Definition

The term celebrity comes from the Latin celebritāt-em, which originated from celebr-em, meaning “famous” or “thronged”, according to Oxford English Dictionary (Celebrity, 1989). Thus, celebrity refers to “the condition of being much extolled or talked about” such as “famousness” or “notoriety”, or “a person of celebrity, a celebrated person, a public character” (Celebrity, 1989).

Marshall (1997) defined celebrity as follows: people who are given “a greater presence and wider scope of activity and agency than are those who make up the rest of the population. They are allowed to move on the public stage while the rest of us watch. They are allowed to express themselves quite individually and idiosyncratically while the rest of members of the population are constructed as demographic aggregates” (Marshall, 1997, ix). Boorstin's definition of celebrity (1961) as “a person who is well-known for his well-knownness” has been widely cited (p. 57). In this sense, he saw the celebrity as a manufactured product.

Outside of its mainstream denotative use, disciplines that often use or theorize the term “celebrity” include but are not limited to: media studies, public relations and/or marketing, cultural studies, sociology, literary studies, film studies, mass communication and communication studies. Often, scholarship produced regarding the term “celebrity” coheres either into specific branding effects therefrom (e.g. celebrity influence on public relations or business branding) or rhetorical cultural impact writ large (e.g. public conceptualizations of masculinity and femininity). Sometimes, these disciplinary interests overlap; yet, their methodology and theoretical trajectories seem different.


Subjectivism vs. Structuralism

Theorization and use of “celebrity” occurs most often in scholarship on construction of culture and cultural identity (norms, genders, races). Using Mother Teresa as exemplar, Gezim Alpion (2006) delineated two (competing) conceptualizations of celebrity: “subjectivism or structuralism” (p. 542). According to Alpion (2006), “subjectivists maintain that talent, which eventually leads to fame, is innate and God-given” (p. 542), and, as such, Mother Teresa was sanctified. Structuralists, on the other hand, believe “celebrities are manufactured and expected to serve the powers that make them famous…[therefore Mother Theresa’s role was, among other things] to legitimize the exploitation of the poor, spread Christianity in non-Christian lands, [and] preach a fake gospel” (p. 549).

Similarly, according to Rojek (2001), there are three types of celebrity status. The first is ascribed celebrity who gets the status by birth like a king. The second is attributed celebrity, the result of media representation. This is similar to Boorstin’s definition. The third, Achieved celebrity is the celebrity who accomplished his/her success through talent.

Rhetorical scholars Hariman and Lucaites long have examined closely the impact of iconic (celebritized) images on publics. They (2003) conceptualized how and why people become celebrities, surmising: “The celebrity is the widely recognized stranger, that is, a stranger whose image is [and was] in wide circulation . . . [celebrities are] within but not fully of the social group [and are] related to the viewer abstractly rather than through more organic ties . . . at once both far and near (p. 61). Ways in which celebrity personae evolve and the extent to which they are celebrated, therefore, remains another consistent theme of “celebrity” scholarship.Jamie Skerski (2007) analyzed popular talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres’s evolution as (lesbian) celebrity, arguing that her current status as such emerged from her ability to appear non-threatening to mainstream culture, articulating different identities (naïve actress to political activist to apolitical comedian) that “tokenized” her (p. 378).


Impact of Celebrity on Audience

Social scientific researchers interested in demonstrable effects often examine the impact of celebrity on audience beliefs or attitudes. Feasey (2008), for example, used focus groups to assess ways in which female readers of heat magazine related to celebrity figures and gossip therein. She contended that these readers used celebrity gossip magazines as a means of social connection and prowess, and that these magazines reaffirmed readers’ fashion choices though their depiction of celebrity style (Feasey, 2008). Austin et al. (2008) suggested that celebrity vote campaigns influence individual decision-making factors, whereby “these campaigns can potentially influence positive change in political engagement of the younger citizenry” (p. 420-421). Brown and de Matviuk (2010) found that respondents with greater parasocial interaction with Argentinean soccer star Diego Maradona (and his drug-related health crisis) were more aware of, had more personal concern about, and abstained from drug use more than those who had no such parasocial interaction; indicating the influence of sports celebrities on drug abuse. Moreover, the predominance of celebrities in contemporary culture has influenced beauty practices such as cosmetic surgery (Cashmore, 2006). Research found that celebrity worship is associated with the acceptance of cosmetic surgery (Swami, Taylor, & Carvalho, 2009), as well as body image and eating disorders (Maltby, Giles, Barber, & McCutcheon, 2005; Shorter, Brown, Quinton, & Hinton, 2008). Celebrity even has a impact on suicide. A meta-analysis revealed that a copycat effect, an imitative suicide, was 5.27 times more likely to be found in studies measuring the impact of celebrity suicide than studies investigating the impact of non-celebrity suicide (Stack, 2005).


Political Celebrity

Marshall (1997) identified the similarity between celebrity and politics. A political leader must embody the sentiments of people that he/she is representing, just as a celebrity must embody the sentiment of people that he/she is appealing to. Both celebrity and politicians have affective function. In other words, both of them are related to the construction of public personalities (p. 203-204).

Street (2004) contended that there are two types of celebrity politician. The first is elected politicians or candidates who act like celebrity to enhance their image or to more effectively communicate with people, for example, Tony Blair’s posing with the England football team or Bill Clinton’s playing saxophone (p. 437). The second is elected politicians or candidates who have a background in entertainment or sports, and use the popularity, such as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger (p. 437). Against the critique of celebrity politics, Street (2004) argued that it needs to be considered as consistent with nature of political representation.


Celebrity and Media Technologies

Media influence the way in which celebity is produced. Barry (2008) argued that many characteristics of the current British celebrity phenomenon began in 18th century print media with the emergence of obituaries that dramatized death. Turner (2004) coined the term "demotic turn" to describe increasing mass production of ordinary celebrity through reality TV, DIY websites, and talk radio. Thus, the distance between television and reality, the famous and ordinary, according to Turner, has been shirinking (Turner, 2006). The relative influence of media technologies and capitalism on various valuations of cultural celebrity, therefore, remains another persistent methodology for interrogating “celebrity.”


Major revision by Jiyoung Chae (August 2012

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References

Alpion, G. (2006). Media and celebrity culture: Subjectivist, structuralist, and post-structuralist approaches to Mother Teresa’s celebrity status. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 20(4), 541-557.

Austin, E.W., Vord, R., Pinkleton, B.E., and Epstein, E. (2008). Celebrity Endorsements and their potential to motivate young voters. Mass Communication & Society, 11(4), 420-436.

Barry, E. (2008). From epitaph to obituary: Death and celebrity in eighteenth-century British culture. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 11(3), 259-275.

Boorstin, D. J. (1961). The Image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. New York, NY: Vintage.

Brown, W.J. & de Matviuk, M.A.C. (2010). Sports celebrities and public health: Diego Maradona’s influence on drug use prevention. Journal of Health Communication, 15(4), 358-373.

Cashmore, E. (2006) Celebrity / Culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

Celebrity. (1989). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved July 30 from http://www.oed.com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/view/Entry/29424?rskey=suW5vu&result=1#eid

Feasey, R. (2008). Reading heat: The meanings and pleasures of star fashions and celebrity gossip. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 22(5), 687-699.

Gamson, J. (1994). Claims to fame: Celebrity in contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hariman, R. & Lucaites, J.L. (2003). Public identity and collective memory in U.S. iconic photography: The image of ‘accidental napalm.’ Critical Studies in Media Communication, 20(1), 35-66.

Maltby, J., Giles, D. C., Barber, L., & McCutcheon, L. E. (2005). Intense-personal celebrity worship and body image: Evidence of a link among female adolescents. British Journal of Health Psychology, 10(1), 17-32.

Marshall, P. D. (1997). Celebrity and power: Fame in contemporary culture, London, UK: University of Minnesota Press.

Rojek, C. (2001). Celebrity. Chicago, IL: Reaktion Books.

Shorter, L., Brown, S. L., Quinton, S. J., & Hinton, L. (2008). Relationships between body shape discrepancies with favored celebrities and disordered eating in young women. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(5), 1364-1377.

Skerski, J. (2007). From prime-time to daytime: The domestication of Ellen DeGeneres. Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies, 4(4), 363-381.

Stack, S. (2005). Suicide in the media: A quantitative review of studies based on nonfictional stories. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35(2), 121-133.

Street, J. (2004). Celebrity politicians: Popular culture and political representation. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations. 6(4), 435–452.

Swami, V., Taylor, R., & Carvalho, C. (2009). Acceptance of cosmetic surgery and celebrity worship: Evidence of associations among female undergraduates. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(8), 869-872.
Turner, G. (2004). Understanding celebrity. London: Sage.
Turner, G. (2006). The mass production of celebrity: 'Celetoids', reality TV and the 'demotic turn'. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 9(2), 153-165.