Fame, fortune and falls from grace: Greg Jenner on the rise of celebrity culture

Who was the first celebrity? And why are we obsessed with fame culture? Greg Jenner tells Ellie Cawthorne about his star-studded new book, which shines a light on the history of celebrity, taking in fame, fortune and calamitous falls from grace

Greg Jenner. (Photo by Frank Monks)

Ellie Cawthorne: You argue in the book that celebrity is a slippery concept. How do you define it?

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Greg Jenner: When I began writing, I made the foolish assumption that there would be a clear-cut definition of celebrity. But a year-and-a-half later, I still couldn’t find one. So I’ve come up with my own.

Firstly, a celebrity has to have something about them that’s distinctive, recognisable and iconic. They are someone who is known to strangers, but they don’t know the strangers in return – that’s called ‘parasocial intimacy’ – and their fame is spread through the mass media: they appear in newspapers and on the telly and radio.

But it’s not enough for someone to be professionally interesting – they also need to have a private life that is fascinating to the public. On this basis, I would make the controversial argument that Sir David Attenborough is not a celebrity because, while I know an enormous amount about his career, I don’t know anything about his life.

Finally, I would argue that celebrity requires the existence of a commercial marketplace based on the person’s fame – basically a micro-economy where other people can make money from them.

EC: How far back do you trace our appetite for celebrity culture?

GJ: Whether it’s the Kardashians, reality stars or social media influencers, people are often accused these days of being famous for being famous, but that’s actually nothing new. People were saying exactly the same thing back in the 18th century. In his 1786 book The Age of Genius! Thomas Busby basically moaned that the good old days of people being famous for proper reasons were gone, and now there was just a load of pretty women in nice dresses.

I would argue that celebrity culture really began in the early 1700s, when there was a surge in what’s called the ‘public sphere’ in Britain and France. Suddenly, people realised that they were part of a wider society and they wanted to join in. In the cities, there was a new energy and liveliness – people gossiping in taverns, coffee houses and theatres. Around the same time, there’s also a switch towards slightly more dull royals, and you see a movement away from courts as the centres of spectacle. Increasingly, the patrons who commissioned the creative arts weren’t royals but ordinary people.

But while I argue that celebrity is in no way new, it has undoubtedly accelerated. Celebrity in the 18th century obviously had nowhere near the same kind of intensity and neon energy as in the modern age. Technology has played an enormous part in that. The 19th century supercharged celebrity in ways that made the 18th century look quite parochial. For example, trains and steamships meant that you could start doing transatlantic tours. Dickens made [the equivalent of] around £30m touring America. And of course, in the 20th century, radio, movies and television arrived, and suddenly a celebrity could reach audiences across the globe.

EC: Did you identify any character traits that made someone a good candidate for becoming a celebrity?

GJ: There are some people in my book who would have probably ended up famous regardless of how they tried it. They had charisma. There was something just innately fascinating or naturally alluring about them. Someone like Lord Byron would fall into this category. Admittedly, he had advantages that others didn’t, but he also oozed charisma as this radical, sexy, scandalous, romantic figure. If he hadn’t made it in poetry, I think he would have made it another way.

On the other hand, there were people like Edmund Kean, whose story is just extraordinary. He was a total nobody – an alcoholic actor living a hand-to-mouth existence. At one point, Kean and his pregnant wife walked 180 miles from Birmingham to Swansea in the summer heat for a gig, sleeping rough along the way because they couldn’t afford to stay in taverns.

But then, out of nowhere, he had an incredible breakthrough. The Drury Lane Theatre was in huge financial trouble. They were throwing mud at the wall, so they found some random bloke in Exeter (Kean) and decided to take a chance on him. It’s the equivalent of finding a street busker and putting them on stage in Las Vegas. But, believe it or not, it worked! Kean’s opening performance went amazingly, and by a stroke of good luck, a couple of influential journalists were there and wrote incredible reviews. Within a week Kean was known throughout London, within a month he was a superstar. He went on to become one of the defining actors of the 19th century, but he could just as easily have died in a ditch.

EC: You argue that we tend to apply very binary moral standards to our celebrities. How so?

GJ: This is something you see playing out on Twitter, but it’s been happening since at least the 1700s. Celebrities are forged into heroes because people need role models and rallying figures. Take George Washington. He was turned into a celebrity superhero, and by the end of his life, biographies were saying things like, “He never lied as a child.” That’s ridiculous – of course he did! But he was turned into a saint.

However, as well as creating heroes, society could also create villains, and on the flipside were the bad boys – the highwaymen and criminals. Though we don’t know who he was, I would call Jack the Ripper a celebrity. Even at the time, there was a bizarre kind of commercial economy attached to him. People paid money to tour the crime scenes, or see wax effigies of his victims. That is celebrity. It may be a cruel, dark, twisted form of fame, but it still ticks all the boxes.

EC: Scandal has often fuelled the fires of fame. But what determined whether it supercharged a celebrity or destroyed them?

GJ: It could certainly go either way. Mae West is an example of someone who actively used scandal as a springboard to become more famous. In 1926, she put on a play called Sex in which she played a sex worker. The newspapers were outraged and West was thrown in jail for indecency. But loads of people came to the play and they loved her. She was bawdy with a really fresh and edgy sense of humour. As West once famously quipped, she “climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong” rather than rung by rung, which is a lovely pun, and she ended up a Hollywood icon. For her, being a bit of a deviant who could titillate and thrill audiences was a route into people’s hearts.

Sex sells: Mae West embraced a subversive sex appeal in order to catapult herself to fame - but other celebrities found themselves burned by the limelight. (Photo by Getty Images)
Sex sells: Mae West embraced a subversive sex appeal in order to catapult herself to fame – but other celebrities found themselves burned by the limelight. (Photo by Getty Images)

But while some people were able to make scandal part of their personal brand, for others, it was hugely destructive. There were plenty of women in the 18th and 19th centuries who wrote what were called “whores’ biographies” – basically kiss-and-tell stories. The most famous is probably the courtesan Harriette Wilson. Selling your story could be a lucrative business. Wilson blackmailed her former clients, threatening to write about them unless they paid her off, to which her former lover the Duke of Wellington reportedly famously responded: “Publish and be damned.” Her book was a huge bestseller because, of course, people were desperate to read about the sex life of the Duke of Wellington. But in the long term, women like Wilson generally ended up dying in poverty, as they were never allowed to become respectable. A lot of them later tried to write poetry or novels, but it was too late because their reputations were tarnished.

EC: Fame has frequently been unwanted or come at a price – can you give some examples of how damaging it could be?

GJ: The ancient poet Virgil describes fame as a giant bird-like monster covered with eyes, tongues and ears to represent gossip and rumour. This monster stalks the land and never sleeps, hunting people down like a ravenous predator. It’s a terrifying idea, like some horrendous Godzilla painted by Dali.

It’s important to remember that fame was something that could be done to people – it could be attributed to you against your wishes. History has loads of examples of people who despised being famous, and found it really intrusive and troubling – Florence Nightingale, for example. Even though people lauded her as a hero, and named ships and pubs and children after her, she absolutely hated that fame arrived on her doorstep.

Then you get people like the philosopher and novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was a massive star in the 1760s. He’d written this novel called Julie; ou, la Nouvelle Heloise, and people just loved it – they cried, wrote him letters and began turning up at his house to say hello. But faced with all this adoration, he started to lose his mind, and went into a weird, paranoid delusion where he no longer trusted his friends. He would see perfectly nice paintings of himself done by reputable artists, and think they were monstrous attacks on him. He refused to speak to one woman for a year because she’d got an engraving of him in her house. He lost all perspective and he ended up in a conspiratorial headspace, obsessed with the idea that the world was judging him.

The poet Virgil described fame as a giant bird-like monster that stalked the land and never slept, hunting people down like a ravenous predator. It’s a terrifying idea

Quite often the attention from fans could be crippling. The 18th-century actress Mary Robinson couldn’t go to a hat shop without hundreds of people waiting outside to see what she was buying and trying to grab hold of her. Dickens was similarly hounded by crowds everywhere he went, particularly when he was touring in America. He had people breaking into his hotel room and was even targeted by a stalker. Then there was Florence Lawrence, the first ever Hollywood star to be named in the 1910s (prior to that, movie stars were almost always anonymous). Her manager faked her death, and when she turned up alive she was mobbed by fans. Ironically, she was very nearly crushed to death and ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m not saying that fame is always horrible, but there is an element of the Faustian pact to it.

EC: Has writing this book made you look differently at how we engage with celebrity culture today?

GJ: The truth is that I originally intended to write a slightly snarkier book. But by pure coincidence, David Bowie died on the morning I sat down to begin writing. After spending all day listening to the radio, looking at Twitter and reading obituaries, I realised that Bowie had had an enormous impact that went beyond changing the tides of culture and history. He really influenced people’s personal lives and how they felt about themselves. And it opened my eyes to how celebrity culture – perhaps through music, a favourite author, or a movie that changes you in some way – helps us discover more about who we are.

Getting thrilled or titillated or angry about strangers we don’t know can change how we think about a whole spectrum of things – societal roles, sex, gender, morality, drugs and crime. We use those strangers as sounding boards for our own opinions and also as role models for who we want to be. Celebrities quite often cross the line, and sometimes, that will reinforce where the line is. But, if we like them enough, they’ll move the line, and we’ll end up redefining the boundaries of acceptability. So while celebrity culture isn’t necessarily always a good thing, we can’t dismiss it as superficial or vacuous. It’s incredibly important in shaping our morals, values and ethics.

Greg Jenner is the author of Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen 

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This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine