We have an ambivalent relationship to celebrities. We are continuously fascinated by them, spend money on magazines to read about them and allow them to grab our attention in any number of ways. Celebrities are the aristocracy of the 20th and 21st centuries, or at least an important branch of the new nobility. It’s easy to lose count of the number of opinionistas moaning about the ‘cult of celebrity’.
At the same time we are suspicious and envious of them, keen to find any sign that they are ordinary folk, ‘just like us’, with the same ups and downs in their lives, the same anxieties about being overweight or anoxeric, and just as likely to suffer heartbreak.
Peter Bogdanovich recounts how Cary Grant said to him, ‘Peter, will you stop telling people you’re happy?’ Bogdanovich objected, ‘I thought all the world loves a lover,’ to which Grant replied, ‘No, don’t you believe it. Let me tell you something, Peter, people do not like beautiful people’.
 As Joseph Epstein says, all the celebrity magazines could ‘just as easily travel under the generic title of The National Schadenfreude,’ so many of their stories ‘come under the category of “See how the mighty have fallen”’.
The inclination both these attitudes share is to see celebrity as a superficial phenomenon, and the most commonly-used definition is the one offered in Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 book The Image: a celebrity is ‘a person who is known for his well-knownness’. Paris Hilton is only the most recent example of this kind of celebrity – some readers will also remember Zsa Zsa Gabor. This annoys many people – it’s easy to lose count of the number of opinionistas moaning about the ‘cult of celebrity’.
But seeing it like this makes it difficult to understand celebrity properly as the very serious economic phenomenon that it really is. We all know about how richly-rewarded celebrity can be, and this has a lot to do with our ambivalence about it. The list of examples of the richly-rewarded individuals at the top of the celebrity hierarchy, because of their high visibility across all celebrity sectors – models, actors, sports stars, fashion designers, writers – is long and growing.
Just to pick one, Tiger Woods was reported in 2006 as having become the first athlete to earn more than US$100 million in one year. Endorsement and appearances were responsible for $90 million of that, as opposed to US$10 million for playing golf.
The value of the coupling of celebrity identity to particular products is not always certain, as Pepsi-Cola learned to its cost. But it can be gold-plated: when it became known that Michael Jordan was returning to playing basketball for the Chicago Bulls in 1995, the value of the stocks of the companies he was associated with – Nike, McDonalds, Quaker Oats, Sara Lee – increased by around 2%, or roughly US$1 billion. The economic network surrounding celebrities is extensive, restricted only by the imagination of the celebrity and their management.
The economic function of stars in the movie industry has always been that they more clearly differentiate between products, improve the capacity to predict success, and enable prices to be stabilized and, ideally, increased over time.Irving Rein and his colleagues wrote that a celebrity can be defined as anyone ‘whose name has attention-getting, interest-riveting and profit-generating value.
The logic underpinning this massive generation of wealth is relatively simple, and it is all about getting people’s attention. The American sociologist Robert K. Merton once noticed in relation to scientists that status and recognition in science is often characterized by what he called ‘the Matthew effect’, after the Gospel according to Matthew 25:29: ‘For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’.Merton thought that ‘this is the form, it seems, that the distribution of psychic income and cognitive wealth in science also takes’.
Researchers who already had a ‘name’ in their field received disproportionately greater attention for work that was comparable to that done by lesser-known researchers, and initial advantages of location and resources tend to accumulate over time. Those who achieved recognition earlier in their career were more productive later on, and the impact of a scientific contribution was greater the more established the reputation of the researcher.
In contests over the attribution of new discoveries, the established name general wins out, and name-recognition plays an important role in the selection of journal articles considered worth reading. Generally reputation – of the researcher themselves and the university where they work – operates as an important cue for selecting the publications worthy of attention from an ever-expanding array of possibilities.
The Matthew effect was what Boorstin was observing with his ‘well-known for their well-knownness’ comment, but he got it the wrong way around. It is not so much that celebrities are well-known (simply) because of their well-knownness, it is that being well-known tends to generate more well-knownness.
The concept of the Matthew effect underlines a central element of the logic of celebrity production, that the capacity to attract attention – demanding expressive and communicative skills that we tend to see as ‘superficial’ – is itself a self-reproducing form of capital.
As early as 1971, the American political scientist Herbert Simon pointed out that in ‘a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it’.This has only become even more true with the ‘infobesity’ generated by vast expansion of information available through the mass media and the internet.
In a postindustrial world where the supply of knowledge and information threatens to engulf everyone, what is in short supply is the means to discriminate between what is on offer, and the capacity to attract attention – of consumers, voters, students, job applicants, readers, and audiences.
There is an ‘attention economy’, in which celebrity can be regarded as a form of risk-capital, where risk taking can lead to massive windfalls which can then be converted with new projects into even more celebrity (attention) capital. Attention-capital tends constantly to earn interest, because we generally pay attention to whatever is engaged other people’s attention.
The attention capital generated by celebrities plays an important role in any ‘production’, be it a play, a film, a radio program, an advertising campaign, a university course of study, a conference, a public lecture, a political party or campaign, a social movement, or even a state. That’s why they earn so much. That’s why Kylie Minogue got over $4 million to launch the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai.
Richard Lanham calls celebrities ‘attention-traps’, like Marcel Ducham’s urinal and bicycle wheel, or Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can and Monroe silkscreen portraits. The effect is that in addition to the attention they attract themselves, celebrities generate potentially enormous and ever-expanding amounts of attention capital in the networks surrounding them – in principle they are merely the tips of celebrity attention icebergs.
Another way of seeing celebrities is to consider them the key elements of a ‘name economy’, mediating the relationship between economy and culture. Celebrities organize attention and consumption, turning products into a recognized face, name and body, to acting as the linchpins between different fields of cultural production: television, radio, film, literature, theatre, music, fashion, and politics.
There is a consistent cross-over effect, too: actors become politicians, models become actors, fashion designers become film directors, photographers work as actors and journalists, politicians host radio shows. ‘It is this ability to function across fields,’ observes Brian Moeran, ‘that enables and sustains a name economy’.This cross-over aspect of celebrity is accentuated by celebrity coupling, so that models, sports stars, actors, politicians, gallery owners and other highly visible individuals link up with each other.
All of this is why we live in a celebrity society, not because we’ve somehow lost our cultural bearings. In 1968 Andy Warhol said: ‘In the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes’. In 1979, he revised the formula: ‘I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, ‘In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous’’.Warhol may have been making a perceptive observation about the direction that celebrity is moving in. Or he was simply saying what he knew would attract our attention.