Celebrity Culture: Why Fame Is Big Business
What I argue in my book is that celebrity culture is the constant negotiation between media — and that can be producers, it can be journalists, it can be radio interviews, it can be photographers and celebrities themselves — and the public. No one group controls the narrative. No one group controls the outcome. That’s part of the reason we’re so engaged. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.
A lot of what we see today owes its roots to the 1980s and 1990s, when anybody could get a relatively cheap video camera and take videos of themselves, but there was no way to distribute them to a large number of people. That’s what phones have allowed. What we see today is that celebrities can have much more direct contact with their publics without having to deal with gatekeepers like heritage newspapers. It used to be both the public and celebrities were really limited by a smaller number of gatekeepers, and they’re gone. Now, the problem we have is that it’s hard to know in the public how to find anything that interests us, right? As a celebrity, anybody can have a Twitter account or a YouTube channel, but how are you going to make sure that people come to it?
Knowledge@Wharton: But isn’t the public the conduit in that process?
Marcus: That is an interesting way to think about it. We’re used to thinking of the media as the conduit, but I would agree with your way of putting it. It is, in fact, the public that’s the conduit. Because what I also saw by taking this long, historical view is that although we think of the media as making decisions and being in control of who is in the public eye, the media is very responsive to what interests the public. The media is always trying to figure out, “What do people care about?”
Sometimes that’s guesswork. Sometimes it’s based on word of mouth. It feels to me like these days the newspapers are following social media more than the other way around. If something blows up on social media, it becomes a news story.
Knowledge@Wharton: You also talk about the social component when a celebrity is well-known, such as boxer Muhammad Ali. In the 1960s, he was an activist, and that drew a lot of positive and negative attention to his fame.
Marcus: Social and political. I’ll talk about Muhammad Ali in a second, but look again at Taylor Swift. When we talk about the #MeToo movement, I think a lot of us forget that right before the big story broke with Harvey Weinstein, Taylor Swift was in the news because she sued a photographer who groped her. She sued him for a penny because she was making a point that this wasn’t about money. It was about it not being OK. She was extremely articulate on the stand. Many celebrities have real aplomb dealing with the public. They’re able to improvise. They’re able to be spontaneous but also come off being very calm and collected, which is what you need to do if you’re in the courtroom. And she won. She raised a lot of attention to the ways that even the most famous, supposedly powerful young women are being exploited and mistreated. I think that that was a crucial example of a celebrity using their media presence and influence for a social and political purpose.
Muhammad Ali, as an African American boxer in the 1960s, raised awareness about civil rights, about the Vietnam War. He refused to serve in the Vietnam War well before there was a massive protest movement against the Vietnam War. As a result, he was put in jail during what would have been the height of his boxing career. I think all of that was a great example of how many celebrities go against the grain. They take unpopular positions that then become the norm in many ways.