The media's obsession with celebrities is nothing new. But only recently has it saturated the culture--and begun to claim our best talent
Newt Gingrich apparently was not newsworthy enough, nor Bill Clinton, nor Colin Powell. No, in 1995, the year's most prominent newsmaker was a British supermodel named Elizabeth Hurley. Or at least that's who Newsweek's end-of-the-year "newsmaker" edition featured--in black leather--on the cover. "Hurley is an odd sort of celebrity," the article inside mused. "The world spent a year in her company, pondering her deep chestnut hair, blue-green eyes and formidable figure ... yet got to know her not at all. Her face, yes, and her forbearance, but little else."
Hurley certainly is an "odd sort of celebrity": Her primary claim to fame is her "formidable figure"--featured in Estee Lauder ads--and a movie star boyfriend who took a spin with a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard. That didn't stop one of the nation's top newsmagazines from coronating her, with its cover choice, newsmaker of the year. O.J. Simpson and Courteney Cox, one presumes, were close runners-up.
And so it is that we draw near the end of the celebrity century. Eighty years ago, early filmmakers came upon the strategy of selling their product by turning actors into brand names. Television raised the stakes dramatically, prompting Daniel Boorstin in 1962 to define the celebrity as "a person who is well known for his well-knownness."
Today, we seem to have reached the apex of the most recent celebrity explosion--powered by a volatile mix of new communications media (cable TV, computers, and space satellites) and cultural change. We're soaked in celebrity. Larry King plays celebrity sycophant and political kingmaker--all in the same night. Jackie O's fake pearls draw big bucks and big coverage. The novelty and nuance of Boorstin's phrase have been lost entirely. What was once a revelation is now a cliche.
Many of this era's dismaying stories have been well told: the capture of politics of made-for-TV candidates; the growth of tabloid gossip and half-truths; the sea change in cultural values. Still largely untold, though, is what might be called the story of the storytellers--the men and women who breathe life into Hollywood icons, who decode, justify, and ultimately solidify their fame. And it's not only tabloid hacks or publicists' suckers who are drawn into the celebrity vortex. It's the best and the brightest as well. We've seen a rash of supermarket gossip rags, People magazine imitators, and celebro-news TV shows. But as a cultural phenomenon, these second- and third-tier outlets pale in importance to Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, "Prime-Time Live," and even The New York Times--the quality publications that are increasingly consumed with celebrity nonsense.
To some, criticizing celebro-journalism might seem as irrelevant as criticizing fatty food--people want it; it tastes good; the delivers. There will always be an appetite for celebrity gossip and glossy profiles--for Us and In Style and "Entertainment Tonight," even for the dubious "news" of the tabloids. But truly talented writers are a rare quantity in this world. They have the ability to set priorities, to focus attention away from what's easy, or sexy, or light, or irrelevant. When they could be checking the steamroller of celebrity glitz and superficiality, many of them are gleefully pushing it along.
Lost in Hollywood
The roots of modern celebrity journalism can be traced to Walter Winchell, father of the gossip column. Winchell was a fierce talent, but also a coarse newspaperman with few pretensions to quality. "I wait until I can catch an ingrate with his fly open, and then I take a picture of it," he once wrote.
The early Hollywood fan magazines were even a notch below Winchell. It's no surprise that few celebrity writers from the '30s and '40s--like Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and Sheilah Graham (less remembered for her work than for being F. Scott Fitzgerald's mistress)--resonate today. The "stars" of celebrity journalism could be counted easily on two hands. And their work was rigorously segregated--"presented rather sheepishly," writes Richard Schickel in Intimate Strangers, "if at all, in journals of any aspiration to quality, typically tucked around the movie ads."
Still, the celebrity culture had taken hold. In the '40s, as Joe DiMaggio, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, and Joseph Kennedy Sr. all gathered at Cub Room in the Stork Club to see and be seen, intellectuals like Lionel Trilling proclaimed ours the age of celebrity. Then television happened, adding dramatically to the star-power of assorted athletes, journalists, salesmen, actors, and political figures. Anyone who appeared on the box found fame, and anyone with fame found celebration.
It was the end of the 1960s before the next phase of celebrity obsession began, a time when wrenching assassinations and the lies of the Vietnam War and Watergate hastened a loss of faith in the public sphere. Andy Warhol became the icon of celebrity in this era. His Interview magazine--which dressed up fashion designers, musicians, and politicians for glamorous photo shoots--paved the way for People, which debuted in 1974. But perhaps the more significant entry on the scene was Rolling Stone, a magazine "not just about music," founder Jann Wenner wrote in the first issue in 1967, "but also about the things and attitudes that music embraces." The magazine sought to...