(editor's note) Why are we interested in famous people? Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that social  information served as gossip is inherently interesting for us – information about alliances, personal hatreds, couple formation and splits, is intrinsically rewarding to our brain – wherever it comes from, irrelevant though it might be to our own lives. Here, philosopher Ophelia Deroy sketches a different point of view.


"Fame" by David Bowie and John Lennon (1975) .

Perhaps it’s the imaginativeness of tabloids titles which surprises me every morning – anyway, stardom system remains very puzzling to me. I assume it serves a function – and even if it is obviously orchestrated by the medias and business companies (sponsorship for sport celebrities, brand names for singers, etc.), there must be something it appeals to in people…


What is the point of celebrity ?

But is it so sure ? Nick Couldry (LSE) complains about a lack of empirical evidence that celebrities really serve a function.   The standard positions in debates about stardom and celebrity culture assume, at root, that the (quasi-industrial) production of celebrity discourse must contribute to some wider social function, whether we call it identity-formation or social integration or both. Here, for example, is McKenzie Wark: ‘we may not like the same celebrities, we may not like any of them at all, but it is the existence of a population of celebrities, about whom to disagree, that makes it possible to constitute a sense of belonging’ (M. Wark (1999) Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace. Sydney: Pluto, p. 33,).

But, as Couldry asks, “where is the evidence that people ‘identify’ with celebrities in any simple way, or even that they regard ‘celebrity culture’ as important, rather than a temporary distraction, let alone that celebrities ‘make possible’ everyone’s sense of belonging?”.  I guess the question is biaised (nobody claims that people “identify with celebrities in a simple way” ) but still, it addresses a legitimate worry : interest in celebrities life goes far beyond people for whom reference to these celebrities play a role in identity-formation or in conversation. Who has never read Hello Magazine over one’s shoulder in the tube? How come we all know about Madonna’s divorce – even when not caring for it? It is less obvious to me what function collecting these information serve for people whose sense of identity or belonging doesn’t apparently mix with celebrity gossips ? Is pure distraction a fair motive here?


The “it can happen to you too” effect .

Well, perhaps the question has to be addressed at a more general level. In a recent paper, Toby Young (the son of the sociologist Michaël Young, author of “The Rise of the Meritocracy”) compares attitudes to celebrities and to lottery  :

Some commentators believe that the preponderance of reality shows and their casts of freaks and wannabes—the lumpen celebritariat—have devalued the whole notion of stardom. Yet the YouGov survey discovered that appearing on a reality television programme was a popular career option among teenagers, and another poll found 26 per cent of 16 to 19 year olds believe it is easy to secure a career in sports, entertainment or the media. If the existence of the celebrity class does play a role in securing people's consent to our winner-takes-all society, then the fact that the entry requirements are so low helps this process along. If people believe there is a genuine chance they might be catapulted to the top, they're more likely to endorse a system in which success is so highly rewarded. To paraphrase the advertising slogan for the National Lottery, it could be them. As with the lottery, people may know that the actual chances of winning are low but the selection mechanism itself is fair—a level playing field.

The paper concludes that the hidden function of celebrities would thus be to secure the consent of ordinary people to the unequal distribution of rewards, in a unfair absence of genuine equality of opportunity. Basically, you accept an unfair, qua arbitrary system if you think it’s nonetheless fair, qua almost random. Becoming famous is a question of luck – and you just wish you’ll be one of the lucky fews in the limo.

But then, if being famous is about being noticed and admired, you must known that you won’t be admired for any quality of yours – but just for being lucky, which anyone could have been.

Isn’t there here a resilient trace of the idea that people have « their own luck », and a kind of fate – that they bear responsibility for being lucky or not ?

At least this makes sense of two  things.



The flux

First, why there should be a constant renewal of living celebrities – by contrast with a system with more perenial stars, or (dead, mythical) legendary figures  : it shows that there is actually room for newcomers, and entertains every body’s dream to get his moment of fame.

Why celebrities are not heroes – but aren’t they still prestigious ?

Second, that there is room for typologies of celebrities. The ones that Young is talking about (by which he seems to mean some sort of pop stars) have nothing more special than their audience, except the fact that they managed to become famous – something which cannot be seen as a special achievement, on his perspective, but also has to be accessible to everyone. This contrasts with celebrities acknowledged for (a) their (moral, intrinsic) qualities or (b) their superior achievements, or (c) both. The later encourage a kind of deference, and their prestige rely on the fact that not everybody could have done what they did, or be where they are. So – questions –
How come that the first ones enjoy a kind of prestige, but without deference ? Is this a good typology of famous people ? Do you have another one ? Is there any constant among different cultures, and is the « random-star » just characteristic of (some) contemporary societies ?   



The Limo problem

Still, Young’s analysis doesn’t distinguish between the desirability of being famous, and the desirability of having the material advantages that can go with fame (the limo), but not necessarily do. Also, it doesn’t seem that fame is desired as a mean – but as an end. You want to be in the Limo, not necessarily to have it. Or do you ?



  • comment-avatar
    Olivier Morin 23 November 2008 (12:04)

    I think I will stick to the evolutionary-psychological view for once. Many primates have a specific interest in social information – they are ready to give away food in order to get information about cliques, sexual involvement between powerful figures, etc. This strong interest for good gossip might be modular to some extent – that is, we might pay attention to social information even if it has no immediate relevance whatsoever to our own life. Since you expect celebrity gossip to be interesting for others as well, repeating the gossip, and appearing knowledgeable about it, will be socially rewarding, especially if it is fresh( which explains the need for celebrities turn-over).This explains why we need celebrities to be rich and important (an occasional setback notwithstanding, as in Miss Hilton’s prison episode), but not necessarily talented or worth imitating. Crucially, it also explains why the taste for celebrity gossip is much more widespread than fame itself, or the desire for fame (which Mr. Young’s theory does not really explain in my view) – and it makes no marxisto-functionalist assumption about tabloids being necessary for the preservation of social inequalities. But, as you point out, that still does not explain the Limo…

  • comment-avatar
    guest guest 27 November 2008 (08:55)

    This is a topic ive been thinking about a lot, and you really framed it well. keep up the great work.

  • comment-avatar
    guest guest 27 November 2008 (09:01)

    Eckhart Tolle talks about fame in his book A New Earth. He puts it into context of individual and collective ego enhancing behavior. Both the fan and the celebrity are enhancing their sense of self. They are both being selfish for their own reasons. The fan uses the famous person to enhance their sense of self by association and/or by gossiping. Ego’s are attracted to bigger ego’s. Likewise the famous person wants people to acknowledge and boost their own ego, verifying to them what they tell themselves is their identity. It is a process of mind identification which brings this about. The ego, the thinking mind, is comparitive. The reason the celebrity is famous is because we compare him/her to other people who might be more or less famous, or not at all famous. Read his book to learn more of this perspective.

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    guest guest 27 November 2008 (14:36)

    1. jer mislite da oni žive lijepo 2. ako vidite ono kako oni žele da vidite u najboljem njiihovom sjaju 3. jer želite da živite život (a da je on primje?en da tvoj život ima neku pažnju kod drugih) 4. jer neželite da vidite sve ono što oni rade i koju su to nesposobni ljudi 5.jer morate imati primjer ili u?enje u svom životu ina?e si drvo ili ne?eš ništa znati 6. jer ste nevjerom postali kokoši ili one ptice koje se kite i koja se najljepše nakiti ona dobije najviše mužjaka 7. ali dobro valjda ?e se sad popraviti blogovima http://im777ja.blog.hr & blog.ru this is in the bosnisch

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    guest guest 27 November 2008 (18:46)

    If it’s about accesibility, why is there a difference in attitudes between Football stars and Intellectuals? Football stars are idealised, intellectuals often vilified as Elitist and yet are they not both Elite?

  • comment-avatar
    guest guest 28 November 2008 (18:46)

    I like to know if celebrities have the same problems that the rest of us have. For example, I compare the stress that they have to deal with being famous versus just getting in and out of work like most of us common folks. Also, how do they get high? Do they use illegal or legal substances? thanks from tony at: http://ntopics.com

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    Ijah Towa 2 May 2009 (14:15)

    I suggest The Davinci method from Garrett Loporto. According to him there are 2 types of people, the Davinci creative ones and the normal “like to be told what to do” ones. It’s obvious for anyone who has had a musical or any other artistic experience that no substance is needed to get high but artists are known to be or expected to be big consumers of drug and alcohol eventhough some are not at all. Garett Loporto also deals with that in his method. I’m an observer with no philosophical background so check for yourself. Bless