israeli gossip columnist Zippora refers to herself and her opinions, personally addresses the audience, and divulges celebrity “scoops” in order to create an intimate exchange of information between columnist and audience about celebrities.
Celebrity media also create this sought-after sense of intimacy through photographs. Over the last decade, paparazzi have become an increasingly integral part of celebrity culture. The paparazzi are photographers who work for larger media organizations or freelance; they patrol the streets of major cities in search of celebrities in candid moments that will yield photographs or videos to be sold to magazines and other celebrity media outlets for thousands of dollars, or simply posted online for the world to see. Paparazzi provide constant access to celebrities around the world during moments not quite worthy of the red carpet. Feasey (2006) notes the barrage of cellulite, wrinkles, pimples, and other defects discussed in tabloid magazines. She says while these photographs appear to mock celebrities on the surface, the captions work to underline the ordinariness of celebrities, relieving the audience of the pressure to be celebrity-perfect.
The pervasiveness of reality television has also increased the intimacy and authenticity of celebrity media. Programs such as The Osbournes, Katie and Peter, and Newlyweds offer paparazzi-style looks at the lives of celebrities “being themselves.” Tolson’s (2001) content analysis of Geri Haliwell’s documentary Geri, intended to rehabilitate her career after leaving the Spice Girls, highlights Haliwell’s goal of being herself as a way to redeem her public persona. Although reality television and documentary films are meant to capture what is “real,” Tolson highlights the conscious performance of self in celebrity media.
Whether positive or negative, audience participation is vital to celebrity culture. While some researchers have looked at the effects of celebrity culture (increased body consciousness, participation in consumer culture), others have studied the ways in which audiences interact with celebrity culture. Johansson’s (2006) interviews with tabloid magazine subscribers in Britain focus on the way readers incorporate celebrity media into their own lives. She says the gossipy nature of celebrity magazines not only works to increase the level of intimacy readers feel toward celebrities, it also encourages readers to incorporate the gossip into their own social circles.
- Bergmann, J. R. (1993). Discrete indiscretions: The social organization of gossip. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Ellis, J. (1992). Visible fictions: Cinema, television, video, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
- Feasey, R. (2006). Get a famous body: Star styles and celebrity gossip. In S. Homes & S. Redmond (eds.), Framing celebrity: New directions in celebrity culture. London: Routledge.
- Gledhill, C. (1991). Signs of melodrama. In C. Gledhill (ed.), Stardom: Industry of desire. London: Routledge.
- Jermyn, D. (2006). “Bringing out the * in you”: SJP, Carrie Bradshaw and the evolution of television stardom. In S. Holmes & S. Redmond (eds.), Framing celebrity: New directions in celebrity culture. London: Routledge.
- Johansson, S. (2006). “Sometimes you wanna hate celebrities”: Tabloid readers and celebrity coverage. In S. Homes & S. Redmond (eds.), Framing celebrity: New directions in celebrity culture. London: Routledge.
- Lowenthal, L. (1944). The triumph of mass idols. In P. F. Lazarsfeld & F. Stanton (eds.), Radio research 1942 –1943. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce. Repr. in Literature and mass culture. New Brunswick: Transaction.
- McCracken, G. (1989). Who is the celebrity endorser? Cultural foundations of the endorsement process. Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (3): 310 –321.
- Schely-Newman, E. (2004). Mock intimacy: Strategies of engagement in Israeli gossip columns. Discourse Studies, 6(4), 471– 488.
- Tolson, A. (2001). “Being yourself ”: The pursuit of authentic celebrity. Discourse Studies, 3(4), 443 – 457.