The Culture of Celebrity

The Culture of Celebrity

A few years ago I visited the champagne cellar of Piper-Heidsieck in Reims, a city in eastern France. At the entrance there is a plaque proclaiming that the cellar had been dedicated by Marie Antoinette. At the end of the tour, one steps into a small museum consisting entirely of photographs of famous people drinking champagne. And who are these worthies? Are they perhaps members of today’s royal houses? Presidents or prime ministers of great nations? Economic titans? Nobel Prize winners? Of course not. They are movie stars, and almost all of them are American—Marilyn Monroe to Clint Eastwood. The premise of the exhibit is unmistakable: Hollywood stars are the royalty of this century. Celebrity is what the global village has in common, to gossip about. Doomed Marie should only have dreamed of such popularity.

To single out a few human beings for special attention is nothing new. Other societies have held up for admiration, emulation, and fear the likenesses of exemplary shamans, priests, generals, kings, saints, and political leaders. But during the last two centuries, a special status has been reserved for those who embody glamour—a distinct power to inspire awe, amplified by love or hate, and thereby to fill up cultural time and space. This cultural power is secular, distinct from any power to kill, to tax, or to enslave. It borrows its force from the realm of the spirit. It works on emotions. It is experienced as a force with visible and tangible dimensions—thus do we speak of stars, possessed of the bright light.

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Lima