A few hundred years ago there would only be a handful of people that the general public would recognize. Jesus, Cleopatra, Hercules, Alexander the Great and Captain Cook would have been the rare few that were glorified for their virtues, talents or royal lineage.
Back then individuals were given an elevated status from ordinary folk because of their significant achievements or noble blood. Fast-forward to today and your neighbor could be famous. Forget about the much-awaited 15 minutes that we’ve all heard about! It seems that in world dominated by information and technology, everyone is entitled to at least 30 seconds of fame.
There is no doubt that technology has played the biggest role in our changing relationship to celebrity culture. Never before have we consumed this much information at this volume and speed. The constant and daily drivel of celebrity gossip serves to bring celebrities down to our level that we feel like we know them on an intimate basis. The gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrows and their lifestyle seems so accessible that we are deluded into thinking we can be part of it too.
Researchers suggest celebrity culture produces distorted and unrealistic perceptions of our bodies, goals and lives. It also impacts the way we perceive the world around us. By emphasizing the superficial and trivial, the media distracts the masses from serious issues like war or famine. This serves to satisfy its appetite for content to gain profit while simultaneously turning us into unknowing and unwilling participants of consumerism – the solid foundation that celebrity culture is built on.
The modern celebrity culture was created in the 1920s when socialites, athletes, singers and movie stars began to dominate our cultural landscape. Since then it’s no longer restricted to the beautiful or the talented. Fueled by a dangerous concoction of media, new technologies and public relations, it has now exploded into every sector you can imagine - political, financial, academic, food, technology, the list goes on!
The selling of persona is not only expected but also necessary for success. Self-branding is treated as an important source of commodity. After all, who is going to buy your cookbook if they don’t know who you are? And once you get people interested in your cookbook, how do you get more coverage? The answer you would get from any public relations team is to strategically exploit yourself. It is a constant cycle of tactical PR techniques combined with your own personal efforts. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube and your own personal blog would be your best weapons to hold your space.
If you stop the motion for even a day, you could easily be replaced by the next up and coming. That’s how much technology has changed our relationship to fame – it’s become increasingly instantaneous and fickle that we dispose of it as we please. It can be as easy as not sharing a link or liking a picture that can lead to someone’s downfall. It is common for people who do have fame to go to extreme lengths to hold on to it. After all, fame constitutes a form a power, a function that individuals are innately wired to want regardless of their field of expertise.
Politicians have clued onto this. More and more are using celebrity culture to garner public support to assure their reputation and success. Election campaigns are no longer issues-based but more of a competition between personalities. In his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama used Twitter to engage with the public. By utilizing technology, he was able to manage the representation of himself to attract votes. He now has the third largest group of followers on Twitter.
Managing your image in mainstream media is also essential to gain support. Contemporary broadcasting organizations are dominated by celebrity gossip and are structured to entertain rather than inform. Politicians and strategists are changing their approach to reflect this by increasingly turning away from traditional formats of treating political news and campaigns. It is now common for politicians to go on talk shows that are hosted by celebrities or turning up to fundraising events with their biggest lobbyists on their arms. In Obama’s situation, his biggest lobbyists were Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who also happened to be the biggest names in the music industry. By associating with the most powerful couple in hip hop and r’n’b, Obama tapped into a target group who were undoubtedly influenced to vote for him. The strategy is simple. If Jay-Z and Beyoncé support Obama, then he must be ‘cool’ and deserving of their support too.
It’s not just politicians who manipulate celebrity culture to advance themselves. We are now exposed to ceaseless individuals whose popularity has been bred by pushing moral boundaries. In fact the most popular celebrity of today is Kim Kardashian. Idolized for her big booty, she received infamy from a ‘leaked’ porn video and rode that wave of attention to glittering heights with a reality TV show. She will soon be releasing a visual book called ‘Selfish’ that showcases her favorite selfies. The act of taking a picture of yourself seems to be another by-product of celebrity culture.
Perhaps the truest testament to celebrity culture is the popularity of reality TV. Dating, talent quests, teen moms, fashion critique, cooking and singing competitions – there is a magnitude of genres to be entertained by, from the obscene to the mundane. These shows are then infiltrated into the media and into our newsfeeds. The overexposure seems to indirectly breed narcissism as we consume useless information about hairstyles or the color of their underwear, if they are wearing any at all. By assigning power to people who seem to have little ambition or talent, we are normalizing sexual behavior, gratifying petty traits and creating unhealthy expectations of others and ourselves.
On the other hand, celebrity culture is not consumed as thoughtlessly as critics like to believe. Because we do live in a highly globalized world where media convergence is the norm, more and more young people are particularly critical of the dominant ethos of celebrity. Although it’s widely acknowledged that celebrities have the power to set trends and shape ideologies, people are assertive on whether it will be to their empowerment or detriment. This is because we live in the information age where we can choose what, when and how we consume.
Technology is a double edge sword that holds the ultimate power – although surveys and statistics reveal that society is becoming increasingly narcissistic, at the same time, we are more aware of each other than ever before. Years ago we would passively consume TV. Today we can actively share our opinion about a political issue with someone from a different country. Although celebrity culture is heavily engrained in many sectors of our lives, it also has the potential to highlight global issues and bring about change. There have been many movements, some even led by celebrities, to raise awareness about political problems or to raise funds for charities. Ultimately it is up to consumers to determine how involved they want to be in the hype of celebrity culture.