Love it or hate it, celebrity is one of the dominant features of modern lifeand one of the least understood. Fred Inglis sets out to correct this problem in this entertaining and enlightening social history of modern celebrity, from eighteenth-century London to today's Hollywood. Vividly written and brimming with fascinating stories of figures whose lives mark important moments in the history of celebrity, this book explains how fame has changed over the past two-and-a-half centuries.
Starting with the first modern celebrities in mid-eighteenth-century London, including Samuel Johnson and the Prince Regent, the book traces the changing nature of celebrity and celebrities through the age of the Romantic hero, the European fin de siècle, and the Gilded Age in New York and Chicago. In the twentieth century, the book covers the Jazz Age, the rise of political celebrities such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, and the democratization of celebrity in the postwar decades, as actors, rock stars, and sports heroes became the leading celebrities.
Arguing that celebrity is a mirror reflecting some of the worst as well as some of the best aspects of modern history itself, Inglis considers how the lives of the rich and famous provide not only entertainment but also social cohesion and, like morality plays, examples of whatand what notto do.
This book will interest anyone who is curious about the history that lies behind one of the great preoccupations of our lives.
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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.