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A Short History of Celebrity

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  • Posted October 11, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Genesis and Permutations of Celebrity

    Fred Inglis demonstrates convincingly that the system and production of celebrity is inherent to an industrializing economy. The key drivers behind this metamorphosis have been the rise of urban democracy, the successive revolutions in the media industry, the growing individualization of society, the liberalization of mores, and the sheer quantity of money thrown at the manufacture of celebrities. Unsurprisingly, London, Paris, New York, and Chicago were the first loci of this industrialization of celebrity. Celebrity progressively took precedence over renown that was once associated with men and women of high accomplishment. Renown reflected the significance of the actions of these people for the society rather than a public recognition of their persona. This evolution turned fame into a much more ephemeral reward and shifted public acclaim from an expression of devotion to one of celebrity. Reality TV is the epitome of this metamorphosis. Furthermore, Mr. Inglis brings to light with much brio the powerful contradiction that drives celebrity. Celebrities are simultaneously uniquely recognizable and sacredly remote. This contradiction found its genesis after 1918. Interestingly, Mr. Inglis surmises that this ambivalence could explain why people both worship and despise celebrities. This finding is not so surprising when one considers that a modern society could not function without its intake of (new) celebrities. Mr. Inglis posits that celebrities give us certain bearings because they are a reflection of the best and worst values of contemporary Western society. To his credit, Mr. Inglis shows clearly the wide variety of celebrities behind the one-word concept "celebrity." Celebrity was originally closely associated with the established elite of artists (always on the edge of rebellion) and the social circles of haut ton. Celebrity then got increasingly hitched to the fabulous wealth of the "robber barons" during the Gilded Age. Mr. Inglis observes on this subject that in contrast to Europe, the United States was not prisoner to social classes in its association of success with new wealth. The end of the Great War also witnessed the extension of the manufacture of celebrity to the film stars (Hollywood), the heroes of high technological travel (racing car drivers, aviators, yachtsmen), the professional sportsmen, and the good and bad genius of mass politics. After WWII, the celebrity complex made democratization of its ranks a high priority by including for example sport and rock stars, gossip columnists, news presenters, fashion models, soap opera actors, and journalists. Surprisingly, Mr. Inglis seems to downplay the increasing importance of both the Internet and mobile media in the celebrity arena when he states that "television is our first instrument with which, cognitively and emotionally, to grasp the world beyond the front door, and its mutations." Generations Y and Z will probably beg to differ on this subject. In conclusion, Mr. Inglis narrates with much panache how culture and technology have evolved over the past two hundred fifty years to produce celebrity as we apprehend it today.

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