We don’t have to look far to find the pulse, the plasma of celebrity, running through the arteries and veins of society. In fact, if one was able to tune one’s magical ear into café and bar conversations, mealtimes at work, playground huddles, radio broadcasts, the chatter of the social media; or if one was to hone one’s all-seeing eyes onto bedroom walls, magazine filled coffee tables, designer and perfumery shops, all manner of goods and services, and the broad output of television and cinema, then one would find celebrity sounded out and visualised large.
This sounding is like the constant beat of a metronome, and this vision is like its regulated swing, directing the way we communicate, desire, identify and consume. We live in the age of the celebrity metronome.
In academic terms, the term celebrity is used to define a person whose name, image, lifestyle, and opinions carry cultural and economic worth, and who are first and foremost idealized popular media constructions. Celebrities exist in the eye of the media, are often adored by their fans, and are valuable commodities in terms of their use and exchange value. They are ‘idols of consumption’ (Lowenthal, 1961), auratic agents of capitalism, and promote the purchasing of commodities through lifestyle choices and product endorsement.
A-list Hollywood film star Charlize Theron attracts funding for any film project she is connected with, and in turn has a fan-base who will go to see the film she appears in. Theron has her own star image, she brings with her performative promises and expectations to the films she appears in. After the Oscar nominated success of Monster (Jenkins, 2003)), Theron earned $10,000,000 for starring in both North Country (Caro, 2005) and Aeon Flux (Kusama, 2005) and according to The Hollywood Reporter's 2006 list of highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, she ranked 7th, behind Halle Berry, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Renée Zellweger, Reese Witherspoon, and Nicole Kidman. The average gross of her films is $28,935,398.
Theron signifies as an idealised white female beauty (a blonde bombshell) but she is also represented as feminist and authorial; she is both to-be-looked-at and takes on challenging roles and gives authentic performances.
Theron is readily reported on, her public and private life a constant newsworthy source in the popular media. When her mobile phone was hacked and ‘nude’ pictures were circulated in 2012, Theron was headline news. In terms of branding, Theron endorses Dior perfume (signed 2004), Uniqlo Heattech’s designer clothes (signed 2010), and was associated with Raymond Weil’s luxurious Swiss watches (2005-2006), appearing in a series of adverts that connected her elegance and beauty with the product in question. For all these global products, Theron is represented to be glamorous, sensual and with the Dior brand, particularly sexual. Theron exists in all the inter-connecting sheets that define celebrity, linking identity, desire, gender perfection, emulation, news, gossip, and commodification across the texts and contexts we find her represented in.
We find love in and through our celebrities. We develop friendship groups in and around our favourite celebrities. We emulate, imitate, and copy our most feted figures of fame. We taste decline, and death in and through our fallen celebrities. For some, celebrities are religious figures, new gods, in an increasing secular Western world. We find perfection in them in an imperfect world where bonds are loose and life feels liquid in its connections. Celebrities give us meaning in an increasingly absurd, postmodern world.
Our relationship with celebrities can of course be personally damaging, particularly if they are intensely defined. The perfected body of the female celebrity can be involved in reproducing the ‘tyranny of slenderness’ (Chernin, 1994), having a dramatic effect on girl teenager’s body image. For example, according to Maltby, Giles, Barber, and McCutcgheon’s study of teenagers and adolescents (2005: 17), identification with a celebrity perceived as having a good body shape may lead to a poor body image in female adolescents.
Nonetheless, identification can be positive and transformative. For example, as of the 30th May 2012 Lady Gaga had 25 million fans (her Little Monsters) following her daily tweets: ‘#25milliontweetymonsters wow! I’m officially feeling like the luckiest girl in the world today’. These little monsters cross age, gender, class and race boundaries, they come from all four corners of the world, and the interaction with Gaga fulfills significant individual and cultural needs particularly around the theme of alienation and disenfranchisement since she proclaims that she looks after, and speaks to and for, the marginalised in society. Lady Gaga creates a community for outsiders, creates a space of dialogue and interaction where positive identities can be fostered.
And if you listen closely, the beat of the celebrity metronome can be heard everywhere…
The inaugural Celebrity Studies Journal Conference will be held from 12 – 14 December at Deakin University, Burwood, Melbourne.
Chernin, Kim, (1994), The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, London: Harper.
Lowenthal, Leo (1961), Literature, Popular Culture, and Society, Prentice-Hall.
Maltby, J. Giles, D., Barber, L., and McCutcgheon, L.E. (2005), Intense-personal celebrity worship and body image: evidence of a link among female adolescents, British Journal of Health Psychology, 10, (17-32).